Charlie Kaufman, Mark Kermode, and when filmmakers and critics clash

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In his new novel, writer and filmmaker Charlie Kaufman has taken a swipe at film critic Mark Kermode – and it turns out there’s something of a long story there.

There’s oftentimes an uneasy line between the world of movie critics and the world of movie makers. That most of the time, the two happily co-exist, with each to varying degrees usually requiring the other (although not always). I’ve been behind the scenes of press junkets and such like, and so I’ve seen the occasional tension between a critic and a filmmaker in the past. But the vast majority of those stories stay behind closed doors.

Over the past week or two though, a little bit of friction has come to the fore with regards critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode, and writer and director Charlie Kaufman. The reason the story has spiked isn’t Kaufman’s new film, I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, that’s landed on Netflix this month. Instead, it’s his new novel, Antkind. In that book, Kaufman – via an alter-ego narrator – takes a not-too-subtle pop at Kermode, and it was Kermode himself who brought this to wider attention by Tweeting it out.

Here’s the Tweet, with the passage inside it.

That there have been sparks between the two is nothing new. There’s an infamous interview on the Kermode & Mayo Film Review programme that I’m coming to shortly, for a start.

But it turns out the genesis of this particular beef goes back before that, to 2008. That was the year that Kaufman released his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, that he’d also penned the script for. At this stage, Kaufman’s screenwriting had rightly brought him huge attention, with his superb scripts for Being John Malkovich, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Adaptation earning him rich plaudits.

His directorial debut earned strong reviews too, but also it was a far more divisive piece. One of those less taken with it was Kermode, who had interviewed Kaufman for the BBC’s Culture Show. In the broadcast piece, Kermode praised Kaufman’s work, but argued – not for the last time – that he felt Kaufman’s writing was best when “mediated by somebody else”. In other words, when someone else directs his scripts.

This didn’t seem to have landed particularly well with Kaufman, and nor is it required to of course. He went onto his next film, Kermode went onto his next review.

But this one didn’t calmly settle. Instead, when Kaufman and Duke Johnson co-directed their next project, the Oscar-nominated animation Anomalisa, they went back on the promotional trail. And this time, they ended up live on Radio Five Live in the UK, as guests on the Kermode & Mayo Film Review programme.

What I didn’t appreciate until I went behind the scenes of that programme earlier this year and asked about it was that words had been spoken just before the show went on air. That in the seconds before the show was going out live across the UK, Kaufman had spoken to Kermode, taking issue with a previous review (presumably for Synecdoche, New York). Then, suddenly, the news bulletin ended and a notoriously frosty interview ensued.

The full video of the interview is here, and the body language is pretty telling against that context. No shortage of folded arms here…

To this day, Johnson’s explanation as to just what film is – “a series of static images creating the illusion of movement” – gets a regular mention on the programme. Neither Kaufman nor Johnson has appeared on the show since. I would say that Kaufman is very engaged with the interview, and to most of us listening as it went out live, the full tensions behind it weren’t entirely clear. But they’ve certainly become a lot clearer since.

Fast forward to now, and Kaufman has now put his beef with Kermode into print, as he’s entirely entitled to do. It just feels incredibly odd, and jarring too. Not just that this has bubbled back into the public domain, but in a different story that Kaufman has told.

That’s not to say that Kermode hasn’t attracted his share of critics himself over the years. Gods Of Egypt director Alex Proyas, actor Danny Dyer and writer/director Paul Schrader are amongst those not exchanging Christmas cards with the Kermode household. Furthermore, there are digs in earlier Kermode reviews against people in a style that he’s long since left behind and I always get the sense he regrets (Matthew McConaughey goes by his proper and right name these days). But they’re still out there.

Still, this one feels a particularly odd case, an age-old instance of a filmmaker taking issue with a critic.

I say all this with full appreciation that people are human beings. I remember having long conversations once with a showrunner on a BBC single series drama, and got some insight to the human toll the battering of negative reviews can take. That the opening episode of said drama was hammered, and one tabloid critic in particular took time out in their column pretty much each and every week to slam the show. On the day its last episode ran, said critic wrote a piece declaring something along the lines of ‘I’m watching the last episode tonight just to make sure it’s finished for good’.

I’m not sure how anybody who’s sunk their heart and soul into something who could entirely deflect that. And I think that too goes to the fact that it’s all well and easy to say ‘take no notice of reviews’. But we’re human, right? Are we supposed to pretend that it doesn’t hurt sometimes when somebody doesn’t like something we’ve done?

I asked Kermode about this once, and he told the story of his friendship with The Exorcist director William Friedkin. Kermode wrote a scathing review of Friedkin’s 90s thriller Jade, which in turn apparently happens to be a favourite amongst his own work of the director. They’ve had an exchange or two about this. But at the end of it, there’s a mutual respect that they’ve each got different positions in the whole process. They’re doing different jobs for different audiences. Yet even though they’re great friends, the review caused a few (friendly) sparks.

Jessie Buckley in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking Of Ending Things.

More than ever, though, I don’t think the power lies with the critics in the way it once did. That the number of films that are pretty much criticproof has increased. The number of paid writing jobs has gone down. That means critics are oftentimes more reliant on film companies and sometimes film talent to get their bylines (as an aside, there’s a reason I always get writers to pen a review of a film before they interview anyone involved with it).

Nobody becomes a critic because they want to make money. Conversely, it’s not often a brilliant look to criticise people who criticise critics. And I’m not convinced it’s a great look either to devote a sentence or two in a book to taking a potshot at a critic either. It’s all a fun story, but who actually wins? We’re not talking about the title of the book or film, nobody suddenly likes Synecdoche, New York more or less than they did, and the work of both parties has taken second place in the conversation.

Yet here’s where we are.

What I’d suggest it goes to is the simmering that feels ever-present under the surface of criticism, the biting of lips on both sides of the critical divide, and the fact that human beings are human beings. In this particular case, Charlie Kaufman has the platform and resources to get his word out, and has chosen to use it. Kermode is in a position to take it, even though he may not want to or feel it fair. But the world is such that on we go, and social media will look elsewhere for its scalps tomorrow.

That’s at least until the next Charlie Kaufman project comes along, at least. Although hopefully, the time has come to lay this to rest…


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