Writer A.S. Hamrah on the crisis in film criticism | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

Writer A.S. Hamrah on the crisis in film criticism 

The new essay collection The Earth Dies Streaming collects his work from 2002 to 2018.

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John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001) is not a great film. For one thing, it's more of a movie—there are guns and special effects and pretty ladies and it takes place on Mars—than what we like to call cinema. It's not even a great movie, as it came out a few weeks after September 11, and its procolonization message fails to reflect the cultural zeitgeist of those tumultuous times.

To be honest, Ghosts of Mars is probably not even the greatest movie in the Venn diagram crossover of the stars'—Ice Cube, Clea Duvall, Pam Grier, and Buckethead—long careers in their various fields. It's silly, mostly, although one could argue that the many scenes of baby-faced Ice Cube spouting vituperative nonsense as he opens fire on baddies with machine guns in both hands does elevate the film somewhat.

Yet it's the film that critic A. S. Hamrah chose to present at Metrograph on New York's Lower East Side during the launch of his collected work of essays, The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002-2018, from n+1 Books. So I went. It was a blast. There are few people whose film recommendations I trust more than A. S. Hamrah's.

Hamrah doesn't shy away from calling them movies, for one, and what he seems to like about the cinema is that it can offer good experiences to people. This is refreshing in an era when entertainment writers tend to focus on box-office records. His excellent introduction to The Earth Dies Streaming focuses on other flaws and new potential in contemporary film criticism. I asked him to sit down with me, the morning after his book release event, to discuss further.

So I want to talk about the state of criticism.

OK.

According to you, it's not doing very well.

Criticism's not doing that well in any medium, but film criticism is in poor shape because the values of entertainment have overtaken it. Now it's mostly a handmaiden to large corporations that make franchise movies. And no one really questions that. Even if [critics] give bad reviews to those films occasionally, they don't question the whole form in any way. Oftentimes when they review certain franchise films poorly, readers get mad at them, and then they have to apologize, as A. O. Scott did when he reviewed—negatively—one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He wrote a retraction later.

It was one of the things, I guess, that got him on the road to writing that book, Better Living Through Criticism. That, and being insulted by Samuel L. Jackson on Twitter.

A moment most critics could not survive.

He didn't even try to defend himself. Most critics are shy, retiring people and are not ready to be called out by Samuel Jackson for negatively reviewing a movie that was, in fact, bad.

And Samuel Jackson, you know, he's a talented actor. He's been in a lot of good movies, but he keeps making these terrible films because he likes playing Nick Fury, I guess, and it pays well. I don't understand why he can't take a little criticism from A. O. Scott.

So it's hard for [critics] to subject themselves to that kind of name-calling from a celebrity actor, and they would rather just go along with the system of corporate entertainment than really engage with what's bad about it.

Plus, a lot of people celebrate it. They love it!

Don't critics tend to believe they hold untrammeled opinions, unbeholden to the outside forces of, say, corporate entertainment?

I think the new generation of film critics does not think that about themselves. There was a discussion a few months ago on film Twitter about, do I really have to see all these old Kubrick films? You know—how could I have possibly seen these in my life? Kubrick only made 13 movies, and certainly by the time I was their age, I had seen his first 12 films.

My sense is that younger critics are interested in film history, but tend to believe they already know enough about it.

That may be true.

But what I'm wondering is, how do you explain how the structure of film criticism that you point to comes to operate on individual critics?

Oh. Yes. Well that's a very complicated question. I don't really know the answer to that. I don't really hang out with that many film critics. [Laughs.] Only one or two, really. But I think people overidentify with the system, regardless of their thoughts about the history of cinema.

But now film criticism—popular, or mainstream film criticism—is bifurcating into people who don't really care about film history that much and just want to talk about new things, and people who are experts in classic cinema, who are really more like buffs. Even if they're talented writers and very knowledgeable and great, in a lot of ways, their main interest is in classic cinema, not in criticism as a living form that engages in new production and contemporary reality.

Tell me the difference, then, between a buff and a cinephile.

There's a lot of nerd culture involved in film criticism now, and those people are essentially contemporary versions of buffs. Except they don't care about Casablanca. Like, The Matrix is their Casablanca. Cinephiles engage more with the avant garde and classic European art cinema and world cinema.

So is part of the problem with criticism a problem of thinking that your niche is big enough?

