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Jonathan Clements watches the watch-men

I’ve never met Mark Kermode, but often used to seen him at press screenings, his fifties-throwback quiff circling the pre-film drinks like a shark’s fin. And I’ve often read or watched him, of course, hectoring his co-host about the awfulness or lack thereof of some film or other, or babbling on immediately leaving a cinema, as a sort of experiment to see how his later, considered opinion measures up to his improvised first impressions. And my mum refers to him as That Lovely Mark Kermode, primarily because of something he once said comparing Casablanca and Silent Running.

Hatchet Job, Kermode’s latest book, is not a book of film reviews, but about film reviewing, charting the many odd situations and pressures on the professional critic. Anime only gets a passing mention, but readers of this blog will nevertheless be fascinated by the many practices of the modern movie world, all of which affect Japanese cartoons just as much as Hollywood blockbusters. What actually happens at a movie screening? Who gets to go, and why? Why do some films not get press-screened at all? What kind of difference do critics make? And in a world where so much is given away free, how much is a film review worth?

The book’s greatest achievement is the way it smuggles in an immense amount of posh, post-modern critical theory, without a single buzz-word, name-drop or citation. Like the best of Empire, Kermode puts a populist, accessible front on concepts that lesser authors turn into psychobabble. He mounts an argument for movie reviewing as a conversation, an ever-changing discourse about the film we’ve seen, wondering if it’s ever possible to even have a concrete opinion on a film when we keep changing as viewers. And so, indeed, does the film – Kermode lifts the lid on the infamous two versions of Fatal Attraction, where Japanese audiences got the original Madama Butterfly-inspired ending, whereas the rest of us had to contend with the KILL THE BITCH version cooked up to appease slack-jawed American test audiences. He recounts horror stories of critics who have had to change their minds, and debates the dubious value of being “first” with a review that one later regrets. In a world that so often focuses on production (making-ofs, staff interviews) or reception (what some people think of a film they have seen), he deftly and wittily discusses the often neglected areas of distribution and exhibition – such as how marketing can affect a movie’s performance, or what differences can accrue in a particular cinema on a particular day.

Hatchet Job is an account of two cultures. One is the movie-nerd discourse of “what we talk about when we talk about films”, in which Kermode covers not only the power of reviewers to bring people into cinemas, but also the silent sector of people who wait until after they have seen a film to read the reviews, in order to enter into a virtual “conversation” with a critic – for this very reason, I have been a subscriber not-reading the most recent Sight & Sound for the last 26 years. The other culture is that of movie-reviewers themselves, offering a rare insight into the traditions and protocols, the rituals and behaviours of breeds such as the lesser-spotted Kim Newman and the now-extinct Roger Ebert. This includes, although Kermode is too cunning to scare people off by using the word, a historiography of film writing, in which he charts the way that critics have redefined and reconceived their own role in the process of bringing a film to a viewer. His willingness to focus on the mechanics behind the scenes of distribution also leads to an intricate critique of the algorithms that decide which Amazon review you will see, and the underhand “vote-washing” undertaken by semi-pro critics who stand to be paid in freebies and sub-cultural capital if their reviews get lots of Likes. This is particularly interesting to Kermode (and to anyone who thinks about film) because of its implications as a “fake” conversation, as robots pretend to like the comments of other robots, while movie adverts quote enthusiastic reviews by sock-puppets.

Ever since Joe Queenan’s unforgettable stunt of Being Mickey Rourke For a Day, in which he only said or did things that he had seen Rourke do in films, modern film critics have often pepped things up with little comedy business, and Kermode is no exception. He includes the full text of his Twitter review of Prometheus, which, in a vain attempt to protect fanboys from spoilers, he wrote entirely in mathematical notation. He speculates about the prospects of hiring Rutger Hauer, in his role as the replicant Roy Batty from Blade Runner, to voice the late-train announcements for the 2:35 from Weymouth. And he offers an account of his short-lived brainwave, inspired by Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to insult everyone whose film he hates, to their faces. He is winningly frank about the things he has learned from his own mistakes – the throwaway dismissal of a film that got him briefly blacklisted and; the absurd spy-movie acrobatics required to see Nixon early, which involves a trip on Eurostar and an argument in Franglais with a Gauloise-chuffing ticket gendarme, all so he can “watch a Welshman pretending to be an American, in English, with French subtitles.”

In addition to smuggling in elucidating, jargon-free accounts of memory and commemoration, temporality, discursive genealogy and auteurism, Kermode alludes to the simple pleasure of movie-going, both as an excited participant in packed movie events, and as a lone explorer at a daytime matinee. I, too, have sat in the Odeon Leicester Square with a variety of audiences that have transformed my viewing experience, and not always for the better – the pair of eccentric millionaires (I can only assume they were eccentric millionaires) who paid £20 for their tickets and then talked all the way through Vantage Point. The two Polish prostitutes who decided the best way to get out of the rain was to sit through Apocalypto offering me sinful companionship. And Danny Boyle, director of Trainspotting who was in the same cinema as me watching Inglourious Basterds. I was immensely impressed to see that the would-be-Sir-if-he-hadn’t-said-no national treasure was not above avoiding the freebie screenings that come with BAFTA membership, and instead paying with his own money to see the new Tarantino with the rest of us.

No, I didn’t pester him with an actual conversation, either, but I did eavesdrop on his concise review, imparted to his companion as we left.

“Tee-hee-hee,” he chuckled. “Nazis!”

Hatchet Job, by Mark Kermode, is in shops now.

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