Stokey Litfest 2014, first impressions

Stoke Newington Literary Festival 2014 took place last weekend (the 6th-8th June). The line-up caught my eye as being distinctly atypical for a literary festival, including the likes of Thurston Moore, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jonathan Meades and Steven Appleby.

The opening night gala promised Mark Kermode as a headline act, along with a sort-of cabaret hosted by Arts Emergency, a charity set up by Josie Long to support people from less privileged backgrounds who want to study and forge a career in arts and humanities.

Stoke Newington is an anomaly among the sprawl of north London, with almost an old market town atmosphere, bounded on the north by parks and peppered with bookshops, cafés and even a violin repair shop. The only chain I saw on Church Street was Nandos, and a small one at that. Its artsy, slightly bohemian enclave feel has probably been preserved because it’s really hard to get to using public transport compared to most of London. It’s not really on the way to anywhere, and has become a haven for media types while still retaining a reasonably multicultural and social mix.

Almost all the events took place along Church Street, the central venue being the 1937 town hall, which boasts a sprung floor, a balcony and one of the biggest glitterballs I’ve ever seen.  The laid-back ambience that pervades the festival is summed up by the fact that instead of the rows of banked seating you might expect, the hall was arranged with chairs in groups of about ten around big tables, leaving a capacity of about 300-400 in a hall that could probably cram in thousands.

A minor cock-up with the programme claiming the gala evening began at 8.30pm rather than 7pm didn’t really matter, as by the time everyone was in and the acts were ready, it was already sneaking up on the later time – a pattern that would be repeated all weekend, almost as if everyone was winging it. Which I think they, quite charmingly, were.

The lovely Josie Long was the MC,  regaling us with her attempts to pursue a hobby to “aggressively gentrify ourselves in an obnoxious way” by annoying posh patrons of the Royal Festival Hall with the words “he’s had enough” and “she’s forgotten something”.  She also had probably the most aspirational punchline ever: “Maybe Jenny Diski has written a thing about John Clare!” Context is everything.

The first act was stand-up Chris Coltrane who did a serviceable short set on Ukip, followed by a Rebecca Hunt reading from her book Everland, an absorbing and occasionally horrible passage about three sailors’ struggle to survive on the open sea and reach land.

Then came one of the artists supported by Arts Emergency, Schmoovy, who sang and rapped  her own number with the refrain “don’t call me a coward”, which was well performed and she definitely has talent, but it might be a while before she sets the world alight.

Then a little surprise in the form of the quiet genius Simon Munnery (and his special guest “Richard Dawkins”) reflecting on, among other things, the fact that nerve damage in his arm means really enthusiastic fascist salutes are beyond him. It was daft, cobbled together from several sets – including a “Lice Monologue in a Winston Churchill Voice”, the wisdom of serving cabbage to kids as “the food of the tiger” and the contradictions in Lennon’s Imagine – but I’m not sure the audience really got behind him. They were here for flappy-handed ranting about film which, after the interval (again, fairly relaxed, with “come back when you feel like it” being the gist) they got in spades.

Jesse Birdsall Mark Kermode was here to plug his new book Hatchet Job in which he addresses the importance of criticism in general and film criticism in particular. As his weekly podcast with Simon Mayo has a global audience of about 1.3 million and many of us have been listening to it for years, a lot of his talk was familiar, but it was good to hear the key points condensed.

The man can talk ceaselessly about cinema, and did so with passion and love, feet pacing and hands waving. He began by posing the question: “Why is it that people have got to the point that they think critics are out of touch with the public?” When a critic pans a film that does well, is that really a reflection on them?

Earlier in the week Ken Loach was reported as having said that all film critics should be sacked and we should “get real people to review them”. This, unsurprisingly, wasn’t quite what he said, and Kermode recently gave Loach a chance to put his point across.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p041z1dj/player

The point is, Kermode thinks, that people remember the good reviews and forget the good ones. Roger Ebert, he said, is a champion of movies, but people always recall scathing put-downs such as his verdict on Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (“the worst film ever shown at Cannes until Princess Grace of Monaco“, Kermode notes). Ebert said that having recently had a colonoscopy, watching that on a TV monitor had been better than The Brown Bunny.

Another classic is David Cox’s summary of David Lynch’s The Straight Story:Forrest Gump on a tractor”. There are plenty more in the prologue of the book, by the way, which is free to read here.

However, last year for weeks he championed Kings of Summer, a film that got a very limited release, giving it glowing reviews. Asked who had seen it only a smattering of hands were raised yet, as they all confirmed, “everyone who has seen it liked it”.

In contrast, his short rant about Sex and The City 2 has become celebrated for its bile and, he says, people went to see it just to see if it was as bad as he said. It is a classic, by the way.

Why should people trust professional critics above the review sites on the net or the IMDB boards? His answer is that in isolation a single review tells you little about the person who wrote it, and that in order for you to trust a reviewer you need to know their track record. Part of that track record is built over time, knowing that the person has certain disciplines that casual reviewers may or may not have. The review process is simple:

  • You have to watch the film from beginning to end;
  • You have to be able to describe it;
  • You have to be able to contextualise it;
  • Then you can give your opinion

The last of these, he says, is the least important, but it is the bit most people remember. Most importantly is the fact that “people who are doing it professionally have something to lose, and that is their job“. The aspect of accountability is essential, and that is why people, despite what executives of media corporations might think, want professional critics.

As long as you do your job properly, he says, you never get into trouble for criticising a film (unless it’s by Danny Dyer, and here we get the famous impression). In fact directors actually like an honest bad response. Having been thrown out of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots at Cannes for shouting obscenities in bad French, he later told von Trier how much he had hated it. “Did you really hate it?” came the reply, and when he answered yes, von Trier was actually happy, as the whole point of the film was to get a visceral reaction rather than the polite applause it found at Cannes.

Kermode is also baffled by Will Self’s review of Hatchet Job in which he seems to suggest that the online free-for all is a good thing.

Under such conditions the role of the critic becomes not to help us to discriminate between “better” and “worse” or “higher” and “lower” monetised cultural forms, but only to tell us if our precious time will be wasted – and for this task the group amateur mind is indeed far more effective than the unitary perception of an individual critic.

His reaction is that “Will Self writes about the internet with the air of someone who has never been on it.”

As someone who watched the devalution by a media corporation of professional criticism up close  – first they came for the TV previews they didn’t even pay for, then the reviews (which they did), then the whole arts section, then the film reviews moved to a Saturday rather than their natural home on a Thursday – before choosing to take the hush money and run, I would agree with him. There are many great writers out there who people trust, week in, week out, and who have been told that it is more important to use wire copy or get “user-generated content” because… well… it’s free.

And that, he notes, is the great irony. Because the few websites who have actually made a commercial success of online reviews and criticism “are following the same rules that the newspaper reviewers do”. The same model is just migrating to a new medium. It still needs to be paid for to make it any good.

In the first audience question, the blurring of editorial and advertising was raised. Someone who used to work for a music magazine said he was told in conference that as Keane has block-booked advertising, he’d have to give the album at least four stars. Had Kermode ever come across similar schemes?

“I haven’t ever experienced that. I worked at City Life, Time Out, the NME, Fangoria and the BBC and have never experienced it. Oddly enough, I have heard it about music journalism, but not film journalism.”

Another audience member described in detail a recent screening of a film in which the she ended up the only one in the theatre when the lights came up, as everyone else had walked out. Apart from the director, who then did a very uncomfortable Q&A. She wondered if Mark thought such sessions were a good idea.

After running through the anecdote about how Ken Russell walked off stage not once but twice during a Q&A bookending The Devils because he got bored, he said: “Sometimes immediately after a film is the worst time to talk about it.” This is because sometimes, for example after Twelve Years a Slave, there is so much to absorb that discussion wouldn’t be appropriate. Ken Loach, though, apparently likes to get stuck straight into the themes of his films with the audience.

One area that I don’t think I’ve ever heard him talk about before was raised by another question whether new sound technologies such as Dolby Atmos are just a gimmick on a par with 3D (on which Mark has very strong views).

His answer was surprising. “I have always said 3D sound is more important than 3D vision. You can watch a crappy film with good sound quite easily, but not vice versa.”

Even though the film companies’ knee-jerk response to new technologies has been 3D vision since the invention of television, with a similarly desperate resurgence to fight home video and most recently the internet, he says, it was innovation in sound that actually brought people back: respectively stereo, THX and, probably soon Dolby Atmos. “A lot of what you see in the cinema is seen with your ears,” he noted, slightly uncomfortable with the phrasing, but committed to the sentiment.

The last question was whether he agreed with Jane Campion that the film industry is inherently sexist.

He did, quite forcefully: “there’s no two ways about it. Just look at the number of women directors. It’s insane, it’s imbalanced. How to change it is a much more complex question.”

The fact that Kathryn Bigelow was the first ever woman to win best director in the history of the Academy awards, he said statistically does not make sense. Part of the historical reason is that “a film set is like the construction industry” with a very macho culture. However, there seems to be a bit of a shift away from that style of filmmaking, so that “now people make movies in a more flexible fashion”.

“There is something bullish that does not need to be that way at all

“I hope it is something that does not survive the second century of cinema.”

Quite right. And then it was off to the Budvar tent outside for a pint before the slow bus back to King’s Cross (and proper transport links to everywhere else) looking forward to a full bill on Saturday.

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