Mark Kermode Interview

Back in July, I was given the opportunity to interview the film critic and author Mark Kermode for Flux Magazine. The purpose of the interview was to discuss his great new book, The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex, and the resulting interview/review piece can be read on Flux here. However, because I had a wealth of material left over - the interview was meant to last half an hour, but we wound up talking for fifty minutes since, to use Kermode's words, I asked intelligent questions and didn't ask him about Danny Dyer - and I wanted to do something with it, so here is a much fuller transcript of our conversation, in which Kermode talks at length on subjects such as the inevitable decline of 3D, the horrors of multiplex culture, and Ken Russell's The Devils, amongst others.

It was a real thrill to meet and talk to the Good Doctor since he is a personal hero of mine, and is largely responsible for why I write now. I was understandably nervous, but he was a terrific subject who gave very erudite and considered answers, and was a pleasure to talk to.


Note: this interview was conducted on the 29th of July, 2011, so a few details here and there might be slightly out of date.


Edwin Davies: So, what is The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex all about?

Mark Kermode: [Chuckles] The subtitle of it is, "What's Wrong With Modern Movies?" and it's just - you know I'd written a book before [his autobiography, It's Only A Movie] about growing up with the cinema and loving the cinema, and all the things I was passionate about with it. I've been a film critic now for 20, 25 years and it was, essentially, there were a lot of things that I was really put out about, that I was really cross about, and it was an attempt to get all those down. So, in a way, it's the other side of what It's Only A Movie is about; It's Only A Movie was all the stuff that I really love and all the stuff which was fun.

If you watch cinema for a long time there are things about it that you hold very dear and things about it that you cherish, and there are also things about it that are sort of poisonous, and for a time you can live with them and it's all fine. Then there comes a point - A few summers ago, there was the summer of the threequels [2007] where there was Shrek 3, "something else" 3 [Take your pick from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Spider-Man 3, Ocean's 13, The Bourne Ultimatum, Rush Hour 3, even Resident Evil: Extinction if you want to stretch to September. Seriously, there were a lot of third films released that year.], Die Hard 4, and somebody did an article in the Observer, I think, it was taglined "Is this the worst summer of cinema ever?" To which the answer is, "No, it wasn't." But there were things that were happening, that have always been undercurrents of cinema anyway, that were just getting more and more prevalent.

But the thing that really pushed it over the hill was the rise of 3D, because it was so clearly bogus and so clearly a mechanical ploy to do something that had nothing to do with artistry, that had nothing to do with advancing the form of cinema. And I was getting quite boring on the subject of 3D. I mean, there came a point where people said, "Okay, fine, enough already. Give up." But I actually felt about 3D in the same way that I felt about - You know when I was in Manchester [in the '80s] I was a big Lefty and very active in a lot of political campaigns. People say to you after a while, "Stop going on about Thatcher!" Well, no, she's still in power! And I'll stop going on about her when she's not in power. And the way I felt about 3D was [that] you may be bored with this, but it's still here, and I'll keep going on about it until it isn't.

Of course, the thing that then became ironic was, as we got closer to the publication of the book - bear in mind the book's taken the best part of two years to write - the collapse of 3D started to happen so fast that there was a worry that, by the time the book comes out on September 1st, it's all going to be gone! Now, of course, that's not going to happen because people aren't going to let it happen. You've still got the Scorsese [Hugo], you've still got the Spielberg [The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn] and we can't pre-judge any of those things. But there was a moment, some time around March, April, May, where I suddenly started to think that by the time this comes out, not only am I going to be the person who bored everybody rigid about 3D while it was here, I'll be the person saying it should be gone after the fact! It was just an attempt to get all that stuff down on paper. Get it out of my system.

ED: One of the sections of the book I found really interesting was the one on the history of 3D because I only really knew about it from the '50s and '80s, and I'd no idea that there was a whole century of 3D cinema.

MK: The key thing you need to know about 3D cinema - and I don't want to labour this because I'm aware that it's the thing I go on about - is this; it's as old as cinema, and there's a reason why it's failed on so many different occasions. And the reason - If you look at other innovations in cinema [and say] "Oh, it's like sound, it's like colour." No it isn't. The proof of it is there. The proof of it is with each of these innovations, they're all technically really complicated. I mean, the birth of sound was a nightmare.

One of the things I do with the band I play in, The Dodge Brothers, is that we accompany silent movies, and one of the films that we've been accompanying for a while is a Louise Brooks movie called Beggars of Life, which is just wonderful, and we accompany the silent version of Beggars of Life, which stars Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery. Beggars of Life was actually made on the cusp of sound, and there is a version, that doesn't exist anymore, that has certain bits of dialogue. One of the ways that they sold that film was "Hear Wallace Beery sing", because there's a bit in the movie where Wallace Beery turns up - it's a hobos movie - and he turns up with a barrel over his shoulder, and he's singing a song called "Hark Those Bells". What we do with the band is we go and research as much of the original music as we can, because obviously a lot of silent movies had, if not scores, then musical cues [and] the pianist or whoever was playing - often it would be local bands - would have a thing saying, "At this point you should play this song", or, "You'll do a theme here which is reminiscent of so and so". And there was at least some written version of what "Hark Those Bells" sounded like. So we figured that out and we would play "Hark Those Bells". But there's a version of that film that existed in which, at that point, someone would actually put on a recording, and you'd hear Wallace Beery sing "Hark Those Bells" and there were a couple of little bits of dialogue. That's really creaky, right? But sound took off. Colour's the same.

