Abe Beame doesn’t want to see those commemorative Biggie metro cards on StockX.
The Follow is an interview series I plan on putting out occasionally, or frequently, or maybe never again, in which I basically just talk to the people I enjoy following online who are willing to talk to me for a while. It will be about what they come to Twitter for, how they cultivate their online personas, the things they feel passionate enough to contribute to the infinite discourse on this app, and why they feel the need to do it. And on a basic level, it will be two people on Zoom shooting the shit.
In this late date in discourse, online and elsewhere, we’ve firmly established that everyone is a critic, but a very select remaining few really give a shit about criticism as a discipline. The few remaining actually “good” writers who practice criticism rarely stop to consider what it means to be a critic. The criticism market is just that, a butcher’s block slicked with entrails and blood and fat, a farmer’s market carpeted with wilted, melted pea shoots and radish tops, indiscernible from the blackened concrete it was mashed into underfoot hours ago. Criticism has been reduced to hastily discarded, cheapened refuse that has been spoiled and taken for granted to the point it’s unrecognizable from its original form, covered in neon orange stickers and bold lettering – desperately lowering the price of sale.
But A. S. Hamrah, the movie critic for the Baffler, once of N+1, once of suck.com, and elsewhere, is a proverbial flickering fire in a horn, being carried through a mountain pass in all that dark and cold. He writes a column in which he catalogs film, and I don’t give a shit about my birthday, and until the Jets play in a Superbowl I won’t care about that, but I care deeply about his column. It’s an event for myself, and many others.
He released a collection of his writings, fittingly titled The Earth Dies Streaming in 2018, and no one will ever ask me to teach or even discuss writing, particularly criticism, but if they did, what I would tell any young writer is they shouldn’t be allowed to write another word before reading it cover to cover. The famous anecdote that follows Hamrah is he once saw something he wrote broken out and blurbed on Begotten’s video releases, and vowed he would bend his writing in a way that could never happen again.
He hates the histrionics and reductionist TLDR quality of criticism. He writes in dense yet stripped down paragraphs that are closer to autopsies than expressions of opinion. Every year, he delivers bite-sized treatises on movies I hate, and movies I love, and I’m sure he hates or loves, but it’s often difficult to tell. He has a talent for flaying these films, peeling the flesh off their bones and laying out cold, balanced and acerbic accounts of the ideas and politics the films contain, whether they realize it or not, and draws out their ancestors and loose threads that tie them together. I don’t always agree with or even fully understand his positions on these films, but by the time I’m done reading their dedicated, broken out section of column, I inevitably come away thinking about them differently.
Mr. Hamrah is no doubt reading the tortured metaphors of this intro and cringing at their maudlin nakedness, and I’m okay with that, because it’s very rare you get the opportunity to force a writer you respect and admire to read exactly what their work means to you. As you will also soon discover if you have the patience to read through this long interview I didn’t have the heart to cull much from (and because anyone who gives a fuck about movies should read it all), Mr. Hamrah hates the cataloging of influences, and he will be relieved to know I can’t say he’s had much of an impact on my writing, because I’m simply incapable of his discipline and clarity, my brain just doesn’t work that way, and it never will, but he has greatly impacted the way I think about criticism, and what the job of being a critic is, and what it means. Even if our sentences bear no resemblance, anytime you read something I wrote which is a little tighter, and less adverb strewn, that is slightly better considered than the chaotic mess you’re accustomed to, know that it was most likely written with the second sight he’s gifted me.
When I approached Mr. Hamrah for this interview, it wasn’t to discuss process. A quality of his book, and his general perspective that I admire, is how dour and clear eyed he allows himself to be when it comes to the state of the film industry, from the way we think and discuss it, to the films themselves. Before we spoke, I would have characterized his viewpoint as refreshingly pessimistic. He’s not sifting confectioners sugar onto the yearly offerings of half baked Christmas cookies, but instead acknowledging, in a way that could be uncharitably characterized as through a Gen X lens- by today’s unbearably hopeful, grotesque, generous, corporation-friendly standards- that the state of film from top to bottom is right fucked. It’s a kind of honest prescription that I feel is largely missing from the critic class, perhaps out of convenience, perhaps out of cowardice. To borrow from an utterly horrendous film (I think) we both didn’t like, A. S. Hamrah is one of the few working critics willing to acknowledge there is a visible Texas-sized asteroid in the night sky, hurtling towards its zero point on Earth.
