Starburst Memories: Don’t Look Now, it’s Mark Kermode!

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I edited PROP magazine with Steven Blyth for ten issues from 1996 to 2003. It started life as a component of his Poetry MA with Manchester University, but we developed its scope by becoming a more rounded literary magazine, that included prose, reviews and opinions.

Issue 2 (1997) included a feature on the Short Story and Film with a contribution from Mark Kermode writing about Nic Roeg’s masterpiece DON’T LOOK NOW.

He is now a house-hold name thanks to his flagship, two-hour, weekly film programme on BBC Radio 5, the home of wittertainment, and the internationally famous podcast that is produced from the edited highlights. Along with Simon Mayo, he has created so many memes (google ‘Jason Issacs’ to spot one of their most enduring) and call-backs that it is like an exclusive club with its own patois (or patios as I have previously said, look, I’m creating my own call backs) that takes a moment to learn but a life-time to master. Despite the best efforts of Mayo and the copious e-mails from listeners, at its heart is Kermode’s intensely intelligent film critique. His reputation for motor-mouth ranting conceals his skill at providing a cogent analysis of a film  – a skill he honed by writing the capsule VHS/ DVD reviews at the back of SIGHT AND SOUND for many years – he has an ear for the laconic phrase to capture his opinion succinctly.

It was his forthright intensity that I was drawn to when he appeared in Cult Film Corner during Mark and Lard’s Graveyard Shift on Radio One. It was the time when Matthew Bannister was reinventing the station to appeal to a younger audience. Mark and Lard would cover Cult TV, Cult Literature and Poetry in a veritable smorgasbord of quality items, to disguise that it was ‘playing records with some talking in-between’. He eventually ‘squeked’ out of the studio in protest, live on air, while wearing leather pants, when they took the piss out of Elvis, but before he went, I sent a speculative letter to him and he was generous in his response.

I was interested in how short stories made better transition from the page to the screen. Ailsa Cox wrote an accompanying article where she described the two forms as ‘Narrative Cousins‘ as they grew together, “Mansfield, Joyce and Stein were re-inventing short fiction, just as film was making the transition from vaudeville gimmick to self-conscious art-form.” The short story uses similar devices to film as it attains an intensity to, “achieve a unity of effect or impression.”

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Kermode picks up this idea in his assessment of DON’T LOOK NOW. He takes the opportunity to revise a review of the film in 1987 when he attributed the success of the film to Du Maurier’s source material, he has since realised that the film manages to reach an elusive quality that is alluded to in the story but is foregrounded by Roeg’s direction and Alan Scott/ Chris Bryant’s script. In the opening line, John says to Laura  “Don’t look now, but there are a couple of old girls …” which provides the title for the short story, but in the film it provides a more thematic element to the narrative:

“For whatever else it may be about (grief, obsession, memory, ghosts) DON’T LOOK NOW is first and foremost a story about vision, an exploration of sight (both first and second), a bizarre odyssey into the very eyes of the blind. It is a story about looking but not seeing, or indeed seeing without looking… Du Maurier has written a story about seeing – but it is Roeg who works within the medium of sight, and it’s Scott and Bryant who mediate between the two.”

Anyone who has read his BFI monographs for THE EXORCIST or THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION will recognise his paradoxical style in the piece he wrote for PROP as it is both easy-going yet intensely analytical. The article goes scene-by-scene, page-by-page, explaining how the repetitive visual imagery and watery symbolism is used to unlock the power of short story:

“…the visual realisation of these themes and images is something which a lesser director, working with a lesser script, would probably have missed altogether. Du Maurier may have written an awesome cinematic potential into her short story, but it is Roeg, Scott and Bryant who literally saw what she had done …”

Brilliant.

The internet ultimately saw the end of the PROP because I started an anonymous work blog that had more visitors in a day than we had subscribers! It was great fun working on it for 6 years but it was a lot of effort to create a publication with ink, paper and staples. It was even more difficult finding an audience! Kermode provided a great essay that was a pleasure to publish.* Like all the other contributors to PROP there was no payment as our meagre North West Arts funding and subscriber income barely covered the cost of the printing. I have fond memories of his phone calls telling the story of how he crashed the City Life van and making the arrangements to POST a floppy disk, remember when you had to do that?

Somewhere in my loft, I have the floppy disk with THE EXORCIST crossed out on the label and DON’T LOOK NOW written on underneath. It’s my pension.

* there are still a handful left, if you are interested, then please let me know.

8 responses to “Starburst Memories: Don’t Look Now, it’s Mark Kermode!

  1. He’s very pithy. He has… great pith. There’s nothing quite like a full-on Kermode rant though, see his review of ‘Run For Your Wife’ for the most recent truly great one.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve seen ‘Don’t Look Now’ but I never realised the title was actually spoken in the film!

    • I don’t think he does. I’ll tidy it up to remove the ambiguity. The quote is from the short story. The point that Kermode makes is that Roeg takes the implication of ‘looking’ and layers it over the story.

      I enjoy the rants but get a bit weary of the bear-baiting e-mails. He has always had a distinctive passion in his reviews, now that some have been categorised as ‘rants’ it makes him sound-like a shock-jock. That said, SEX AND THE CITY 2 is hard to beat.

      One of the most awkward moments was when Joe Cornish appeared on the programme. It was like introducing two friends, that you know separately, to each other and realising that they just don’t get on.

      • Wasn’t that because Kermode gave ‘Attack The Block’ a middling review and Cornish took issue with it? I didn’t like ‘Attack The Block’ but Cornballs had a point when he said Kermode kept comparing it to ‘Shaun of the Dead’ when it wasn’t supposed to be that kind of film. Kermode does tend to categorise things too much. These days I get the feeling that he comes up with some of his reviews before he sees the film if it’s “that type” of film.

        • I don’t think I’d go that far, however I agree that the format now means that he can only be annoyed or effusive and nothing in between.

          I liked ATTACK THE BLOCK, but I think the marketing positioned it as part of the Edgar Wright family of films which it isn’t.

        • Yes – another one promised for 2015.

          What wouldn’t you give for Count Buckulees film? It’ll never happen, due to his Native American name: Falls-at-hurdles.

  2. Pingback: DOM: Don’t Look Now (Roeg, UK, 1973) | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

  3. Pingback: Starburst Memories: PROP 6 – “You Talking To Me?” | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

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