REVIEW by Craig Thomas

NWR Issue 103

Hatchet Job

by Mark Kermode

The rise of the internet has seen the field of film criticism expand exponentially. Nowadays, everyone with a keyboard (or touch pad, mobile phone etc) can post their own review directly after, or even during, a movie. This is something Kermode is not entirely satisfied with.

Not only has the expansion led to an unprecedented level of dross floating about, but it also moves to undercut the market value of professional critics. Whether writing as a hobby or for ‘something to put on their CV’, unpaid content production is driving down the value of said content and the apparent need to pay someone for their work. Thus, by creating content for free in the hope of one day gaining one of the coveted paid positions, writers themselves are helping to systematically remove such positions.

In addition to this, it is his contention that the world has become obsessed with being first. Not right, but first.

Facts, accuracy and considered appraisals of films are all now all secondary concerns. But what value does being first add to anything? Very little, Kermode concludes, whilst adding that it can be actively harmful.

One extreme example of this was when a relatively high profile film blogger received an early copy of the script for Ridley Scott's (sort of) Alien prequel, Prometheus. Going through, he wrote about the draft in detail, effectively critiquing the film before it had even been made.

Not only was this a somewhat absurd state of affairs, but the script turned out in fact, to be hoax. The eagerness to have a world first led to the blogger being duped and the reputation of critics being damaged.

Yet Kermode does not exempt the professionals in the print media, himself included, from criticism. He points out how even the best critics can be wrong and often it is time that makes this clear and allows one to reassess a work and to appreciate it fully. Again, being first does not mean better.

Kermode does not shy away from self-criticism. He speaks of times where he has been too quick to judge, or has been overly harsh on a particular film-maker for comedic effect, and demonstrates this through a number of highly amusing and cringe-inducing anecdotes.

Yet the author is not unrelentingly critical. He is at pains to point out the value of a well considered review, notably those of the late, great Roger Ebert.

He uses Ebert, a keen adopter of the internet, to examine the difficulties facing the print industry in general. With companies still struggling to monetise online content, Ebert made sure all his reviews were still available for free, even when the newspaper for which he wrote, put up a paywall. Ebert knew the importance of maintaining his dedicated following. Though, Kermode laments, this is not an option for most critics.

Whilst there are a lot of problems facing film criticism, it is not all doom and gloom. For all his scepticism of technological diktats (such as what Kermode regards to be the imposition of 3D and digital projection, as covered in his previous book), the author fully embraces what he sees to be the positive aspects of the internet revolution.

He is humbled by how many more people around the world can (and choose to) experience the BBC Radio 5 Live, Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, with the advent of podcasts and Youtube.

He has eagerly embraced the potential for making his job a two-way conversation. Aside from responding to e-mails sent during the show, he has his own blog, Kermode Uncut, where he praises the thoughtful and thought-provoking responses received for each video and question he posits. He believes it to be a learning experience for both himself and the contributors, who often have a specialised knowledge in certain fields, making it possible for detailed and civilised conversations.

In the end, Hatchet Job’s conclusion is unsurprising. Yes, there is a need for film critics and yes, there is a future, though of what kind depends on numerous factors. He believes strongly in his role as a critic and feels he and others provide an important service, (though the effect reviews have on film attendance is another matter).

For anyone interested in films or film criticism, this is an essential read. For those not particularly interested in either topic, this is worth picking up if just for the writing style. A blend of self-effacing humour and perceptive insights make this an enjoyable, easy to read, informative work. Hopefully, the hatchet will not fall for many years to come.

Craig Thomas received his undergraduate degree in history from Swansea University, my Masters in politics from Goldsmiths, University of London and currently lives in south Wales.


previous review: Word on the Street
next review: Spool by Robert Cole


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