But in our conversation, I found what I consider a core of shocking optimism. This is a position Mr. Hamrah would disagree with, and bury in caveats, and poke dozens of holes in if he was given this intro to review. What became clear to me as we spoke, is beneath the layers of justified anger and cynicism and disgust, there is a person who still has faith in the ritual of cinema, in our love for it, and by extension, in us. Who still has faith in the power of a well made film to move us, both in our hearts, and to our purchased seats in a darkened theater. Who believes in a future many professional prognosticators are urging us to give up on because they accept the narrative the pandemic -era industry has spoon fed them. I can’t say I am sure I agree with what I am taking liberties with and characterizing as his hope or belief we will return to normalcy someday, on the other side of this nightmare in filmgoing, but I can say I would like to believe in it more than anything. And I can say confidently, with no caveats, this conversation was one of the great highlights of my extremely dumb career.
(Author’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed to make me sound like less of an asshole)
Social media has increased that effect. People aren’t trying very hard to be good writers because what they’re interested in, understandably, is just getting a job. And having a job for a lot of people that want to be film critics entails being publicists, because the places they write for aren’t interested in publishing criticism, or they have arts editors who don’t really care about movies. And so it all just becomes a lot of publicity to increase views online. So if you write a piece on The Avengers, whether it’s an actual piece of criticism or a listicle, or just industry gossip, that’s going to get a lot more views than a thoughtful, written piece that’s informed by an understanding of the cinema and contemporary society. People don’t care about that. People like gossip and the new trailer drop. All this hurts criticism, and besides that, now there’s also a generalized hatred of cinema going on. People want to transition into writing about television.
People are highly vested in the idea that television and the cinema are the same thing. That they have somehow merged. People just really want that to be true. And they’re proud of thinking that. People are proud of the fact that they love television and they think it’s the same as movies or better than movies. They’re really patting themselves on the back for this great insight all the time.
.@Netflix pretty much admitting they are about to model themselves on broadcast TV and terminal-stage pay-cable: cheap, unscripted, episodic, lots of cancellations, no sharing. Good luck with that! https://t.co/JiwCa6xh98
— A S Hamrah (@hamrahrama) April 21, 2022
The profession only exists in terms of who’s doing it. So to be a critic, you can write on Substack now, just like when there were blogs, so anyone who wants to do it has to commit to doing it and that kind of commitment should exist, even if they can’t have a job doing it. So that’s how it was for me. I started writing in the 1990s. I wrote for zines, self-published by me and my friends. There was no way for people in my generation who had not gone to Ivy league schools to break into the profession of being a film critic.
I lived in Boston at that time, and the Atlantic was there back then, there was the Boston Phoenix, the Boston Globe, there were various other magazines. Most of them were not going to hire anyone who did not come from Ivy league schools. That just was not going to happen. So you had to do it yourself. That led to me getting work at mainstream publications, but really what it led me to getting was a job with a website called Suck.com, which was fantastic. It was an amazing experience to write for them. Sometimes I think millennials are just too careerist to understand this concept of doing it yourself. And so they end up compromising their work. And I think maybe as film critics they’re a generation of people who have compromise built into their souls. You never hear a millennial described as “uncompromising,” that’s for sure. They like to work together and get along. Those are positive values. Except in criticism.
The shallowness of so many people who are supposed to be film critics now is just not even something that is thought about. There’s just a lot of people who are writing to get on Rotten Tomatoes. So whenever I see someone who’s bragging about how they’re a Tomato Meter approved critic, I just feel bad for them, because they’re doing the job wrong. They are seeking a kind of validation that actually diminishes them.
If they’re bragging about being a Tomato Meter approved critic, I mean, one has to be against those things. We have to write against that kind of commodification and co-optation, the misuse of our words so that the people that own Rotten Tomatoes can make a profit. I’m on Rotten Tomatoes, but I didn’t ask to be on it. And then Rotten Tomatoes now has a column that they publish on their website called “The Critics Were Wrong,” in which they have people write in about some film that got a lower rating and explain why really it’s a good film. Who wants to be part of something like that? Now they are going to tell all these people who they have co-opted for profit that they’re wrong?
It’s not so black and white, anyway. Criticism is not black and white this way. Thumbs up? Thumbs down? The thumbs-up were not good for criticism. It just paved the way for “fresh” and “rotten,” which are stupid, non-descriptive words that don’t even apply.
— A S Hamrah (@hamrahrama) January 20, 2022
Now with Ambulance or The Northman, I haven’t been looking at the box office. I usually read the box office reports on Deadline, but I haven’t been doing that lately. What I would really like to know is what is the per-screen average for these films? Up through the ‘90s, the box office reports and magazines like Entertainment Weekly, when that still existed as a weekly magazine, they would have two box office charts. The movies that had the highest gross, and the ones that had the highest per-screen average. It was two different charts. So box office is a function of where the films are playing and where the films are playing is a choice that is made essentially by the studios, and studios hate exhibitors. The studios want the exhibitors to go away. They want to dominate exhibitors and show their new superhero movie on every screen, thousands of screens.
