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Reads like he speaks
on 23 May 2014
I really rate Mark Kermode as a professional film critic: I read his reviews in the "Observer" newspaper, I watch his reviews on BBC television, I follow him on Twitter, and I attended an event at his beloved Phoenix cinema in East Finchley where he spoke about this book. The work is not about films or even film criticism as such but essentially about the role of film critic and one in particular. He is absurdly self deprecating about his persona ("I have a stupid name and a stupid haircut") and overly defensive about his profession ("these days professional film critics are viewed as being on a par with child-molesters and pension-fund embezzlers in the popularity stakes").
Kermode writes like he speaks - a tendency to long, breathless but perfectly-formed sentences full of wit and eudition, so this is an immensely readable work. The book lacks structure - the chapters could have been in any order - and the text has a habit of meandering (several times, he has to resort to a phrase like "anyway, back to ...") , but eventially we always come back to one central message: even in the age of the online, amateur film critic (like me), there is a role for the professional but all critics should identify themselves, the reviews that readers tend to remember are the bad ones, but in the end reviews make little difference to the box office.
"Hatchet Job" tells us something about the odd life of professional film critics. Twice a week, every week, they sit in a darkened room and watch movies that have not yet been released. Kermode reckons that he has averaged 10-12 films a week for the past 25 years, but laments "if you happen to see a couple of good films in any given week, you're doing pretty well". Nevertheless he believes that "watching movies for a living is an insanely privileged existence".
In the course of the book, we learn some things about Kermode: "As a child, my only real friends were movies", as an adolescent his most memorable films were 'Silent Running' and something called simply 'Jememy', and he is "a former student Trot turned wishy-washy bleeding-heart liberal".
Above all, we learn about the movies he loves and loathes respectively. On the affection side, he declares that "I (still) think 'The Exocist' is the greatest movie ever made", he shares the view that 'Casablanca' is "one of the greatest movies ever made", much more controversially he has declared "'The Devils' to be "one of the greatest films ever made", and he admits to being "an unabashed 'Twilight' movie fan". He insists that the assessments of critics and public are not so far apart and I have seen and admired five of his all-time top ten films including such wonderful work as 'Don't Look Now' and 'Pan's Labryinth'.
On the hate side, he says that 'Heaven's Gate' was "catastrophic" and 'Eyes Wide Shut' "piss poor", he shares the view that 'The Straight Story' was "'Forrest Gump' on a tractor", he was savage about 'Transformers', 'Pirates Of The Caribbean' and 'Sex And The City', and he calls 'Zardoz' "the worst science-fiction movie ever made" and 'The Heretic' "the worst movie ever made" - both directed by John Boorman which leads him to the view that the auteur theory is "utter hooey".
One of the most interesting chapters - which underlines how difficult it is to be right about a movie at first viewing - is the role of focus groups in viewing and commenting upon movies not yet released and possibly not yet finalised. He takes the reader through the evolution of 'Fatal Attraction' which has a very different ending from that intended by the writer or director as a result of audience research. He rightly argues that this kind of approach to film-making would have changed the ending of 'Casablanca' making it an utterly different and inferior film.
In a sense, "Hatchet Job" is a cry of existential angst: "Isn't all criticism - good or bad - just white noise; waffle; static hiss; a distraction from the real business of making films?". He admits: "Whereas once I was stupidly certain about my opinions, age has withered that sense of single-mindednes to the point that I no longer trust myself when it comes to judging movies". At one point, he even pleads "What, in brief, is the blood point?"
Yet, in the end, Kermode is optimistic about the future of professional film criticism: "Despite the culls sweeping through the profession in the twenty-first century, film criticism simply refuses to lie down and die" and "the web has proved a boon rather than a bugbear - despite my frequent moans to the contrary".