The Critic’s Code

The UK’s foremost film reviewer shares his secrets. Spoiler: humility

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

If phrases like “Altitude Adjusted Lachrymosity Syndrome”, “tinkety tonk and down with the Nazis” and “hello to Jason Isaacs” mean something to you, you’re probably a member of the Church of Wittertainment.

Now, if you have no idea what any of those expressions mean, allow me to explain. “Wittertainment” is the pet name for the BBC flagship radio show Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review. The podcast version of the program is regularly ranked among iTunes’s most popular and has been twice bestowed the Listener’s Choice Award among British podcasts.

One could argue this show couldn’t be anything but successful. The hosts are veteran broadcaster Simon Mayo, a BBC staple since 1986, and Mark Kermode, among the UK’s better-known film critics. A presence in radio, TV (Secrets of Cinema, worth looking for) and print (The Observer), Kermode is the closest a critic gets to becoming a household name these days.

I had a pint with Mark in London last February and barely scratched the surface of the state of affairs in film criticism. He’d just finished touring with his band, The Dodge Brothers, while promoting his book How Does It Feel? A Life of Musical Misadventures. Mark’s answers are long-winded, filled with tangents and quotes, and very entertaining, if not quite suited for print. I did the best I could.

Speaking of your side gig as a musician, do you think having a variety of life experiences has made you a better critic?

When I started out, I had a conversation with Kim Newman (critic for Empire magazine) and asked him what advice he had for people who wanted to get into film criticism. Kim said, “if you haven’t wanted to do this for as long as you can remember, don’t. Because you’ll never catch up.” As you get older, the thrill of kicking a bad movie becomes less interesting. I look back at some of the stuff I wrote when I was younger, it was a lot more acidic. I just don’t feel like that anymore. There are things that still make me furious, like Sex and the City 2, Entourage or the fact no women directors were nominated to the Oscars, but you also become more pragmatic.

The one thing that has made a difference is playing music in a band that accompanies silent films. If you play along with it, you realize the musical rhythm that’s in the film. Beyond that, I still watch films the same as I always did. I cannot more make a film than fly in the air. Also, I don’t know if I’m any good as a critic.

I’ve always thought you try to make film criticism accessible to people. More often than not — particularly in North America — critics seem to be writing for each other.

It’s partially due to ignorance. I never studied film. I always thought the film criticism I wrote was like talking about film in a pub. You should be able to contextualize it, but the language is the same we’re using now, partly because I don’t know any better.

How do you believe the decline of print media is affecting the quality of film criticism?

All the best broadcasters have a background in print. Writing focuses the mind. Nowadays, if you’re somebody who wants to get into print journalism, firstly, it’s harder to get paid work. The second thing is the inclination to go into blogging. Blogging doesn’t tend to have editors. I’ve learned to write because editors corrected my copy. I’ve always said that Quentin Tarantino’s big problem is that he doesn’t have a producer standing over him with a big stick.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve received?

Make your obsession your profession, find the thing you like doing and try to make a living out of it. I remember having a conversation with Nigel Floyd (Time Out’s critic) about the rules of film criticism. He said, “the primary rule is never review a film you haven’t seen”. I replied, “that’s stating the obvious”. “You’d be surprised”, he said.

But the best piece of advice was by Philip French (Mark’s predecessor at The Observer): “You have to love doing it. The moment you don’t, you have to stop”. I’ve been a film critic for 32 years and I’ve seen critics that become embittered by the industry and look at films with a weary heart. You have to go into every single thing hoping for the best.

Do you have any blind spots in your film education?

My mom was a general practitioner and used to say, “the more you know about medicine, the more you realize how little you know”. When I was young, I used to say, “I’ve seen everything!” Now I realize the vast hinterland of cinema and there is no time to see it all. Being so confident about knowing things is part of being young and stupid.

Do you ever think you could do a better job making a movie?

No. The worst film I’ve ever seen I couldn’t have made. It’s a fundamental error for critics to think they know better than filmmakers. If you buy a table and one of the legs is wonky, my job is to say, “this isn’t a good table”, not to build another one. Willem Dafoe came on the radio show and we were discussing Antichrist, the Lars Von Trier film. I said, “it’s a film about misogyny and the demonization of women”. He said, “no, it isn’t, it’s what critics think it’s about”. I replied, “here is the thing, Willem. You were in the film, but I watched it.”

You seem to be good at compartmentalizing: You have friends like Kenneth Branagh and William Friedkin, yet are also able to review their work impartially.

Anyone who makes anything knows it’s imperfect. They also understand that, in the end, it doesn’t matter what critics think but what the audience thinks. You try your best to be honest and write in a way that’s engaging and eloquent. Sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don’t. People say critics have no idea what is like to be reviewed. I have. I had eight or nine books published, three or four CDs. Like Steve Coogan says, you can’t get too excited about good reviews because it empowers the bad ones.