3D, on three, four separate occasions, was foisted on the public and it didn't work, and the reason it didn't work was not that it wasn't technologically good enough, because there are loads of things that took off despite the fact that they really required patience in their early days. The reason is that, in the end, it's a con. I don't want to get into the scientific stuff because it's boring, but the fact of the matter is that when you watch a 3D movie you aren't seeing in 3D. You never in the real world see like that; that's not how it works. You don't focus on this object, and you focus on that object, and your eyes converge in different ways. 3D doesn't work. More to the point, it doesn't work when you have edited footage because it requires the eye to do something the eye would never do. More importantly than that, the brain doesn't need it, as I tried to demonstrate with that jokey little line drawing. [In the book, Kermode uses an image of two figures, one big and one small, to indicate how the human brain naturally finds depth in a two-dimensional image.] You see a drawing of a bloke walking towards you, and he's small and then he's big, and your brain goes, "Well, in that one he's far away, and in that one he's nearer." Have you ever, ever seen a film that you thought was really great, but wished it was in 3D?

ED: No. Never.

MK: Right, fine. Case closed.

ED: Including some 3D films.

MK: Exactly. And of course the great irony is that it was forced upon film-makers who didn't want it, it was forced upon films that weren't designed in that way. I mean, the Harry Potter films are a very good example, if you look at what happened with Deathly Hallows. [Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part Two was converted to 3D in post-production, despite being shot in 2D and despite the first part being shown in 2D because the conversion didn't work.] The really interesting thing about the last Deathly Hallows movie is that - obviously the light loss problem - people will say "the solution to that is lenticular screens, glasses free." That's not the problem; the system is still the same, it doesn't matter what kind of system you're using, it's still the same essential optical trick, which is complicated, which doesn't work over long periods of time. In the end, with that Harry Potter thing, you look at the screen and you go "that's too dark, it's too moody, and more importantly it's fighting the design." They did seven movies before anyone said, "You know what? You really need to make this in 3D." Why? Because of when it is. Because it came out in 2011. If it had been 1999 nobody would have said, "Oh, it's brilliant, it's fantastic. The characters are great, the whole thing with Harry and Voldemort, they're joined at the end, it's brilliant. The problem is it's two-dimensional." It just wouldn't happen.

So it was something that was pushed from behind. Cinemas were forced into it, audience were forced into it, and there was - and this made me really angry - there was almost an edict that came down from on high which said, "Okay, stop moaning now, fall in line. Just fall in line with it." There are people on the Internet, bloggers, who hate me - that's fine; it's a free country, they can do what they want - saying, "Oh, he's going on about 3D again." You know why? Because I'm right!

And now the hilarious thing about - I don't know if you read the piece Roger Ebert tweeted a couple of days ago saying that cinemas are actually losing money from [3D]. All this economic paradigm happened before. You don't need to understand the mechanics of it all, all you need to understand is that it happened and it failed before. And the examples of people projecting 2D movies through 3D lenses, so the films were being watched with something like 75% light loss...I mean, it wasn't just affecting 3D movies, it was affecting everything, because it had come down from the studio on highs that this was how we are going to do things, and it is a symbol of great public resistance that all the evidence is that it's going down the pan.

That doesn't mean that it is going to disappear. There are ways of any system being used as a novelty. As a fairground ride they work perfectly well. Also, as you probably know, IMAX screens tend to work in positive parallax anyway, not in negative parallax [this blog post nicely illustrates the difference, but essentially, in relation to 3D, negative parallax is 3D that comes out at the audience, whilst positive parallax is the kind that goes back into the screen, creating a sense of depth], so there are reasons for saying that a fairground version will work better, but it's not cinema.

To finish on this point - and as you can see I don't do short answers - Werner Herzog, when he came on the program,  he talked about Cave of Forgotten Dreams. And Herzog, who I love, I really love him, he made this film, and I'd seen it in two versions; I'd seen a 3D and a 2D version. And Werner had said that the official line was [adopts Herzog accent] "I made this because of 3D and immersion in the cave and very few people go into the cave and we take you into the cave." And I said, "Well, I've seen it in both versions and it's more immersive in 2D", because in 3D the light problem is very profound because you couldn't take big lighting into that cave anyway. And Werner said, "Well, you only say that because you are intellectually warped. You can't turn off your critical faculty." At the end of the program, we were talking after we'd finished recording, and I said, "It's the truth, Werner." I said, "The irony is that you've got a bit in that film in which you've got Fred Astaire dancing with his shadow." I said, "It's in black and white, a guy dancing. That's perfect cinema." And Herzog said, "Yes, you're right, the fact is that 3D is not cinema. Whatever else it is, it's not cinema." And I agree with him. That doesn't mean that it has no application, but it's not cinema.

ED: One of the reasons given for using 3D is to fight piracy...

