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.

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.