What's the point of movie criticism?by Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson / March 4, 2014 / Leave a comment
Why do critics insist on interpreting even masterpieces like Rear Window as if they were little different to plays that simply happen to be screened in cinemas?
Popular film criticism, a stalwart of newspapers and weekly magazines for nearly a century, is a difficult art. Stray too far into film theory and one risks losing all but a niche audience. Err too closely towards the predictable and the critic begins to sound like any other opinionated member of the audience. We want reviews which tell us something smart and surprising, but we also want to be amused and untaxed.
The internet has made the critic’s job all the more difficult. The variety of online writing on film is almost limitless, with every taste catered for: from disposable fan-kitsch posts about Star Wars and Disney Princesses, to long and insightful blog posts about the actor George Sanders, or the strained production of John Carpenter’s sci-fi classic The Thing. Given this abundance of writing, what audience is left for weekly film critics? What purpose do they still serve?
It is to these questions that Mark Kermode addresses his latest book Hatchet Job (Picador, £16.99). Kermode is a one-man movie-criticism factory. Whether you prefer to read, watch or listen to movie criticism, he has all the bases covered. His blog “Kermode Uncut” provides Youtube-length videos with a distinctively film-nerd sensibility, his BBC Radio 5 show Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review offers a two-hour slice of light-hearted movie chat each week, he is chief film critic for The Observer and he occasionally writes more pensive pieces for Sight and Sound. Such breadth of experience suggests that Kermode would be able to grasp all the gauzy threads that link film, journalism and the internet, and pull together a discernable judgement. Regrettably Hatchet Job falls short.
Kermode vacillates between worrying about being an “elitist” and asserting that film-criticism provides something worthwhile to the public. As a result, he infuses Hatchet Job with a tone that says “don’t mind me, I’m just a regular bloke here who likes movies.” When Kermode comes close to making a claim about the beauty or significance of a film—exactly what we expect from a critic—he often relapses into what is either mock-humility or a genuine paroxysm of self-doubt. After listing his ten favourite films he states,…