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
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry