Though the forthcoming article may seem like it’s about to be a gushing appraisal of a semi-celebrity in Britain (which it probably is), it arrives with good intentions. You see, later this month I’ll be reviewing film critic Mark Kermode’s new book – Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics – on this site, and to avoid any inadvertent bias or an overly generous nature, the idea is to get it all out of my system now with time to spare. A sound idea, in theory…
In case you don’t know, Mark Kermode is – as advertised on the inside back cover of the book – “resident film critic for BBC Radio 5 live and the BBC News channel . . . author of several books on cinema . . . has written and presented a number of film documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 . . . is a contributing editor to Sight & Sound magazine, and recently became chief film critic for the Observer”. He’s also in a band – The Dodge Brothers – but I certainly didn’t come here to give that pesky artform ‘music’ the unwarranted attention that it no doubt craves. As we can see, Kermode is exactly the type of lazy, ignorant and know-nothing commentator that this country could do without.
You might recognise him best from his rants and raves (the non-musical type, remember) on subjects including 3D, on people like Danny Dyer (who – amongst others – he has a knack and tendency to do terrible impressions of) and on films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers (the whole bloody set) and, of course, Sex and the City 2. But I too knew little of Kermode before my interest in film began to flourish. Before this point I knew only of him through others, vicariously and indirectly, or through similar fleeting appearances such as a cameo in Gervais and Merchant’s Extras that appeared to reveal either something of his persona, or (more likely) indicate as to how the general public perceives it to be.
This is the important issue at hand, and it’s the real reason – rather than a burning desire to pencil a love-letter to one of the great living critics (ooh, there I go again) – that I decided to broach the subject, despite my reservations. What is assumed and what’s true are usually two very different beasts, even if we would sometimes prefer to scoff from afar rather than get up-close with our critics. Mark Kermode from a distance (or through the grapevine) might look like a snarky, self-congratulatory and irritating man with delusions of grandeur for both himself and his chosen profession. Now that might well be the case in actuality – depending on your particular tastes – but there’s no doubting of two things:
(1) He’s a great champion of film and film criticism; his insights are honest, engaging, passionate and intelligent.
(2) That just like watching a film, you can’t trash it until you’ve seen it.
Therefore this article isn’t meant to represent a money-back guarantee of likeability, but for fans of film(s) – no matter how casual – it is instead a recommendation of one of the great speakers, writers and critics of today. And with the sad passing of Roger Ebert earlier this year – another of the world’s finest film critics – it seems like an appropriate and timely measure to do so. To be sure, there are plenty of others who are equally great (well, almost) too: Robbie Collin, Derek Malcolm, Nigel Floyd and James King are some of the country’s finest working for the nationals, not to mention the whole host of other intelligent writers penning reviews online and elsewhere. So what is it about Kermode that elevates him to great heights and recently got him The Observer gig – taking over from trusted and respected critic Philip French – as well as gaining him fans, followers and fanatics across the world?
It’s a mixture of warmth (unexpected for many, perhaps), a vast amount of knowledge about film – particular the horror genre – and his humility (even more unexpected). Most of all, the biggest bonus for me was discovering that he bravely dances a fine line between highbrow criticism and audience appreciation: in his latest book, he makes a bold statement early on by complaining that people sometimes “start reading movies rather than watching them” – not only is it unexpected, but it shows a broader understand… and that’s only on page three. (Although as entities with page threes go, it’s one of the best…)
Such assertions continue to surprise and delight, for Kermode never forgets that the medium is to entertain and please audiences, as well as inform, educate and confuse. He appears to believe that film isn’t only about high art or aspiring to it via a single, indisputable method, but comes in all shapes and sizes. After all, Kermode himself is a self-confessed Twilight fan[atic] and has been known to defend lambasted and easily-ridiculed actors including Zac Efron for his work (e.g. Me and Orson Welles).
And it’s this championing of causes that I like most of all; both the big and small. The independents need the critical acclaim and attention that much more, so it’s great to see critics sticking up for them and spreading the word. Though he’s never shy about sharing his favourites from the past, be it The Exorcist, Silent Running or Local Hero, his acclamations for new releases is a joy to behold. Over the last year or two alone, he’s celebrated the likes of A Royal Affair, The Kings of Summer, Good Vibrations and You’ve Been Trumped, four mini-revelations which otherwise might have gone unnoticed by a number of people (myself included), and which remain unknown and unseen to the majority.
Kermode can’t move mountains – even if he thinks he can – but his work can result in a change in the climate of film criticism. Whilst I often don’t agree with his views, I always look out for them. They’re respected by most (particularly those in the business), and they’re well-argued. Though I don’t detest 3D to quite the same degree (although the last week has been a landmark with Kermode stating that Gravity needs to be seen in this format), it’s refreshing for somebody so outspoken to be simultaneously well-informed and open-minded (Russell Brand and his followers, take note). For all of his supposed faults, these people would do well to remember that Kermode and others watch films before judging them, and also give them the respect (i.e. silence and attention) that they deserve. The detractors, along with their mock outrage, might instead engage in similar common courtesies, who- or whatever their chosen target may be.
Regardless, Kermode’s barmy, insightful and unrelenting views will no doubt transfer to his latest book, following his previous efforts in writing It’s Only a Movie and The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex. Hatchet Job will be reviewed by Vada in two weeks’ time on Tuesday 26th November. Until then, here’s his review of Michael Bay’s Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen…