Pioneering world cinema, groundbreaking documentaries, homegrown Cornish talent – faced with a jam-packed programme, my first task was choosing what to watch. Who better to turn to than Mark Kermode, co-presenter of Radio 5live’s film show and chief film critic for The Observer? This month’s Feed took me to the Cornwall Film Festival. In conversation with Dr Dario Llinares of Falmouth University, Kermode talked about the role of the film critic in the digital age, gave praise for the Dark (and often overlooked) Art of copy editing and provided a lesson in cinema-goers etiquette.
In the world of film criticism, as with everything else, the internet is shaking up the established pecking order. Newspapers are publishing user reviews and tweets alongside write-ups by established critics. Film publicity campaigns – once the preserve of erstwhile commentators – are using tweets by the public as endorsement. So, who do we trust as arbiters of taste when it comes to what’s ‘good’ on the big screen? Is the film critic a dying breed, elbowed out of the way by Joe Public?
The job of film projectionist was once considered an art that had to be learned (just think Cinema Paradiso). Now, says Kermode, there’s a sense with screening digital that you just press ‘go’ and that’s it. There’s a similar ‘just press go’ attitude to content in the online world. It’s the same story in the world of writing. Websites, blogs and social media provide platforms for everyone to get their writing out there. Now anyone can be a writer – or a film critic. Great. Except, is it? What often gets overlooked is the element of craft involved in creating something of value, whether it’s a film review or a piece of writing.
Kermode described how throughout his career he watched in wonder as sub editors worked their magic, transforming copy from the ordinary into the extraordinary. In his book Hatchet Job: Love Movies, Hate Critics, (2013), he describes travelling to the Time Out offices to hand in his copy for the magazine and watching the editors “making strange occult-like markings with a red biro, drawing lines through certain words and phrases and then handing over to the subs who would perform yet more bizarre cryptographic rituals on my copy…Each of these people was a skilled operator, an artist in their field, and watching them work was like watching someone play the violin. Like all good editors, what they were doing was more than technical – it was intuitive, and it involved a combination of strictly defined skills, and utterly indefinable inspiration.”
As someone who has spent a fair amount of time engaged in the ritual of creating these strange occult-like markings, it was gratifying to hear the often overlooked role of editors and subs being championed. And reassuring that this arcane art still has a fan base that recognises its currency and value in today’s digital world – perhaps even more so now than ever.
The editor as violin player… Kermode’s analogy plucked at the memory of something else too. It was a news story about a violin player. Master violinist Joshua Bell had played music by some of the world’s greatest composers on one of the most valuable violins on the planet at rush hour in a Washington DC subway station. Nearly 2,000 people passed by – only seven stopped to listen, 27 gave money, while 1070 hurried on past. The story had struck a chord somewhere. Was it posing the question, if we don’t notice when one of the best musicians in the world is playing right under our nose, what else are we missing? Or does it show that we’re incapable of recognising what’s ‘good’ unless it’s packaged up and presented with a rubber-stamped approval? Or does it just show that there’s a time and place appropriate for the appreciation of art and a subway station at rush hour isn’t one of them? Either way, it served as a reminder that as we fight our way through the perpetual rush hour of congested traffic both offline and online, carving out that space to appreciate art, beauty, quality – whatever you want to call it – matters.
Kermode touched on something related to this when he described the cinema space as akin to a church or theatre. The cinema-goers rules of conduct that he devised with Simon Mayo are tongue in cheek. But underlying them is a serious point. Treat a cinema like your front room, with all the incursions and distractions of the everyday world – slurping, rustling, texting and tweeting – and you’ll have an ordinary everyday front room experience. Treat a cinema in the same way you would a church or a theatre, by offering up your undivided attention and you’re more likely to experience the magic, the filmmaker’s power to transport you, or offer a window onto the world as you’ve never seen it before.
Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, stars of the festival’s closing documentary on atheism, The Unbelievers, may have had a thing or two to say about the church/cinema analogy. But no doubt they’d approve of the cinema as a space for opening up minds, posing questions and igniting debate. Which is just what Cornwall Film Festival achieved. It was a brilliant opportunity to feed on mind-popping ideas instead of corny Hollywood fodder which sparked discussions that lasted long into the small hours.