Eclectic Reader Challenge – Memoir – It’s Only A Movie – Mark Kermode.

There were a couple of reasons for picking up this book. First of all, it fulfilled the memoir category for the Eclectic Reader Challenge but, as the last couple of books I have read have been a bit rubbish (Yes, Tell No One by Harlan Coben, I do mean you”) I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.

And of course, I wasn’t. In this book, Kermode imagines his life as a made for TV movie – a very funny idea which sees him detailing who would play him – Jason Isaacs – and his family members. It does seem as if spending so much time in front of a cinema screen has left Kermode with an odd view of reality and a lot of the episodes he recounts wouldn’t be out of place in a (slightly dubious) biopic. Maybe that is the point.

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The story starts with Kermode’s early cinematic experiences, moves through his love of horror, particularly The Exorcist, through his early experiences as a critic to the celebrity status he has today. The early experiences were the most interesting, I thought. Recalling as they do, a different era when going to the cinema was a more intimate experience. Y’know when cinemas had two screens and ran two features. It made me think about going to the cinema in the early eighties and I began to recall my own experiences. Although unlike Kermode, who seems to be able remember which cinema and when for every film he has ever seen, I can’t remember what I went to see first although it was undoubtedly a Disney rerun, this being back in the days before Pixar and Dreamworks and a whole business aiming to sell cinema to small kids.

There is no doubt that Kermode is a geek – and I say this as a compliment – and a particularly grumpy geek, at that. (Amusingly a review of this, or possibly The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex, on Goodreads complained about this grumpiness as though it was a surprise. As if he had happened upon the book by sheer chance, knowing nothing about Kermode. It reminded me of when a friend went to see Billy Bragg and afterwards complained that he was too political. Well, duh.) He gamely outlines the number of people he was annoyed and irritated over the years including being put on the spot by Dame Helen Mirren after saying The Queen wasn’t a  proper film and, my own personal favourite, getting punched in the arm by Benedict Cumberbatch on behalf of Kiera Knightley who resented being called Ikea Knightley on account of her plank-like acting style. A very apt description, if you ask me.

Ultimately, this is a book about obsession and I think this is why Kermode can get away with his rants and raves. He loves cinema with his whole heart and hates the fact that some people do not give it the respect it deserves. It is only possible to remain calm about things that do not matter. Cinema matters an awful lot to Mark Kermode and thank goodness for that.

The Fear of God and Rebellion

The Exorcist is not a film that scares me. It may be that as I am not religious I have no real fear of the devil or possession. That is not to suggest that it is a bad film. It is shocking, disturbing, difficult, even powerful, just, for me anyway, not scary.

Part of the problem was the lack of ambiguity. I thought there was no suggestion that Regan’s problem was anything other than possession. It was written on her face and on her body. Again, I think my lack of religious belief lets me down. This was just something I am not capable of believing in.  Last week, I saw the film again. As part of Sheffield’s DocFest, there was a showing of The Fear of God, a documentary about The Exorcist, a Q&A with Mark Kermode and then a showing of The Exorcist. I have to admit that the main draw was Kermode who is always incredibly intelligent about film and who I admire greatly. I have to admit that I’ve always been a little unconvinced by his championing of The Exorcist when I so often agree with his opinions about films.

The documentary was brilliant, not least because it showed how difficult special effects were before CGI and how borderline insane William Friedkin was. It is always fun to open up a film and find out exactly how it was put together. Well worth a watch if you are at all interested in horror.

Kermode was his usual charming and knowledgeable self. He dismissed notions that we are desensitized to violence these days, pointing out that this is a debate that has been running almost as long as the film industry itself. Most interestingly, he explained exactly what parts of the film impressed him even after more than 200 views. (Can you imagine seeing a film that many times? I’ve seen my favourite film, It’s a Wonderful Life 5 times.) I found myself excited by watching The Exorcist and spotting these things myself.

One of the things that Kermode said about the film was that when you watched it for the first time, it was unrelenting but watching it for a second time, you would be able to spot the more subtle effects. I found that hard to believe.

It was 1998 when I first saw The Exorcist and it was a completely jarring experience. It felt like one terrible moment after the other. I read once that one of the reasons The Exorcist was such a difficult watch was that it showed no sympathy for its teenage heroine. I could only agree. It was completely without mercy. Every image was shocking, sickening, utterly painful. I could completely understand people vomiting in the aisles or running into the nearest church.

So I found it hard to imagine that it would be different the second time around. And some scenes where just as difficult even when you knew what to expect. The sight of a teenage girl, plunging a crucifix between her bloody legs will always remain one of the most disturbing scenes I have ever seen. But Kermode was right, I was able to notice other things. For a start, one thing that disturbed me, that I barely remembered from the first time, was the horror of all the invasive processes that the medical profession force on to Regan. It is interesting to note that the problems really seem to come to a head after her father forgets her birthday. No wonder she was so very angry.

It became apparent that you could read this as something other than a religious parable. Regan’s bodily transformation could represent the changes at adolescence. It could be a manifestation of her very real anger. It could also represent the fears that adults have about the younger generation. So it became a much better, more interesting film on second watching. Still not frightening as such but certainly more interesting and more powerful.