The Follow: A. S. Hamrah, Critic

Abe Beame connects with A. S. Hamrah to talk about post-pandemic cinema, what makes a box-office bomb, Criterion curation, and more.
By    May 24, 2022

Covering everything from rage beats to niche Twitter icons. Please support the realest hip-hop blog for over a decade running by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon.

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, 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)

One of my main takeaways from what I like to think of as the manifesto at the opening of your book is that the complicity between critics and the film industry has crushed film and criticism. Now there’s a kind of relativism that a lot of critics use these days to- I think- maintain sanity and also to keep doing their jobs where they say, “It’s not all so bad.” Superhero movies are the new westerns, Captain America is a brave stand against fascism, or whatever the fuck. But you don’t do that. In my mind, you are willing to acknowledge that movies are actually getting dumber and worse. That this is not a temporary blip, but things are declining in a permanent, negative way. So what would you say to the relativist film critic that’s bending over backwards trying to make lemonade?

A. S. Hamrah: The relativism you’re talking about, to me, is just laziness, stupidity, and bad taste. People just don’t know what they’re talking about and they’re lazy. They’re not trying to be good writers. They’re interested in being “First”. They have nothing to say. Most people who are film critics have nothing to say, so whatever they do say is not interesting. You’re dealing with people who have gone into the profession, which it is, a profession, for the wrong reasons. They’re publicists, and this has always been a problem in film criticism, but it’s one that’s really gotten worse over the years, partially because of the internet, which as we all know is the great idiot enabler.

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.

So you see it as an institutional collapse, that everyone from the writers to the editors, to the environment that welcomes this nuance-starved, breathless, movie-trailer-review-journalism has enabled-

A. S. Hamrah: Well, there’s been a complete collapse of the publishing industry and of journalism. That always affects the art sections first. They get rid of the arts writers, or consolidate jobs so that the writer has to write about pop culture in general. This is happening in newspapers, magazines, and websites. And I think people who run those kinds of places think that critics are the most negligible people who work for them. A lot of people who are journalists, you know, they just don’t care about the arts. They don’t care about movies. And critics can cause problems for publications too, because of advertising issues.

I wanted to ask about that because I thought what it was so interesting is the intro to your book, the manifesto-

A. S. Hamrah: My book has an introduction in it that was also published online. The title of which is Remember Me On This Computer. That introduction to the book is not meant to be a manifesto, but I understand why you might take it as one. It’s really supposed to be an introduction to how I became a film critic and my thoughts on the current situation and why I write the way I do. I know what you mean about it being a manifesto. But it’s more me trying to position my work in a certain way.

Understood. To me, there’s big ideas about criticism in it that I think served as a great introduction to your approach to criticism. In Remember Me On This Computer, you’re miles ahead of many things that ended up happening in film as well as the industry, including the tenuous state of the critic class and the job market. With all these jobs and outlets disappearing at almost terrifying speeds, what do you think the future of the profession is?

A. S. Hamrah: Well, thank you for saying the piece was ahead of its time. Recently Netflix announced they might start charging for a lower tier that includes advertising, And I predicted that in that piece.

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, 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.

So your prediction is that we return to this form without as many viable career paths, where it’s more grassroots and that the people who are in it for the passion will hopefully fight their way to prominence and the few jobs that are left.

A. S. Hamrah: Well, I’m not making any kind of prediction. I’m just saying that if people want to be good at it, that’s what they have to do.

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.

I completely agree. It’s like you were saying before, there’s no nuance in it. It’s a score.

A. S. Hamrah: Rotten Tomatoes has aggregated reviews that go back 20 years or more. If you pick a film that came out 20 years ago and look at all the reviews, say five films that came out 20 years ago, you would see that there’s a lot of variation in what critics think of those films. So the scores are not in the 90s like many are now. And I think you can attribute the lack of deviation to critics applying Rotten Tomatoes thinking. You know, it’s like restaurant reviews on Yelp, everything is 4 stars.

I fucking hate Yelp.

A. S. Hamrah: The Hollywood studio system loves Rotten Tomatoes, though. And it’s partially owned by a studio. So, you know, I guess that makes sense. They can’t wait to put that “100% Fresh!” sunburst badge on their ads.

