Beck Rosoman, Daughters of The Kaos DJ and Promoter Guest Edits our What’s On Guide. The #ClubMofo Edition!… https://t.co/ZdUnpWDV33
 
view counter

INTERVIEW: Katie Antoniou talks to Mark Kermode about fax machines, sci-fi, silent cinema and the art of film criticism

I'm not in the movie business, but film critic Mark Kermode has still managed to make me nervous.

'Any writer worth their salt will tell you that good editing is the heart of good writing. In a way if my book has a single idea, it's that. Nowadays it's possible to get copy out there into the world so much more easily and there are great advantages to that, but I think it must be very hard not to have the kind of editing assistance I had when I started out. All the best online copy is really, really well edited- in the end it doesn't matter whether you're working in print or online, the key rules stay the same- and the first rule of good journalism is, it's dependent on good editing.'

No pressure then.

We're talking about a chapter in Mark's new book 'Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics' where he celebrates the invention of the fax machine which allowed him to submit copy without trekking into the office.

'I still think that the fax machine is science fiction- the effect of being able to stay at home and fax copy to an office was extraordinary. The problem for me was that it took away that element of human interaction which was actually going into the Time Out offices and sitting around with the editors, watching them working on your copy. I do think that it must be very difficult now, starting out without that hands-on approach.'

But his book doesn't so much examine young film critics starting out these days as it does the general public; the Amazon reviewer, the enthusiastic amateur. Is there any worth in the 'twitter quotes' that are sometimes used on film posters these days in the place of professional critics' opinions?

'Opinions are only worth what their writers have to lose- so a film critic has their reputation, their job, whereas twitter quotes- if you don't know who a source is, why are you interested in what they think? What movie companies think is, these are real people, giving real responses, but why is the 'real' response of someone you have no experience of or history with reliable? No matter what people may think about the gripes of professional film criticism, if I'm getting an opinion from somebody I'd like to know what that person knows and what their frame of reference is. So consequently if I read Philip French, I think, OK, you've been watching films for 60 solid years, you've been writing about them for 50 years, I know when I read your writing that you have a frame of reference that encompasses pretty much half the history of cinema, so whether I agree with your opinion or not, I will take what you say on board as being interesting and valid because I know you've done the homework. And that to me is the difference between professional criticism and somebody off the internet saying 'this is the best film ever made'. What are you comparing it to? Is this the first movie you've seen?'

So if there is still a place for film criticism in the future, what about the future of cinema itself? We currently seem to be slightly overwhelmed by ploys to get us back into movie theatres, be they the conventional cineplex where they might try to lure us in with the 3D experience, to screenings in alternative venues combined with live music and interactive theatre in the style of Secret Cinema.

As a 3D non-believer, I'm reassured to hear Mark say it's definitely not the future.

'Every certain number of years you get these stories about the death of cinema which is very much like the death of criticism. And when that happened back in the 1950s it was to do with the arrival of television, in the 1980s it was to do with the arrival of video, in the noughties it was to do with the internet and downloading and piracy. And every time that happens cinema have to pull out something that looks like a reason to go to the movies as opposed to watching something at home or on your phone.

When this 3D cycle started there was a point where people in the industry were quite seriously saying it's the future of cinema- James Cameron was saying all movies are better in 3D. Of course if you know anything about the history of cinema you know that's just not the case; it's not the future of cinema, it never was, it never well be. The idea that 2D movies somehow lack dimensionality is completely absurd. I defy anyone to watch 2001: a space odyssey and say yeah, it's great but it looks a bit flat.'

So what about cinema 'experiences' ? Or the resurgence of silent film accompanied by live music?

'I haven't been along to any of the Secret Cinema events but I am involved in performing with silent films. I play in a band, 'The Dodge Brothers,' we play with Neil Brand who's currently presenting the BBC Sound of Cinema series. Some years ago Neil came to us and said that he wanted to recreate what they did in the early days of silent cinema which was play a silent film with accompaniment by a band who were essentially improvising. So you're not playing a score, you're all improvising at the same time. Neil's very into the idea of cinema as a theatrical performance which of course it is when you've got silent film. So we started out working with an old western called White Oak but after a while we started playing to a Louise Brook film called Beggars of Life. We performed with that maybe fifteen, twenty times and have now recorded the soundtrack which might be released at some point. We've played at some beautiful old theatres, and with a live band accompanying the film – just the experience of that is really extraordinary. We did one performance of it at the New Forest Film Festival in which we were running all the projectors on bicycle power to make the electricity, and the whirring of the bicycles kind of make the sound of the train in the film.

And we couldn't dicsuss the future without touching on science fiction- besides the fax machine. As the Star Wars franchise experiences rebirth, what can we hope for?

'If anyone can do something interesting with it, it's J J Abrams. I've never been a fan of Star Wars, I was the wrong age, I grew up on Silent Running, Solaris and 2001- slightly miserable, slow paced, existential sci-fi movies from the early 70s. By the time Star Wars came out I was exactly the wrong age, but what Abrams has done with the Star Trek franchise is great- he took something which was completely moribund and turned it into something interesting again. If anyone's going to make me interested in Star Wars, it's JJ Abrams.'

So maybe there is A New Hope. Just don't expect Mark to hang up his hatchet anytime soon.

See Mark talking about Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics at The Clapham Picturehouse on 21st October. Details here.

Buy the book here.