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: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem