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.

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue