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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot