When A Met K
I don't go to the theatre very often– maybe they should show trailers for upcoming plays to entice me back on those rare occasions when I do– but every now and then news of a forthcoming performance penetrates my brain with sufficient force to actually motivate me to sit in a different kind of auditorium and have a wholly difference experience.
And so it was with the coming to Oxford of the noted film critic Mark Kermode, bassist, harmonica-ist, lover of elaborate hair and The Exorcist, holder of a Doctorate in Horror Movie Studies, and all around nice guy, in town to promote his new book The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex, give a brief talk, and screen a rare print of one of his favourite cult films (hmm, maybe not such a wholly different experience after all).
I have some meagre record when it comes to film criticism but for me Kermode is one of the exemplars of the craft and someone whose opinion is always worth listening to even when we disagree (which is relatively rarely). People say I am passionate and knowledgeable about cinema but compared to Dr K I operate very much on the lower slopes. That said, part of me was still hoping a segment of the evening would involve him inviting all-comers up on stage for a mano-a-mano review-off: there's nothing like seeing how you measure up to one of the masters, after all.
Anyway, we take our seats– a fairly full house and a diverse crowd: young and old, singletons, couples, and families, well-adjusted relatively sane individuals and me. The lights go down and then straight back up again, and sure enough the Good Doctor's quiff appears from the wings stage left, followed a few seconds later by the rest of him. Big applause: this is a friendly audience, as you'd expect.
'We're going to start by watching William Peter Blatty's masterpiece, The Ninth Configuration,' Dr K announces. 'Is it in 3D?' shouts a voice from the back. 'What a riotous evening this is going to be,' the great man (famous for his hatred of the stereoscopic format) ripostes, deadpan. But he goes ahead and shows the movie anyway.
With that out of the way (for good or ill, The Ninth Configuration falls outside the ‘topical movies only’ remit of the column these days) Dr K gets on with his own appearance. He admits he can't do reading-out so rather than delivering key bits of the new book verbatim (subtitle: What's Wrong With Modern Movies?) he speaks off the cuff for an hour or so. It's very much stand-up film criticism, touching on most of the things we've all come here hoping to hear in person– familiar riffs on Dr K's well-known bugbears.
So, bad reviews from critics don't ruin movies, badly made movies ruin themselves. I expect Dr K feels obliged to make this point as he is even responsible for coining a new adjective, Kermodian, usually preceding the word 'rant'. His not-entirely-equivocal verdict on Sex in the City 2 was that it’s 'an orgy of dripping wealth that made me want to be sick'. Critics shouldn't make friends with movie stars as it will compromise their critical independence. Happily, this prompts Dr K to touch on his relationship with geezer-actor Danny Dyer. Dr K is wont to do impressions on his radio show, and Dyer finds Kermode's impersonation of him so objectionable he has repeatedly threatened to beat him up. (A genuine ripple of excited delight goes round the theatre as Kermode starts doing his Dyer voice. I wonder how many people came here just in the hope of hearing it?)
Sadly Dr K doesn't go into one of the most interesting sections of his book, on the topic of 'What's the point of film critics?' (surely one of the most pressing questions today). There's a bit in the book where Kermode contrasts 'proper' film criticism with 'the bedroom ramblings of somebody writing about movies for no amusement but their own' which obviously made me very nervous, but happily I found we agreed almost entirely about the elements of what makes a good review. Nice to hear you're on-side, Mark.
But primarily Dr K discusses the unnecessary stupidity of the modern blockbuster (a few very distinguished movies excepted) and the collapse in standards at modern cinemas, most of which, he argues, are now not much more than sweetshops with a DVD player. It's very difficult to disagree with anything he says on these subjects, and his respect and passion for both cinema and the cinema-going experience shine through.
Then it's signing-session time. Normally I am ambivalent when it comes to the whole asking-for-an-autograph experience, as it seems to me there's an element of deference to the proceedings which my massive ego reacts very poorly, but in this case, why not? To my delight Dr K is pausing to have a brief chat with every person when their time at the front of the queue arrives and I rack my brains to think of an appropriately impressive opening gambit. So:
Your correspondent: 'What did you think of Rise of the Planet of the Apes?'
Dr K: 'Still haven't seen it! I wanted to see it the other day but I had to see We Need To Talk About Kevin instead as I'm interviewing Lynne Ramsay for The Culture Show.'
(YC: (thinks) That's so weird! I wanted to see Troll Hunter the other day but I had to teach some Syrians how to use the Past Perfect instead. Our lives are in some eerie parallel!)
Dr K: 'What did you think of it?'
YC: (reserved as ever) 'Pretty good.'
Dr K: (surprised) 'Only pretty good? Everyone else I've spoken to says it's great.'
YC: (backpedalling frantically while maintaining cool facade) 'Well, it's good for what it is, but it's a bit corporate. It's not as good as the first three original movies. I know you like Conquest'
Dr K: (masterfully) 'Well, Conquest is what Rise of the Planet of the Apes is based on.'
Wow! Me and Mark Kermode are shooting the breeze about the Planet of the Apes movies! What a lovely moment this is.
Dr K: 'Anyway my favourite is Beneath - it's just so bleak'
YC: 'I know, but I prefer Escape.'
Dr K: 'That plays a little young for me.'
YC: 'Yeah, but it has such a mature emotional palette. The second half of Beneath is just fantastically weird but the first half is a retread of the original movie with no new ideas to it and no Heston.'
Dr K: (starting to look a little taken aback at the rigour of my criticism) 'Actually, I think James Franciscus is pretty good in that movie'
YC: 'Yeah, but he may as well be wearing a badge saying 'Heston stand-in.''
Dr K looks rattled and possibly even slightly defensive. Hmmm. Me and Mark Kermode are having a row about the Planet of the Apes movies (on top of which I suspect I may be hogging the front of the queue). Possibly not such a great moment.
You know what they say, never meet your heroes : you’ll just end up arguing with them about Charlton Heston movies. In the end we part on genial terms, and later it occurs to me that maybe I did get my review-off after all.
Anyway, I emerged with my respect and admiration for Dr K undiminished (and I expect he would say the same about me). In retrospect, he came across rather as a man trying to whip up a crusade, arguing that if cinema as we know it is to survive, we need to treat it with respect, in terms of both how films are made in the first place, and how we experience them as an audience. Culturally, I can think of few more worthy causes, and no-one better qualified to ride at the head of the column than Kermode himself. Count me in, Doc, count me in.