Film interview: Mark Kermode

"The worst multiplexes are like supermarkets that close the village shop"

You say in your book that blockbuster movies as events nowadays will do well regardless. How did this situation come about?
In the past it was possible for a proper blockbuster failure to actually damage a studio. Then, because of the way that ancillary markets and the international media expanded, it became more and more of a secure bet that if you spent a newsworthy amount of money, included an A-list star, and put in an eye-popping spectacle the chances were your movie was going to recoup.

This situation also went hand-in-hand with the peculiar dumbing down of mainstream blockbusters.

Are they dumb by default?
Transformers is incoherent beyond any form of craftsmanship. But it being a blockbuster is not an excuse. Jaws was a blockbuster, as was the Exorcist, and they are both brilliant movies.

The idea that Hollywood executives have to satisfy all the multiplex punters by talking to "this here idiot" is wrong, because multiplex audiences are not stupid after all. We had all just got used to this level of corporate dreadfulness and accepted how blockbusters are meant to be. If you want to know whether people like a film, ask them to pay on the way out.

Is there some cynicism on the part of writers and directors?
I think there's massive cynicism on the part of people like Michael Bay. How did we get to such a terrible place? The short answer is Michael Bay. The long answer is Michael Bay, Cleopatra, Heaven's Gate, Waterworld.

I think the Transformers movies are cynicism made flesh. There is something really grotty about the idea of taking a kid's toy and bringing that kind of soft porn sensibility to it. The camera spends its time running around Megan Fox's backside when it's a movie made about kids' toy robots hitting each other over the head.

Cinemas aren't always the nicest places to visit, either?
If you create an environment in which people are watching movies in a faceless box which has no ushers, so there's no sense of order or occasion... that's just like being in your front room. The roots of cinema are in theatre and showing a film should be a performance every bit as much as a theatrical performance.

The worst multiplexes are like supermarkets. You have a village in which you've got a shop that sells home-grown produce and organic fruit; a supermarket opens three doors up, great, you've got more choice, haven't you? Yes, until the supermarket causes the other shop to close down and it is all you're left with.

Is it dangerous for critics to be friends with the celebrities?
I'm not friends with anyone. In an ideal world, a film critic would not have any friends in the film industry, or any friends full stop. I'm an antisocial old bugger anyway, to be honest with you. I don't go to parties.

How important is the personality of the critic?
If you pretend that there's such a thing as an objective critic then you're kidding yourself. There was a very sniffy review of my book in the Metro that said my inability to distinguish between analysis and opinion is "frankly alarming". I said to the publishers, "I want that on the front cover". I want: "frankly alarming inability to distinguish between opinion and analysis".

If everyone in the west lost their phobia of subtitles, what difference would that make to the industry?
It would open people up to a wealth more movies. There are many territories in which every movie you see has got three sets of subtitles -- Mandarin, Cantonese, whatever -- they're all over the picture and nobody minds about it.

I saw a film recently and I really liked it. I was talking to somebody about it a day later, and they said, "is it subtitled?", and I couldn't remember. If you get into the habit of watching subtitled movies, you genuinely don't notice. And I talked to somebody else and they said they'd had exactly the same thing -- when they remember the movie, they don't remember subtitles, they just remember understanding the language. They remember understanding the film.

Does reading subtitles not require more activity on the part of viewer?
There's a very small amount of effort. But I guarantee if you stick with it, it will very soon become habit. And the joy of that habit is that it's like putting in the effort and riding a bicycle. Once you can do it, you can cycle off into the countryside, into the hillsides and explore strange new worlds. I'm the least well-travelled person, but I feel I've been everywhere because of all these national cinemas I've been exposed to.

That certainly isn't about elitism.
It's quite the opposite. There's something very perversely snobbish about saying, "I will only watch English language movies". There's a whole world of cinema out there, and we're only one part of it.

And as Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ proves, under the right circumstances anyone will watch a subtitled movie.

Passion of the Christ is both a foreign language film and a blockbuster. What did you make of it?
It is an insane movie. It's genuinely insane. It is a movie of really prolonged brutality, about somebody being tortured even until death. Mel Gibson has what I think is charitably described as a "muscular sensibility". And that film's gruelling. Obviously, for some people it was a spiritual experience. I thought the funny thing about it was that the people who most often say, "Gory cinema is horrible and bad for you", have just made a gorier movie than I've ever seen before.

In the book, you talk a lot about Zac Efron...
I love Zac Efron. He's an old fashioned performer, cut from that same cloth as Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Silent cinema began with physicality (before it all became verbal), and he's a throwback to that. Plus, I met him once and he was dead nice. He reminded me of Elvis, referring to everybody as "sir".

You make a strange argument for restricting the cinema release of art house films. Can you explain it?
Late of a night in the Bristol Watershed bar after one too many pints of Johnny knock-me-down (we were setting the world to rights as you always do), I said, "The multiplexes should be forced to show foreign language films", and [someone] said, "No they shouldn't, they should be banned from it because independent cinemas survive on the few breakout art house, foreign language, or English niche movies that happen every year.

So if the multiplexes skim this off -- our bread and butter -- that's going to damage [cinemas]". There's a twisted logic in it.

And the allusion to the NHS?
Both my parents worked for the NHS. What's always struck me is that the state funds all these doctors and trains them, and then the private health industry says, "Yes, we'll have that, thank you very much". Then, that's the old lefty in me.

Mark Kermode is a film critic for the Observer and BBC's The Culture Show, and co-presents the Radio 5 Live Friday afternoon programme "Kermode and Mayo's Film Reviews". He is currently touring the UK, until 29 November, in support of his new book "The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex".

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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