Mark Kermode is not happy. And his discontent is a joy to witness. The centrepiece of his new book about Hollywood blockbusters is a brutally hilarious account of his attempt to see The Life and Death of Charlie St Cloud with his teenage daughter. First he books two tickets online. At the multiplex, the machine denies all knowledge of his purchase. He joins the queue and attempts to buy the seats he’s already reserved. ‘They’re taken,’ says the ‘zombie’ attendant. (‘He was conclusive proof that Darwin had been full of shit, and we were all heading back to the swamp’).
Kermode buys two new tickets (for the price of four) and is then asked for a tub of popcorn by his hungry daughter. Costing a few pence to produce, and on sale for £4.50, the little bucket of detonated wheat is being peddled at a markup of 1,000 per cent. Inside the auditorium Kermode instantly spots that the film is misaligned by several inches. He sets off to alert the manager. What follows is a 25-page comic odyssey which ends with Kermode explaining how to solve the problem and the manager steadfastly refusing to do so.
There is a magnificent serenity to this man’s obstructiveness. He stands as an emblem of corporate ineptitude everywhere. Here’s the problem. He has no loyalty to the communities that generate his employment. He cares nothing for the film-makers, nothing for the distributors, and nothing for the film fans whose custom supplies his wages. When a cinema-goer like Kermode uncovers a difficulty, the manager can find no reason to resolve it because it doesn’t affect him, only the people who created his job. He shrugs aside every claim on his attention until the complaint dies of frustration. He is the enemy of film. And he’s in charge of the film house.
Kermode jokingly describes himself as a ‘xenophobic Luddite’ but he has a passion for foreign cinema. To broaden public taste he examines the possibility of imposing a ‘foreign movie quota’ on British multiplexes. Then he alights on a shrewder policy. Whenever a foreign or subtitled film, like Jean de Florette or The Passion of the Christ, becomes a hit, the multiplexes muscle in and flog as many tickets as the popular market will bear. That custom belongs, by rights, to the independents who risk bankruptcy in their long-running campaign to support imported films. Kermode’s solution is to prohibit multiplexes from showing subtitled films at all and to let the independents clean up when the odd imported title strikes gold.
Kermode would be an excellent movie legislator. He challenges the myth that the recently terminated UK Film Council was a lynchpin of British film. Not only did it support a movie entitled Sex Lives of the Potato Men — which Kermode describes as ‘a crime against our national culture for which the Council should have been burned to the ground’ — but it played absolutely no role in the development of young talent. State-funded institutes are unnecessary.
All the advice a young film-maker needs is contained within Kermode’s book: learn two disciplines— good business practice and respect for the audience’s tastes. To become a success you just need to ‘fund and film a low-budget title that makes its money back’. That’s all. Kermode quotes the director Roger Corman, former guru to Coppola and Scorsese, who summed it up as follows:
No, you can’t have any more money. No, the film doesn’t have to be that long. Yes, you do have to have either an exploding helicopter or a scene in a strip club. After that, you’re on your own.
Kermode is a bracing, witty and charming companion. There’s plenty of anger in him too but it’s tempered by humour and an off-beat, self-mocking magnanimity. His book is a horror story with a heartening moral: do not go to multiplexes. And having read his scathing satire I finally understood, in full, why I haven’t visited one of these garish, geek-crammed misery booths for ten years. They were good years too. I recommend them to everyone.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 10, 2011