The power of Kermode compels you

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Tom Bonnick

I have come to meet Mark Kermode prepared with a story of strange coincidence which I hope is enough to make him like me. Now, normally this isn’t a concern when I interview people — I have enough trouble getting my family to like me, without having to worry about complete strangers as well — but when Kermode doesn’t like something, he really doesn’t like it, and of this possibility I am nervous. On his BBC Radio Five Live show with Simon Mayo, he calls Keira Knightley “IKEA Knightley” because her acting is so wooden (although he insists to me that this is not his gag, but one submitted by a caller to the show), and he has been ejected from screenings at Cannes for booing too loudly (so I hear). Anyway, onto my story.

It is Tuesday, February 9, and I am in Glasgow. However, I could be in London. Obviously, that’s true a lot of the time — I could be in London tomorrow if I really wanted to be! — but on Tuesday, February 9, I could be in London for a very specific reason. After having arranged my interview with Kermode for the 9th, I am invited by a PR company to a screening of a new film, Green Zone, and then to a press conference with the film’s stars, chief amongst them one Matt Damon. I can’t go to the event because I would miss a whole week of classes, which I did too much last term, and because it’s on the 9th as well and I’ve already arranged to meet Kermode. What’s odd — fantastic, even — is that, as well as Matt Damon, a British actor called Jason Isaacs (you will know him as Lucius Malfoy, unless you watched a lot of television in the ’80s) will also be there for me to ask questions of, and Jason Isaacs, I have recently learnt, is not only Kermode’s favourite ever actor, but also the man he would like to play him in the film of his life. So, Kermode, what do you think of that?

Immediately, he launches into an animated set of questions directed at me about the film I’m missing. “For Green Zone? Oh, it’s great, have you seen it?” No, I tell him, unfortunately I have not. “Oh, it’s great. [Paul, the film’s director, who also made the Bourne trilogy with Damon] Greengrass has kind of cornered that particular way of making things that are fictional look completely non-fictional.”

Mark Kermode in person bears little resemblance to the Mark Kermode we see and hear on television and radio. He has crafted a very distinctive on-air persona for himself; a man of scathing put-downs, inflexible opinion and what occasionally feel like sentiments so unfathomable and seemingly arbitrary that they must surely have been picked out of a hat at random (this week I’ll like… Robert Pattinson, and pick a fight with… Helen Mirren).

In the flesh, however, little of the iconoclastic bravado for which he has become — perhaps unfairly — famous is on display. Maybe it helps that he has fewer microphones pointed at him than usual, or maybe that he is not in one of his characteristic Reservoir Dogs suits — he is dressed, disarmingly casually, in jeans and a pullover (although I am pleased to report that the trademark quiff remains in tact).

In any case, he is charming and eminently reasonable at every turn, although this latter quality seems to take some measure of restraint to achieve. At one point in our conversation together, which takes place in a dimly lit, underground room at Malmaison, I ask about Kermode provoking other critics, and whether he has ever been convinced by the persuasiveness of one of their arguments about, how, say, High School Musical 3 or Basic Instinct 2 really aren’t is good as he says they are.

“It’s not really a matter of that [being persuaded],” he begins, leaping upon the question with customary vigour. “It’s more a matter of responding honestly to what you think about a film. Clearly there is no right or wrong answer to any of this.” This feels like quite a significant admission to come from a man with such self-belief. Kermode ignores my startled expression and continues.

“I think historical context is important — understanding what a film is, where it comes from, what it’s trying to do is important, but beyond that your response to it is all there is. People say, ‘Oh, you’re very subjective in your reviews.’ Well, everyone’s subjective! The question is whether or not you’re upfront about it, whether you pretend that what you’re doing is providing some sort of everyman service, which is baloney.” This sounds to me a little like a case of the critic doth protest too much, but Kermode is adamant and unflappable, rather than defensive.

“The idea of objective criticism is fundamentally flawed — for a start, the way people react to movies is so strange and so personal. You have to understand that people will disagree with what you think, and that’s fine. It’s surprising when people don’t understand that ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ is a joke — everyone thinks they’re right, but on some level they understand that’s a ridiculous position to hold, and the reason I say it is it’s funny; it’s patently absurd. Most of the people I annoy, which is clearly a healthy amount — and if you’re not annoying at least half your audience, at least half the time, then really you’re not trying — most of them don’t get that it’s a joke. I do believe these things, and passionately, but I also understand how ridiculous it is to say ‘I’m right, you’re wrong.’”

Part of the reason for Kermode’s departure from the received critical wisdom on various films is his love of genre cinema. For years he has been an advocate of overlooked and under-appreciated films of all kinds: where his fellow critics have seen tawdry video-nasties or silly horror pastiche, Kermode sees brilliance. But, I want to know, how does he view the current cinematic landscape?

“The most encouraging thing is that international boundaries seem to be breaking down more and more, and what used to be a necessarily slightly limited international film market is now flourishing, although they have a fight to hold their own against the big Hollywood blockbusters. That’s not to say there won’t always continue to be interesting Hollywood movies, but right now these are the movies that I’m most excited by.

“I see more movies now than I ever did before — every week, rather than there being five or six movies released there are ten or twelve, and in amongst all that stuff there are just as many gems as there always used to be. It is true there are distribution problems — that’s why arthouse independent cinemas are so important. But also, audiences have to vote with their feet — the way things change is by people turning out to see foreign language or arthouse films.

“I mean, it is a problem if you have a multiplex cinema in which Avatar is showing on three screens. That’s the funny thing — the rise of multiplex culture didn’t really give us more choice, it gave us the same, if not less, choice. But the stuff is out there if you’re looking for it.”

