The Good, The Bad And The Multiplex by Mark Kermode
Originally published in the Navidson Record
I once almost got into a punch-up at a press screening. I’d turned up less than a minute into the Mexican football comedy Rudo y Cursi and been pushed by a panicky usher into the diminutive theatre, which was pitch black thanks to a moody voiceover that introduces the movie. Without so much as an opening credit to light my way, I stumbled blindly forwards, whispering apologies as I trod on feet and accidentally placed my wildly flailing hands on heads. The chorus of tuts and mutterings that marked my progress culminated in a sudden cry from a middle-aged man in the back row: “For fuck’s sake, sit the fuck down.” At that moment the screen lit up, revealing a room packed with irate reviewers and just one spare seat in the house – directly beside my foul-mouthed antagonist.
The exchange of words that followed me squeezing in beside him was heated to say the least, nor did it help that his phone went off twenty minutes into the film, providing yet another excuse for us to start barking into each other’s faces. By the time the movie had finished, the red mist had evaporated into a cloud of shame, and I was only too happy to slink out quietly and forget the whole thing. Or would have been, had the editor of the magazine for which I was writing not forwarded me a subsequent Guardian article by film critic Peter Bradshaw, who had been sitting a few rows forward, and who described the encounter as one of the worst experiences of his reviewing career. Needless to say he censored the swearing and was selective of facts in his drive to tell a story (I had ‘moseyed’ into the theatre and ‘taken my own sweet time’ to select a seat), but there was no avoiding the conclusion that the whole thing had been a heroic failure on my part. I’d been so angry that I couldn’t even remember what had happened in the film, and so the review never got written.
Which is one good reason why ‘fighting’ doesn’t make it into Mark Kermode’s list of essential skills for the modern film reviewer in his enlightening and entertaining second book, The Good, The Bad And The Multiplex, a withering attack on all that is wrong with the mainstream movie business. The fourth chapter, ‘What Is A Film Critic For?’, instead suggests five simple checks for any credible review to tick off: it should offer opinion on the film in question, description of its subject, contextualisation of its place in the wider scheme of what has come before it, analysis of how and why it succeeds or fails and – finally – entertainment for the reader.
His adherence to this same template has made Kermode a reliable and much loved critic in the 25 years he’s been reviewing movies (a 2010 YouGov poll ranked him as the nation’s ‘most trusted’, although – as he notes with typical self-effacement – that’s based on the ringing endorsement of just three per cent of the population). For those of us who have come to rely on his voice over the years – from his weekly DVD digest in the Observer and review slot on Radio 5 Live to a host of former columns (from Flicks to Fangoria, from the New Statesman to the NME) – it also helps that his opinions so regularly coincide with our own.
The rare questionable observation aside (Barton Fink being the Coen brothers’ best film, for one), Kermode takes exactly the stance we want from our film critics: ruthlessly intolerant of pretension but striving to celebrate genuine artistry in films that might otherwise fall off the radar (his praise for Jim Jarmusch’s criminally underrated Dead Man made me almost tearful with gratitude); shamelessly absorbed by horror films (he never tires of raising eyebrows with his claim that The Exorcist is the best film ever made), but berating Hollywood’s encouragement of the teenage affection for ‘torture porn’, or its insistence on reductive English-language remakes of endlessly layered foreign horror films like Japan’s Ringu or Sweden’s Låt Den Rätte Komma In.
It’s an attitude that makes this 300-page treatise on the decline and fall of mainstream movies a pleasure to read, even when the facts are at their most painful to absorb. It seems to have taken all of a few weeks to write – barely halfway through Kermode mentions the Kevin Smith shock vehicle Red State, released in UK cinemas two weeks after the book’s publication – yet it’s well-researched, articulate and absorbing from the start. Best of all, it’s also angry: a literary embodiment of Kermode’s ‘jowly scowl’ (his description), and a ‘mad-as-hell, not-gonna-take-it-any-more’ rallying cry to those sick of watching artistic integrity fall victim to the capitalist crusades of studio accountants.
Kermode’s is a smart, sarcastic, very British sort of anger, but it’s all the more rousing for it: from his opening eulogy on the dying art of film projection and accompanying tales of digital multiplex misery, to his hand-wringing take on blockbuster economics (why, if they’re virtually guaranteed to make money, do they have to be so bloody awful?); from his exasperated denouncement of 3D movies (rejected by audiences time and time again since the turn of the century), to his scathing attack on America’s small-minded ‘appreciation’ of UK cinema (Oscar nominations for films that show a king or queen transgressing social boundaries to commune with a commoner, sod all for everyone else).
Along the way there are countless insights into spectacular egos and less than spectacular intelligences both in front of and behind the cameras: from Danny Dyer (who was so furious at Kermode’s impression of him on Radio 5 Live that he threatened to ‘put something right across his fakking canister’), to Kevin Smith, so horrified by the media mauling of his lobotomised buddy movie Cop Out that he felt compelled to defend his art in an online rant, comparing the harsh reviews to ‘bullying a retarded kid who was getting a couple of chuckles from the normies by singing Afternoon Delight’ (an analogy he inexplicably repeated at a later date).
And of course there’s great satisfaction to be had in reading Kermode’s stinging reviews of movies we’ve hated for years. Sex And The City 2 is ‘a vile and pernicious slice of imperialist propaganda which celebrates misogyny, belittles non-Americans, insults audiences and wallows in greed, avarice and bulimic vomit’. People who enjoyed Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End are ‘simply suffering from the cinematic equivalent of long-term deprivation from the basics of a civilised existence… multiplex dwellers who have become used to living in the cultural freezing cold’.
All of which reinforces what is perhaps Kermode’s most endearing quality, and the book’s greatest strength: the sense that he is ultimately an affable nerd who, if we saw him in the foyer of his beloved East Finchley Phoenix, we’d feel perfectly at ease sidling up to for a chat about the horrors of Avatar, perhaps even suggesting a quick pint after the movie. His writing occasionally comes across as overly conversational – a little too much like a transcript of one of his inimitable radio rants – but it’s a small price to pay for such an amusing, informative and important testament from one of the true defenders of proper cinema.