And what they realized is that the pandemic gave them this great opportunity to get rid of exhibitors. But what they’re seeing now in this late stage of the pandemic, which is still going on, is that didn’t really work. So now they’re all curving away from subscription services. They’re mocking streaming now at CinemaCon, which is going on this week in Las Vegas. Because the whole model of streaming proved to be one that is very dangerous for the studios because it is solely based on subscriber growth. Now, if studios only make five movies a year that’s dangerous for them, too. There could be a year where all five movies don’t make any money. But the streaming services have learned, Netflix in particular has learned, that making 72 bad movies a year is also not a good plan.
Because people get sick of it. They get sick of being constantly barraged with mediocre product. The old studio system was, you cultivated talent, you made a certain amount of films a year at different levels of production. There would be lower budget movies through very expensive movies. And Netflix seemed like maybe they were doing that, but they were not doing that. They were making 70 bad movies and two Oscar films a year. The other thing is that Netflix has seen just recently, they did not win any Academy Awards. The only person that won an Academy Award was Jane Campion. So what it looks like now is auteur directors like Campion and Alfonso Cuaron and Martin Scorsese and Noah Baumbach played Netflix. So the whole Netflix plan just fell apart in the last two weeks.
Film studios doing away with weekend box office as a success measurement and TV networks eliminating Nielsen overnight ratings means the only film/TV industry business model now is streaming. https://t.co/Bk2621x6AZ
— A S Hamrah (@hamrahrama) February 26, 2021
They want things to bomb. Remember how last year, Westside Story and Nightmare Alley were understood as bombs. “They’re bombs. People don’t want to see them.” They don’t look at how the films are released by the studios and nor do they look at other things, like what is the subject matter of the film? What is going on in these films? There’s no actual criticism. How are they determining whether the films are good or bad? All they’re doing is looking at this one number. And the one number is solely determined by the studios, how they release the films, in what theaters, in how many theaters, and when.
So this is an idiotic way to judge whether things are successful or not. The studios are still pretending that the audience of teenage boys and girls that go to superhero movies are the universal audience, which they are not. That’s the blockbuster model. You must pretend this small segment of the entire potential audience is the whole audience, and that there is no other. And that is not the case. And we’re seeing this model crumble. And part of it is because of the way mega cineplex theaters were built. You have to drive to them. They’re very suburban, and they basically got too expensive.
You can’t say anything about the future of the cinema, as long as the pandemic continues, unless your assumption is the pandemic will continue indefinitely. So any predictions people make during the pandemic are just pure speculation. If a large segment of the audience is afraid to go to movie theaters, because they don’t want to get sick, you’re making predictions without taking that into enough consideration. I think when the pandemic ends people’s behavior will largely go back to how it was before. I think that there’s new kinds of movie theaters being built all the time, like the Alamo Drafthouse model. Or just smaller theaters that open, that we were seeing a lot of in 2019, and it was going very well. The conflict here is that the studio model is partially based on pandemic conditions prevailing, while the exhibitor model is based on the pandemic ending or not being a threat. Obviously the part of the audience least concerned with that is teenagers and people in their twenties.
Again, I’m not making a prediction. But I can’t stand the cottage industry of speculating around the death of movies due to the pandemic. The media needs to fill space, and they don’t know who to ask, and they don’t want to ask critics. They want to ask tech people with a vested interest in seeing new technologies like streaming succeed.
JEANNE DIELMAN, L’ECLISSE, PETRA VON KANT and THE PIANO TEACHER are critiques of the way capitalism leads people down desperate and immoral paths in…
Janus: wait but would they make good TV? https://t.co/v3mv87azw7
— A S Hamrah (@hamrahrama) August 11, 2020
What you see with a limited series, you know, the first few episodes might be great and riveting. But when you get to the last two or three episodes, it completely runs out of steam. Because what they had was a two hour movie extended over a certain number of episodes. The difference between movies and television is that movies have an ending.
With some of these television shows, they talk about how it’s cinematic. All they mean by that is production value. They don’t actually mean that the formal qualities of it are cinematic. The internal logic of it is not cinematic. The acting is not cinematic, the direction isn’t cinematic. It’s boring to me. I worked as a semiotic brand analyst in television for eight years, from 2008 to 2016. So I had to watch a lot of television. I basically had to watch every show that was on television at that time. And the more of it you watch, the more you realize how unlike movies it is. Volume consumption in my case emphasized that. For some people it obliterates memory of the cinema. And for others it seems better, because their idea of what cinema is has shrunk to just blockbusters.
