The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex

(or, What’s Wrong With Modern Movies?), by Mark Kermode – in fact, a series of essays in which the parenthetical question of the title is only addressed in chapter 2, which is 55 pages long but can be summarised as it is in the blurb on the back:

If blockbusters make money no matter how bad they are, then why not make a good one for a change?

Now, I have to admit, there were often times reading this book that this same thought occurred to me, not as it happens with reference to blockbusters, but with reference to books with celebrity names attached to them. For it seems to me, celebrity books – even those of celebrity critics – don’t have to be bad; surely you could write a good one, and the ignorant public would buy it and read it just the same – and once they’d read it, feel curiously better, in a way they couldn’t quite fathom.

Not that the book isn’t devoid of interesting ideas (like many a Hollywood movie no doubt, at least at its inception). But it has two basic problems:

  • It adheres to all the worst traits of journalism (in particular, wilful exaggeration for comic effect, a complete lack of interest in style, an obsession with comic metaphors)
  • It is chronically anecdotal

As I mentioned above, chapter 2 is 55 pages long. If you removed from it, however, all those passages in which Kermode tells dully exaggerated accounts of his life (which usually involve him, curiously, going to the cinema and watching a film), it would be reduced to perhaps 2 pages. Of course, if all the filler were removed, that would require an awful lot more interesting ideas to stretch the book out into something worth buying again – but hey, that’s the kind of effort the movie business should be putting in, isn’t it?

One of Kermode’s accounts was of him attempting to get into a film when underage (I believe as part of an argument about the worth of film critics – you can at least, no doubt, see how such an anecdote would fit in to such an argument), which reminded Obooki of the marvellous essay he wrote (aged 14) about exactly the same thing – the events were curiously similar, except – and I think this is the essential difference between Kermode and Obooki – the former was going to see Blazing Saddles, whereas the latter was trying to get into Wild At Heart.

This latter observation brings up another point too, which is Kermode’s occasionally making statements that don’t fit into Obooki’s world at all.

Here is one such statement, in a chapter about Hollywood remakes of foreign films:

Ask someone if they’ve seen The Ring nowadays, and the chances are they’ll think you’re asking them about the Verbinski schlocker. If you mean the Nakata version, you actually have to say, “Have you seen Ringu, you know, the original Japanese version?”

Obooki, with his circle of Japanese and Korean horror obsessives, finds the occurrence of such a misunderstanding unlikely. In Obooki’s world, in order to be understood (and to get on in social circles) you would have to say:

Yes, but have you ever seen that dreadful American remake?

(Obooki has not seen the remake of The Ring and cannot verify its dreadfulness or otherwise).

Another observation, in a chapter about the success (or otherwise) of British films, which Obooki found strange (enough that he stopped reading and laughed to himself) was this:

Everyone knows that Alfred Hitchcock never actually won an Oscar, but who remembers that Derek Jarman, that great rebellious artist of British cinema, went to his grave without even being nominated for an Academy Award?

To be fair, no, I didn’t know this – but I would have assumed it from an appreciation of the kind of films he made.

There’s a lot of good stuff in the book too though: the bits, for instance, about how Asians don’t necessarily see ghosts and the supernatural as frightening due to their own cultural beliefs, and how Americans find this concept so difficult to translate in their own brand of horror; or the idea that government funding in British films should be targeted at distribution rather than production.

Which brings me to the chapter (mentioned above) about what use film critics are? – Naturally, Kermode has to take a line on the great objective / subjective divide: – and he plumps for subjective: all is mere opinion. His defence of the critic then proceeds: but the critic has seen more films than you, so he has a more informed opinion, which he can better argue (even though presumably whatever opinion he holds may still be no better than your own). – Kermode then demonstrates this position ably by stating that The Exorcist is the greatest film ever made.

Obooki, however, would like to suggest it is otherwise. Having seen more films, being indeed an expert – say – in a certain area of films, is no reason whatever for accepting someone’s opinion (particularly if you yourself have seen – say – quite a few horror films in your life, and can tell good from bad). Obooki is not sure there’s a good correlation at all between knowledge and aesthetic appreciation, or even justification for aesthetic appreciation. But if I wouldn’t take a film expert’s opinion on whether any given film was good or not, on the hand, should I be wanting to read a book on film, I’d rather read one written by someone who was an expert in the area, because – to be frank, it would be more interesting (in the same way I’d rather read a book about the Crimean War by someone who’d spent their entire lives studying it, than – for instance – Geoff Ryman). And this is what I feel too about this book: it’s good when Kermode gives us his expert insight into the machinations of Hollywood or the history of the J-horror genre (the subjects which we’re not likely to know that much about) – and not so good for the other 99/100ths of the book.


12 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex

  1. I learned through one of the contributors to Richard’s and my “cinema events” (the review of Nekoneko) that Hong Kong ghost stories are nowadays sadlly lacking as the Chinese government has forbidden ghosst in the movie. It seems that contemporary Chinese ghost movies are somewhat absurd… Not sure Kermode mentioned this or knows this.
    The Blazing Saddles/Wild at Heart juxtaposition is painful.
    And you still finished it?

  2. Like the Chinese government, my father would also ban ghosts from movies, along with any mention of the supernatural. He sees the obsession with the non-rational (see Harry Potter) as a sign of the desperate times we live in.

    Rather like the fact that Hollywood movies are often rubbish but it is still easy to sit there watching, so Kermode’s book is an easy read.

    I did see The Naked Gun underage too, which is perhaps a better comparison, but my criminally-minded parents took me – so it wasn’t quite the same thing.

  3. It would certainly have been an amusingly renegade moment in Oscar history were Jarman to have ever been nominated for a main award. Kermode pointing this out in the way he does actually makes it sound like he knows less then the averagely cineliterate reader, not a good strategy surely?

    Anyway, his obsession with the Exorcist aside, I used to quite like Kermode, but I find with increased exposure to him I’ve begun to like him less. I think you hit the nail on the head in describing how he makes his points: the tone, the exaggeration, the mock-mockery. I read a lengthy extract of this book in the Observer and couldn’t even make it through that without attention wandering, scoffing at things he said etc. It seems he is (or was, maybe Solomons will get it instead) being lined up to replace the magisterial Philip French, a day I do not look forward to.

  4. It may be that I’m not Kermode’s target audience, of course. – I rather like that guy who appears on Film 2012 with the orange woman. I think he writes in The Guardian sometimes.

  5. Danny Leigh, I think you mean. Yes, he blogs for the Guardian each Friday – usually interesting stuff.

  6. Yes, Danny Leigh. I quite like him. – I had a friend at school who aspired to take over Barry Norman’s job – I wonder what happened to him and why he failed.

  7. I used to know Mark Kermode when he lived in Manchester 20 years ago. I disagree with a lot of what he says but can’t quite disentangle any of that from the utterly charming, extremely generous and down to earth person I knew back then.

    I imagine success and the pressure of maintaining a media profile has changed him but can’t imagine that he’s entirely lost those qualities.

    Anyhoo I think he can’t quite drop his nerd qualities for long enough to make coherent points about certain genres but I think he’s onto something with how the success of modern blockbusters seems to come at the expense of quality.

  8. Philip French needs replacing, Leroyhunter. He used to be magisterial, but he’s reached his dotage, I’m afraid. All that erudition now gets wasted in a lot of irrelevant rambling; the wit has dulled; his tastes have seemingly become more conservative. I think he’s damaging his reputation a bit by carrying on when he’s clearly past his best.

    That’s not to say that Kermode would be the best replacement (although in Kermode’s defence, I would say that his writing for Sight and Sound is often significantly better than it is for The Guardian/Observer). Danny Leigh would be better; the other one who’s not too bad is Ryan Gilbey.

  9. Maybe so, Cap’n. I still respect and enjoy his stuff though. I agree with you about Ryan Gilbey, he knows his onions and is a decent writer.

  10. I always thought Gilbey was an idiot (and, from his photo, aged about 10), but maybe he’s improved from a few years ago. He certainly used to get a lot of abuse from commenters.

  11. Some of his pieces for the Guardian blog have undoubtedly been poor, but that goes for everyone who writes for it. A lot of fluff pieces have appeared which had no business being written in the first place; I’m not sure how much this is due to the commissioning process and how much to writers themselves having silly ideas. In general, the Film Blog is no more a venue for stimulating criticism than the revamped Books Blog. Gilbey has written well for Sight and Sound.

  12. I might have to give Gilbey a try (not, of course, that I really read any film criticism most of the time anyway – or, indeed, ever go to the cinema).

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