Well, just two weeks ago I wrote about Mark Kermode in the hope that it would allow me to be as impartial as possible when reviewing Hatchet Job, his latest book. But as we saw last week, any attempts at objectivity only take us so far. There has to be personal investment – a topic that Mark covers in the book as it happens (albeit in a slightly different way) – for something to really take effect. And so, here are my admittedly individual views of Hatchet Job in all its glory.
It should be noted – as a starting point – that this review is primarily aimed towards those of limited knowledge of Mark’s style and/or of his previous books. My advice for those who have read his prior work – It’s Only a Movie and/or The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex – is that it’s much of the same, except it covers some new ground. To me it’s therefore equally enticing, although if you don’t like his earlier stuff then that’s unlikely to change here, and instead it’s likely to be equally offensive, or equally dull, or whatever your particular predecessor poison might be. However, if you liked them – as Amazon, another source of controversy and intrigue in Hatchet Job, might say – then you’ll surely much care for this too.
For his latest outpouring of grievances, gossip and gratitude is a similarly-styled personal account of Mr. Kermode’s experiences with the movies, with much focus this time around of experiencing life as a critic. This is significant, given that his first book (It’s Only a Movie) looked at topics such as interviewing Werner Herzog (and getting shot at whilst doing so), being accosted by Helen Mirren in regards to comments over The Queen, and worst of all… attending the Cannes Film Festival. It also includes sections on his background and breaking into the film criticism business, and therefore relies heavily on a personal touch and anecdotal accounts. What The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex and now Hatchet Job have done is to take that forward into the realm of the customer (3D, blockbusters, projectionists, etc.) within the former and – as suggested by the full title of Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics – within the world of critics for this third book, looking at topics such as the rise of online critics, the concept of vote-washing, and the supposed impending and inevitable death of film criticism as a whole (blimey Charlie!, as the man himself might exclaim).
In this brief look at such matters, let’s start at the beginning – a very good place to start. The prologue starts strongly with Kermode on top form, as he explores the apparent “hatchet job” to which the title refers (damaging a film irrevocably), a notion which he vehemently denies. Lovingly, the very best of so-called pithy putdowns are then brought to the fore, as he recalls memorable reviews – most of them scathing – of films such as The Postman, Anna Karenina, Isn’t it Romantic? and Ben-Hur. It’s a fun-filled opening – giving the reader exactly what they want – as the first few pages are chock-full of brilliant one-liners from a variety of critics, past and present, before galloping toward other issues at breakneck pace and heading for – already with smiles firmly planted on faces – what is traditionally referred to as the first chapter.
The remainder of the tale covers a further seven chapters plus an epilogue, coming in at just short of 300 pages in total. It looks at further ideas such as the ‘first but wrong’ debate in filing a review, the auteur theory and test-screenings. They are all at once engaging, informative and funny; stories passionately told by an intelligent guiding voice. The epilogue is perhaps the only section that falls beneath the very high standards set by the set of pages that precedes it (as well as the additional pages from other books), simply because it’s a repetition of what comes before. Think of it as the summing-up period in a court of law where we discuss and dissect the prior evidence just one more time, as Kermode – true to form – aims to make it clear that he is indeed absolutely right.
Overall, however, it’s an achievement in itself to fit in so much knowledge and debate around anecdotes, pieces of trivia and the appearance of becoming side-tracked en mass. This style is of course a wonderful trick in his writing – one which echoes his radio voice just perfectly – and demonstrates his sure-handedness. It’s a sign of good writing to know exactly where you’re going insofar as you can pretend to become distracted mid-chapter, mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence. Such talent is not easily acquired. Anyway, where were we?
Oh yes, the book. In order to give you an insight into it – just a little flavour of Kermode’s nuances and techniques – let’s look at chapter 7, for instance. The section – entitled “Ask the Audience” – starts with a personal tale of Silent Running and a little-known film called Jeremy breaking his heart as a child. He speaks of the emotional rediscovering of that film after 40 years before moving on to discuss film endings, and the [negative] effect of test screenings. Here we’re given into the process of re-editing Fatal Attraction, The Magnificent Ambersons (from under the nose of Orson Welles) and [potentially] Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, each of which are fascinating tales. Finally he serves to prove his point – that test screenings tend to be an unmitigated disaster; taking away creative control from the filmmaker and giving it to an audience who don’t know what’s best for them – by reimagining such a process applied to all-time classic but initial-flop, Casablanca. All in just 38½ enticing, engaging pages – not bad at all.
This flair for words, memories and the ability to tell great stories is replicated over the course of the other chapters, meaning that – first and foremost – it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and accessible book. Though this may sound like damning with faint praise, making something read in such a manner is no easy feat (as you’re no doubt being reminded of right now). It’s a joy that will likely be put down as soon as it’s picked up, but only because you’ve accidentally gone and finished it all too suddenly. Kermode, like any great writer, has a singular voice which suffers no imitation. His vision of cinema is his and his alone, although he invites others in to bask within the projection booth of his mind, if you like. Hatchet Job therefore allows an insight into that process; he’s nothing if not open, honest and accountable – traits which he strongly argues for in his critics – and therefore he encourages readers to get to know not only his views, but his reasons for holding them.
To those who take interest in or enjoyment out of film I say: buy it. To those hardened fans of film I say: buy it now. It’s a thoroughly engaging, rewarding and smart set of verses that is neatly wrapped up into various chapter-sized chunks, but works better if thought of as an introductory essay to the state of film criticism in the early 21st century.
Hatchet Job is published by Picador and is out now.