Kermode is in Glasgow because he has just written a book, It’s Only a Movie, which is made up of an intriguing mixture of autobiography and film criticism. I think it’s fair to say that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts: the book is a fascinating collection of stories, but sometimes it reads like little more than a list of its author’s foibles and pet peeves (in this respect it is sort of like any novel by Stephen Fry, each of which, without exception, contain at least a page devoted entirely to pieces of trivia of which Fry is obviously particularly proud). In the case of Kermode, I swiftly learn that his favourite piece of dialogue in any film comes from Flesh for Frankenstein and takes place as one character is being disembowelled (“To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life… in ze gall bladder!”), and that one of his “favourite works of literature of all time” is the BBFC’s report on The Evil Dead, which includes such immortal lines as “Remove entirely the second shot of headless torso spurting blood on man’s face as he lies on top of it.”

If anything, Kermode comes across in the book not as a man of uncompromising conviction but rather, as slightly sophomoric in nature; perhaps too idiosyncratic in his opinions — a man whose tastes seem more like those of a character from Juno. This is not to say that It’s Only a Movie is anything less than entirely enjoyable — on the contrary, it feels remarkably uninhibited. Kermode employs an interesting conceit of approaching the story of his life as if he is casting it for a movie, in which he is played by Jason Isaacs (of course), Helen Mirren is played by the Queen, and the various peripheral figures in his life are filled by such luminaries as Julianne Moore and, less glamorously, Ian Hislop. The effect is one of meta-biography: as a narrator, Kermode comes in and out of his story, editing at will. Was this always the way he knew he would write the story?

“What I was trying to do was see whether I could write the way I talk, because in many ways the thing I’ve enjoyed about film criticism is being able to talk about movies in the way I think people genuinely do talk about them — passionately and without moderation; anecdotally. It became an autobiography that was remembered almost entirely through the films that I watch, because that is pretty much how I remember things.”

In the book and in person, Kermode’s unabashed, infectious cinephilia is wholly transparent, and the longer we are together, the more I realise quite how accurately he has captured that conversational, anecdotal tone he was aiming for in the book, if only because he is equally prone to digression both on the page and off it. Practically out of nowhere, he announces to me how ludicrous he finds the declarations of authenticity that serious drama and horror films are wont to introduce themselves with.

“I love that phrase — inspired by real events. As opposed to what, exactly? Nowadays it’s a kind of movie shorthand for ‘you need to take this seriously because it’s true!’ The classic example of that is the thing at the beginning of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: “The events you are about to see are real”. Well, they didn’t happen in Texas, they didn’t happen with a chainsaw, and there wasn’t a massacre, but other than that…”

He is also far more interested in talking about his favourite movies than about himself. Eventually — perhaps inevitably — our conversation devolves into an argument about vampire films. Horror films are a particular passion for Kermode (he has a PhD in English and American horror fiction) and his favourite film of last year was Let the Right One In; a strange, beautiful vampire film made in Sweden about a lonely boy who fantasises about escaping his life and then meets a young girl who seems able to offer him some solace (needless to say, she has a thirst for blood).

“The interesting thing is that there really isn’t a tradition of Swedish vampire films — it sort of came out of nowhere. And of course, although on one level it is a genre film in that it’s a vampire movie at a time when there happens to be a load of vampire films, just how connected to them it is I think is a moot point.

“Suddenly everyone’s saying, why is there a resurgence in vampire films now? One of the arguments is, if you look at the classic vampire movies, they flourished in a period of economic depression and somehow there is an economic underpinning to all this.

“What’s really interesting about Let the Right One In is how little it owes anything to these stories. For a start, as opposed to most vampire movies, it really isn’t to do with sex at all, and in fact they’ve gone to some trouble to take the sexual element that’s in the novel out of the film. To me, Let the Right One In is a story about anger at being bullied. It’s about childish rage, and that sort of impotent feeling you have when you’re a kid who’s not in control of their surroundings.

“The recent vampire thing is very interesting — it’s peculiar that it’s happened when it has. Now, everyone thinks Vampires are saleable. And during the last big wave of these movies, there was that great boring cliché that vampire movies are all about AIDS, and the idea of that dates back to Dracula and Bram Stoker, who it was held for a long time had died of syphilis.”

The irony that now, the current biggest vampire craze is all about abstinence, rather than AIDS, is not lost on Kermode.

“I really like the Twilight movies! They’re in that wave of classic gothic romance, they’re all to do with desire and repression and the forbidden. I actually think when all the dust has settled people will see the Twilight books and movies as significant—” At this point I interrupt. I am an unreconstructed fan of the Twilight films, but surely, not the books? He sticks to his guns. “Look, they’re not awful. I think they’re perfectly fine.”

He is smiling earnestly at this, practically inviting me to disagree with him whilst simultaneously assuming a look which says ‘What? I haven’t said anything unreasonable, have I?’

“Not awful” is, I suspect, the closest I will ever come to getting Mark Kermode to concede on anything. I have time for one more question, and the one I ask is sort of a cheat. You’re a film journalist, I tell Kermode — you do this kind of thing for a living. What would you ask Mark Kermode if you were sitting where I am? There is a slightly awkward silence.

“I don’t…” he begins, unsurely, and then recovers almost instantly, the note of confidence back in his voice: “If I was in your position, I’d ask why I wasn’t interviewing Jason Isaacs.”

It’s Only a Movie is out now in paperback, RRP £11.99