Since we’re on studios, I sense- and please feel free to push back on this- but to me, it feels like with what’s changing with movies, the institutional power of the studio is shifting to streaming services, as it’s steadily being eroded by the changing economics of the business. What do you think is left? Where do you see the industry heading in terms of what they can get made? At one point, in an interview I watched for background for this, you said you thought that the age of the blockbuster was coming to an end. But recently we saw Spider-Man was one of the biggest movies ever. And Batman did okay. But then you have these movies that would’ve been, maybe a hundred million dollar movies in the past, like The Northman or Ambulance, that kind of crashed and burned, at least theoretically, according to conventional wisdom, because they weren’t attached to IP.

A. S. Hamrah: It’s not that they crashed and burned, you know? The whole discourse is wrong. Here’s the thing. Spider-Man: No Home Movie, or whatever the fuck it was called, it’s not a blockbuster in the traditional sense. What’s happening now with blockbusters is they are resorting to this kind of Love Boat style casting. It’s just stuffed with stars, which is like a Wes Anderson movie too. In the Spider-Man movie, there’s three Spider-men. And they bring back all these felons. These kinds of developments are signs of desperation, it’s a decadent phase. That’s not a blockbuster in the traditional sense. That’s an all-star television special.

Eventually leads to diminishing returns. It’s a pageant.

A. S. Hamrah: That’s a good word for it. To say that’s the same thing as the Toby McGuire Spider-man films, it’s not the same thing as that at all. It’s an end point. The Batman, I guess did pretty well. They’re doing another one. But it’s still kind of the same thing. It’s just a star-studded extravaganza. They just keep cycling through these superheroes with new actors in them. And each time they do it, it gets more expensive and they need more stars to do it. And to me, that is a sign that it’s not quite working.

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.

Well, how about rather than qualifying movies as bombs or hits, it would appear at least The Northman, which in my opinion is about as hard of a home run as you can hit for a project like that in terms of quality, at least appears as if it may not be making its money back. So do you think it’s a failure of audience? Do you think that there’s gonna be a slow return to normalcy in terms of how the studios are making and releasing pictures?

A. S. Hamrah: There’s going to be a slow return to normalcy, but there are two things with that. First, tell me the per screen average for The Northman versus whatever was the number one film last week did per screen. If you can’t tell me the per screen average for the film, you do not have enough information to discuss this, which is how the studios want you to discuss it, in terms of gross at the box office. So there is a Number One movie, and then there is everything else. One thing succeeded, all others failed. And this is something the reporting about the film industry does not want to focus on.

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.


A. S. Hamrah: Right. You have to spend a lot of money to see the movie. Then you have to buy all this completely overpriced food. I mean, it’s a daunting proposition for any audience. And the studios didn’t like the exhibitors anyway. So the pandemic was this golden opportunity for them to get rid of the theatrical exhibition.

Cut out the middleman.

A. S. Hamrah: Yes. But that hasn’t worked. So part of the problem since March of 2020 is that the media is driven by people making predictions about what’s going to happen. And the people they ask are usually people that have no idea what they’re talking about, or they’re people that have a vested interest in a certain technology winning and in seeing certain things happen, and one of those is theaters going away, and new tech replacing them.

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.

I think one important thing about following the money is it can inform what gets made and how it’s made. There are a lot of six hour mini series now that would’ve been movies 10 years ago. A lot of stars that wouldn’t have been caught dead in the ghettos of television are coming. They’re using talented directors with film backgrounds, I think we’re seeing a line dissolve. Do you think that this is a byproduct of pandemic? I think the Netflix development that we’re circling does suggest that this is not a sustainable model and you can’t just keep losing money forever in perpetuity hoping that you’re gonna get more and more subscribers. So is this a blip?.

A. S. Hamrah: Well, definitely it was a trend because you have actors who want to work, and if the films aren’t being made, they’re going to go to television. This has always been true in the history of television. This is not anything new. It was true in the 1950s. It’s true today. The first thing that’s important to understand is that television is not a director’s medium. That’s why there’s the concept of the showrunner. There’s a person that’s kind of in charge of things. And then, for the most part, episode to episode, the series will have different directors. They’ll have two or three people directing these things over a season. They’ll bring in different people occasionally. It’s rare that someone is a director who does the whole thing David Lynch did with Twin Peaks: The Return. I mean, he obviously learned the hard way that he had to do that because of what happened to the second season of the original Twin Peaks.

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.

Serialized storytelling versus cinematic storytelling.

