Bookforum talks with A. S. Hamrah

The Earth Dies Streaming BY A.S. Hamrah. n+1 Books. Perfect Paperback, 452 pages. $20.

One of our most unerring critics, A. S. Hamrah is a soothsayer, a sidesplitter, a crank, and a moralist. His reviews linger wherever his attention is drawn, whether on or off screen: in the prosthetic hand worn by Jessica Biel over a prop stump for a shlocktale about American veterans, he presents a withering metaphor for Hollywood’s political cowardice; a missed screening prompts him to write an unmissable tale about the indignities weathered by reviewers. He has previewed films he will not see, and covered others without once mentioning character, plot, or star.

With his collection The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002—2018 (n+1 Books, 2018), Hamrah joins the ranks of Manny Farber, Serge Daney, Renata Adler and other masters in the art of passionately caring about the cinema without buying into its illusions. I first met him a decade ago when he was the editor of N1FR, n+1’s film journal. I had emailed him some clips, and he suggested a phone call. During an otherwise enjoyable hour-long conversation, he brought up those clips. “You’re not thinking critically enough,” he told me. “Your reviews are too nice.” That word stung because I knew he was right. I vowed never to be accused of such an indecency again. In gratitude (and revenge) for that lesson, I take enormous pleasure in watching Hamrah's dissident heart have to make peace with the fact that his writing is now entering the canon.

You told me years ago that one of your goals as a film critic was to write prose that is–and I’m using my word, not yours–“unblurbable.”

I don’t like to write anything that can be extracted for publicity use by large corporations, or even by small corporations. The very first review I ever wrote was of a movie called Begotten, which is quite a good film. It was the first review I ever wrote that wasn’t in a zine. And when the VHS of Begotten came out, it had a very effusive quote from me on the box—and it was embarrassing. I don’t know why—certainly a lot of critics just love to see very effusive quotations from themselves on movie posters—but it just seemed wrong, it seemed phony. I think it’s because I started out making zines, when it just didn’t seem right to have a blurb on something that was made by somebody you didn’t even know. My goal all along was to create my own form, but for a long time I didn’t have the opportunity to do that because I had to conform to the standards of previous film criticism. Which, at that time, was getting shorter and more consumer guide­–like. As I got more experience, I was able to get away from that, and by the time I started writing for n+1, I could just do what I wanted.

What I appreciated about your stance then—and appreciate even more now—is that it preserves criticism as a form of resistance, and as a form unto itself. When do you think the sea change happened in American culture when film criticism became a kind service industry?

I think it was the retirement of Jonathan Rosenbaum and the firing of J. Hoberman from the Village Voice. They were the best critics of their era—they’re still great critics. But something was lost. And baby boomer critics did not really bring the next generation along. So there was a dearth of Gen X critics who weren’t just writing in mainstream publications. And then millennial critics were kind of in a free-for-all to see who can be the most positive about things. They did not question entertainment as a virtuous form or a virtuous part of society. So it was all kind of wiped away in the 2000s.

In your mind, is entertainment always something suspect?

“What is art?” was the great question of arts criticism for hundreds of years. But no one ever asked “What is entertainment?”

Do you think that Hollywood producing worse and worse films also had something to do with the sad condition of criticism?

It’s not just that Hollywood got worse, although I think it did in the blockbuster era. Before that, because writers and critics were hostile to Hollywood in its classic period, many writers and other kinds of artists were hostile to it. For years, most film critics were not even thinking of it outside the parameters of entertainment. I think what happened partially was that people started judging the movies and the cinema for its use value as an agent for social change. And that started to mess things up. The blockbuster wiped all that away. Norma Rae couldn’t really compete with Star Wars. And that kind of happened again, but younger critics applied those same values to blockbuster entertainment.

So they look for revolutionary ideas in an Avengers movie…

Or, a Pixar movie or, like, Hunger Games. There’s this subtext that’s kind of injected into the films, like foam injection, like plastic.They have elements that can be discussed politically by people on both the right and left.

Because a film has to appeal to both red and blue states in order to succeed.

Yes. They’re essentially right-wing entertainments that have elements of potential social criticism.

So you feel like many contemporary critics are just writing analyses that have essentially been written for them?

From my other job (being a brand semiotician), I know there’s lots of consumer research that goes into these things. Critics don’t really take that into consideration a lot of the time.

What about the timeliness of reviews? I have pushed deadlines, publishing pieces long after a show closes. I can just about get away with it because of what I cover, but film criticism is tied so tightly to release schedules…

I think it’s important to review films as they come out, but I don’t think they have to be reviewed the Friday they come out like they are in newspapers. It’s foolish to do that in some ways. Because it serves the interest of the studios more than anything else. The whole system has been put in place to serve their interests. It doesn’t make sense to do it like that. Books are not reviewed the day they come out. This has to do with advertising revenue and newspapers and magazines (not so much magazines anymore). It turns film criticism into a kind of publicity for big films. It’s always the big blockbuster films that get the longer reviews, more space, and so on, instead of films that are good or important for various other reasons. There’s a vast publicity machine that’s just serving these corporate interests that is not questioned at all. It’s very predictable what films will get the longer reviews every weekend. And that’s just not a good system.

So whose interests do you serve?

The interest of people who go to see movies, of moviegoers and cinephiles and the audience. And my interests as a member of that audience.

There is a very funny moment in your introduction when you call out Sandra Bullock for saying that the reason why Ocean’s 8 didn’t get favorable reviews is because of a lack of critical diversity.

Yeah, regardless of who reviewed it, it wouldn’t have made the film any better. That’s something that I think actors and other kinds of artists in the movies don’t really understand. You know, it’s all just someone’s opinion. They just have to jockey for the best opinion that helps them the most. They want critics to be servile to them. And film reviewing is already known for being too servile. As these film producers and stars get wealthier and wealthier, and criticism lessens in their lives, and then they demand ever increasing amounts servility from the people who write about their work. Movie studios are like Donald Trump. They’re very paranoid. They’re paranoid and they think that all criticism in harmful to them in some way. Any negative comment is harmful to them. Everyone should just praise them constantly no matter how lame they are. And am I putting Sandra Bullock and Donald Trump in the same class of person? Yes.

I’m about to sound wistful, but one of the pleasures of reading your reviews is how you often write about the experience of going to a theater, standing in line, or even sometimes missing the movie . . .

I don’t like how most critics write their reviews from the point of view of having seen the movie at a press screening. I prefer to see films with a regular audience which includes me and whoever I go with. And all that stuff affects how you see the film.

Are you one of those critics who believes it’s your duty to see everything?

I’ll see almost anything. But one of the things that bothers me about contemporary film criticism—you see this in a lot of places in the listicle era—is this idea that there are 1001 films you have to see before you die. I don’t believe that there’s any film you have to see before you die. If you never saw Citizen Kane, you could still live a perfectly adequate and happy-ish life.

So don’t sweat it.

Yeah, your claims to authoritativeness aren’t decreased because you only saw forty-nine of the top fifty films this year.

Criticism is not a competitive business in that way.

Well, it is a competitive business in that way. But most people doing it now—their competitiveness isn’t getting them paid.

Jennifer Krasinski is a senior editor of Artforum