It seems to me that 'Westworld' is a terrific name for a multiplex cinema chain: a name which combines a cineaste's sense of modern movie history with a refreshing honesty about what to expect from a trip to your local ten-screener. Think about it: in Westworld the customers cough up huge amounts of money in order to escape from the humdrum reality of their everyday lives and to experience excitement, adventure and really wild things, all without the attendant risks to their person of doing any of those things for real. Their safety and enjoyment are guaranteed by the high-tech nature of this futuristic amusement park, in which everything is controlled by machines and computers that are activated from a distance by the management, who are notably unable to come to anyone’s assistance when everything goes pear-shaped and Yul Brynner’s electronic gunslinger starts putting holes in the park’s visitors. Next thing you know the fun’s over, the pain’s kicked in, everyone’s screaming and someone’s missing the top of their head. As a metaphor for the state of the 21st-century multiplex experience, I’d say that’s pretty damned hard to beat.
Sometimes, what you want is a polemic: a gloriously over-the-top flight of ultra-opinionated fancy that doesn't so much dismiss alternative views as chop them up into tiny pieces and then run a steamroller over them. Multiple times. While cackling.
Which I had an inkling I might get from The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex (2011), it being a book written by Mark Kermode and all. As a film critic, Kermode is smart, incisive and engaging, but above all he's passionate - a man whose "huge flappy hands" (as The Thick of It once put it) tend to end up waving in the air with the force of his conviction. His love of film is utterly infectious, and when his enthusiasm is aroused he bestows it liberally, whether it's on high-brow arty subtitled stuff or, er, Mamma Mia. Equally, Kermode's rants about films he dislikes are legendary, and I think it's fair to say are not a small part of the reason why the weekly film review show (aka 'Wittertainment') he does on BBC Radio 5 with Simon Mayo has such a huge international audience. A favourite of many is his take on Sex and the City 2 [link to YouTube video footage], a film he dubs "consumerist pornography", and which - after an initial, weary disavowal at the start of the review ("You're not going to get a rant on this") - has him so wound him up after six minutes of discussion that he ends up bursting into song. Specifically, leftie anthem 'The Internationale'.
It's all marvellously entertaining, and so too is the book. On one level it's a distillation of many of the themes he's been talking about for years: the role of film critics, the imminent death of 3D, the decline of the cinema-going experience, his adoration of Zac Efron, his loathing for Michael Bay ("the reigning deity of all that is loathsome, putrid and soul-destroying about modern-day blockbuster entertainment"). The discursive, digressive, anecdotal style is also familiar from the radio show; the first chapter spends fifty pages telling the story of a single cinema trip, because Kermode repeatedly derails himself, sparking off from glancing references in the main narrative to tell faintly 1001 Nights-style stories-within-stories about smashing up his laptop, the marvel that is Zac Efron's hair, the history of the studio system, and the latitude afforded to star power as exemplified by late-career Marlon Brando's antics on the set of The Island of Dr Moreau:
Apparently Marlon liked Richard [Stanley, the director], but when when co-star Val 'Boring' Kilmer got him fired for being weird, Brando carried on picking up the pay cheques and enjoying the catering whilst wearing an ice bucket on his head. (Don't take my word for it; watch the film. No, on second thoughts, just take my word for it.) Too lazy to learn his lines, Brando insisted on wearing (along with the ice bucket) an earpiece through which a script assistant could prompt his slurred speech, a trick he'd learned on The Formula. Unfortunately, according to co-star David Thewlis, Brando's earpiece also picked up police radio transmissions, which caused Dr Moreau to observe thoughtfully that a robbery was taking place at Woolworths in the middle of a meaningful soliloquy.
But the book is also an extended examination of the legacy of the film industry's - and cinema chains' - continual drive to cut corners, avoid risk, and bank on the sure-fire hit. Like Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (another massively enjoyable polemic), although with rather more of a focus on the consumer experience than on crazed individual personalities within the industry, Kermode aims to explain why so many of the films occupying screens at your local multiplex, especially over the summer, are lowest-common denominator tosh. He also spends quite a bit of time on the question of why the cinemas we watch this tosh in are so under-staffed - and the staff who do remain so under-qualified and/or under-paid - that while you can always buy multiple types of popcorn and buckets of fizzy-drink-flavoured ice, if the sound drops out when your film is halfway through, no-one in the damn building is capable of correcting the fault.
This happened to me once half an hour from the end of - yes - Transformers 2. The manager eventually offered that disgruntled patrons could cross the corridor to join another screening of the same film, which had startedabout 45 minutes after ours. I opted for the refund, because by that point no power on earth could have compelled me to sit through that bollocks again, just for the sake of seeing the ending. At a guess, it probably involves more shaky-cam explosions, gratuitous shots up actresses' skirts, and racist caricature robots, and frankly life's too short.
A good question, of course, was why I plonked down my money to see Transformers 2 in the first place, when I knew full well it was probably going to be like that (even if I hadn't quite grasped the scale of its that-ness). Kermode's explanation is that there's a sort of Stockholm syndrome going on; we've learned to, if not love, then certainly put up with, largely rubbish summer films, because that's what we've been trained to expect:
Here are three absolute truths:
1. The world is round.
2. We are all going to die.
3. No one enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.
Oh, I know loads of people paid to see POTC3 (as I believe it is known in the industry). And some of them may claim to have enjoyed it. But they didn't. Not really. They just think they did. As a film critic, an important part of my job is explaining to people why they haven't actually enjoyed a movie even if they think they have. In the case of POTC3, the explanation is very simple.
