On the evening of Saturday 28th August, rather than sitting down to enjoy Let’s Kill Hitler, Geek Chocolate took the opportunity to spend time with Mark Kermode, not only film critic for BBC News 24 and The Culture Show and author of the recently released book The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex, but also a man with a deep love for film, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject. Join us as we talk movies…
Geek Chocolate – I have a friend who hoped that if Green Lantern tanked at the box office, it would sound the death knell of 3D cinema, but I recently read that 3D films are the most profitable for the cinema chains. Who is pushing 3D now, in your opinion, the studios or the cinemas?
Mark Kermode – It has always been pushed by the studios, first and foremost. As you know, 3D has been tried and failed several times in the last hundred years, and there is a reason why audiences don’t like it: it doesn’t work. Every time the cycle is the same, there is a little bit of interest in the novelty value and then a crushing realisation that this isn’t really what you want from cinema, and then back to normal service.
The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex
The Good, The Bad and the Mulitplex was written over two years, while we were in the first flush of the 3D thing. Avatar was just out, and it was huge, it was the future, and I never thought it was. I didn’t like it, and I was writing this thing about the history of 3D and how long it had been around, and why it’s being pushed from behind, and you’re swimming against the current, saying it’s not the future, the audiences don’t want it, it’s going to be cyclical, it’s going to die. By the time the book comes out, it’s almost gone, it’s on its knees.
Essentially what the 3D figures tell you is that more money is being made from less people. People have started to vote with their feet, and there is a brief period in which you’ve got an inflationary bubble, because you’re charging higher prices and because people are interested in the novelty value, then what it turns out is that less people are paying more to be less entertained, followed by quite correct predictions, not from Hollywood, but from within Wall Street, that they’re no longer interested in backing 3D.
The point at which the bubble really burst was when Wall Street said “we don’t trust this any more.” The minute the money men say that, you’re in trouble. Now, we still have some 3D movies to get through, you know Scorsese’s got Hugo Cabret coming out, there’s Tin Tin, there’s going to be the 3D Titanic, all those things. They’re not going to stop suddenly, but clearly what’s happened is that the wave has broken, and audiences have gone “yeah, that’s not really what we want from the future of cinema.”
I think it was pushed by the studios as a way of combating piracy, it was pushed by cinemas because briefly it was a way of making a fast buck, and in the end the death of it will be audiences. When Mars Needs Moms tanked in the US, pretty much everyone said that the response to it was so vitriolic as to be completely out of whack with the merits or otherwise of the film. It wasn’t that people didn’t like the film, it was that they went, “we’re not paying, to see Mars Needs Moms in 3D, we’re not doing it any more,” and so it went completely down the chute. That seems to have happened as far as all the big tentpole releases are concerned, people are saying, actually if you get the chance, see it in 2D.
This should be no surprise to anyone who knows their cinema history, this is how 3D cycles go, and it’ll probably happen again in thirty years time, but right now the people who have been pushing it are the studios and the cinemas, and the people who want the end of it are the audiences. My one worry when the book went to the printers a month ago was that 3D would be all over, that events would have overtaken me, the Berlin Wall would have fallen, and it would all be finished.
GC – With all the films you see in a year, it must be exciting to catch a film that makes you go – yes, that’s something new and original. How often does that happen, and what was the last film to do it?
MK – Every year we do the Kermode awards on The Culture Show, and I’m always amazed by how much really exciting stuff there is. Because the movies that make a lot of money are often the most disappointing, you can go through a summer of bad blockbusters. Over the last few years I have read an article every year asking is this the worst summer of cinema ever, but in the last few years I’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth, I’ve seen Of Time and the City, a black and white documentary about Liverpool, I mean, who knew?
Inception, funnily enough, was the thing that really gave me the most pleasure recently, because it’s a massive blockbuster, a huge multiplex success, and it was my favourite movie of 2010. I just loved it. This year, I saw this documentary, Benda Belili!, about street musicians playing this incredible hybrid of skiffle music in the most incredibly difficult circumstances, and yet it’s brilliant and uplifting and thrilling, and then that documentary Senna, a documentary about Formula One racing, about which I care nothing at all, and yet it was a really gripping piece of work.
