Mark Kermode: interview
You can hear him on the radio every Friday afternoon sparring over the week’s new film releases with his long-term colleague Simon Mayo. You can see him on ‘The Culture Show’ meeting filmmakers like Werner Herzog (who, bizarrely, got shot with an air rifle during a live interview with him in 2005). And now you can read about his 20-year career as an outspoken and oddly coiffured film critic in a new, loud and typically blunt memoir, ‘It’s Only a Movie’. Just don’t call Mark Kermode a Sunday-school teacher...
‘Well, as far as the newspaper stuff goes, they’re only saying that because, once they write that Jonathan Ross is leaving, what’s the next paragraph? They said a lot of things. They said Graham Norton was going to take over his chat show, and he’s said that’s not going to happen.
‘This is the truth of it – that stuff only exists in the press. What I can tell you is this: I haven’t had any conversation with anyone about it. I don’t know anything about what’s happening with “Film 2010”, or what the BBC’s plans are.’
Would you like to take over from Ross?
‘I have a principle of not considering things that I haven’t been offered because I think that’s incredibly foolhardy. I wouldn’t want to speculate about something because I can’t imagine a circumstance in which it would be offered to me.
‘All I can tell you is that, as someone who grew up watching Barry Norman, I’d be lying if I said to you that when your name is mentioned in reports, there isn’t a part of you that goes: Ooh! You know? There is. But beyond that, I don’t know anything and I don’t want to guess because who knows what’s going to happen? I’m sure there are people who are far more qualified than I am. But, yes, there was a moment when even to be mentioned was nice.’
Are you a fan of the programme?
‘When I was a kid I used to argue with the television, with Barry Norman, because I’m older than you, you see: I’m 46.’
I remember Barry Norman! He did it right up until ‘Film ’98’.
‘Okay, fine, yeah, he did. But beyond that there isn’t anything to say other than it’s very odd that there’s a lot of stuff in the press. As you know, Dave, it’s just stuff. Nothing other than that.’
Would you like to do more television?
‘Well, you have to remember that my primary film stuff has been on the radio. I’ve always been more of a radio journalist than a TV journalist. I don’t know whether you listen to the Radio Five show but the thing that Simon Mayo and I do has, for me, been the perfect arena. Partly because, and I’m not just saying this, he is the best broadcaster in the country and he makes everyone sound their very best. You can be in a room with him, he’ll ask you what you think; I’ll go, “Blah blah blah,” and he will then somehow mediate that for the mainstream. Now we’ve got two hours as opposed to one and, to be honest, that fulfils everything that I want to do. As far as “The Culture Show” goes, I’ve done a lot of film stuff for them, which I’ve enjoyed. It’s a different medium but ultimately it’s the same – it’s about a passionate response to film.’
Do you think the way film is covered on TV needs a shake-up? Last year Ross suggested that ‘Film 2010’ could be presented in front of a live audience…
‘There’s always this sense of reinventing film coverage but in the end, all it comes down to is people talking intelligently and engagingly about film culture. Time Out has a role to play in all this. Time Out prides itself on the fact that when you read a film review, you’re not getting the marketing line. I came out of City Life magazine in Manchester and one of the few things we had was attitude and front. When I came to work at Time Out in the 1990s, that’s what they were peddling as well: the idea of being bold in your opinions and fighting for your opinions. You know, as the editor of that section, you’re trying to develop people who have a voice, so you almost read the byline first so that you know who’s saying it.’
That’s certainly how I read reviews.
‘Exactly – that’s the school that says the byline, the voice, is important. City Life, Time Out, BBC radio, “The Culture Show”, they all say the same. There’s the more corporate entity that isn’t looking for that personal identity, but I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had to do that. Everywhere I’ve worked people have been good enough to say: “Say what you think.” ’
Can a critic ever be right or wrong?
‘Well, obviously I’m right and everyone else is wrong! But in terms of being a good critic, you have to get the history right, whether it’s a remake, whether it refers to other films, that sort of thing. All you can do is say: this is what I think. There are countless times I’ve watched a film and thought: I hate this film, but I know it’s going to be huge, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to write a review which says: “I know lots of people are going to like it.” People know it’s me. They know that I think “The Exorcist” is the greatest movie ever made – so what do I know?’
How has the internet changed things?
‘Is it true that the web has democratised opinion? Well, yes, anyone can have and express an opinion. But there are some qualifications that a professional critic has to have, and one of them is that you must love cinema. No matter what state you think it’s in. The minute you don’t go into a Sandra Bullock film thinking: “You know what, this might be a work of genius,” you have to stop.’
Have you had to fight your ground for a film recently?
‘Well, with “Avatar”, the biggest fight has been about 3D: as far as I’m concerned, 3D is nonsense and is not the future of cinema. There’s a reason why 3D has failed in the past. Have you ever seen a movie and gone: “Oh, that was great, but I just wish it wasn’t so flat?”
‘With “Avatar”, right, as with much of James Cameron’s later period, it’s overwritten, baggy, creaky and wooden. There are, however, some things in it that are “wow” and are £8.50’s worth of entertainment.’
Have you ever regretted going public with an opinion?
‘Well, “Blue Velvet” is the classic example back when I worked at City Life in Manchester. I walked out and rubbished it in the magazine. Yes, it does happen. I learned an important lesson, which is that, if a film creates a profound, uncomfortable reaction, you should be wary. All the things that drove me out of the cinema the first time were exactly the things that worked for me the second time round.’
I was amused to hear you defending [disappointing Richard Curtis film] ‘The Boat That Rocked’ last year.
‘The fact is I laughed a lot and felt morally beholden to say: “I know all the things that are wrong with this film but it passed the Kermode laugh test.” That’s a good example of where it would have been easier to go with the flow.’
I think the bottom line for me was that didn’t laugh – and I didn’t laugh for half an hour too long.
‘The funny thing about it was that [Radio 4 arts journalist] Mark Lawson was sitting behind me and he was really not laughing and was slightly harumphing. The more he didn’t laugh, the funnier it became.’
Talking of Mark Lawson, I remember reading a piece in The Guardian last year in which he said you were a Sunday school teacher – a false claim which the paper corrected. Where did that come from?
‘I don’t know. I do go to church.’
I know. You call yourself a ‘God-bothering, liberal critic’ in the book.
‘It’s proof that memory is fluid. I said to Mark: “Where did you get that idea from?” And he said: “I thought we talked about it.” The only reason I got them to correct it is because I’m sorely ill-equipped to wear that badge. I felt slightly embarrassed that somebody would think I was trying to put myself up as somebody who would do that.’
Do you find that some people are surprised that you’re religious and a huge horror fan?
‘There’s no conflict. For a start, you don’t obsess with “The Exorcist” for 30 years unless you’re interested in religion. As Stephen King and others have said, many horror films have a morality that would make a puritan smile. “The Exorcist” is a profoundly Catholic tract. It was written by a guy who was educated by Jesuits who wrote it as a sort of Pauline conversional text: people would read it and go, “Oh, there are demons so therefore there may be angels.” So, no, those things don’t conflict with me at all.
‘I do think there is a very big thing about cinemas and churches. The cinema is a sacred place and you do have an experience which is communal and is about transcending the here and taking you somewhere else entirely.’
‘It’s Only a Movie’ by Mark Kermode is published by Random House on Feb 4 at £11.99.
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