It's called "diminished expectations".
Kermode being Kermode, he doesn't stop there; he glosses 'diminished expectations' as
the cinematic equivalent of long-term deprivation of the basics of a civilised existence. They are the multiplex dwellers who have become used to living in the cultural freezing cold, whose brains have been addled by poisonous celluloid asbestos, and whose expectations of mainstream entertainment have been gradually eroded by leaky plumbing and infestations of verminous pests.
They are the Audiences of the Apocalypse.
Mainstream films these days, he argues, pretty much always make money - quite a lot of money - in the long run. Even fabled flops like Kevin Costner's Waterworld claw their vast production and publicity budgets back eventually, thanks to the rise of the home entertainment market. However terrible, however critically derided an 'event' film is, the combination of a) 'bankable' stars (actors and actresses that people will pay to see regardless), b) 'opening wide' (i.e. a massive distribution push on the opening weekend, so the terrible film is showing in the biggest number of screens possible before word-of-mouth can get out about terrible it is - a trend that, as Biskind noted in Easy Riders, really took off in the 80s), and, if necessary, c) notoriety can still push a film into the black. You might not go to the cinema see a film you've heard is hilariously bad, but you might well rent the DVD one evening with some friends for a chuckle over a bottle of wine or three.
Kermode is well aware of the irony: critics like himself ranting about a bad film almost certainly contribute to that film's success, because all publicity is a sales pitch, one way or the other. Nonetheless, for him, this doesn't undermine the role of film critics, because film criticism is ultimately about, well, being opinionated:
I don't think critics should do the job of telling you which movies to watch. Or what you should think about them. No, I think critics should do the job of watching all the movies and then telling you what they think about them in a way which is honest, engaging, erudite and (if you're lucky) entertaining.
This is not, he says, simply a case of critics being elitist, "applying highbrow criteria that cannot and should not be applied to good old undemanding blockbuster entertainment". Elsewhere in the book he explicitly celebrates the methods and output of shlock-meister Roger Corman. Corman was a direct and formative influence on the likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone; all worked under him at various times, obliged to stick to principles that Kermode summaries as,
1) No, you can't have any more money.
2) No, the movie doesn't need to be that long.
3) Yes, you do have to have either an exploding helicopter or at least one scene in a strip club.
4) After that, you’re on your own - knock yourself out.
Corman believed that the best way to encourage new film-making talent was to find people who loved avant garde international cinema and were desperate to be the next Ozu, Fellini or Antonioni, and then set them to work making Carnosaur 2.
The problem, he argues, is that we've learned to accept films that lack even the creativity and energy of exploitation cinema: insultingly stupid, bland, test-screened-to-within-an-inch-of-their-pixels studio products aimed squarely at the tastes of particularly dim 12-year-old boys (or occasionally girls; bafflingly, outside of pink-infested straight-to-video Disney sequels, girls have never really been seen as money-spinners by film studios, although presumably the screeching success of Twilight will lead to more equal-opportunities tosh in future. Yay?). This isn't to say that there's no place for kids' - or teenagers' - films, just that not all films need to assume their audience has no interest in following an adult conversation that isn't interrupted by an explosion. (Still less an adult conversation between - gasp - two women that isn't about a man.) Central to Kermode's case is the argument that the mainstream film industry can - and sometimes does - do better with its summer blockbusters. It just doesn't choose to.
The problem with movies today is not that "real" cinema-goers love garbage while critics only like poncy foreign language arthouse fare. The problem is that we've all learned to tolerate a level of overpaid, institutionalised corporate dreadfulness that no one actually likes but everyone meekly accepts because we've all been told that blockbuster movies have to be stupid to survive. Being intelligent will cause them to become unpopular. Duh! The more money you spend, the dumb and dumberer you have to be. You know the drill: no one went broke underestimating the public intelligence. That's just how it is, OK?
Well, actually, no. You want proof? OK. Exhibit A: Inception.
Now, I don't share Kermode's adoration of Inception. It's fun and stylish and I definitely felt a certain awe the first time I saw it when I paused for a moment, late on, to consider just how many plates Nolan has spinning at once. Still, it's not especially challenging, really, and its treatment of its female characters is only a little less appalling than any other summer film's. Yet there's no doubt that it's smarter and funnier than your average blockbuster. It does expect its audience to remember more than one plotline at once, it doesn't telegraph its ending from seconds past its opening, and it plays confidently, convincingly and entertainingly with a much bigger world than many science-fiction-in-name-only 'epics'.
Even when Kermode is not entirely persuasive, though, there is more than enough in here to amuse and inform; skilled thumbnail sketches of films abound, as do some lovely - and loving - celebrations of little-noticed corners of the film-going experience, like the value of a properly trained projectionist, or the smell (and dangers) of old nitrate film stock. Whether or not you agree with him, there is no denying that Kermode is a fine debater and raconteur - someone who at the very least makes the case for sustained, thoughtful, passionate engagement with art as a mode of entertainment in its own right.
And as someone who spends an appreciable amount of her spare time writing about books - not because I think everyone should agree with me (well, maybe a little), or because I secretly wish I were a writer (heh, no), or because it makes me money (it does, a little, for other venues, but I also have a day job I adore), but because I think writing about books is a valuable and interesting thing to do in its own right, something that makes me a better reader and contributes to a wider conversation with other people who also love reading - Kermode's is a message I can certainly get behind. If I video-blogged my reviews, my hands would be doing a lot of flapping about while I talked, too. Long may he continue to rant.