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A night at the multiplex: an interview with Mark Kermode

Sean Gittins talks to Mark Kermode about modern cinema and the role of the film critic

December 21, 2011
10 min read

Sean Gittins You’ve released a new book, The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex – what were your aims and ambitions when writing it?

Mark Kermode Well, first of all I wanted the book to be funny. I wanted it to be engaging too and I think that if a book doesn’t do that then it has kind of failed. Beyond that it was just an attempt to write something about cinema and the concerns with cinema that many people have. The idea came from doing the radio show with Simon Mayo for 10 years and noticing an increasing amount of emails from people saying, ‘Look, it’s okay for you – you’re a critic – but you’ve got no idea what it’s like out there in the multiplexes, the trenches.’

Well, of course, I do go to multiplexes outside of press screenings, so I knew exactly what was going on in them and that there’s been a conjunction of things such as the death of the projectionist as a profession, a run of poor summer Hollywood blockbusters that had been green-lighted on the premise that films of a certain formula will make money, and, of course, the rise of 3-D, which, as is clear to everyone, is something that people don’t want and was foisted on them by the studios, who are just terrified of things such as internet piracy.

And there’s this bogus suggestion that being angry about the state of projections, angry about 3-D films, angry about poor summer blockbusters is somehow an affectation of snobby critics. That’s total baloney. The impetus for writing the book came from film audiences who write in to the radio show and it reflected their concerns.

Sean Gittins Do you perceive a downward trend in the quality of films over your 25 years spent as a critic?

Mark Kermode No I don’t. I agree with Barry Norman when he said that in every year the number of good movies and bad movies made is exactly the same – it’s just a question of what you get to see. It comes down to a question of distribution.

Every year a number of films are made, great British films, great foreign films and many small arthouse films that just don’t get distributed in multiplexes. Every year I see films that amaze me, such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or this year Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin – these are films that are as good as any films made during the history of cinema. But we do have this problem with distribution and that means that if you live near a multiplex you are subject to what the studios decide to foist upon you.

Sean Gittins You touch on a related problem several times in the book – that even though multiplex films can be bad, people still go and see them because the film becomes a cinematic event and something to see regardless of quality.

Mark Kermode I think people do vote with their feet, though. The failure of 3-D at the box office clearly shows this. The fact that Inception made so much money shows that you don’t have to treat people as stupid for a blockbuster to make money, and that of course is very important.

But as far as the ‘event’ of cinema is concerned, I think that is something that is going to benefit the arthouse cinemas, the independent cinemas and the well-run cinemas more and more. People are going to need an excuse to go to the cinema and it isn’t going to be something in 3-D but something that is properly projected, in a properly-manned auditorium in the correct ratio. That will be, and should be, the reason to go to the cinema.

Sean Gittins What are your views on the current state of cinema-going? Are, for example, viewing figures in the cinema up or down?

Mark Kermode Every year you hear two stories. One of doom, the other that film takings have never been higher. It’s a very similar story told of the British film industry. On the one hand, the UK Film Council is being shut down and that’s the end of British cinema. And then you hear that The King’s Speech has won an Oscar and that the state of British film has never been better.

The fact is we are about to live in a world of simultaneous release, where films will be released at the same time in cinema, on download and online. That’s inevitable. In fact, it’s happening now and it’s called piracy.

The multiplex chains are worried because they say this will stop people coming to see their films – and this is true for cinemas who don’t care about what their customers want to experience when they come to the cinema. I think, conversely, that cinemas who do the things customers care about and understand that cinema is rooted in theatre will benefit.

So, yes, you’ve got the detrimental effect that simultaneous release will have on the multiplexes, but do I care about this? Not really, because I care about cinemas that try to do something important and proper. Not all multiplexes will suffer because many of them do a great job and they will thrive. The cinemas that will suffer will be the ones that aren’t producing a good service.

Sean Gittins Do the studios show any signs of embracing the idea of simultaneous distribution or similar ideas like the music industry has?

Mark Kermode The music industry didn’t until finally Napster made them do it because they didn’t have any choice. The film industry is every bit as much an unwieldy beast as the music industry but it is slowly catching up. Some arthouse cinemas, for example, are doing simultaneous distribution – Ken Loach’s most recent film stands out.

But it’s the same as what happened with the music industry where the big studios said that everything was going to be terrible and the end of the industry is nigh but then they found a way to monetise it and they are finally getting with the programme. The ironic thing is that their hand has been forced by the simultaneous distribution we have now – illegal internet piracy.

Sean Gittins You talk about the role of the critic in the book. Could you summarise what you see that position as including and excluding?

Mark Kermode It’s easier to talk about the role by what I don’t see it as. I don’t see it as telling people what to do, what to see or what to think. I think the critic’s job is to watch films and then write and talk about them in a way that is entertaining, that describes the film adequately, that locates the movie within a relevant context – for example, does it draw on other movies or genres?

Beyond that it’s not the role of the critic to tell people what to see and I don’t believe for one minute that critics influence what people go to see. If you look at the viewing figures and reviews of films you can see this is true. How come the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels were successful or Sex and the City 2 was a hit? How come Transformers 3 was a huge hit despite the fact that everyone hated it?

Sean Gittins So you don’t see critics as having any causal or hugely influential role – merely just an interesting or engaging one?

Mark Kermode I think film criticism exists as film criticism. It’s funny that studios blame critics for destroying sales of their movies, but are desperate to have critics’ quotes on their film posters. A poll a few years ago found that I am the most trusted film critic in the country. Me?! And that sounds absurd until you realise that the percentage of people in the country who trust me is less than 3 per cent. What that tells you is that the population doesn’t trust film critics and rightly so.

Film critics who think they influence what movies people like and go to see are delusional in the same way that studios who think that critics can destroy their movies are. It’s just not true. At the end of the day it’s a question of coverage. For example, if I had really wanted to ruin Sex and the City 2 I would have ignored it. As it was I talked about how bad it was for 14 minutes, and I’ve had plenty of people come up to me and tell me that they heard my review and that they went to see the film because they found it funny how bad I’d said it was. If you really want to do damage to something, just ignore it.

Sean Gittins You’ve said your style as a critic is one of trying to be engaged and informed. There’s a history of film criticism that is much more based in the technical and theoretical aspects of films and the cinema, for example the Cahiers du Cinema critics. Have you ever, or would you ever, like to write in this tradition?

Mark Kermode Not really. Cahiers is often mentioned as part of the birth of that sort of film criticism. I’m a contributor to Sight and Sound magazine and that works in a similar tradition. In fact I think that Sight and Sound is more influential now in terms of those technical and theoretical ideas that you are talking about, but I also think that it is a more engaging magazine. A good read and brilliantly edited.

As far as writing myself in that style, I’m not an academic writer. I did a PhD in Manchester and that taught me how to write 90,000 words. But for me the really great critics are Kim Newman, Nigel Jones, Trevor Johnston.

These are not names that are usually bandied about when one talks about the great and the good of film criticism. But they are the people that have influenced me, who I still read and often think when reading them that I wish I could do a turn of phrase as well as they do.

I remember once talking to Trevor Johnston and we had both reviewed a film, he liking and I not liking it. The review in which he expressed his views I thought so beautiful it almost moved me to tears. I didn’t agree with any of it but it was written so well. I rung him up to say that if I could write a sentence that good I would stop now.

The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex is published by Random House. Sean Gittins is Red Pepper’s culture editor

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