GC – Two stunning films of the last few years were Tarsem Singh’s The Fall and Gareth Edward’sMonsters, both of which had their UK premieres at the Edinburgh Film Festival. I want to keep an open mind for their forthcoming Hollywood features, Immortals and Godzilla, but having seen Duncan Jones move from Moon to Source Code, optimism isn’t easy. What’s your feeling?
MK – I disagree with that. I liked Source Code. I think that Gareth Edwards’ work on Monsters is extraordinary, and we did a piece on The Culture Show about it, about him making those special effects in his bedroom, but of course the reason that the film works, as he’s always said, is that actually the drama is first, the characters are first. He did it like a Mike Leigh film that just happened to have monsters in it, that was what was interesting.
In the case of Source Code, I think that what Duncan Jones did was to make an intelligent, bigger, blockbuster friendly movie which had ideas in it, and which, to me, in the same way that Moon harked back to those 1
970’s dystopian science fiction movies, I think Source Code did the same thing. Inception demonstrated that a multiplex audience, who Hollywood are constantly telling you are the stupidest people on Earth, aren’t. People kept up with Inception. Not only did multiplex audiences keep up with Inception and pay millions of dollars to see it, they came out and found holes in the plot. They were not just as smart as the movie, they were even smarter.
I’ve said the same thing about The Adjustment Bureau. It’s a Philip K Dick style intelligent thriller, science fiction with an idea. It looked lovely, really clean lines on it, had the whole kind of retro thing going on with the hats, it was witty, it had that nice paranoid conspiracy theory idea going on. And of course at the centre of it, there’s quite a tender little love story, but it works within the conceit of the movie. You think about it, you open a door and you can go anywhere through it but it only works if you’re wearing a hat, and you go “What?” but it works because you believe in those characters.
I think Adjustment Bureau and Source Code are very much cut from the same cloth. Kurt Vonnegut said that one of the things about the science fiction writing was that it tended to be the genre one with the best ideas and the worst writing. That’s actually not fair any more because obviously there is some incredible literature in science fiction, but there is also in science fiction a goodly amount of poor writing, but a brilliant idea.
Vonnegut had the whole thing about writing synopses of novels by Kilgore Trout, which would explain the idea, but the book itself wouldn’t be as interesting as reading just the idea. In the case of Source Code, it was one idea played over and over, and I thought it worked really well, and Duncan Jones, I gave him the Kermode award for best director for Moon, and he seemed genuinely taken aback, but I think he’s a real talent.
GC – Worse than the stream of sequels, remakes and spoofs that clog the screens, the latest fad is the direct to DVD mockbuster, people wilfully making bad moves, yet there must be a market for it, otherwise they wouldn’t keep churning them out. Do you see a revolution coming, where the audience demand good cinema, or are there more levels of cinematic Hell to come?
MK – When you say mockbusters, do you mean things like Piranha versus Flying Whatever, all that stuff? All I can tell you about that is, I’m 48, right. I lived through all the Troma movies the first time round, and that whole idea that a movie is so bad it’s good, it’s almost never the case. Very few movies are so bad they’re good, and the ones that are, no-one did it on purpose.
In terms of making bad movies, the classic example is Ed Wood with Plan 9 from Outer Space. Well actually, Ed Wood did think he was making good movies. They’re awful. But there is something in them, there is something really weird, and they are so bad they’re good, but not because someone sat down to design them like that. Glen or Glenda is a really bizarre movie.
But all those Troma movies, like Surf Nazis Must Die and Toxic Avenger are just rubbish, and they were always the case that the title was funnier than the film, and the idea of the film was funnier than the film. I remember back in the late eighties, early nineties, there was an onstage thing at the NFT in London and they had Lloyd Kaufman, and they showed Toxic Avenger 3, and they had a debate with Kaufman and Nigel Floyd and some other people, and the debate was who’s exploiting who?
This idea that Troma were making movies that were deliberately terrible, Nigel saying these movies were awful, and it was a really entertaining discussion, partly because Lloyd is such a funny guy, infinitely more funny and entertaining than any of his movies ever were. So we went through all that, and now, just all that again, Giant Mega Shark, boring! That idea that anyone setting out to make movies so bad they’re good is inevitably just boring.
GC – And yet there are beautiful independent pictures that never see the light of day beyond the festival circuit, for example, a couple of years back, Mary Sweeney’s directorial debut Baraboo.
