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My Night with Mark Kermode

February 15, 2010

I wrote this for Jason Walsh’s brilliant online magazine Forth

IN an age of thumbs up/ thumbs down two word reviews and ‘all the news in one minute’, there is greater manifest need for a critic as preternaturally gifted as BBC film reviewer Dr Mark Kermode. (pictured right)
Having cut himself a sizeable niche in the world of film reviewing through his chart topping and recently expanded BBC Radio 5 Live podcast with Simon Mayo (left), his star has been on the rise recently thanks to a growing portfolio of regular gigs on News 24 and  BBC2’s The Culture Show. 
Now with almost all of the BBC’s film output annexed for himself, he has just embarked upon a tour of the art house cinemas of Britain to publicise his new book of cinematic memoirs, ‘It’s Only a Movie’.
For anyone who knows Kermode’s sincere, geeky fan boy style, the book is more of the same, in fact for those who have followed his work with Mayo, many of the stories have been heard more than once before. But it really doesn’t detract from a wonderful read.
This is because almost uniquely among modern reviewers, when interviewing the stars of films he doesn’t like he doesn’t hold back from telling them so. So, as result, in the book and on stage we get the story of how Helen Mirren hand bagged him at the BAFTAs for saying ‘The Queen’ was a TV film rather than a ‘real film’ and the hilarious spectacle of Kermode being forced to chase a huffing Nick Broomfield down the road with a portable mic after the documentarian stormed out of an interview promoting ‘Kurt & Courtney’ after the good doctor had told him it was ‘a horlicks of a film’. As he pointed out at his live performance in Liverpool’s FACT centre on Thursday, the whole episode was utterly ironic given the amount of time Broomfield had spent in his own career hounding people with recording equipment.
In the live environment an hour of his choicest yarns are enlivened by the fact that he has the genuine charisma of a great performer. Although essentially a superannuated signing session in front of confirmed fans for whom he didn’t have to work too hard to get laughs, Kermode had some great gags to go with his sardonic reflections.
He began with his filmed metallic thump-laden review of ‘Transformers 2’ – the first film review which doesn’t require words and ended with a tribute to Duncan Jones’ 2009 sci-fi film ‘Moon’ played on the Stylophone.
By far the funniest bits of the live show are his recounting of Werner Herzog being shot in LA while being interviewed on camera by Kermode, along with his recreation of mega blockbuster ‘Avatar’ with three Smurfs on a coat hanger and a big stick. Behind it all was Kermode’s disgust at the sanctimony of James Cameron’s script and the swindle that he believes 3D is.
Kermode is often at his most memorable when he is angry about the cinematic fayre he is served – in the books we get a full explanation of his now legendary 15 minute tirade against the second ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie which became a You Tube hit and just what he thinks about the films of Gore Verbinsky’s ‘Pirates’ franchise as a job lot: ‘They should be buried in a very deep hole where they can never bother anyone ever again’
When he doesn’t like something he really hates it – ‘Breaking the Waves’ and ‘The Big Lebowski’ are like finger nails on a blackboard, but when he loves something then it is heaped with praise – ‘Mary Poppins’ is transcendent and proof of God’s existence and has the best 28 frames of all cinema. ‘Planet of the Apes’ is a political tract by which Kermode says he has lived his life, ‘Shawshank Redemption’ is a religious document with clear biblical parallels that, as it turns out, not even the writer knew it had.
As ever ‘The Exorcist’, the movie which changed his life (and has almost been a life’s work for him) gets wonderful treatment on stage and in the book. His first full viewing of it five years after seeing the trailer really crackles in print: “The first viewing passed in an almost orgasmic whirl of fear, and remains one of the most genuinely transcendent   experiences of my life. Rarely have I been more aware of being alive and in the moment…’ Where else do you see that kind of enthusiasm in arts criticism?
In person and on radio or TV,  Kermode is witty man, a passionate critic and a tremendous raconteur ready with some of those often very poor impressions for which he is rightly upbraided by Mayo on a weekly basis (his Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen are almost indistinguishable). He gladly accepts charges of arrogance and sometimes of art house elitism, but what shines out is his commitment to promoting cinema as an art form and not simply as entertainment.
* Mark Kermode’s  ‘It’s Only a Movie’ is available from Random House Books

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