On Monday 3rd October, the film-faithful of Leeds took a stroll down to that beautiful palace of independent/arthouse wonder – the Hyde Park Picture House aka The Greatest Place on Earth – to witness BBC Radio 5’s resident film critic Dr. Mark Kermode wax lyrical about Zac Efron, Danny Dyer and ‘Sex and the City 2’, amongst other things. Promoting his latest book ‘The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex’, Kermode took to the stage to deliver to us the crux of his book’s conceit, complete with a question and answer session. The baffling, sweltering heat of October’s beginning had me wondering just how the good doctor could bare to adorn his formal black jacket and tie; further admiration was indeed reserved for his immaculately modelled hair (which, he conceded, is substantially inferior to Zac Efron’s).
The last time I saw Kermode speak in this venue was approximately two years ago for a special edition of Radio 5 Live’s Film Review Show, where Simon Mayo was also present. This night’s event was a lot less formal and allowed for freer banter between Kermode and the audience. I had not read his new book before this event save for a lengthy excerpt posted on the Guardian website, but even much of that was repeated in his initial forty minute talk. Kermode argued that the standards of cinema exhibition are dropping considerably with every passing day, blaming lazy projection, 3D films and rocketing prices among many factors. His vision of a not-too-distant future in which simultaneous distribution of film through television, mobile phone and cinema was not as fraught with cautiousness and pessimism as one might expect; rather, he firmly believed that should this new distribution model result in a fall for overall cinema attendance, it is the multiplexes and not the independent cinemas that will suffer. Simply put, faithful cinephiles that wish to view cinema as it is intended are more likely to visit a local arthouse that cherishes the artform in the same way they do, possessing competent exhibition standards and quality control. The audience seemed pleased that he ultimately deemed it up to them, and not the critics, to decide the future of cinema, in what was an empowering and uplifting message to send the everyone home with. While I agreed from the outset that his final point was a valid one, my realist nature took on another perspective at some inherent naivete resting within the positivism.
Audiences may show their preference toward independent cinemas when times are hard for the industry, however these places are not the insitutions that are setting the overall agenda. Looking at this from a business perspective, it’s clear that whatever pain the multiplexes suffer through first will inevitably trickle down onto the picture houses that stand as the alternative, because the multiplexes are seen to be indispensable in contrast to their smaller, independent counterparts. Whatever tribulations the mulitplexes go through, the distribution tactics that machinate to save their skin will surely work in their favour and to the detriment of the local arthouse. It would be foolish to assert that these small venues of exhibition can control the tide; nevertheless it may be too early to tell, and the world is still wading through the grotesque quagmire that is the 3D profit experimentation – we are essentially deciding the fate of that drawn-out saga, too. Kermode does seem to have faith in us, in his continual reiteration that mainstream audiences are not as stupid as Hollywood perceives them to be. If you say so, Mark.
One other thing that hit me like a pin prick amongst the tedious uninformed whimpers of the Q&A session was one query out of left-field that enquired about the future of the Western. Having written a dissertation on this topic, I listened keenly as Kermode checked off such notable academics as Philip French and Christopher Frayling before ultimately declaring his faith that the Western will endure. I fall in line with this to the extent that the Western genre does indeed ‘continue to resurface’, as Kermode attested, but in the context of this talk that revolved around Hollywood trends, I would have to assert – and it is plainly obvious to anyone who notices mainstream trends – that the Western film industry abandoned the Western as a cornerstone genre and commercially viable product long, long ago. The Western is now firmly in the hands of the auteurs, who have in recent years shot past the subversion of conventions that transformed the genre in the latter half of the 20th Century, and gone back to utilising the core iconography of the years long past to communicate about our contemporary society. Paul Thomas Anderson, Andrew Dominik and the Coen Brothers are a few examples of these auteurs.
So where does the Western’s ideology now reside? With patriotism and obnoxious imperialistic attitudes still thriving in the United States and an available audience ready and willing to consume a rightwing ideology submerged in formal sheen, there must be a place for the subtext that once lay under the conventional iconography of the Western genre to now reside. The answer lies in the superhero picture, of course, and I have previously touched on this connection in my article about the cinematic abortion, ‘Kick-Ass’. Violence in the name of peace, committed by warriors who firmly believe that their ends justify the means and see their actions constantly attacked by the media, permate the comic book movie. The genre itself is already witnessing an early subversion of its conventions with Chrisopher Nolan’s Batman saga, which sees the filmmaker keen to examine the almost neo-conservative nature of Batman’s vigilante operations and their subsequent moral ambiguity.
This notion of ideology hidden underneath the cover of genre is key to what Kermode has been speaking about. He stands firm in his belief that we as an audience are more intelligent than Hollywood believes us to be, and cites ‘Inception’ as an example of a recent film that got the mainstream audience wearing their thinking caps for more than a brief moment. Ordinarily, we settle into our seats and bare witness to a Western blockbuster in its entirety, take the ideology fabricated into the fictional world to be true, and think little of our implication in the events onscreen. If Mark Kermode truly believes that the mainstream viewer is the salvation of the film industry, then this viewer needs to be active one-hundred per cent of the time, and not just when Mr. Nolan demands it. We need to constantly be thinking in the dark, and not fall prey to the complacency of watching all films simply for entertainment.
One audience member asked Kermode if he still got a thrill when he sits down to watch a film. He replied yes, stating that he holds out hope for every film, for the possibility that Michael Bay might finally make a good feature, and that it’s time to pack it in as a film critic when you no longer have that feeling inside you. I’ll state for the record that I do get this same thrill when sitting down to watch any movie – even the terrible ones – but for a similar albeit not totally different reason. When one watches a Michael Bay film, they should ideally be aware of its ideology and how Hollywood uses the conventional Western aesthetic to present this as wholly natural. When one does this, they have the potential to be the saviour of the film industry. When one does this, they realise that entertainment can still be derived from considering their own implication in the viewing process.
Sitting down to watch a Michael Bay film non-ironically – that’s where we have a problem.
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