His job is not like that of every other journalist. The topics he covered this week include the financial crisis of 2007-08, elections in Bolivia, the drug thalidomide, and Far Eastern martial arts. He managed to do so although he spent most of his Monday and Tuesday watching films – or rather exactly because of that. Mark Kermode is the UK's leading film critic.
You may anticipate it by this point – the topics above correspond to newly published films, namely “The Big Short”, “Our Brand Is Crisis”, “Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime”, and “The Assassin”. Talking to Gavin Esler, Chancellor of the University of Kent, and the audience in the Woolf Lecture Theatre on Saturday evening, Mr Kermode revealed that he watches ten to fifteen films every week.
“The Big Short” was released for UK cinemas on Friday; however, I got to watch it in a sneak preview in the Odeon in Chatham on Monday – and now I'm pretty vain of the fact that Mr Kermode and I watched the film almost simultaneously. In his BBC film blog “Kermode Uncut”, the critic compares the film to other cinematic accounts of the financial and housing crisis in America, such as “99 Homes”, which show the impact of the crisis on the lives of ordinary people. Mr Kermode does not forget to mention that “The Big Short” is nominated for several Oscars.
This does not mean that Mr Kermode completely agrees with the selection criteria of the Academy Awards. The contrary is the case. And it is not only the fact that no black actor has been nominated for the Best Actor award in the second consecutive year. On Saturday, the critic pointed out that no female director won the Academy Award for Best Director in the first eighty years of the Oscars' existence. He expressed his conviction that what the award lacks is diversity. “The problem is absolutely endemic”, he stated.
With a view to the ceremony on 28 February, Mr Kermode was very positive about Leonardo di Caprio winning the Oscar for Best Actor this year. “You can bet your house on it,” he jestingly told the audience – immediately adding, for fear of being misunderstood: “Don't!”
The critic then went on talking about a cinematic genre which he perceives to be constantly neglected by the Academy in Hollywood: animated films. Mr Kermode disclosed that he loves the “Minions” for the slapstick, making no secret of his preference for physical humour.
A member of the audience in the Lecture Theatre asked the critic how his role, and the role of film journalists and critics in general, had changed with the emergence of the Internet. Mr Kermode explained that the major problem with blogging, about films just as about every other topic, and in contrast to film journalism in print, is that it lacks editing.
Nowadays, bloggers compete with journalists in virtually all topic areas and are often the first to break the news. But being a fast blogger, Mr Kermode underlined, does not automatically make you a good blogger. “Good bloggers have the same qualities as good film critics in print,” he argued.
One of the qualities that are essential for his job, he explained, are the criteria which he applies to assess whether a film has the right length. “The best test is to go through the film scene by scene. At the end of every scene, you ask yourself: If you took this scene out, would the film still work? If it would, the scene is dispensable.” And in a brilliant movie, according to Mr Kermode, no scene is unnecessary.
Mr Esler wanted to know whether Mr Kermode's opinion about a film had ever changed when he had watched it on a different screen. The critic confirmed that this had happened to him with a lot of films. “If you watch a film on your smartphone first, and then, a week later, on your 50-inch TV screen, you get a completely different experience.” He recommended to watch “The Revenant” with Leonardo di Caprio “on a reasonably large screen” in order to fully enjoy it.
At the end of the talk, Mr Kermode drew the attention of the audience to the phenomenon that people tend to remember critical reviews much better than praising ones, himself being no exception: “If I write a good review for a film, I have often forgotten it days later – if I write a bad one, I will remember every word of it for weeks.” He explained this circumstance with the fact that dismantling reviews are mostly those which are funnier to read.
But somehow, he struck a chord there. In non-cinematic news journalism as well, bad news are usually those that arouse more interest, attract more views and play a bigger role in shaping conversations; good news usually end up being overlooked side notes. It would take another blog post to discuss this issue in depth, but the parallel certainly suggests itself.
Mark Kermode's conversation with Gavin Esler provided a great deal of inspiring insights into the work of a film journalist, an area of journalism about which I previously knew indecorously little. I hope that some genuinely stunning films await the outspoken critic in the next two days – and I rather hope so on the films' behalf.