Interview: Mark Kermode, film critic

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Left-hand side, ten rows from the back, aisle seat. Art house or multiplex, that's where you'll find Mark Kermode. Not eating popcorn (no noisy food), not holding a chainsaw, despite striking that pose for the cover of his memoir, It's Only a Movie.

What the picture gets right is the distance between Kermode and the rest of the audience. "I don't like noise in the theatre, any form of noise or distraction, even if it's Transformers II and the movie's incredibly bad," he says. "I love being in a movie theatre and seeing a film with lots of other people, but I want them out of my line of vision and I don't want to hear them."

He's laughing, aware how curmudgeonly this sounds, but he's also deadly serious and unapologetic. Movies are his life. Always have been. A few minutes in his company and you twig to the joke. Only a movie?! Why, practically everything he knows about life, Kermode learned in a plush velvet chair.

The critic and his quiff are smaller in person, and I wonder why he's dressed like an undertaker for our meeting at his publisher's. Perhaps it's an homage to his favourite genre, horror. He does, after all, insist that The Exorcist is the greatest movie ever made. His is the vehemence of a fanatic – and that's a compliment, from one movie lover to another.

This intense devotion to film is reflected in his workload. You might know him from his journalism for the Observer, blogs for the BBC, or his radio double act with Simon Mayo (which, almost contradictorily, is also filmed), now twice as long and filling a two-hour slot on Radio 5 each Friday afternoon. Last May they won Gold in the Speech Award category at the Sony Radio Academy Awards, marking the first time that a segment of a programme was so lauded.

You may also know Kermode, voted the tenth most influential film critic by The Screen Directory, from watching The Culture Show, from reading one of his books (he's written two about The Exorcist alone), or his appearances on Newsnight Review and Film 24. Surprisingly, the man before me looks healthy and happy – hard work obviously suits him – if mildly stressed at being on the other end of the recording device.

"As early as I can remember, my life was defined by movies," he writes. This, then, is a version of the story of his life filtered through the movies he saw at the time. He admits that just as people misremember films, he's probably misremembered bits of his life, but says that if the memory persists it evolves its own reality.

"People identify with and understand movies in such strange and personal ways that I do think films, in the end, are like memories, and the way in which you interpret and process those memories..." he drifts off.

Why, I ask him, is the memoir so light on references to world cinema or the history of film, since I know he's thoroughly steeped in the stuff? This earns me a dismayed look.

"Movie history is incredibly important, and one of the things I always try to do with my reviews is to contextualise stuff and put it in a historical context. It's something I get criticised for doing too much. As far as reviewing is concerned, context is everything, but as far as this book was concerned, it was strictly autobiographical.

"The films I saw as a kid were contemporary. It's to do with growing up in north London (in the 1970s]. I grew up on Brannigan, and Jeremy and Slade in Flame. Up until the point when I started going to the Phoenix, which was a rep cinema, what I had seen was almost completely contemporary, and then on television, old Hammer movies like Village of the Damned."

His mum, now retired, was a GP, and his dad a hospital administrator. (After his parents split up, Kermode adopted his mum's surname by deed poll.) His older sister is a medic, but he and his younger brother avoided the family business, though their paths diverged wildly.

"My brother was a brilliant sportsman, captain of the rugby team, whereas it seemed to me if you were on a rugby field that the most sensible thing to do was to run as far as possible from the egg-shaped object, because if you had it, large people in jock straps would stand on your head."

Like all parents, his wanted their kids to find happiness and success, whatever their field of endeavour. "Neither of them was in the film world, or an academic, but they could see from an early age that it was something that made sense to me and something that I was enthusiastic about. I used play in bands that were unlistenable as a kid. That was the point, because this was around the time of the group Television" – he breaks off to imitate guitar white noise. "And God bless them, my parents would come along to gigs sometimes and stand at the back of the room while there was ear-blistering noise going on. That can't have been any fun."

Describing himself as "not much cop at school", Kermode finally got into Manchester University – lured north by the NME's descriptions – where, in addition to his studies, he worked on the student newspaper, taking his first steps toward professional criticism.

It was the mid-Eighties, and, he writes, "I mutated from a snot-nosed NME-reading angsty teenager to a red-flag waving bolshie bore with a subscription to Fight Racism Fight Imperialism and no sense of humour. I also developed an addiction to stern gender politics, which made me both unfunny and unattractive."

It was there, while earning his PhD in English, that Kermode met his wife, the respected film professor and author Linda Ruth Williams. They've been married 18 years, and have a son and daughter, aged eight and 11.

"I was toward the end of my PhD and Linda was finishing hers and doing a fellowship at Manchester. We met when I was having to do a reading from my PhD on horror fiction, and she was there as a representative of the English department. I remember clear as a bell seeing her and thinking, 'I'm just in love with that woman and I want to marry her,' and then for years, her not wanting to go out with me."