MK – You can name endless examples of really good independent films that haven’t been distributed properly, and that’s one of the things that I’m trying to address in the book. You have this really weird situation in which multiplex distribution has flattened everything out, and what you’re lacking is independent cinemas that are able to programme exciting material. My feeling about it is that cinema audiences are not stupid, but the problem is that most people don’t live within spitting distance of an independent cinema.
Doing the Radio 5 show with Simon Mayo, the mail that we get, most says “You talked about Requiem, the German movie, that’s great, the only thing I’ve got nearby me is a fifteen screen multiplex, and it’s not showing there.”
GC – But what is showing is on multiple screens in both 2D and 3D, fifteen screens and it’s only actually showing seven films.
MK – Exactly. So in a way, although people complain about how hard it is to get films made, it’s much harder to get films distributed. The festival circuit is a demonstration of that. You can go to film festivals and see wonderful home grown movies, international movies, and where are they showing? One of the ideas the book is trying to address is that we need to support independent cinemas and independent cinema programming.
It’s Only A Movie
GC – The advent of good quality, inexpensive digital cameras has opened the door for many filmmakers. Is it only a matter of time before the cinema industry has to alter the way it operates, as the music industry has done over the last ten years?
MK – That is what’s happening. Simultaneous distribution on download, DVD and cinema at the same time is coming, there’s no two ways about it. The cinema industry has just been very slow, it’s dragging its heels, but the paradigm of what happened in the music industry is exactly what’s going to happen. Initially the music industry was terrified of piracy, then they figured out, after having attempted to take Napster through the courts, they said “oh look, actually we’ll just use the technology.”
In the end, what’s going to happen, movies are going to become available day and date, and you’ll get the decision whether you want to download it, whether you want to go and see it in the cinema, whether you want to watch it on your mobile phone. That will completely change the face of distribution, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a role for cinemas. People still want to see movies in cinemas, but they want to see them in cinemas that actually care about what they’re showing.
If anywhere is going to suffer from that mode of distribution, it’s going to be the multiplexes that aren’t offering a proper service, in which people pay £7.50 to see a film badly projected in an unmanned auditorium in the wrong ratio, people’s mobile phones going off, no ushers to man the auditorium and no projectionist to fix the picture.
GC – What’s your take on Kevin Smith’s distribution strategy for Red State, touring with the fi
lm, hiring out theatres independently, Q&A’s, generating buzz via twitter and podcasts? Is this is a way to make independent cinema independent again, or if this route can only ever really be taken by already successful film directors.
MK – I think it’s an interesting idea, and it’s certainly more interesting than the last couple of movies he’s made. I haven’t seen Red State yet, but it’s potentially an interesting idea. Kevin Smith complaining about critics, every critic in the country is like “yeah, Kevin, you weren’t complaining about critics when you were making movies that were any good.” I like Kevin Smith’s films up to a point, and I’m interested to see what he does with Red State, but actually that is a demonstration that maybe he genuinely is turning his back on mainstream distribution.
GC – There is apparently a generation of filmmakers who believe that playing videogames is the same as going to film school, and the studios seem to think that is acceptable. Unless you have character and narrative, or you’re planning on remaking Koyaanisqatsi, you have nothing. Why is Hollywood so intent on lowering the bar of mainstream cinema?
MK – Well, I think in the end, it’s a financial thing, isn’t it? The reason there are so many film adaptations of video games is because they’ve got built in awareness, so if you make a movie that’s got the name of an existing videogame, you can guarantee a certain audience. I agree with you, playing video games is completely different to watching movies. There are some video games which draw very heavily on cinema, most recently LA Noire, but they are two different disciplines.
I also want to be clear: they’re not superior or inferior disciplines. I do not know very much about videogames, I’m too old, but I know enough people who do to know it’s an emergent art form that deserves to be taken every bit as seriously as cinema, but it’s not the same, they are two different things. And very often, the worst movies are movies based on videogames, and the worst videogames are videogames based on movies. The best videogame I’ve ever seen, and I don’t play but my kids do, is Super Mario Galaxy, which is just a work of art. I mean, I don’t even know how you would begin to put that world together.
GC – Given the furore surrounding Tom Six’s Human Centipede 2 and more recently, the reaction to Lucky McKee’s The Woman, particularly at Sundance, do you see us moving into a modern era of the low budget “video nasty” or could it perhaps be a response to the mainstreaming of work such as I Spit On Your Grave?