Well, film criticism, for most of its practitioners, is not a profession anymore. It's done in one's free time, or is an amateur endeavor. The dwindling number of professional critics are people who work for—not even alt newspapers, alt weeklies, but daily papers. And a lot of those people are not film buffs or cinephiles. They fell into it because they were interested in it, but they don't have the obsessive enthusiasm of either cinephiles or buffs. So it's different now, because there are fewer and fewer people who do it and make a living at it, and more people who do it as a sideline. That's diluted its power.

I don't mean to claim that criticism had power in the sense that it could affect film production, or make or break a film, as it is always claimed that Pauline Kael made Bonnie and Clyde. I mean power as a form of expression. Not its power to affect Hollywood production.

But it does have power to make discoveries, and get people to go see films, and understand them and enjoy them and try new things. It used to have a lot of power to do that. And now that is more done by—or was more done by—the Internet and DVD-releasing companies, like Criterion, or various others. But those are becoming . . .

FilmStruck!

FilmStruck was the Criterion Collection plus the Warner Archive, and now that's gone and in the newly energized era of media consolidation, more and more people who wanted to become film critics will just become television recappers. As television and film merge into one medium, and as media content production becomes a more and more dominant form of industrial practice in the US, along with weapons manufacturing, people won't be able to work as critics anymore. They'll be employed by media conglomerates. They'll just be recappers of all this new product. So the blockbusters will get more and more attention, and there'll be more and more people writing the same kinds of things about them.

Sometimes criticism slips into it. Because it's the goal of the people who write them to write criticism, not just to describe the plots of episodes of TV shows.

That's when it becomes interesting to me. When, despite the vast constructs that keep folks from—not just criticism per se, or flaw-finding, but from thinking deeply or engaging with media production in any way—when those structures fail, and genuinely thoughtful responses creep in.

Those moments do take place, still. There may be lot of small examples that happen on a daily basis, but they're very micro, very atomized. It's not like anyone is putting this all together. And they're buried in predictable places that are not worth reading, a lot of the time.

You know, Rotten Tomatoes is really what has had an impact on this. The aggregation of bits of criticism into a number that is assigned to a film is affecting us adversely. They're trying to bring more critics into that now; before it was just glossy magazine and newspaper critics. They're trying to diversify who the critics are now, which is good. But the more people they have the more it reflects this kind of atomized, amateurish meaninglessness.

There are still some great magazines that produce criticism, but there's not the kind of engagement that defined criticism through the late 90s. The crisis of film criticism, to me, really started with the retirement of Pauline Kael who, whether you agree with her or not, was a serious person, a good writer, and the New Yorker's inability to find anyone to replace her at her level. And then the retirement of Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader, and the firing of J. Hoberman from the Village Voice, twenty years later. American film criticism has never recovered from that, in a lot of ways, even though Hoberman still writes a lot of stuff and Rosenbaum still writes occasionally. That generation of baby boomer critics didn't really pull anyone else along after them. Not that they had the power to do that editorially.

And of course this coincides with media consolidation in the 90s and disenfranchisement of people by not giving them full-time jobs and making them all write for pennies as freelancers, or offering them short-term contracts.

When did you start defining yourself as a film critic?

[Laughs.] When I was a child.

After college I didn't really have any hope to be a writer, because that coincided with the economic downturn of the late 80s and the end of the Reagan era. Plus I was a zine writer and no one would hire anyone of my generation in media at magazines at that time. Especially if you didn't go to an Ivy League school, you couldn't get hired at The Atlantic or some place like that. So you had to do it yourself, as you know. And that led to a lot of weird kinds of writing that aren't necessarily standard film criticism as it's practiced by someone like A. O. Scott. Or Jonathan Rosenbaum.

So how did you develop the way that you write about film?

My first regular gig was for the Utne Reader, reviewing new releases on video. At that time, I was just trying to conform to the standards of regular criticism as it was practiced them. It wasn't zine writing, so I was trying to be more in line with what the editors wanted, professional. It wasn't that much fun. It was only with the economic collapse in 2007 that I became more free, I think, although I think I wrote some things that are good before then. When I started writing for n+1 I just didn't care about any of that.

But doesn't that also come from the self-publishing world?

Yes. I'm not going to try to make this appealing to the editors of the Boston Globe anymore. I'm going to do whatever I want. A lot of film criticism is sort of grad-studenty and semi-academic. Nor was I interested in that. So I just decided to do it however I wanted. And having written for zines, it was easier for me to do that.

