For the past decade, A.S. Hamrah has been the sharp-tongued, rain-lashed drifter of American movie criticism. The character he adopts in his film columns for n+1 wanders through New York’s crass multiplexes and anxious independent movie theaters with a kind of melancholy indignation, enduring awkward exchanges with ticket-takers, bumbling through cases of mistaken identity at the New York Film Festival, suffering through bootlegged kids’ movies in a doctor’s office waiting room, subjecting himself to countless awful blockbusters, coming across washed-up obscurities on screens in pubs—a horror-comedy called The Thing With Two Heads; a Michael Crichton flop called Looker—and delighting with grateful thirst in films that reward his time rather than waste it.
He weaves these impressions into dense essays that dart among capsule-length considerations of dozens of films, sustained less by any overarching argument than by the seductive tone he sustains on the page. That tone was forged in crisis. Hamrah came of age in the early 1980s, reading books like J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies (1983). Similarly termite-like, anti-mainstream criticism kept emerging during those years: Herman Weinberg’s Coffee, Brandy, and Cigars (1982), B. Ruby Rich’s essays for The Village Voice, or, in France, Serge Daney’s La Rampe (1983). Hamrah saw it wane. “By 2008,” he argues in the introduction to his invigorating new collection, The Earth Dies Streaming, “film criticism seemed boring and repetitive, and too beholden to studio release schedules.” Professional critics had been conscripted by studios—as to some degree they always have been—into becoming auxiliary publicists for the movies they reviewed. “Trying to dismantle them politically or read them symptomatically or just say we love them or they suck” all became ways of making sure they sold. The air swarmed, for Hamrah, with banalities like the ones S.J. Perleman sprinkled across his 1958 burlesque of New York film culture: “They’re showing Acrid Fruit with Gérard Philipe, Danièle Delorme, and Danielle Darrieux! Jesse Zunser of Cue gave it five mangosteens!”
The problem came down to matters of style. How in 2008 could a serious critic write about film without deferring to “the entertainment industry’s terms,” especially in a form—the capsule review—so closely associated with the “consumer-guide approach”? Hamrah’s answer was to find a literary voice so coiled, combative, and ironic that no marketing department could find its way into or out of it. Plot description and potted career summaries were off-limits, he explains, as was anything “that could be extracted and used for publicity.” His prose would survive by buzzing and nipping around the film industry’s centers of power.
At least as far as major-studio productions were concerned, Hamrah resolved to concentrate not on the “ambiguous, implanted meaning” over which other critics haggled—“whether, say, The Last Jedi is anti-Trump or Avengers: Infinity War is about immigration or something”—but over the movies’ position in an economic setting that also included the studios that made them, the theaters that showed them, the sinister producers who funded them, and the platforms that streamed them. And, for that matter, the aggregates of visual detritus those institutions spew: Hamrah once “saw a man in a parking lot scraping the snow off the windshield of his car with the DVD of Independence Day he had just bought.”
This method tends to yield a bleak picture. Sitting in a theater preparing to watch a new The Purge sequel in the summer of 2016, Hamrah comes across a tweet announcing the death of the supremely precise, discerning Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. “All of a sudden,” the movie he’s about to see becomes “a stand-in for America’s violent, cynical, stupid cinema.” It sparks an epiphany:
I became aware, or I remembered, that there is a better world somewhere else, that being in this one, where we were waiting for The Purge: Election Year to shock us, was a waste of the time allotted to me in this life and that, if I were going to see a movie, what time I have would be better spent with a form of cinema that acknowledges something other than the bloodshed and mayhem into which the world has fallen.
But by the next year he’s back where we left him, issuing witty denunciations of La La Land and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. He can’t get away. It keeps repelling Hamrah that movies not only acknowledge but also contribute to “the bloodshed and mayhem into which the world has fallen.” The drama that sustains The Earth Dies Streaming is that this sense of dire complicity becomes at the same time the well from which Hamrah gets his energy and momentum as a writer. The batch of earlier pieces in this collection almost all date from the early years of the Iraq War; a brilliant long essay from 2008 called “Jessica Biel’s Hand” surveys dozens of movies the war inspired. The rest—most of the book—were written between the start of the subprime-mortgage crisis and the first years of the Trump presidency.
