By Adam Roche
Reviewing a reviewer is certainly an odd position to find yourself in. I’ve been a Mark Kermode fan since his Radio One days, before listeners to that station were saddled with the inane ramblings of James “This new Matthew McConaughey comedy is the funniest movie of all time” King. Still, if I want to hear a Kermodian rant, there’s always the safe haven of Five Live, which plays host to Kermode and Simon Mayo’s film reviews on a Friday afternoon, and also provides the most entertaining movie podcast available.
Despite having followed Kermode’s rants and advice for the past decade or so, I knew relatively little about the man himself. Outside of his reviews, Kermode has done wonders to shed light on various crimes against film that would otherwise now be part of history. He championed a new cut of ‘The Exorcist’ (his favourite movie), which went some way towards the public getting The Version You’ve Never Seen, as well as creating the definitive documentary on the movie itself, ‘The Fear Of God’, available as part of the DVD release.
Closer to my heart, he has campaigned tirelessly for the re-release of Ken Russell’s inflammatory masterpiece ‘The Devils’, the only stumbling block being Warner Brothers’ ignorant refusal to release it on DVD. Kermode even went as far as to restore the most controversial pieces of the film, once thought lost, and to produce a fantastic film about the process of doing so: ‘Hell On Earth’. That Warner Brothers still refuse to let the public see this astonishing classic, despite its having been cleared by British censors years ago remains a source of constant irritation for myself, let alone Kermode. Luckily, the film is available from, shall we say, dubious sources?
And so to Kermode’s newest project, ‘It’s Only A Movie’. To be clear, this is not an autobiography, rather a memoir, a recollection of some of the most bizarre episodes in his life, tied of course to the films that surrounded them. We are given scant insight into his family life, other than that he has an extraordinarily long-suffering wife with whom he is very much in love. He talks briefly of his musical projects, even though his band The Dodge Brothers seem to occupy large amounts of his time nowadays. In short, if you’re looking for the definitive document about the man, from the man, this isn’t it. What it is, is a warm, genuinely funny account of the crazy life of a film critic.
We accompany Kermode as he traverses the wilds of Russia and the Ukraine in order to produce a set report from a low budget multinational horror movie, that results in injury and an encounter with Mr Nyet, the most unfriendly man in the history of history; sit stunned alongside Kermode as he attempts to interview a recently shot Werner Herzog; recoil as he recounts his being handbagged by Helen Mirren in the middle of the BAFTAs. Do we learn anything? Yes. Perhaps that the life of a movie critic isn’t just canapes at Cannes. It can be attempting to sleep on a piss covered mattress, on a train somewhere on the Ukraine border. It can be that the lower the budget of a movie, the nicer the director. It could be that the cup of tea you make for your boss at the magazine, if good enough, might enter his ‘Tea Chart’ at number four if you’re lucky. It could be that just because you’re a famous critic, doesn’t mean you won’t stay in a hotel room where the couple next door like to knock on your wall all night. With their headboard. It could be that ‘Piranha Women In The Avocado Jungle Of Death’ might just be an overlooked masterpiece. And then of course, it might be that Ken Russell is the worst person in the world to interview in front of a live audience. Glamorous it aint.
Told in a frank, conversational style, ‘It’s Only A Movie’ is a joyous recollection of horrors, suffused with Kermode’s dry wit and self-deprecating humour. Here is a man who still can’t quite believe his luck. Quite frankly, after listening to this, Kermode deserves his place as the nation’s most beloved movie critic. He tells of his university days as a Trot, his break into magazine writing, and his early days of radio, as well as the longstanding Odd Couple relationship with Simon Mayo, who, and I have to agree with Kermode on this, is the finest broadcaster this country has.
If there is one fault, it’s that Kermode does tend to believe in the maxim that one plus one equals half. His dialogue regularly reads like a Grisham novel:
‘Are we travelling on that train?’
‘That train there?’
‘That train there’
‘Do you mean to tell me that we are travelling on that train in front of us?’
…and so on. After a while it does grate, but doesn’t really detract from the pace of the book, even though it does feel at times as though he was trying to bump up his word count slightly. The point is almost redundant anyway. At the book’s beginning, Kermode himself apologises for making everyone in the book sound as though they’re talking like him.
An essential read for Kermode fans, and a wonderfully warm read for anyone with an interest in movies, ‘It’s Only A Movie’ is light fare, but hugely enjoyable. Here’s hoping the BBC do the smart thing and give him the Film 2010 job.
Oh, and hello to Jason Isaacs.
It’s Only A Movie is out now, and is published by Random House
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