And I was writing for n+1, a politics and culture magazine that didn't have that high a circulation, and just let me do whatever I wanted. Because they knew me from zines, they didn't know me from writing for the Boston Globe. It was a very good situation, even though they didn't pay very much and I had a full-time job also.

You describe yourself, in the intro to the book, examining the field of criticism and identifying three or four elements that you weren't interested in carrying over. That you just didn't want to do.

Yes. I'd been thinking about that for a long time before I ever did that. Those are things that always annoyed me, throughout my life, reading regular film criticism, but I realized I could just get rid of them. No editor was going to ask me to put them in, or even notice their absence. Or care.

So what was the first thing to go?

The first thing to go was plot description. I mean, I still do these things occasionally. It's not like I'm some purist. I will put these things in if I feel the need to do it. But the first one was plot description. I hate reading plot description in film reviews and there's a lot of that, especially in newspapers.

The second was mentioning the resumes of principals involved in films. Whether they're actors, directors, writers, cinematographers. And then the third was . . .

Box office?

Oh, that's the worst. I hate bringing up box office numbers, anyone who does that is just contemptible. If you start talking about how much money other films by these people made, or what you expect this one to make, or if you think it's going to get nominated for an Oscar, that's really the lowest. I can't believe people do that, or that that's even allowed to be done.

But another thing that bothered me about film criticism in newspapers and magazines was that everything was always the same length. And you always knew what was going to be written about that week. There was this idea that certain films had to be written about and they were the big films, and that was totally based on what studios were putting out. That excuse was popular, so there was this vicious circle of stupidity and meaninglessness that has to be broken.

And I also try to write so my work can't really be excerpted for publicity purposes on movie posters and in other kinds of promotion. I dislike gushing quotes from the same writers over and over again. I just don't want to be part of that.

What abandoning those elements results in, in your work, is this intimate way of talking about film that centers on an experience that you had as a human and that you want to share with the reader, also a human.

I do want it to relate more to life, and to my life, because critics that I liked when I was younger did that. I also liked critics that are very free in their approach to the world around them, not necessarily about their own life. Like Kael is always talking about other things besides films, and Manny Farber was very unconstrained and not beholden to what the studios wanted or expected from critics. So that was important to me.

But that annoys people. When I was writing for zines a long time ago, a friend of mine wrote a piece that I loved, but he made fun of these televisions hosts who talked about films, because they talked about extraneous things in their own lives too much. And he said, maybe eventually they'll just start talking about their bus ride to the movie theater. That was funny in that context, but that actually made me think that I would prefer to hear about their bus ride than what they thought about some terrible film.

Last night I read your review of Moonrise Kingdom to a friend.

That was a two-sentence review.

But it concisely conveys the mood of the film.

Yeah.

It doesn't actually say, I didn't enjoy this film very much. Yet one surmises that you didn't believe it merited a long, thoughtful, drawn-out essay.

Right.

But it's still really smart, thoughtful and engaged criticism. In two sentences.

A lot of things people write about are not worth as much ink as they get. Or pixels, or whatever. Also, a lot of film critics are trying to be definitive all the time. They're not acting like they're on the front lines, like they just have to say something so that there's a record that people saw this and reacted to it as it happened. It's not historical yet. Manny Farber's writings on The Third Man date from when that film came out, so they're not like anything anyone else [has] written about that film since, which is that it's a classic that's unassailable by subsequent generations. So what he says about it is so different than what anyone else says about it now. When I read that as a young person, it really struck me.

This seems like a minor thing, but I get the sense that the way that you feel beholden to a sense of history is really unique. Like, at your book signing last night—we were going to get drinks afterwards anyway, so I was just doing the formal thing of having you sign your first book by standing in the formal signing line at the official book release event. And you signed my book, "Thanks for coming, see you in a minute."

Oh, I did do that. I just feel like there are things that have already been written that are good, that you have to live up to. I'm not trying to be, like, an indie band that's influenced by all these bands from the past and refers to them constantly. That's annoying.

But you're also not trying to be the indie band that's like, we don't need to refer to anyone because we're beyond that. You're not trying to rise above history, or exempt yourself from accountability.

It's because as you get older, your desire to be right diminishes. When I was in my 20s I always wanted to be right about what I thought about certain films, or film directors, or actors. Now I don't care. It doesn't matter to me if I'm right. I mean, I think I'm right, of course, and I can defend my judgments. Which I think is important for critics to do. Instead of writing letters of apology to the reader for not liking a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

My main concern is not being right or wrong. It's creating a valid description of the film that makes sense for contemporary readers in an unexpected way.   v

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