MK: The primary reason. Although it's not the primary reason that's given. I mean, they'll tell you that's not the case. The studios will say, "Oh, innovation. Colour. Sound. Blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda." What you actually hear underneath that is "Piracy, piracy, piracy." You know it, I know it, everyone else knows it.

ED: In the book and on the radio show, you've talked about day and date releasing as another means of fighting piracy, which I agree could and would work, and wouldn't really hurt the major cinema chains, but what I worry about is how it could affect arthouse cinema. I was wondering what you thought about how that method could affect arthouse cinemas.


MK: Here's what I think. I think there is a serious discussion to be had about it, and I think that there are differences of opinion, clearly. I think that we are at a point of sea change. I tend to have a very, perhaps foolishly positive opinion of the way in which people think about cinema, people who actually like cinema. My feeling is that what's happening is the essence of cinema has kind of been forgotten in the slew of product that's been driving the multiplexes and been driving the studios. I think there is a hard core of people, and this is a smaller number than are actually going to the cinema at the moment, there is a hard core of people that want to go to the cinema as a cinema experience. And I think that - and I think this honestly; I may be wrong, but I think it - I think that if given the opportunity to watch a movie either on a download or in a cinema, if the cinema is properly run, they will choose the cinema.

Now, I do think there are movies that will suffer. I can't imagine people going "I really want to see Hangover II in the cinema." [They'll say] "Fine, I'll watch it on my mobile." You know what? It was shit in the cinema it'll be shit on your mobile phone. But I do believe that there is an audience for cinema, and I think if it's gonna have a validity in the next century we have to treat it like theatre. You have to go, "You could watch this on television." David Tennant, doing Hamlet, was on television. Was that the same as being in the theatre watching it? I don't know, I didn't see it in the theatre, but I hear that it wasn't. So my feeling is that your core audience for actual cinema will shrink, but will live as a cinema audience.

I think there is no question that there will be financial repercussions. My suspicion is that those financial repercussions will hit the multiplexes harder. I mean, I can almost imagine circumstances in which multiplex culture stops, in which people who want to watch those movies either go to watch big, spectacular IMAX projections, or see them at home, and actually what your talking about with cinema is that it becomes something different. But I think the only way we'll move forward, because the point is this is happening, it's inevitable. There is nothing you can do about it, this is the response to piracy. The response to piracy is you go day and date.

The world has changed phenomenally since I first started film journalism in the 1980s, when a film would open in America, six months later it would open in England with a different title so  that you didn't know that it had died in America. I honestly think what will happen is that it will encourage people - I make a big pleas at the end [of the book] saying, "Fund these cinemas, make those cinemas viable. They're not going to make massive amounts of money, but neither does theatre, unless it's West End productions doing musicals." And I'm very positive about it. I think it will happen. And the evidence for it is that I've been to load of cinemas in which they really do care about that sort of thing. You know I'm particularly attached to The Phoenix [in East Finchley] and the Phoenix has that lovely thing, which is that as you go to the snack bar, there is a list of snacks that you can't buy. that you can't eat in the cinema because they are too loud for the auditorium; you can only eat them outside. I think people will appreciate that sort of thing.

Cinema's had a century of doing it, but the century of cinema was not created on the basis of just packing them in and churning them out and giving them a substandard product. It never worked like that. I grew up in the cinema. I grew up going to movies, that's why I like it to watch movies. It's fundamentally different to me to see things on DVD and Blu-Ray. It's a different experience. It demonstrably is. But I think that what's important is that the next generation of people have that same thing and understand that there is a choice. How do you want to watch it? Wanna watch it on your phone? Fine, it'll be a fiver. Wanna watch it at the cinema? Fine, it'll be six quid.  Those things balance against each other. Down in Cornwall, there's Cinema Screen Seven down in Redruth, which is part of the Regal cinema. You pay more for it, but it's posh seats, nice legroom and it's a licensed auditorium. You know what? It's packed. It's just packed. Less people, but all having fun. And no body would take their phone out in there. You saw that thing about the American cinema chain [Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas] that put the advert of the woman ringing up [to complain about being ejected from the cinema for using her phone].

ED: I was going to ask you if you had seen that.

MK: Of course. It's brilliant. It's absolutely brilliant. I think it must have been tweeted to me fifty times, but it was just brilliant. And what was great about it was that it worked on the following presumption; most people don't like this stuff. It wasn't the cinema going, "Oooh, don't do it, you're bad," it was the cinema saying to the audience, "Isn't she horrible? Isn't it outrageous that we got this phone call, and aren't you glad that we didn't allow it?" It's a gamble, right? It's a gamble doing that, but the answer is that everyone goes, "Yeah, God. I'm really glad that I'm in a cinema that she's not in!"

ED: You talked about the death of the multiplex experience, and for me, the most entertaining chapter of the book is "Let's Go To The Pictures"[in which Kermode describes the numerous horrors that befall him as he tries to watch Charlie St. Cloud at a multiplex with his daughter], because it just sounds so-

MK: Horrible. 

ED: It sounds like the worst experience in a cinema imaginable. Was it the worst experience you've ever had in a cinema?

MK: It was indicative of what was happening. I mean, I think that with any of those things, if it was an aberrational experience it would be terrible. It was the fact that it was something with which I was boringly familiar at this point. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I take it that you found the rest of the book incredibly boring.

ED: Far from it.

MK: The thing about that chapter was that the only reason it's funny is because everyone goes, "I know." When we recorded the audiobook here [SNK Studios, where the interview was conducted] it was the same reaction. The reason that chapter, if it makes any sense at all, works is that you know I'm not making it up, because it's such a stupid and ridiculous string of events, but everyone goes, "I know that happens because I've had that." So the amount of people who go, "You'll never guess what; I went to this cinema in blah blah blah and they didn't turn the house lights down." I don't know whether you listen to the Radio 5 show I do with Simon Mayo, but the amount of e-mails you get! People say the lights were wrong, there were people talking, there are never any ushers, and the best one was that usher writing in saying the reason there are never any ushers is they're cleaning up the popcorn you left in the previous screen, which I put in [the chapter].

It wasn't the worst, it was a worst, and that's the worst thing about it. That sense that what multiplex cinemas have become is just a cattle market. Look, I'm given to exaggeration and florid speech, but I said that thing in the first book about how cinema is a church. You don't talk in church, why would you talk in a cinema? It just doesn't make any sense to me. But if you run a cinema, you program a cinema, you understand there is something about it. Do you ever do that thing where you wander around the auditorium after everyone's gone, and just stand in the building and feel that thing about how the film's still there afterwards?

ED: Absolutely.

MK: Could you ever do that in a multiplex? Could you ever walk into screen seven of the local faceless whatever-it-is and go, "You know, I can really feel the atmosphere of Hangover II is still here"? Which would presumably be lager and popcorn. But you do get that.

I remember very clearly when I was a kid, when The Exorcist first came out - How long was that? [Checks time on his phone.] Ten minutes before I got to The Exorcist. First reference. The cinemas that it had been playing in were almost sort of tainted by the fact that it had been in there. And you know there's a very famous legal case when the police - It was either Salo or Ai no corrida (In The Realm of The Senses).  Actually it's Flesh, the Andy Warhol film, Flesh.  It went into the BBFC, and the BBFC said, "We can't pass this film, but we can recommend that you play this under a private license in a club in Soho," which it was possible to do at the time. Anyway, they did, and they played it under a private license, and it got busted. They showed the film in the cinema, the police came in and they busted the cinema. The person who ran the cinema was up in arms, rang John Trevelyan [Secretary of the BBFC from 1968 to 1971] and said, "This is terrible! We've been busted! You told us it was all right." Trevelyan went down to the police station, the whole thing was a great big scandal. It was definitely Flesh, because the last thing Trevelyan did before he left the BBFC in '71 was to pass Flesh, despite the fact that it had an erection in it, on the grounds that he didn't see it. It's got a bow tied around it but he didn't see it.

Anyway, when they busted the cinema, they took away the print, the projector and the screen on to which the film had been projected, which to me was brilliant evidence of that idea that somehow everything had been permeated by it. I mean, it's a blank screen! By it's nature, it's a white screen, but they impounded that as well, as part of the obscenity because that's the thing that the image had played on. And that idea which you get in cinemas that all these things have come to life, all these things have lived there, you don't get that in a multiplex, and I think that's why people behave differently in those cinemas. People do behave differently in different cinemas. If the cinema says to you, "Fuck it, we don't care. It's a bus shelter, do what you want. Talk on your mobile phone, throw things around, kick the seat of the person in front of you, talk through the film. We don't care. There's no one watching it other than you. There's no projectionist. Go ahead." But if you go to a cinema and think, "Someone up there is watching this film, and the person in front of me cares as much about it as I do, let's respect them."

ED: It's kind of a dereliction of responsibility on their part, isn't it?

MK: Yes, and I wish I'd used that phrase. But I will use it now in future and I will credit it as my own.

ED: One of the things I found quite interesting was the way you compared the two news stories of the closure of the UK Film Council and the success of The King's Speech. Do you feel  that those are the only two narratives anyone tells about British cinema? That it's only either dying or coming back to life?

MK: Yeah. In fact I hoped that what that chapter was saying was exactly that. There are two news stories that are hand-in-hand. "Oh, it's terrible." "Oh, it's great!" Of course, the great irony of this is that that's nothing to do with what's actually happening in British cinema, which trundles on in all its many different and diverse and fabulous ways. The British aren't coming or going. The Oscars story and the UK Film Council stories are just the two stories that we all hear.

If you ask people to name great British film directors, they come up with a list of people that make what you think of as "British" films. Ken Russell famously called his autobiography "A British Picture", I don't know whether you've read that, but I'm a huge Ken Russell fan. Tonight, in fact, I'm introducing the director's cut of The Devils on stage at the NFT, which I'll tell you about in a minute, but that's a whole other story.

Ken Russell's mum used to have this phrase; "Is it a British picture?" And what she meant by that was, "Is it full of people doing the washing up, in black-and-white, in Ealing." What she meant was is it not what she thought of as cinema. And Ken, of course, to me is British cinema. The Devils, Tommy, Women In Love. Lisztomania even, if you want. Roger Daltrey riding around on a massive inflatable phallus. The Music Lovers. That's what British cinema is. It's huge and brash and epic, and it's nothing like what Ken Russell's mum thought of as "British cinema". But the reason I put that as the epigraph to that chapter was because people don't think of Ken. I mean, The Devils is a great British movie. To me, that's a great British movie. It's designed to an inch of its life, it's Derek Jarman, as you know. It's an extraordinary work that is both- Have you seen it?

ED: I've never seen it because you can't see the full version anywhere.

MK: No, well, sure okay. So this ties in quite nicely with all this. Also, to do with the relationship between the Americans and the British. It's a British film, right? It's filmed here, it has historical basis, Peter Maxwell-Davies did the score, Oliver Reed's best performance, Vanessa Redgrave on fire. I mean, just on fire. And Jarman, who got the gig because Ken's wife had said, "I've met this guy, you know he's weird, you should go and see him. He's a really interesting designer." And Ken went over to see Jarman in his attic and what he had was this series of vestments, priestly vestments, and they were all made of polythene and they had things sewn into them like money, or all the flotsam and jetsam that had come out from the Thames, and he just said, "This guy's brilliant. He can design it." He had no evidence that he was good, he knew a genius when he saw one.

So they make The Devils, and it's a great work of British cinema, but of course it's a Warner Brothers film. So we have encapsulated exactly the thing; it's a British film, but it's financed by the Americans. That's where the money comes from. And then what happens is the film has all manner of censorship problems. But the censorship problems are not primarily with the British censors. The British censors take a look at some of it, and John Trevelyan sees a rough cut and says that there were things in it that they would really have to take out, and actually one of the censors, Ken Penry, said that there was a point where they thought they were going to ban it outright. But they didn't want to because they understood that Russell was important. Whatever else he was, he was important. So they said, "You're going to have to make these changes."

Then the Americans, the people who financed the film, looked at Russell's rough cut and hit the roof. Russell tells this brilliant story about how they went to a screening of the movie after they'd done the adjustments they'd had to do, and he said the Americans just sat there with steam coming out of their ears, and afterwards he had to go and meet them in their hotel. Well, halfway through the screening Mike Bradsell, who was the editor, realised it was going really badly and said, "Let's just leave." So they left to let them just get on with it. And afterwards they went into the room and, the way Ken tells this story, he walks into this room in the Dorchester Hotel, there were four of them, and they were dressed like gangsters. One of them, who was the lead guy, I'm paraphrasing, but essentially what he said was, "I've been around. I've known people from here to Chicago, and I have never in my life seen the likes of this disgusting shit." And Ken said it was almost like gangsters coming in. And then they said, "Just, no. Sort it out."

Then the cutting started. Of course, in America the film was much more heavily cut than it was here, but by the distributors, not by anyone else. So we knew that there was a couple of key sequences that Ken had always thought were very important, most notoriously the "Rape of Christ" sequence, which has suffered to some extent because it is known as the "Rape of Christ" sequence, which sort of undercuts the seriousness of it. But Ken was very good friends with people like Father Gene Phillips, who was head of the Catholic ratings board. He's a senior Jesuit, he teaches theology at Loyola University [in Chicago], which is a Catholic university, and he had said that whole sequence is valid. Block sequence came out, and also little sequences came out. When I first met Ken, he said it was some of the best stuff he'd ever filmed, and it came out. And I said I'd find it and he just laughed, and I said, "No, it's what I like doing. I like ferreting around looking for things." And I'd been involved in The Exorcist restoration and that sort of thing.

Anyway, years and years and years I made enquiries with Warner Brothers, never going into the vaults, but it's all to do with you asking this person to look for this can and this person to look for this can. Five, six years after I promise Ken, maybe longer than that, we manage to turn up a can which had in it the uncut footage of that whole block sequence and a bit at the end with Vanessa Redgrave's character, and - I describe this in the book - we were in Warner Brothers, and we put the thing on the Steenbeck [editing machine], and Mike Bradsell said, "I recognise the edits." He physically recognised them.

So we restored the edits, we made the documentary Hell on Earth [which can be viewed in six parts on YouTube, starting here]. We had a lot of trouble clearing that to show it on television, but we showed it. And when we premiered the film at a season that Linda [Ruth Williams, PhD.] and I, my wife and I, did at the NFT, which was a history of horror, where we played the uncut version. Warner UK, who have been very helpful, were there, and the BBFC were there, and they all said it was a great, it was a masterpiece. The film got a standing ovation. We recorded a director's commentary for the DVD, we made a little making of. We changed the ending of Hell on Earth to say it's all happening. And then the Americans looked at the uncut versions and said, "Nope." And since then, there's almost nowhere it's been shown and it certainly hasn't been shown on DVD. Now, it got shown at the East End Film Festival just recently, and I'm tonight introducing it on stage at the NFT. Only the second time it's been in the NFT, only the third official screening of it since we did the restoration, which is 2004, 2005. Six years ago. Ken's in his 80s, I mean he's lived with this for a long time, and our hope is that it will finally get released. But that's the classic thing; it's a British film, the problem is it's owned by an American company, and their problems with it...

The argument I've always made is, in the end, it doesn't matter who owns it, it's a British work of art. We should just grab it with both hands and go, "It's a great British film, let us have it. If you're not proud of it, fine, but let us have it here in the UK."

ED: The thing you said about remembering the edits reminds me; I thought the section of the book where you're talking about the tactile quality of film, celluloid, was really beautiful...

MK: Thank you.

ED:...And in fact, just last night, after I finished work I went into the projection booths of the cinema just to smell it, and you're right, it is intoxicating.

MK: It's a smell. It is, I mean it really is, and it's kind of heady. It's camphor and the things that are related to butterfly collecting. Funnily enough I was talking to Bryony Dixon about exactly this. It's the tangibility.With the Steenbeck, you put the thing on, and the contortions that the film has to go through to run through the viewer and all the rest of it, it's like a living thing. And of course, there's a key thing about that which is to do with the rhythms of editing. Editors who edit on celluloid edit physically, they do this [creates the impression of two large, circular tape decks turning back and forth by splaying his fingers and rotating his hands], you do rock and roll like that. Editing digitally is obviously different, because you do it on edit points. Now you can learn to edit digitally in the same rhythms that you would edit celluloid, but you can not do that as well. There is something about the rhythm of film being fundamentally changed by the advent of digital editing. Because you can do something with digital doesn't mean it's bad, what it means is just because you can - and again, that phrase I use from Jurassic Park; "You were so busy thinking about whether you could, you didn't stop to think whether you should." There is something that changed around the time of Avid editing, of people learning on digital.

Now, that's not to say that there isn't a whole emergent artform there, but like anything else it has to find its feet. I mean, I've seen Mike Bradsell sitting at a Steenbeck...it's like, and this is the only way I can think of describing it, it's like watching somebody playing the piano. There's a reason Mike Bradsell is one of the best editors this country has ever produced. You look at Local Hero and you look at The Devils, and you go, "Yep, exactly. Exactly that." Now Mike cuts all of Ken's experimental films, which are all done digitally, and he works digitally, but he still thinks like someone with the physicality of film running over reels. Maybe a better analogy would be it's like watching a drummer. It's a rhythmic thing. It's like watching someone playing an instrument.

ED: It's kind of instinctive as well.

MK: It is, and it's a rhythm. It's a musical rhythm. All great editors have got rhythm, that's how it works.

ED: You talk in the book about how it's nearly impossible for a blockbuster to flop...

MK: Under certain circumstances.

ED:...Under certain circumstances. The thing I found really interesting is that the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie technically underperformed in America, where it's made quite a bit less than its predecessors, but globally it's the sixth most successful film of all time. Which is kind of depressing. There's an argument to be made that Hollywood is starting to aim their films at a more global audience and, notionally, making them more multicultural, do you think that could genuinely happen?

MK: There are certain cases in which you see a Hollywood blockbuster made with a section in which they go to Japan, or a section in which they go to the funding country. Or a section in which that are playing towards that audience. That's true. The tipping point was reached probably 20, 25 years ago when the American box office became less than the world box office. 'Cause you know it always used to be the other way round; American box office was primary.

ED: I think Tim Burton's Batman was the first film where that was the case.

MK: Well, that is the '80s isn't it? So we're in agreement. Obviously there's a business paradigm there which changed it. I think the problem is imagining that what that does is present...I mean, the word 'multiculturalism' sounds incredibly lovely and open, but in fact, in the end, the root of this, if you want to understand that business paradigm, is also best understood with 3D. 3D is doing better internationally than it's doing in America, it's just that the international market is behind the American market. So more people saw that film in 3D internationally, or actually not so here, than they did in America, so therefore it's okay. America's gone off it, but internationally it's fine. No no no no. America got onto it first, and the cycle is dying slightly faster there, and also there is that thing that happened around the time of Waterworld, the opening up of the Pacific Rim. It's a book balancing thing, which is that the market is now big enough that if you throw enough at it, under certain circumstances, it will support your product. And the key thing there is that the world is now a much bigger marketplace than it used to be. So, consequently, with enough marketing you can make anything work.

The interesting question with Pirates of the Caribbean 4 is, firstly, how many people wanted to see it in 2D, but had to see it 3D? Because, as you know, it's partly to do with where you can see a film. People were asking the same question about Harry Potter. You only actually have the choice if you go to a cinema and it's saying, "Which one do you want to see it in?" And it's being pushed a lot harder in 3D in other territories. Also, of the people who saw it, and this is something I tried to ask in the book, how many actually liked it? How many actually went, "Yeah, that was worth nine pounds"? The thing with Pirates 4 is it's not terrible, it's just terribly ordinary. I mean, it's not [At World's End], which is, I think, an abomination. I think it's a really horrible film. It's not 3. But it is just...not good. It's not good, but it's a franchise blockbuster, it's got special effects, it's got Johnny Depp in it, it's got brand awareness. Although when Johnny Depp first started doing that thing they were terrified because he was turning it into a comedy, and they didn't want a comedy because comedy you can really lose your shirt on. Pluto Nash and whatever.

So, I think certainly the marketing people understand that you are playing to a world audience now, and in the end failure in America is no longer failure. It used to be the case that if you failed in America nothing else mattered. That is not the case anymore. I mean, Waterworld demonstrated that, but it's a long standing paradigm. You can recoup in the worldwide market, and DVD sales and TV sales and everything else will balance that up. In the end, everything is an international co-production nowadays. One of the things I was trying to talk about in that British cinema chapter is there is no such thing as a single-country movie anymore, because everyone gets financing from different places. I mean, there's an argument for saying that any film made in England is a British film. The Harry Potter films are not. Well, BAFTA considers them to be British movies. They're British made, British source material, British stars, British special effects people. But they are American because...Well, fine, what are they? What they are is what everything is, they are part of the international marketplace. You can no longer say that an American film is even just American anymore because, you're quite right, they're making it thinking that there are different audience demands in the Japanese market, and there are certainly ways in which they can definitely nail that.

There is also an argument that, in the same way that movies can do well on DVD having been critically kicked around by the press, movies can do well in the international market having been kicked around by the English-speaking press. I think it's lovely that you use the word multiculturalism, I think the word 'globalism' is closer to the truth. It's rather like saying, "Are the banks multicultural?" No, but they can bring the whole world down if they try.

ED: In the book you say that the success of Sex and the City 2, which is a horrible film...

MK: Did you see it?

ED: I did, but I didn't pay to do so.

MK: Sure.

ED: You say that it0s success is an indicator that critics can't affect blockbusters, but it did make noticeably less than its predecessor...

MK: Well, this is to do with the word 'underperforming', isn't it? I'm sorry, if you look at the reviews, it shouldn't have made notably less, it should have burned. Seriously, you saw it. It wasn't just me, though I was particularly cross about it. Although I did begin by saying I that I wasn't going to be cross about it. When you look at the level of vitriol. I mean, I was not the worst in this. There was an online review posted by someone in America [Lindy West's hilariously scathing review on The Stranger] which had been seen by a lot of people. A woman writing about how this was the most misogynist tract she'd ever seen and it was just fearsome. Honestly, if you think I was cross it was unbelievable. It was just one of many. It was very hard to find anyone, anyone who had a a nice word to say about it. Even the usually fairly biddable mainstream glossies, even they said, "It's a bit long and rubbish."

On that evidence that film should have been taken out of circulation, and in fact there's an argument that, say, 50 years ago that's what would have happened, but it doesn't now. What happens is you just front it out. You just go, "I don't care, it's Sex and the City 2." Okay, it underperformed. You know what? It was in my local multiplex for three weeks and demonstrably, around the world, everyone saw it. And now you go into every video store, every DVD store it's there, it's still selling and they're talking about prequels. In a way, what I was attempting to say was if you think we have any power, look at the amount of money that film made, look at the word 'underperforming', and tell me that you honestly think that we damaged the box office. We didn't damage the box office.

What's remarkable is that film took that much money when it's that bad. You've seen it, right? It's not just bad, it's through the looking glass of bad. It's almost like somebody sat down and went, "I'm going to write the most offensively stupid blockbuster I can, and I'm going to see if I can get away with it. I'm actually going to have a scene in which the really rich American woman says to the really poor slave that she's employed that they're on the same plane because she's separated from her really wealthy husband who owns three apartments, and he can only go home to see his wife once every two months, so in fact they're the same! And I'm going to see if I can get away with it without somebody going 'hang on a minute! No no no no no.'" Even the most soft, left, middle-of-the-road liberal, Hampstead dwelling, Spaghetti-eater will have gone, "Hang on a minute, no, that's not on."

ED: This is going back to the UK Film Council. I remember listening to the radio show when you had Steve Woolley on to talk about the closure and he was very...

MK: Indignant.

ED: Yeah, he was talking about it being elitist and insular, because it focuses on a small group of film-makers. Would you agree with that?

MK: Well, I don't know because I never had any dealings with them because I'm not a film-maker. I don't make films. I like Steve very much. One of the things about Steve is he comes out of exploitation cinema. He used to program The Scala which, I don't know where you're old enough- how old are you?

ED: I'm 25 in a week.

MK: Okay. So you're probably not old enough to have ever gone to the Scala, are you?

ED: No.

MK: Okay. Happy birthday.

ED: Thank you.

MK: When I was a kid, or when I was a teenager, the Scala was - I mean, I went to The Phoenix in East Finchley, obviously - but the Scala was the place that showed everything. I mean you could see everything; double bills, triple bills, horror all nighters, weird art movies. It was great. It was like a living, breathing cinema. It was a total pit, and there was a cat that used to walk around the seats to keep the mice and the rats out. And Steve was the person who ran the Scala, and then of course he distributed The Evil Dead. Palace Pictures distributed it on video, and Palace Pictures had the guts to go up against the Obscenity Act. They got tried for obscenity. Evil Dead got tried in a lot of courts, but they fought the case in Snaresbrook and they won. They were like punk rockers. That is what they were like and he comes from that. No matter how many really massive, internationally acclaimed blockbusters Steve is involved with he is still, at the end of it, and this is why I love him, he's that punky hippie who ran The Scala, who went up against the obscenity thing with The Evil Dead, and who has always felt, I think to his great credit, that he is outside of everything.

Of course, he's responsible for this The Devils screening now, because he's a huge fan of Ken Russell. That's why I get on with him so well. As far as the internal politics of the UK Film Council goes, I don't know. All I do know is it's not the end of the world, in the same way that The King's Speech's success isn't the beginning  of the world. As I think you know, it's just the story. It's the story that you read every day. Which one are we on now? It's dead! It's back! It's dead! It's back! It's an endless story and it'll go on for ever, and ever, and ever.

ED: It's like 1984: who are we at war with today?

MK: It's exactly like that, except at least with 1984 there's a kind of perverse logic to it. In the case of the British film industry it's just nonsense. It is just a story. And again, the fact of the matter is the hardest thing in Britain is not getting the film made, the hardest thing is getting it distributed and getting it seen. But I think as far as Steve's concerned, Steve has always felt like an outsider. He's incredibly successful, he's backed many terrific movies. I was with Steve several months ago, standing on a beach in Cornwall, and it's a really sunny day, and everyone on the beach is in swimming trunks or wetsuit and they've got surfboards. Steve is standing on the beach in Doc Martens, a pair of safari shorts and A Clockwork Orange bowler hat, looking for all the world like he's just being Steve. Because that's what he does. And The Scala actually got into problems with Kubrick because they showed A Clockwork Orange when they weren't allowed to, and they got taken to court.

ED: There is a certain sadness when you talk about projectionists taking frames from Blow-Up [Kermode describes how projectionists would take a single frame of an actress' private parts which briefly appeared in a single frame of Antonioni's classic], but it reminded me of a similar thing where we had an original, well maybe not original, but fairly old print of Jaws, and at the bit when Brody was throwing the chum into the water and the shark comes up, there was no shark.

MK: Because they'd taken all the frames.

ED: Which makes the film weirdly existential, since in that context he's afraid of nothing.

MK: Well that Blow-Up thing is interesting because the guy who told me that story is Ronan O'Casey, who of course is the corpse in Blow-Up. When Antonioni first made that film, there was a past, there was a whole back story. He was having an affair with Vanessa Redgrave, and then the film, through the editing, it's just reduced until the point that he's seen as the guy in the park and the next thing he's a corpse.Or is he? Is he there, is he not?

He's the father of a very close friend of mine, Matthew O'Casey, who's a brilliant TV film-maker. He makes great music documentaries, made that documentary recently about Queen, made the documentary about Blondie. Ronan is a real character. He was a very big TV personality here in England, he went over to America and worked in American movies. But that story was told to me by him because, in a way, it sort of epitomised the way that cinema was at that point. It was that lovely sense of - you know that it's when David Hemmings and an actress are romping around. It's one frame, the only people who knew about it were projectionists. The censors just sat and watched it. In the same way that John Trevelyan sat and watched Flesh and said, "Erection? I see no erection!"

ED: Would you say that there's a certain fatalism to the book? Particularly in the prologue and the epilogue?

MK: Do you think that?

ED: That's how I interpreted it.

MK: Okay. Here's what I think. I think there is a genuine sadness about it. I'm not just cross, I am sad. But I also think that ultimately I, in the thing we talked about before, I do feel positive about it. One of the reasons I feel positive about it is that, in the few months since I finished writing [the book] and now, 3D has nosedived faster than anybody could possibly have imagined. And because I meet people like yourself who love cinema. And they do, and as long as we're around, or as long as you're around, I mean you're a lot younger than I am.

But that's it; you're 25, I'm nearly 50, I'm 48. I think we feel the same way. There's cinema and there's that other stuff, right? Well, you're the next generation of people who will carry that forward. It's not like I'm some old aunt sitting around going, "Oh, it's not like it was back in our day when we had proper projectors that broke down and caught fire, like it used to be." There's a whole other generation of people behind us who feel the same way. Who feel that 3D is a con, that multiplex cinemas are eating culture alive, that the way in which the British film industry is portrayed is complete nonsense, and who are also still passionate about it. I haven't given up. I just, as I said at the very beginning, [writing the book] was partly because I needed to get it out of my system, because I did feel put out.

But I hope - certainly in that end stuff - there is a genuine sense of sadness that something has gone, and it has gone. Since I did that interview with Steven Spielberg [Kermode interviewed Spielberg to coincide with his 60th birthday in 2009] he's gone as well! He's gone over to that other side. [In their interview, Spielberg said that he would continue to use celluloid as long as possible, and he would be sad on the day when he had to go digital. His forthcoming Tintin film is a digital production.] But that's why I thought it was particularly poignant quoting him saying, "I will rue the day that I will be forced to convert, but I will convert, and more importantly, my company [Dreamworks] will be at the forefront of the conversion." And in a way, that epitomised it for me, you know? He's really sad about it, but  it's coming, and he's going to embrace it, same as everything else.

The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex: What's Wrong With Modern Movies? is available from all good (and bad) bookstores now. It's really very good.

Watch films online with LOVEFiLM, the UK's largest DVD/VOD service which is now enabled on your PS3/Internet TV and now, iPad. With seventy thousand titles and counting as well as reviews and exclusives with directors/cast there's something for any film lover.

1 comment:

  1. I saw that very same print of Jaws several years ago at the Horrorthon in Dublin.

    ReplyDelete

ShareThis