Mark Kermode: The next generation of film critics will come from the internet

We sent Bim to Cuddle her Favourite Critic.

Do you know what fancy rich people like? Deep in the heart of discreet wealth, aka the lobby of The Savoy, I discovered the answer. You ready? It’s mirrors. Rich people love them - can’t get enough of ‘em. I suppose it makes all that opulence gleam a little brighter, all that reflection... But I digress. Because thrilling as drying my hands on an actual cotton hand towel was, I was not at the hotel to report from the frontline of Broken Britain. No, I was there because of an internet miracle, in which I got to meet and interview Mark Kermode, based on a single paragraph I wrote in last week’s column. Following the introduction of a new enterprise, Cuddle-A-Critic, I mentioned my long-time admiration for Mr Kermode (here’s a sample tweet from last December, so you know it’s real), his reviews and his hair.

Mere hours later, my phone pinged, informing me of a new reply on Twitter. It was Mark, and it read: “Glad the hair won through in the end. Nice article.

Days later, I was placing a Dictaphone on a table for a chat. The internet wins again. 

We spoke for half an hour and he was, as expected, so insightful and interesting and generous that I forgot to take any shorthand. Below is a mere slice of our conversation. And before you ask, the answer is yes: the quiff is even more magnificent in 3-D. 

On U-turns and ‘getting it wrong’

One of the questions you get asked as a critic is ‘do you get things wrong?” Of course you do. You change. As I’ve always said, criticism is in the end to do with an opinion. Factual stuff is factual and you do need to get that right. Contextualisation is contextualisation. Knowledge is knowledge. But opinion is your opinion.

And it is really strange going back and looking at something about which you were convinced. I mean, I walked out of Blue Velvet when I saw it. I stormed out and wrote a really angry review of it. Three years later I went back and saw it again and realised it was one of the greatest movies ever made. Part of getting it wrong was part of the learning process. What I discovered from Blue Velvet was, if a movie really gets under your skin, you can go either way with it. And whereas it’s possible to love great movies, and hate really bad movies, it’s the movies you love and hate at the same time that are really exceptional. 

When AI first came out, I didn’t like it at all. I remember I was really cruel about it. Years later, we did a Culture Show interview with Spielberg for his 60th birthday and I apologised to him. And he said: “Well, it’s interesting. You’re only the second critic to apologise to me. The first one was Vince Canby” - who apparently shitcanned Close Encounters. So it was a slightly different scale, but you know. 

 

On his process

I don’t make notes during the film. I do that afterwards, at the end of the day. One of the things we do on the blog are these immediate responses. But that’s not a review; it needs time to settle down. I mean my response to Killer Joe was very different after a few days of letting it settle. Firstly, you have to figure out what you think. Your opinion is your opinion.

One of the things I did in The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex was attempt to do a definition of what a good review is. And there were a number of different categories but the basic things were: to describe the film adequately. You have to know where the film comes from and contextualise it properly. You have to assess it on its own terms – if it’s a comedy, did you laugh? And then beyond that, there is your reaction to it, that which you cannot change or be anything other than honest about. The worst thing you can do is attempt to second guess the audience because: a) you’ll always get it wrong; and b) you’ll regret it. It’s much better to be honestly, completely wrong than to be dishonestly closer to being ‘right’. 

On bias

I get accused of being soft on Friedkin. I don’t think I have gone soft on him; there are times when I think he’s made very disappointing films. But it is undoubtedly the case that I will go into any Friedkin film with a sense of expectation. The same is true of Paul Thomas Anderson. Because like anybody else, they’re making a body of work and it’s mad to suggest that that doesn’t affect you. You can’t write yourself out of it. What you have to do is be upfront about it. 

And people can surprise you – Guy Ritchie, who I think has made some of the worst movies ever, then made the Sherlock Holmes films, where he’s referring to Hammer, and getting the characters right... You have to be open-minded.

On his favourite critics and the art of criticism

Absolutely Nigel Floyd. He’s my kind of mentor. He writes for Time Out and when I used to work in Manchester at City Life magazine, I used to edit Nigel’s copy, when it came to the regionals. You’d read it, and there’d just be nothing to cut. I tell you, it’s not until you’ve subbed somebody’s copy that you know what good copy looks like. And I met him when I came to London and he was really kind to me at Time Out and sort of took me under his wing. He’s now one of my closest friends but in terms of writing, I still just regularly read his stuff and go ‘bugger’, because I’d give my right arm to write like that. We disagree about loads of films but it doesn’t matter. The opinion is not the point. He’s pithy, too. That’s a real craft. 

Philip French writes with grace and wit and humour, and even when I don’t agree with what he says, it’s the way it’s expressed. He was recently recognised in the New Year's Honours list and I tweeted that he was recognised for consistently elevating the profession. I feel very passionate about film criticism as a craft, a profession. 

I think we live in a time in which criticism is not taken seriously, as an art form. I’m not saying for one minute I consider what I do to be art – it’s not. But there are people who are up there at the top of the tree: Roger Ebert, Dilys Powell, Pauline Kael, Anne Billson... They know what they’re doing. And they write in a way that is elegant and funny and witty. It’s a craft. 

On a new generation of critics

The next generation of critics will come from the internet. There’s a misconception about the internet, which is that blogging is changing and devaluing criticism. It hasn’t. At the beginning of any new way of dispersing information, there’s a kind of sense of anarchic freedom: you suddenly have a gaggle of voices. When Roger Ebert started doing his TV show with Siskel, people wrote essays about how it was the end of film criticism. What they didn’t realise is that it’s just another way of doing it. 

I still think of myself as a writer, but I’m primarily known for the radio show. I love radio, and I know there are people out there who look at me and say “This is what we have? THIS? Some guy blathering in a studio?” But it’s just all different ways of doing it. And blogging is clearly the future. It will settle down and the good will emerge and it will come down to the same basic rules: are you doing the job properly? Do you know what you’re talking about? Are contextualising? Are you writing wittily and entertainingly and engagingly? I have no doubt that right now out there, there is some smart 16-year-old woman or man, who’s writing powerful stuff that in ten years’ time will be held up.

Mark Kermode. Photo: Getty

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

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 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad