(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.