In my old job a client was an entertainment news TV show. They had André Leon Talley on a lot, were debating continuing doing so. We advised them they should. They hated originality, loved blandness & garbage, decided not to. He was too good for them, too big, too smart. RIP
— A S Hamrah (@hamrahrama) January 19, 2022
Our edition features: audio commentary featuring Sayles and cinematographer Haskell Wexler; a new documentary on the making of the film; a new interview with composer Mason Daring; a new program on the film’s production design; an essay by A. S. Hamrah; and more! pic.twitter.com/gh49Z3Pdqu
— Criterion Collection (@Criterion) July 18, 2019
Part of their goal in growing their brand is that they have to make new stuff that enhances the brand. So they have The Criterion Closet, they have the Criterion Top 10 lists. Those things are fun and they’re interesting because of the people they get to do them. But once your brand starts focusing on that stuff more, that’s when you start to run into trouble. Brands become very celebrity-oriented when they do that. That’s often the sign that there’s a problem in growth, when too much of the new content they’re producing around the brand is contemporary-celebrity-oriented.
And they constantly have to have new stuff going on. So that starts to dilute the brand, you know? They start putting movies into the Criterion Collection for reasons that don’t have to do with the quality of the films, necessarily, recent films. They start adding new films for reasons that are obscure to fans of the collection. Brands are not ethical for the most part. Brands seek to make a profit and to grow brand awareness. And with brands, as I wrote about Netflix, eventually all that stuff pushes out what the brand was initially known for, and what people liked about it. That is the gentrification I wrote about with Netflix.
So I had this experience a couple months ago. I’m friends with a movie critic, and he got me into a screening of a blockbuster, and there was a media embargo on the movie. And I was just a schmuck who snuck into the screening, and I decided to write about the movie because I wasn’t beholden to the studios or anything. But it was an interesting experience because I published something a month before anybody else was allowed to talk about it. So as far as I know, I was the first person in the country who reviewed it. There was a kind of anxiety that I felt personally as a result. Have you ever experienced that sort of concern?
@aoscott You'll have to include an embargo date with each tweet.
— A S Hamrah (@hamrahrama) January 6, 2014
Joker’s “fictional 1981 New York City is haphazard but not all that different from the more real 2012 New York of Uncut Gems, if New York had a clown district as well as a diamond district.” the incomparable @hamrahrama on the 2020 oscar movies https://t.co/Nv6r5uxScw
— Rachel Seville Tashjian (@theprophetpizza) February 7, 2020
Occasionally I’ll say something on social media just because it occurs to me, you know? But then I regret it a lot of the time. I like posting industry stories because I think the way that the film industry is reported on is just kind of backwards. So whenever I see interesting stories that actually reveal something about the state of the industry in a different way than the dominant narrative, you know, since that’s interesting to me, I’ll put it up.
On the new episode of the film podcast @OeuvreBusters the hosts and I discuss the least seen film of #Kurosawa’s classic period, his 1951 adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot. https://t.co/FL4jGjiyn7 pic.twitter.com/0ta9WjPVzu
— A S Hamrah (@hamrahrama) October 14, 2020
The greatest one to me was when Joker came out and the director started talking about Chantel Akerman, and he got the title News from Home wrong, and you could tell he had no idea what he was talking about. He couldn’t even get the name of the film right. It was just embarrassing. Because he doesn’t have to bring Akerman into it. Why do that? But for some reason, at least speaking publicly, he can’t just think about his bank account and be happy.
You wrote my favorite review of Licorice Pizza. And I, I think it’s one of the few that hews the closest to the ideas that are actually in the film, which is something I don’t think a lot of people even really bothered to think about or discuss. And I wanna talk about that, the discourse around the film. To me, it seems really apparent that the intention of the filmmaker was pretty obvious and then was willfully misinterpreted. And that misinterpretation was run with, to generate outrage and bad faith.
A lot of your critique in your book of criticism, warns of the danger of cowardice. That critics shouldn’t be afraid of the institutions they are forcefully being pressed up against, they should fight against this institutional power and speak their truth. As internet outrage culture continues to grow in volume and influence, do you think that there’s a danger on the other side of the aisle? That, this thing where people rush to be first and to be the most emphatic in their hastily formed opinion, shouting down dissent in the interest of burning straw men, and the nuance that we’re losing because of character limits, and being afraid to go up against the loudest voices in the room, could also be a danger to the future of criticism?
I saw that clip of the young woman on TikTok talking about Licorice Pizza and how she left the theater. When you make a film or write a book or do anything in the arts, you have to understand that it’s going to be received by people who have no idea who you are or what you’ve done in the past. There’s a random quality to the reception of works. That’s just part of it. And that’s amplified by social media. That’s really not a new thing. It’s just that it’s more annoying now. It’s one of these things that divides us from other people because it just makes us smack our heads and be like, “How can people be so stupid?” You’re constantly being forced to have this reaction in ways that you didn’t have to before.