MK – I don’t know, I haven’t seen Human Centipede 2, I didn’t like Human Centipede. I think that the remake of I Spit On Your Grave was just pointless. It’s a financial thing, just remaking all those old nasties. I think in order to understand this you have to understand historical context, and the person who is best about this is Kim Newman.
Kim Newman was writing about films like Last House on the Left, which is a nasty piece of work, there’s no two ways about it, but it was a nasty piece of work that meant something. It was made at a time of great anger and frustration, and it was clearly a political movie, a response to the television images of Vietnam, and it was made by Wes Craven as he was figuring out how to become Wes Craven, basically learning his craft. I don’t think anybody feels that movie would have validity were it not of its time. I don’t understand remaking it. Why would you want to?
I Spit On Your Grave is a very nasty film. Carol J Clover, in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws, argues a very good point about whether or not the politics of it are actually more progressive than a lot of the glossy Hollywood fare. I would suggest to anyone who hasn’t, go and read her book, which is a really brilliant feminist analysis of that period of the original wave of video nasties, and a really interesting reading of what is actually going on in those films.
GC – I think America has forgotten how to make horror films.
MK – I think that’s true.
GC – Instead of the feeling, the mood, the atmosphere of unease and dread, as in my favourite The Haunting or your favourite The Exorcist, they are just tiresome death scenes strung together with no concept of character or narrative. The two best horror films I’ve seen this year were both foreign language – Mexican cannibal shocker We Are What We Are and the claustrophobic Spanish chiller Julia’s Eyes. What else have I missed and is there hope out there?
MK – There is, and it’s largely not American. There was the great Japanese wave, then the Korean wave, and then of course was a bunch of weird films that came out of Belgium, and of course Sweden recently has started producing these incredible works by Tomas Alfredson, and Guillermo del Toro, who of course had a production credit on Julia’s Eyes. I loved Julia’s Eyes, and of course, Belén Rueda, who I just think is one of the best actresses in cinema at the moment. On The Culture Show I gave her the best actress award for The Orphanage.
There are things wrong with Julia’s Eyes, but she holds it all together, and it has that thing that proper horror should have. Essentially it’s about loss, there’s a sadness, a real melancholy, and it’s a properly emotional story. There are shocks in it, obviously, particularly towards the final movement, which I think some people have a problem with, but in the end it’s about her character, it’s done really well, it’s a really intelligent movie. But yes, there is really good horror out there, it’s just not necessarily American.
GC – I actually thought it had been a very good year for cinema, especially at the beginning of the year – True Grit, Never Let Me Go, Hanna…
MK – I liked Hanna very much, I’ve just done that for the Observer’s DVD column. I really liked Never Let me Go. Carey Mulligan is always good, and that didn’t surprise me, but on past form Keira Knightley has been changeable, but I think she has found her feet recently, but I thought in that film it’s a really good, brittle performance and it was very brave for her to take that part, and I thought Mark Romanek did a terrific job. A lot of people said they couldn’t stand the movie, couldn’t understand why aren’t they fighting back, but that’s the point of the film, they don’t, they just accept their fate. I thought Andrew Garfield was great.
MK – Yeah, absolutely. It reminded me of things like Village of the Damned. Very British in a strange way, although obv
iously it is a genuinely cross-cultural project. I think in years to come people will reassess that film and realise that they were unfair to it. It got very sniffy reviews, but it really got under my skin.
GC – Other great films this year, Black Swan and True Grit. If you’re going to do a remake, give it to the Coen brothers.
MK – To some extent, Black Swan is a remake of Terror at the Opera or Suspiria, any of those Dario Argentos. It is. I’m a Darren Aronofsky fan, but he clearly grew up watching Argento giallo films.
GC – My favourite of Aronofsky’s films is the one that nobody saw, which is The Fountain, I adore it.
MK – I love it! Funnily enough, the interviewer just before you, he asked me what my guilty pleasure was, I said The Fountain. I think that’s a really good film – and 87 minutes long! Great.
GC – Mark Kermode, thank you very much for your time.
Mark Kermode’s The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex is out now from Random House
Julia’s Eyes and Hanna, both recently released on DVD and BluRay, are reviewed elsewhere in our film section
Carol J Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film is not currently in print, but second hand copies are available on Amazon