A. S. Hamrah: Right. That is the model of television. It doesn’t have a real ending. It goes on and on. They’re soap operas. Because they’re just stringing it out endlessly. That’s why the concept of jumping the shark exists. So even to me, as a critic, I would rather see the worst franchise movie, because it has an ending. You go to the movie theater, you watch it for two hours, and it’s over. And someone constructed it to be that way. Now they might not have done a good job, but it does have this narrative form that ends. There’s something childish and juvenile about things that don’t end. It just opens itself up to be repetitive, those are the characteristics of television. Right away, there’s a difference between the two forms that people don’t really want to acknowledge.

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.

I want to quote something that you wrote: “I’ve become skeptical of any company that offers films that are not new. Successful multinational companies are gentrifiers. They move in on old content before they start to make their own content and become television networks.” So I think that’s very much been born out, but I was just wondering if you watch or are aware of The Criterion Channel?

A. S. Hamrah: I’m a subscriber to The Criterion Channel. I started subscribing during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, I watched almost every movie in theaters because I live in New York City and I could do that. But when the pandemic started, I subscribed to Criterion, among other streaming services, so that I would be able to watch movies at home.

I spent so much of my time watching Criterion during the pandemic.

A. S. Hamrah: So did I. To be more clear, before the pandemic, I did watch DVDs and Blu-Rays, things I was writing about that I needed to review, I would watch those. I think television is more for media re-viewing than initial viewing. But when the movie theaters closed, I got Criterion Channel, and I’ve written some essays for Criterion releases.

I know that the point that I quoted was couched in a larger point about how Netflix handles old movies, or I should say mishandled old movies back when you wrote it, which was four years ago, but do you think there’s a utility and a positive benefit to the Criterion Channel and having all this great stuff available for anybody who’s curious to watch?

A. S. Hamrah: It’s great that they do that. Yes. It’s fantastic. The films they show are for the most part excellent movies. I think they should be thanked for that. They have a number of very smart people making those decisions, people who have great taste and know what they’re talking about and know what they’re doing.

Yeah. I just was wondering if they’ve changed or broken “the rules” of streaming older films, in your mind.

A. S. Hamrah: Here’s the issue with Criterion as you alluded to in that quote that you read to me. The first thing about Criterion to understand is that it’s a brand, and I think people understand that. It’s a brand, you can get a tote bag that has the Criterion C on it, a t-shirt, or whatever. So what brands do is they go out and they take things and they put them under the umbrella of their brand. They didn’t have anything to do a lot of the time with making any of “their” stuff. It’s not like they’re distributing all of it in theaters. It’s not like they only show stuff from Janus films, which is their releasing company.

They’re curational.

A. S. Hamrah: It’s curation, but really I don’t like the term curation. Everybody’s a curator now because it’s too hard to be a critic. To be a critic, you actually have to write things, Criterion is engaged in a branding process that is now part of curation, but did not used to be.

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.

You make a great point about the necessity of their churn and its implicit dangers, which isn’t something I really thought about before.

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?

A. S. Hamrah: First of all, I don’t give a shit about media embargoes. Once you see something, you are allowed to say something about it. That’s life. Anyone that tries to stop you from saying something about something you’ve seen is infringing on you, because you talk about things anyway, with people you’ve seen a film with or who have also seen the film, so you should be able to write about it, too, at that time if you want to. On the other hand, I do not think there is an imperative to write about a film that day it comes out, or when it first shows in a festival, to have a piece ready that day. That is how it is done, but why? It’s an antiquated system based on publicity.

Yeah. I agree. I think they’re stupid. That’s why I didn’t care.

A. S. Hamrah: If people who make films think that that matters, that someone has broken their embrago, then they’re dumb. It doesn’t matter. Anyone talking about their movie helps them. If they’re worried about people saying bad things about their movies, then make better movies.

It really lends to your point about the critic working as a publicist for the film.

A. S. Hamrah: The studios are trying to put you in the position of being a publicist when they say you can’t publicly comment on anything about their film until a certain date. The fact that editors go along with that is not good. Again, this is an advertising consideration.

And to the point about the anxiety of being out in front of something or “getting it wrong,” whatever that means.

A. S. Hamrah: That’s something some writers have internalized, they are afraid of not doing the work of the studios. I don’t mean you particularly.

Well, no, it’s more like, because I was kind of having to form a completely naked interpretation of the film. I was like, what if I’m dumb? What if I’m messing this up? What if I’ve gotten something wrong?

