Saturday, 22 September 2012

Review: The Good, The Bad and the The Multiplex by Mark Kermode

[Photo Credit: Jorge Royan]

If you hadn't ever listened to Mark Kermode's radio reviews, you would be able to predict the tone of his latest book by its subtitle: 'what's wrong with modern movies?'.  The magic of the man is that what might simply be a Grumpy Old Man rant (and it certainly is that) manages to remain wonderfully entertaining.

Kermode (or 'The Good Doctor', as he is often called on his Radio 5Live show) ostensibly turns his attention to a different topic in each chapter: multiplex cinemas, the role of the critic, the British film industry, 3D movies, and so on.  In actual fact this only provides a sliver of fixed ground from which he can roam freely, spinning off anecdotes and name-dropping movies, directors and actors at a quite mind-boggling rate.  Suffice to say in chapter one, which purports to be a story about a trip to a multiplex to watch a Zac Efron movie (we like Zac Efron, we do not like multiplexes), it takes 28 pages of diversionary activity (and, to be fair, descriptions of queuing) before we even make it to the cinema screen.

It's hard to know where to start in listing the most entertaining of these anecdotes.  There's the rant about Sex and the City 2, but even as a book enthusiast I can't pretend it matches up the original radio version (see below).  There's the surprising but well argued defences of Zac Efron and Twilight ("One of the proudest moments of my life was being mentioned on a Twilight fan site as 'a rare example of a grey-haired weird bloke who actually gets our movie'").  Just flicking back through the book now, there's barely a page that doesn't have something to make you smile.

Obviously, it's these diversionary moments which make the book so enjoyable.  It's remarkable how interesting the driest of topics (the history of projectionists, for example) can become when they are being narrated by someone with the perfect combination of passion and skill.  Equally, as the film titles come thick and fast (and, increasingly, in Swedish) there's the combination of a bewildered desire to keep up and rare moments of achievement when you finally come across a film you recognise (double points if you've actually seen it; quadruple if you agree with the Good Doctor's diagnosis).

So entertaining is the prose, you can easily find yourself beginning to feel passionate about topics you never even knew existed.  It does seem unfair that ageing projectionists are being replaced by machines!  Of course obscure foreign films deserve more recognition!  All modern blockbusters are terrible!  It's only when you stop to think (at least in my case) that you realise that, if you only occasionally go to the cinema to watch a Hollywood film in your local Vue multiplex, you're probably part of the problem.

That being said, the book is full of arguments which are so sensible that you wonder why you hadn't thought of them before.  Personally, my favourite chapter is the discussion of the modern blockbuster as being more about the 'event' than the film - people don't go to see The Dark Knight Rises or the latest Harry Potter film because of the film, they do it because it's all over the news, not to mention on every cinema screen (you might make a similar point about book blockbusters, although books are less successful in general at busting blocks).  As Kermode notes, in a climate where studios can guarantee a film's success by spending enough money on explosions, actors and adverts, it's a tad dispiriting that they use this complete commercial freedom to make endless sequels of Transformers.

When they're spelt out, it's easy to see the crippling problems with cinema at the moment - audiences have to pay increasing amounts to watch uninspiring films in understaffed and underfilled cinemas.  The solutions he proposes - that funding is diverted from film production to (independent) cinemas, and that audiences vote with their feet to support quality film making, are equally obvious.  The only problem might be that people simply don't care enough, when it's much easier to pay a tenner a month to watch Batman with your friends. Maybe a few more wonderfully passionate advocates of cinema might change our minds.

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