Hatchet Job

By Mark Kermode

The title is catchy, but a bit misleading. British film critic Mark Kermode has mellowed over the years, even to the point where he’s wondering if, at mid-life, it’s been all a waste of time. After a preface that introduces (yet again) the enduring appeal of the negative review, he turns to other subjects. He’s not here to tell us how he hated, hated, hated, someone’s movie but to offer up more wide-ranging observations.

Still, the role of the critic in the twenty-first century media ecosystem is his main theme, and part of that forces him to address the misperception that critics are snobbish axe-men, abusing their privileged positions of trust and power. That may have been the case once, but the mighty have fallen. Film reviewers are now more ignored than despised (perhaps no consolation) and have made peace with the new economy and its entertainment-industrial complex.

In a hatchet job it’s usual to begin with some good news first before, in Gore Vidal’s phrase, donning the executioner’s hood. But since I liked Hatchet Job, and Mark Kermode’s writing in general, I’ll start with the fact that I don’t share any of Kermode’s taste in movies. I’m glad that he still thinks The Exorcist the greatest movie ever made, and that he bawled like a baby on his most recent re-watch of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, but at the end of the day I think we like very different things, for different reasons. I’m never going to find David Cronenberg’s Crash “brilliant” or “a near-perfect movie,” not because I find it shocking of offensive but because it’s dull. But, in a book like this, that doesn’t matter. I don’t agree with many of Pauline Kael’s critical judgements either, but still like to read her.

Kermode is very easy to read. Chances are, if you’re interested in this book, that you’ve heard him on the radio or a podcast. That’s what the book sounds like: listening to Kermode talk. The voice is well-informed, enthusiastic, self-deprecating, and digressive to a degree that can be excessive (he’ll stretch an anecdote so that it becomes the connecting thread for an entire chapter). Along the way there are numerous asides that had me nodding my head. Here are a few as a sample:

the idea that all the good movies were made in the very recent past ignores the fact that the real heyday of cinema (in terms of popularity) came in the thirties and forties; to all intents and purposes we are now merely sifting through the wreckage of an art form whose popular supremacy has long been superseded by the advent of television, video-games, and the Internet.

. . .

the longer I do this job, the more I wonder how you can ever know what you actually think of a film, so influential are the circumstances under which you first saw it, and the subsequent opportunities you may or may not have to re-evaluate your first response.

. . .

all movies take a lot of effort to make, even the really rotten ones
So is this what the future of film journalism looks like? Reviewing a bogus script for an unfinished film under the catch-all cloak of completest fandom? Back in the sixties, high-profile critics feared for their jobs and beat themselves up in public for the crime of reviewing a movie they had watched from start to finish but perhaps misjudged in their haste to file copy. Now they stand proudly by reviews of films they haven’t even seen – because they haven’t been made yet – and everyone stands back and applauds.

. . .

Film-makers bleat on all the time about how awful critics are who slag off their work, but no one ever addresses the character-building power of surviving a full-on critical tsunami, or the equally corrosive effect of basking too long in the radioactive sunlight of universal praise.

I found myself agreeing with all of this, in part because I’ve said similar things over the years, most often about book reviewing. That said, I did have a lot of trouble with a couple of the major points that Hatchet Job is organized around.

The first of these has to do with anonymous reviewing on the Internet. “When it comes to critics,” Kermode writes, “I want to know who they are, what they know, where they come from, and what they have to lose.” This last point is the important one. Kermode lays it down as a rule that a critic must stake their reputation on every review they write: “criticism without risk to the critic has no value whatsoever . . . an opinion is only worth as much as its author has to lose: their good name; their reputation; their audience; their job.” It is only this “element of risk” that gives reviews “whatever validity they possess.”

I have two really big problems with this. In the first place, I don’t think it’s true. At least in theory, why shouldn’t an anonymous review be just as perceptive, informative, fair-minded, entertaining, and correct as one written by someone we know? As a general principle I think you should stand behind what you write, but it’s not essential. And why should anyone care where a critic comes from, or “what they know” beyond what is reflected in what they’ve written?

The other problem I have with the risk principle is that it addresses an issue that I don’t see as being much of a problem. Most film bloggers and online critics, at least of any repute, write under their own name, or if they use a pseudonym are easily identified (that is, they don’t try to conceal who they are). Sure there are people who practice a form of drive-by hatchetry online, hiding behind false avatars and funny nicknames, but they’re trolls, not critics. Anonymous posters and posers don’t seem like a big enough danger to bother spending so much time on, and Kermode builds them up into the book’s primary bogeyman.

The second point I found myself disagreeing with has to do with the shift from print to digital reviewing. The death of Roger Ebert is invoked several times as the end of an era in film criticism, and while Kermode feels some sadness at its (the era’s) passing he is enthusiastic at the fact that “like it or not, we’re all bloggers now.” Yes, print is dying but that “does not mean that film criticism as an art form needs to die out, dumb down, or otherwise disintegrate.” While it’s harder for writers to make money, “this is a temporary state of affairs.” Things will get better, and “quality will out, whether in print, broadcast, or Internet publication.”

This was written in 2013 and I wonder if Kermode still believes it. Much has changed since he observed that the world had changed. Does anyone still know, or care, who Harry Knowles is, or was?

It’s true that film reviews have proliferated online, and that some of them have a far greater reach, immediacy, and readership than was ever possible in print, but the money hasn’t followed. And while I’m impressed at the work some sites have done, I don’t think it’s true that “quality will out.” The top film review sites in terms of traffic are often the most superficial and juvenile. Can film criticism, and indeed in-depth film scholarship, continue as the preserve of dedicated amateurs? We’re going to find out.

A bigger issue, as I see it, is the sheer number of film reviews and other material appearing online. I think this is less a sign of health (as Kermode interprets it) than it is of a metastasizing condition. The problem isn’t anonymous reviews but the amount of material out there, with thousands of reviews available almost immediately upon a film’s release, all of them saying nearly the same things. What this then leads to is the rise of the aggregate score: an average taken of these many thousands of reviews that then becomes an official score on IMDb, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes, or Metacritic. Enter the hive mind, where voices originally identified with a particular critic become anonymous, simple data points stuck on a graph. Volume will out.

Review first published online April 13, 2021. For my thoughts on Kermode’s The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex see here.

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