A. S. Hamrah: Oh. I’ve never experienced that. It’s okay to get things wrong. We have to get away from this herd mentality. Herds are not good. There is no herd immunity in criticism.

I had just been rereading your review of Good Time, which I think you’re right on the money on. And I saw that you’ve mentioned Uncut Gems in a favorable light a couple of times, but as far as I could find, have you ever actually written on it?

A. S. Hamrah: I’ve written things about it, but inside of other pieces. I’ve never written a proper review.

Among the people who are gonna read this, and also who like this website, there’s a huge following for that movie. I don’t know if cult is the right word, because I think it went big enough that it was kind of a mainstream movie-

A. S. Hamrah: It is a cult. I loved Uncut Gems. I thought it was great. But it is becoming the Fight Club of its time.

Because it’s being worshiped rather than inspected critically?

A. S. Hamrah: Just because that happens to some films. They resonate in certain times in certain ways, they capture something about what it is to be alive at the time they come out that other films don’t have access to, or don’t think about.

What do you think are the negative ramifications of that?

A. S. Hamrah: People quote it all the time and are annoying. Then it leeches away from the film into the area of empty celebrity. I don’t think all this social media comedy around Julia Fox is really very helpful to the Safdies as filmmakers. Julia Fox is great in that movie. But when things become celebrified like that, it hurts filmmakers. It removes something from the work. At least for a little while.

The point of this series is to discuss aspects of the internet, particularly Twitter and what people use it for. I think your account is interesting. You don’t really weigh in or discuss movies as much as share and post on industry news. Is it because you want to have conversations about the industry or are you reluctant to join the fray around the discourse with certain movies online?

A. S. Hamrah: Most of the people that talk about films online are just Tweeting away their work. They’re giving it away for free. They think that if they do that, it’s going to help them get jobs as critics. So that’s a counterproductive strategy if you want to be a writer. So I don’t do that. If you want to read my thoughts about stuff, you have to read my actual work. If you want to be a publicist-style film critic, then maybe that helps you.

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.

So it’s kind of like media criticism.

A. S. Hamrah: I guess it is, yeah.

In your work, there are other critics you’ve written about, but I wonder if there were any influences we might be surprised by that you haven’t discussed. And also if there are any particular writers that were really influential on your prose.

A. S. Hamrah: There are a lot of critics that I read when I was younger that have had an enormous impact on me. Farber, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Jonathan Rosenbaum, but you know, there’s other stuff that I don’t really want to reveal necessarily. First of all, I hate the idea of influence, it’s way too overdetermined today. You know how you go on Wikipedia and there’s a whole section about how this person was influenced by all these things and then there’s a list? It doesn’t necessarily explain anything, and that doesn’t mean their work is good. If you provide a list of things that you think influenced you, that you think influenced you as a writer, and then your work stinks, the fact that those people who influenced you were good writers just makes you look worse.

Yeah. Like when directors say that this shitty comic book movie was influenced by Melville heist flicks.

A. S. Hamrah: It was influenced by the Seven Samurai! It was influenced by Kurosawa! They always bring him up. It’s this legitimizing process of showing your work that is absolutely meaningless. People are fooling themselves if they think that their influences are so available to them, anyway. You know, we live in a time that’s very anti-psychology. The notion that you are fully aware of what influenced you is baloney. People who do that are making claims.

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.

On the other hand, who among us will ever forget the indelible three minute scene where the Joker stares ahead, peeling potatoes at the kitchen table?

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?

A. S. Hamrah: Well, it’s a danger to the present of criticism. But you know, a lot of this stuff is ephemeral. I think people have already forgotten all the Licorice Pizza controversies. It becomes part of the publicity for the film. It’s really part of the campaign to get people to see the film, this kind of outrage. No one then that takes that outrage and writes something deep or thorough about it. Not that I saw, anyway.

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.

It’s funny to me because I think a lot of this conversation has been about cynicism that promotes optimism, because it suggests that there’s a way back from what’s happened, both to movies and to us.

A. S. Hamrah: Well, I’m not that optimistic, but nor am I that cynical. I just know that the business press controls criticism now. Hollywood and entertainment journalism almost preclude criticism at this point, which is ironic because they’re so focused on things like Rotten Tomatoes scores at the same time. As critics, we should try to get away from all of that.

I guess that’s as good a place as any to leave it. Thank you. Thank you so much for your time.

A. S. Hamrah: Nice to talk to you.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!