By rifling through hundreds of films that had wide US releases or made the international-festival rounds during these 11 years—movies that share a distribution schedule, a certain level of prominence, and little else—Hamrah wants to give a composite picture of the political atmosphere in which they all have a share. What they dwell on are particularly charged visions of disaster, carnage, and decay. Screen depictions of torture proliferated so widely that Hamrah, not implausibly, can trace “the primal scene of all Iraq War–era movies and maybe the entire era in general” back to the ear-severing scene in Reservoir Dogs. Zombie movies came back into vogue, imagining meltdowns that, for Hamrah, “made more sense than ever” in “the generalized dystopian entertainment landscape that followed the economic collapse of 2008.” So did superhero movies that dealt with staving off apocalypse, like The Avengers; “post-everything” comedies, like Tropic Thunder; “self-consciously gritty, shaky, and underlit” comedies, like Silver Linings Playbook; or documentaries, like the fracking exposé Gasland, that “do what both TV news and horror movies used to do—break real stories and scare the shit out of you.”
One of the best essays in The Earth Dies Streaming is an appreciation of the brilliant critic Manny Farber, who in his late pieces emphasized the need to see movies as part of a historically specific environment and at the same time keep attending to the oddness of their rhythms and texture. For Hamrah, Farber’s “radical, political” power—his stature as “the ultimate non-giver of mangosteens”—“resides in the things he leaves out, the things he refuses to do.” Plot description, for instance, or straightforward syntax. On the one hand, he “always lets in the outside world,” the political and economic conditions of moviegoing. On the other, he “bears down on the screen” with acute attention: “There are shortcuts but no shorthand in a Farber review.”
This is Hamrah’s project, too. The capsule format, to which many of the pieces here commit, can energize that style; it can also tug Hamrah away from the kind of precise description Farber embodied. It urges him toward brief witticisms that glitter when they attend to what’s onscreen—in Jacques Rivette’s Around a Small Mountain, the actor Sergio Castellitto “contrasts stillness with abrupt motion, enacting the mental agility of Rivette’s mise-en-scène”—and occasionally slip into shorthand when they don’t. Thoroughbreds “just lies there, but crisply, neatly, like an Instagram photo or gallery art.” The Town, with its preponderance of helicopter shots, feels as if it was “directed by Google Maps.” Arrival is “a reverie dreamed by a wake-and-bake mommy-blogger as she contemplates the rings made by her coffee cup on the morning paper and thinks about the spider sculptures of Louise Bourgeois.” The capsule form gives and takes. It militates against close dissections of any given film, but offers Hamrah a heightened, compressed vocabulary for describing the impression a movie makes as it spills out.
Another side of Hamrah—more patient, a closer viewer—emerges in The Earth Dies Streaming’s single-subject essays, on directors like Lynch and Herzog or older films like High Noon and The Grapes of Wrath. At his best he has it both ways, putting movies in constellations that suggest unexpected echoes and congruities between them. In “Heads Without Bodies,” a reflection on watching Trump’s inauguration by the foggy shore of Lake Ontario segues into an imaginative discourse on headless figures, racist violence, and celebrity. The movies that drift into the piece—The Thing With Two Heads, Get Out, the Baywatch movie, the third season of Twin Peaks—seem to register that moment’s creeping mood of exhaustion and futility, its joyless pull. Late in the essay, Hamrah invokes a scene from Chaplin’s Limelight in which Calvero, the aging clown, snubs an invitation to a lavish theatrical event. “As Trump news has shoved everything else out of the way this year,” he writes, “I have begun to feel like Calvero. I’m not interested in events. Or I wish I wasn’t.”