Film, TV and the Arts

Film, TV and the Arts

Monday, 29 August 2011

The Opinionated but Brilliant Dr Kermode

Radio 5's controversial film critic is exemplary of all that a critic should be 

I am a Kermode fanatic. Some of you will not be. I think him to be witty, incisive and entertaining. Some of you will think him to be smug, opinionated and irritating. Both valid opinions, but, to quote the great man himself, the difference is that I am right and you are wrong.

Joking aside, Mark Kermode is the nation’s most notable and entertaining film critic, and this week his second book, The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex, comes out, wherein he shall set the cinematic world to rights, setting his sights upon poor standards in modern day film projection, poor standards in modern day film storytelling and, of course, the unholy behemoth of 3D.

If his first book, It’s Only a Movie, is anything to go by, it should be a riot. That was a wonderfully entertaining autobiography, detailing some of the finest anecdotes of his life, but being most interesting on the points of Kermode’s childhood and education in cinema, and his eventual maturing into a fully-fledged film critic.

He does not set about putting forward grand and fatuous theories of “How to write a film review”, for that would be silly in the extreme, but he does drop nuggets of what it is to be a critic: the standards required of oneself, how honest one needs to be with both one’s audience and oneself, and ultimately the ambiguity that experience brings and the realisation that most films are not either magnificent or awful but far more complex and challenging to review than the young film watcher would like.

Kermode in conversation with radio-partner Simon Mayo
As an aspiring film critic, these sections came across as having been written with simple humility but read as if they were of biblical authority. Useful advice is in those pages for anyone who wants to write any criticism of any kind.

Others really will disagree with me. As Kermode points out “just Google the words ‘Mark Kermode’ and ‘Wanker’ and see what fun awaits you out there on the internet”. He also says that one needs to argue one’s opinions, and so I feel that I must defend him with something approaching reason in order to justify my opening paragraph.

Kermode’s excellence as a film critic, perhaps ironically, is based largely on matters which are subjective. As such, I will never convince some people that he is really good. I’m sure that my friend Tobi, for instance, would argue the toss with Kermode until the incineration of the earth. Nevertheless, I find the good doctor Kermode to always be very funny and entertaining, and there is nothing I can do about that.

Even his most hardened opponents (with perhaps the exception of the aforementioned Tobi) would be hard-pressed to claim that his reviews are anything other than thorough and consistent. Though you may say that he perhaps took Transformers (the first one, at any rate) too seriously, or trumpeted the class politics angle of Sex and the City 2 with far too much vigour, it cannot but be said that he holds every film to the same standards. His subjectivities are inescapable, as is the case with any critic worth their salt, and the audient must bear these in mind when considering the man’s reviews, but one can always be sure that he is fair.

Entertaining and fair we have so far, and I think these are essential for good criticism, as are intelligence and insight. He has both of these. The good doctor is clearly very intelligent, and one of the great joys is seeing a film before listening to his review and finding a wholly new angle which you hadn’t considered before.

However, the point in his favour which I will celebrate the most is that he is both opinionated and respectful of other opinions. Believe me, some of his opinions have driven me round the bend. This is, after all, a man who didn’t like the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, nor the original Star Wars trilogy, and is still a bit iffy on the subject of the fantastic The Big Lebowski. His critics use the word “opinionated” of him as if it were his kryptonite, but Kermode argues very well in It’s Only a Movie for the importance of holding firm to his opinions.

In the book, he describes his first encounter with Danny Baker, who derided him on air for his view of Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, a confrontation which Kermode assumed was the sign of a bad relationship and the end of his job after the first day, but Baker said that he had enjoyed it and that confrontation was important, that it fostered debate and, above all, that it was interesting. Kermode had learned a lesson: “there is nothing to be gained from moderating your opinions because you think it will please those around you. It won’t. In a world in which every lazy hack falls back on the old ‘if you liked that, then you’ll love this’ cliché, the only thing a critic has to justify their essentially parasitic existence is the belief that they are right and everybody else is wrong.”

That is a truth which is perhaps hard to swallow, though I think that Kermode would agree with this caveat. You must be passionate about and forthright with your opinions, but you must also be willing to defend them coolly and rationally and realise that you won’t always agree with people or be able to persuade them to your point of view. In those instances, it is best to cite the irreconcilable differences as exactly that, and then to agree to disagree. That is, until the opponent is out of earshot, when you proclaim yourself to have been unequivocally right all along.

Kermode is highly respectful of well-argued listener opinions and very willing to engage with them, but he would be worthless if he didn’t stay firm on his views and defended them. He has, on occasion, admitted to having been wrong, but that is part of the job. Mistakes will always be made and some will be corrected, and it is admirable to be so self-critical, but the opinion once held must be defended until self-doubt causes a reappraisal. Surely, the job of a critic is to have opinions, so of what worth is the unopinionated critic?
Kermode's legendary interview with Werner Herzog

"The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex", by Mark Kermode, is released on Thursday 1st September, published by Random House (buy on amazon).

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