Mark Kermode Interview

July 31st, 2012

Saying you ‘met the commode at a music festival’ is a seldom used phrase to cleverly convey the spiritual experience of using the facilities at such events. At Larmer Tree Festival however, with its award winning toilets and popular Film Club presided by England’s most enigmatic film critic, it takes on a completely different meaning.

As he had popped to the press garden every morning to steal wi-fi, I was able to secure a golden opportunity for an extended chat with the man who was present when Werner Herzog got shot in the pelvis by an air rifle. But before we got underway with our mammoth conversation on film, I had to compliment the good Doctor for being the only entertainer I’ve seen thus far who’d donned welly boots and a waterproof coat.

“The fact is that there is no other alternative,” said Kermode. “I’ve been to Larmer Tree for six, seven years now – we’ve been doing the film club here I think four or five years – and this is the muddiest it’s ever been.”

Surprisingly not the wettest, but that’s not a statement me or my shoes are likely to argue with as we both trek across terrain comparable to that of a giant chocolate ice cream cone. I tell him this.

“Yeah and you know what’s going to happen is that tomorrow that is going to dry out and it’s going to become very suctiony mud. I remember a couple of years ago when it was very very wet, was kind of Glastonbury wet, and I was walking across the main arena on the Sunday morning and there was a shoe which had stuck in the mud, and the mud had dried and crusted around it. It was like a little monument to what had been going on.”

But we digress. The Film Club is an event that runs throughout the 5 day music and arts festival, with the retro spectacles and their wearer introducing a variety of movies all unified under a single theme. With many years of the fest under his belt, I had first imagined up a whimsical story in my head of Mark coming to serve his love of skiffel music, and forming his film club purely out of the maddening frustration of being forced to survive five days without watching, discussing or ranting about any movies. In reality its history was more orthodox, being the natural follow on after he presented a number of single films, including one on stage with the late great Ken Russell.

Since then the Film Club has now become a staple of the Larmer Tree Festival, with this year’s run the most widely attended to date. Even The Artist, the most recent film on offer, required attendees to arrive more than half an hour beforehand for front row seats. I know because I was first in line for it.

OK, I was fifth.

Though the theme for this year’s film club was sound and vision, there was a heavy emphasis on silent movies. The critic first discovered the suitability of silent cinema for festival revellers when he introduced Robert Ziegler and his orchestra in their live accompaniment to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger at Latitude many years ago. And indeed his skiffle quartet The Dodge Brothers, who’ve played many times at Larmer Tree, provided the music for a screening of the Louise Brookes movie Beggars of Life in 2010. And though this year’s run featured obvious references like The Artist, Blackmail and Mel Brooke’s Silent Movie, there were some more subtle silent features programmed as well.

“There’s that fantastic opening segment of Wall-E where it is basically like a silent film. There’s a lot of sound but no dialogue, it owes a lot to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. And we showed Eraserhead as the late night Saturday screening on Saturday night because that’s a film which you can close your eyes and just be overwhelmed by the images because of the soundscape, because of Alan Splet’s extraordinary work.”

Ah David Lynch. Having once been ‘slapped’ by a reader for a bad review he’d written on the classic Blue Velvet, the quiff bequeathed critic has had an interesting history with the surrealist director, whose life is as wonderfully strange as his works.

“I interviewed David Lynch, interviewed him a few times, but once I interviewed him over at his house where he was doing the sound mix on Inland Empire, and I said ‘You know there’s a story that when Alan Splet died you had his ashes built into the mixing desk, is that true?’ and he went ‘yeah, there he is’ and he gestured to the mixing desk and there was a plaque with Alan Splet‘s ashes, some of them, built into the mixing desk so that when he mixed he felt that Alan’s spirit would come up through the mixing desk and continue to inspire his work. I think that’s a wonderful thought.”

Proudly heralding The Exorcist as his favourite movie and sporting an English PhD with a thesis in horror fiction, it’s surprising that the fifties throwback reviewer has never shown a horror movie at the Film Club. Though it’s not a full bloodied gore fest, he has finally broken this run it this year however with the Spanish language scary movie, The Orphanage.

“In the case of El Orfanato…it’s a film in which that tension, that anxiety, that atmosphere and of course in the end that sense of celebration and resurrection comes at least as much from the soundtrack as it does from the images.”

After he cited the film’s premiere at Cannes, where the film’s producer Guillermo del Toro had lifted the director half his size on his shoulders (a perfect metaphor for how the film would be received), I had to ask what Mark imagined The Hobbit would have turned out like had it not slipped from its original Mexican director’s grasp into more familiar hands.

“It’s very sad, I remember I was in London, and I saw Guillermo down Waldoor street, and of course I’ve met him several times. And I rushed across the street because he is one my heroes, I think Pan’s Labrynth is just a masterpiece, and I said ‘How you going?’ and he said ‘well, I am going’. And I said ‘what you mean?’ and he said ‘I am going to New Zealand.’ And I said ‘wow! How long you gone for?!’ and he went ‘yeah I’m gone for two years’. And I said ‘are you literally going now?’ and he said ‘yeah this is us packing up and we’re going’. And then he said ‘two years is a long time, but at least at the end we’ll have The Hobbit…’”

Bridging the conversation to film in general, I wanted to address the points made by Kermode in his latest book The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex. A great portion of an interview he’d done on BBC news not too long ago had been spent trying explain why Pirates of The Carribean: At World’s End was a terrible movie, a notion the anchor found difficult to comprehend, which in turn was a notion Mark found difficult to comprehend. In the end, he pinned it down to a case of diminished expectations.

“I have never before come across a movie that so clearly demonstrated that box office is no indication of enjoyment: loads of people went to see Pirates 3, loads of people thought Pirates 3 was rubbish, and if you want to know whether it’s any good and you wanted to judge by box office, get people to pay on the way out. I said this in the book. There was a British movie that did do that, it was called Jack and Sarah, and it wasn’t great but it was what it was; it was a little rom-com with a melancholic twist, and the distributors of that film took a punt on it and said ‘you know what? Love this movie or your money back’. And that film made money.”

After the life changing experience that was The Room live screening, and having never seen Mark mention it on his blog or in any interviews, I had to ask if he’d seen and soaked in the awfulness of a film wildly touted as ‘The Citizen Kane of bad movies’. He hadn’t, so naturally the next question was whether he’d want to.

“The problem with it is, most of the films that are so bad they’re good are actually bad, and when you’ve waded through as many Troma movies as I have, you start to lose patience. Somebody came up to me the other day and said ‘there’s a new DVD of Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, and you’re quoted on the front cover’, which I’m very proud of, cause all those movies – Surf Nazis Must Die, Toxic Avenger, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers – of all of them, Pirahna Women as it was called in England, is the good one. That’s the one that’s funny, and I can say that because I’ve watched all the other ones.”

As a final question, I posed a scenario to Mark Kermode, a kind of reverse of his latest critique on screening clips of films before their completion: Imagine you were approached by a film company to watch one of their upcoming movies, and then record your thoughts which would then be used as the film’s trailer. Would this be a good idea?

“No. Nobody in their right mind would go and see a film because I told them it was a good idea. In fact, I guarantee you I would kill it stone dead. I have a reputation; if I ever see a film that I really love and I meet the people that make it and I say ‘oh it’s great, it’s going to be a huge hit’ and then that’s it. That’s the curse of Kermode.”

Words > Graham Ashton

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You can listen to the full audio version of the interview below:


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