The Good, The Bad, Kermode and Me

Film critic and presenter Mark Kermode goes by many names, including The Good Doctor and Flappy Hands. You may know him from BBC2’s The Culture Show. His most devoted fans, however, tune in to hear his pithy comments on Kermode and Mayo’s Film Reviews on Radio 5 Live every Friday afternoon with Simon Mayo. Kermode and Mayo are a long-standing double act and they squabble like an old married couple.

I met Mark when he was touring his second book, The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. A very long queue formed after his talk for him to sign the copies we’d bought. He spent a long time chatting with each one of us, including me, was charming and seemed genuinely interested in all we had to say.

He even gave an impromptu blast on a harmonica that he whipped out of his pocket (Mark plays in a rockabilly band, which explains his haircut). He’s better looking in person, but I digress.

One of the things I like about him is that he’s not a snob. In fact, he’s the very opposite of a snob. If an action blockbuster comes out and he likes it, he’ll say so. Conversely, if a low budget, art house film comes out that he thinks is a load of rubbish, he’ll say so. He often defends films that are considered to be ‘uncool’. Mark simply likes good films, of any genre or time period.

I don’t always agree with his verdicts but he is never short of well informed, witty and entertaining. When he loves something, he is delightfully eloquent, but he is most famous for his rants and also for his pedantry. The rants can go on for a very long time, delivered with much hyperbole and unsurpassed fervour.

Mark has been passionate about films since he was eight years old. Other critics are deeply knowledgeable and entertaining but, for me, no one exudes that pure love of cinema like old Flappy Hands. After watching what must be thousands and thousands of movies (and an awful lot of crap), his enthusiasm is still intact. That’s why he gets so angry…because he cares so much.

In his previous book, It’s Only a Movie, he describes how he got into the world of professional film criticism. In this second book, The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex, he gives us his take on the modern Hollywood scene and the multiplex experience.  There are amusing anecdotes in both books with this latest one kicking off with his hilarious account of trying to get an assistant cinema manager to fix the screening of a film starring Zac Efron wherein the top of Zac’s head was missing. One of Mark’s many soap boxes concerns showing films in the correct Aspect Ratio and when cinemas GET IT WRONG!

As for multiplexes, his tenet is this: there is nothing inherently wrong with them provided they are run properly, but so many of them are run badly. They are like glorified sweet shops with a film casually thrown in. Selling popcorn is the priority and digital projection (digital doesn’t always equal efficiency) is left to its own devices, often without anyone capable of fixing something if it goes wrong. Mark’s opening chapter is aptly titled, ‘Would the Last Projectionist Please Turn Off the Lights’.

Does anyone really like their local multiplex? They are soulless places and they all look, smell and taste the same. Going to the aforementioned Hyde Park Picture House, a charming cinema dating from 1914, is a much pleasanter experience.

Another of Mark’s soap boxes is 3D and there is a chapter devoted to its technical shortcomings. The decision to invest so much money in this recent resurgence is not for any intrinsic artistic merits but as a defensive measure against piracy and to lure us away from watching Blu-ray on our 42-inch TVs with surround sound.

So much money is thrown at so many mediocre projects and it’s disheartening. Mark makes the point that a mainstream, big star film doesn’t have to dumb down. Audiences don’t need to be talked down to, including the all-important 15 – 35 years old, male demographic. He poses this question: Why not make it intelligent while you’re about it? As he points out, it didn’t do Inception any harm.

I’ve been thinking about the level of writing that goes into a lot of hit U.S. TV shows these days, in contrast to a lot of the bland releases that hit our cinema screens. Look at the series, Lost, a brain twister if ever there was one. Give audiences something to challenge them and they lap it up. Meanwhile, original filmmakers outside of the system, including some brilliant British ones, struggle to get their films distributed.

Mainstream cinema would benefit from more intelligent scripts. Mark’s proposal is that it wouldn’t damage the takings, at least. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with car chases and explosions or indeed, charming rom coms. Just spend some of those millions on the screenplay and see what happens. We’re being fed a diet of prequels and sequels with nary an original thought in sight.

Another issue Mark addresses in his latest book is Hollywood’s insistence on making its own versions of foreign language films. These re-makes are rarely as good, but try persuading the industry that distributing the original films would be a more worthwhile venture. When it’s a case of art versus money, there’s only one winner. So, audiences go to see an inferior movie, like feeding on the crumbs or wearing hand me down clothes.

Finally, the book ends with a sad farewell to celluloid, its history and traditions and the magic it has given us. As we boldly go into the digital future, we gain and we also lose. The closing paragraphs may just make you cry.

Film is one of the greatest art forms to come out of the 20th century and look how we treat it. Next time you’re sat in the dark, sucking on your mini-buffet, ask yourself this question. Is this screening worthy of the legacy that the great writers /directors / producers / actors have left us?

It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare every time. Heaven knows, America needed its share of fluff to get it through the Great Depression (the difference being it was mostly well made fluff) and we need it today too. Just every now and then…make us think. In the meantime, I shall bask in the glow of Mark’s rants. And for any Kermode fans reading this – “Hello Jason Isaacs” – they’ll know what that means!