Published on March 24th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Hatchet Job – Mark Kermode
In this new era of Rotten Tomatoes and the amateur Internet movie critic, BBC film critic Mark Kermode asks, ‘Is film criticism a dying art?’
I have been a professional, paid film critic for almost 15 years, and since the explosion of online criticism, I’ve also done a lot of gratis online amateur work. While there is a lot of garbage reviewing from people with more opinion than film knowledge or writing skill, I love the more democratic direction that criticism has taken. British film critic Mark Kermode has been thinking a lot about this, and laid it out in his recent book, Hatchet Job, where he examines the changing landscape of film criticism in the post-Internet world. I’m guessing the audience for such a book is pretty niche, but people like me enjoy reading about the business of film and the ideas behind writing and criticism, so I assume some people are picking it up.
The book goes well beyond the current state of criticism to regale us with stories and anecdotes that pertain to Kermode’s main thesis, as well as some ideas that don’t apply. There are some interesting blurbs and industry nerd stuff, like a bit on how digital theatre conversion has ruined the art of projection. There’s an engrossing chapter on how test audiences give us what we want, not what we need. He postulates that a test audience would have changed the end of Casablanca to have Rick and Ilsa get together in the end. He explores the idea of ‘first past the post’ film reviews, wherein the industry is geared towards posting the first review, not necessarily the best review. And Kermode looks at Amazon’s review system’s strengths and weaknesses, and how such systems (and Twitter reviews) are starting to become part of the marketing of movies.
I enjoy listening to the BBC podcasts of Kermode and his co-host Simon Mayo, but I have to point out how much he goes off track on the show, utilizing Mayo to reel him back in. It’s always absorbing, of course, but it reads a bit differently on the page than it does on the air. Several times while reading the book, I caught myself thinking, ‘what the hell is this chapter about, anyway? Digress much?’
Hatchet Job often handicaps itself by being so all over the place. In one chapter, Kermode starts talking about a person that angrily approached him to chastise him for a bad review he once gave. He can’t place this person’s identity, which leads to several pages explaining what an Alan Smithee is (does anyone reading a book about film criticism not know what an Alan Smithee is?), followed by a bit about the Rocky Horror Picture Show sequel Shock Treatment, and then…um…what were we talking about again? Something about a guy he didn’t recognize? Wait, wasn’t this whole book supposed to be about the current state of film criticism? Where am I? Who are you? What’s happening? The anecdotes are all interesting and he writes in an assured and self-deprecating manner, but it meanders as aimlessly as David Thewlis in Naked. The book should have been called ‘Stream of Consciousness.’
The bigger picture question as Kermode stares digital change in the face: should traditional critics (IE: newspaper critics) be worried about the state of their industry, which is an art in and of itself? Has Rotten Tomatoes and an endless ocean of amateur bloggers started to become an aggregating hive mind? As I said at the start, I’ve seen it from both sides of the fence, and for my two cents, I don’t think it’s bad or good — it’s just different.
Sure, there are a lot of critical standards being misplaced in the fray. One of the biggest 2.0 critics, the Filmspotting podcast, is a wonderful place for lovers of film, even if I’m about to point out what’s wrong with it. The hosts don’t see a wide swath of material, just the movies that are likely to be critically top films that year as well as some good classics. They don’t really ever seek out bad movies; they only see a bad film if they happen to stumble upon one. Any critic worth their salt will tell you that you can learn more from a bad movie than a good one. Even in terms of the back catalogue of film history, they’re all too often heard saying, “Oh, I never saw that.” When one of the leading places that people go for their film education has more holes in it than Swiss cheese, it limits their chats, and it can grate on someone that has spent (wasted?) their entire life writing about every movie they could get their eyeballs on. Ah, but now I sound like a pretentious Kermode parrot.
The flipside is that the amateurs may not always have the writing or viewing background, but many of them have the passion and the intelligence necessary for deep film appreciation. Many amateur sites or podcasts also focus on movies that mainstream critics don’t feature in their papers, like say, horror movies. Features like Filmspotting’s recent Korean auteurs marathon are brilliant. They’ve started some amazing conversations about film, which is what we all want anyway, right? Even this site was started so a group of writers could talk about media that our editors weren’t always covering. This debate is at the heart of Hatchet Job. (As a side note, adding Michael Phillips as a frequent guest to Filmspotting, a critic with an encyclopedic knowledge of film, is a smart idea).
I’m sure I’d be clutching at my chest in panic too if I’d spent decades as a newspaper critic, suddenly awash in all these opinions, but unfortunately, almost nothing in existence is static. Things do change, and we adapt or die. Kermode is smart enough to adapt, though some of his older peers may be going the way of the dinosaur. Either way, Hatchet Job is well worth a read, however meandering it is, if you care about anything I myself have just been prattling on about.