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Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock
on 16 March 2014
There is, I believe, a commonly held view that the quality of the original Star Trek movies can be determined from their numbers, odd numbered bad, even good. It seems to me that Dr Kermode in his popular books is following a similar pattern. I found myself rather disappointed by, "It's only a movie", I thoroughly enjoyed "The good, the bad and the multiplex" and now have to conclude that while there are some good sections in his latest book, overall it isn't really up to much.
In Hatchet Job, Kermode seeks to make the case for professional film critics in a world where he perceives them to be under threat from a tidal wave of on line amateurs. Being Kermode however, this is not a cool, rationally presented case. The book meanders from anecdote to splenetic rant (although possibly fewer than in his previous works), to serious comment, almost at random.
It is very much in the Kermode style, and therein lie two of the big problems with it. As a radio presenter, when partnered with Simon Mayo's smooth balm to his spiky irritation, he is supremely entertaining. As a single voice, on the written page, he sounds much more like a crazy old man shouting at the moon. Or worse he falls into the lazy disaffection epitomised in Grumpy Old Men. Secondly, this book has a real "bang one out to earn some zloty's" feel to it. It is not well structured, there are some shockingly badly written sentences (not what one would expect from a self confessed grammar pedant), and it is all terribly predictable. Expecting references to the Exorcist, and Silent Running? Yup, they're inevitably there. Also in there, and more intrusive than in his previous works, are frequent references to the radio show, the blog, the DodgeBrothers, but what really grates is the frequent quoting of himself, which comes over, I'm afraid, as self aggrandising.
That is not to say this is all bad. There is some really interesting stuff. When Kermode talks about his fellow critics, the impact they have had, and their differing styles, it is definitely worth reading. Had he set out to write a history of film criticism, or a critique thereof, this could have been a fascinating work.
However that, ultimately, is not what this book is. The basic premise is that professional critics, by being transparent and accountable, produce more valid views that anonymous amateurs on the web. In one section where he discusses voting on Amazon, he (I assume) unwittingly illustrates his own argument. By pontificating on the voting system in a way which suggests minimal research, he does, in practical terms, demonstrate that the uninformed shouldn't really comment in public.
While one can sympathise with his views, and see a great deal of validity in them, his arguments are flawed. Firstly he doesn't seem to give the average reader credit for being able to identify good reviews from amongst the dross. Secondly he doesn't recognise that there is such a thing as a poor but critically acclaimed film. If a film is critically acclaimed, it is, in his world, by definition, good. This argument is clearly negated by the execrable,but critically popular 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
To be fair to the author, the picture which ultimately comes across is of someone who feels threatened by change, but is doing his best to see the positives in that change.
So overall I find myself in a similar position to how I felt after reading It's Only a Film. I think Dr Kermode's broadcast work is excellent. The 5live podcast is absolutely the first download I listen to each week. The book is however rather disappointing, and I find myself wishing the author would come up with something less superficial, better researched, and ultimately more satisfying.