Your standard movie review is a strictly formal product. It has a set number of words, presumes the reader’s ignorance of the circumstances of the film’s making, and spells out as much of the plot as possible without — gasp — revealing the ending. Digital publishing, IMDB, and Twitter have made this approach all but untenable, yet it remains the default way of doing business. Only one critic, n+1’s A. S. Hamrah, has developed a convincing alternative.
This fall, the magazine released The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002-2018, an inaugural collection of Hamrah’s indispensable work. Rather than focusing on one or two new releases, his columns take the form of a dozen or so micro essays on individual films, ordered with care to create a procession of ideas that speak with unrivaled immediacy to the cultural moment. Operating outside of the model that Hollywood expects and relies upon in its advertising, Hamrah’s columns stand alone in their ability to evoke what it feels like to go to the movies in the 21st Century.
In his introduction, Hamrah writes that the first step in imagining a new film criticism was cutting out the three elements of reviews he found most tiresome. He would avoid “endless plot description,” the need to “identify actors, directors, and other artists by mentioning specific, obvious instances of their past work,” and, most crucially, “never try to include anything in my writing that could be extracted and used for publicity.”
The Earth Dies Streaming illustrates Hamrah’s implementation of these new standards by organizing his work in reverse chronological order: the first entry is his column from the most recent n+1, and the last few essays are from 2002 and 2004, when he was a low-profile freelancer in Boston. However counterintuitive, the scheme serves to extend a hand to the reader who’s more interested in the practice of criticism than the films under consideration (Sorry to Bother You and Deadpool 2 being more top-of-mind, one assumes, than Alenka, Boris Barnet’s 1961 masterpiece, which Hamrah uses to close the collection). More importantly, though, this structure encourages the reader to work archaeologically in charting Hamrah’s evolution as a critic.
Though still very much informed by the organizing principles Hamrah lays out in his introduction, his most recent columns have accrued a mellower, more welcoming aspect than in earlier years. In 2008 and 2009 he eschewed plot description entirely, leading to perplexing (albeit hilarious) moments, like this single-sentence write up of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button:
In a series of bad dreams, Brad Pitt combines with Forrest Gump, E.T., Oliver from The Brady Bunch, the baby from Eraserhead, Tom Waits album covers, Dr. Zhivago, Dick Cheney/Donald Rumsfeld, on and on, like robot locusts eating the inside of the movie theater for three hours.
For the initiated, that’s brilliant work, but for many readers, I suspect it reads like a car wreck of increasingly abstruse references that, once piled together, say little more than that the film is bad. Compare to the first lines of Hamrah’s review of last year’s The Big Sick: “What differentiates this lightweight rom-com from others is that in this one the girlfriend is in a coma and it’s based on a true story.” Without losing his punch, Hamrah’s found a way to give the reader unfamiliar with his subject just enough of a grip to get the joke.
However captivating Hamrah’s sardonic edge is, what makes his work distinctive isn’t necessarily the reviews themselves, but the associative logic he uses to move between them. In a piece from last December, he turns from Darren Aronofsky’s mother! to Woodshock, a film by the pair of sisters who designed the costumes in Black Swan. Hamrah calls Woodshock “a fantasy for the Trump era,” then jumps to Good Time, its inverse, the only movie of 2017, Hamrah asserts, “that lays out the time in which we’re living in such an immediate way, with all its desperation, violence, and inequality exposed.” From there, he riffs on The Florida Project before jumping to Blade Runner 2049. “Good Time and The Florida Project, movies set in the present, are more about the future than this is,” he writes, before panning the backward-looking, ‘80s-nostalgia-soaked It and Happy Death Day for sharing that disinclination to engage seriously with the present.
By focusing on the relation between these films as much as on their individual subject matter or composition, Hamrah shoos away the fuddy-duddy’s insistence that we consider movies only on their own merits in favor of a more contemporary way of viewing. If a director’s previous projects are relevant to a critic, Hamrah argues, so too are the films being previewed ahead of the screening, the other movies being shown concurrently in the theater, and the historical moment that has influenced its making. In his essay about watching Trump’s “crap-weird” inauguration from a bar in Ontario, he explains that just “as streaming drama can leech onto viewers’ lives in the form of binge watching, so can the constant stream of Trumpian reality TV consume viewers’ lives in the form of browser-based live bingeing.” Hamrah, rather than being routinized to comfortable press screenings and publicist embargos, is just a guy going to the movies. He checks his phone while the credits roll.
That sense of Hamrah’s relatability is key to his work. Throughout The Earth Dies Streaming, the reader is reminded that going to the movies is a physical act that happens in the real world. Hamrah writes about refusing to see Life of Pi because the ticket taker barred him from entering with a coffee and about the disassociating experience of learning that Abbas Kiarostami had died immediately before viewing The Purge: Election Year. When he reviews The Boss Baby, it’s only because it happened to be playing on a flight.
The longer essays included here may offer more astute takes on filmmaking — the one about Thomas Kinkade is particularly good, as is Hamrah’s well-known 2008 survey of films about the so-called War on Terror, “Jessica Biel’s Hand” — but it’s in these moments when Hamrah dips into the first person, acknowledging the peculiarities of his life and how singularly important the act of viewing is to him, that the implacable attachment to cinema that drives his work becomes most palpable. “Sometimes when I’m in a bar and a TV’s on,” he admits, “I can’t take my eyes off it, regardless of what’s showing or who I’m with.” He’s not kidding: in one column, he offers a critical assessment of the 1981 plastic surgery thriller Looker, which he saw at a Korean restaurant that was showing the film “with the sound off and music by Au Revoir Simone playing in the background.”
Perhaps it’s that fixation on the moving image that’s allowed Hamrah to develop a style of criticism so well suited to our digital present. He’s a panoptic critic, incapable of relaxing his gaze. “I don’t feel compelled to tell you that I also love Edgar Wright movies to show that sometimes I luxuriate in mediocrity,” Hamrah confides. “I don’t love movies like that, I don’t do that, and it doesn’t matter.” Hear, hear. This collection proves the necessity of such rigor, and solidifies Hamrah’s place as our age’s most irreplaceable critic.