How did he persuade her to reconsider? "I just didn't give up. I was fantastically persistent and in the end I think it became easier to say yes than to say no. Then Linda was teaching at Liverpool and I was in London, so for the first couple of years that we were married we lived in different towns."

Is it fantastic or aggravating that they both specialise in film? "It makes me very happy! Linda teaches film, she writes for Sight and Sound, and she's a much more published writer than I am, with a long track record. She wrote The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema, which is a massive work. She's always had the thing that she does, which is quite singular, and she knows the stuff that she likes. I have the stuff that I do, which is not for everybody, obviously, and there's a crossover point, but the thing that joins it is that we're both enthusiastic about cinema and take it seriously.

"The very first film we saw together was Kathy Bigelow's film, Near Dark. I love that film, anyway. Obviously we have an interest in extreme cinema in whatever form. But Linda, if she'd written this book, the first couple of pages would have been about classical Hollywood, because she's much more invested in it. And one of the things I'm most proud of is that my daughter is well versed in Hollywood musicals – Esther Williams, all of that. It's something Linda brought much more to the table than I did. There's been an awful lot of catching up that I've had to do."

Kermode has very clear views on what his job as a critic entails: "Look, here's what I think: when it comes to doing a review of anything, who are you doing it for? Are you doing it for the person who made the thing or are you doing it for the person who's going to experience the thing?

"Could I make a film? No. Could I make a better film than any of the ones I've seen? No. Would I have the first clue about it? No. However, the next thing is the audience comes in to see the film. The critic's job is to respond as an audience member.

"Serious film criticism needs to do two things: it needs to be historically informed because it needs to be contextualised; that's part of the legwork. Next you need to respond to it honestly and openly. If you can't do that then what you're doing isn't worth the paper it's written on. All opinions are subjective, so what's the point in trying to temper them? All you can do is say this is what I like, what I don't like, what I respond to."

He's a feminist, a near vegetarian (he eats fish), a churchgoer and a straight-arrow spouse who just happens to enjoy seeing people's heads explode across a cinema screen. Given that, does he think that we can learn family values or how to live from movies?

"Most of what I knew about the world when I was young I did learn from the cinema. Like religion. You don't obsess about the Exorcist for as long as I have without being interested in religion. I'm not being flippant when I say that Planet of the Apes and films about the underclass rising up are important to me.

"There's a kind of dialogue that goes on sometimes in the media, which is that people see violent films and become violent. It's not true. It's much more about the underlying values of the film. This is what I did my PhD thesis on. To slightly misquote Stephen King, 'many horror films have a moral value that would make a puritan smile'.

"I've seen Hollywood movies that have the appearance of being lovely family movies but in my opinion are pernicious and vile. An awful lot of horror cinema does have very strong morals. Whether or not you think those morals are right or not is another thing. So, yes, I think you can learn from movies, but the way that people respond to movies is so odd and personal that generalising is very dangerous."

Nor can he generalise about film festivals. On the one hand, he abhors Cannes. On the other, he loves Edinburgh.

"My experience of Edinburgh has been seeing films in an environment which I like, in a city which I love, then being able to do the really important thing, which is go into a nice bar and sit and talk to people about it. The thing Edinburgh has always had over Cannes is the culture.

"With Edinburgh, it's as much to do with the city itself. You come out of the Filmhouse and there's the architecture of the place – that is good for your brain. The way in which you respond to films is conditioned to some extent by the way in which you see them.

"Plus, I've had a couple of experiences which have been my favourite experiences of film festivals. Like the time I saw the press screening of Audition, the Takashi Miike film. All I knew (when I went] was that it was Japanese. It starts off as this slightly oddball romantic comedy, and then suddenly turns into the most full-on extreme horror experience ever. I remember literally hiding behind the chair, asking, 'Do you have any idea where this ****ing film is going?' That was profound.

"And I was also at the Edinburgh International Film Festival when they played Gaspar No's Irreversible, and the guy in front of me passed out in his seat and I had to carry him out. It's a brilliant experience being in the cinema when someone passes out, and you bring them up the stairs – clunk, clunk, clunk – and the whole theatre goes, 'The film just killed someone!' There's that heightened sense of, oh God, strap yourself in!"

Funnily enough, that's the same feeling of excitement you get listening to Kermode on the subject of movies.

It's Only a Movie is published by Random House, priced 11.99. Mark Kermode talks about his life in films at the Cameo, in Edinburgh, at 7:30pm on 8 February. To purchase tickets, tel: 0871 704 2052. He appears the following night, 9 February, at Glasgow Film Theatre, visit: tickets.glasgowfilmtickets.org.uk/public/show.asp

&#149 This article was first published in The Scotsman Magazine on 06 February 2010

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