On this episode of the n+1 podcast, Moira Donegan speaks with n+1 film critic A. S. Hamrah about reviewing the Oscars, the state of film criticism, and surreal pop culture news in North Carolina.
Hosted by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson
Produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, Emily Lyver, Maya Shoukri, and Eric Wen
Graphics by Eric Wen
Music from Dinosaur L, The Passions, The Fall, John Carpenter & Alan Howarth
Malcolm Donaldson: On this episode of the n+1 podcast, Moira Donegan speaks to our resident film critic, A. S. Hamrah, about reviewing the Oscars, reality TV, and surreal pop culture news in North Carolina. Here’s Moira:
SEGMENT: Interview with A. S. Hamrah
Moira Donegan: So, let’s talk a little bit about who you are for our listeners and what your history with n+1 is.
A. S. Hamrah: Well, I’ve been writing for n+1 on and off since I guess about 2008, as the film critic. And, I think the first thing I did was a very long piece in print only, at the time, about Iraq War and War on Terror movies, in which I watched every single Iraq War/War on Terror movie that had come out and wrote about them all. And after that I started writing a film column online that Keith Gessen asked me to write, and the first one was centered around films that had been nominated for Oscars that year. I’ve written a lot of other columns that are round-ups of other films that I’ve seen that are not such mainstream, Hollywood films. The columns are written in the same style but they don’t just cover films like that, that would be nominated for Oscars. They cover a lot of other films: foreign films, art films—or just things that I think are somehow related to films that are interesting to me. So anything could be in the column.
But for the Oscar column that I’ve done, I don’t know how many of those I’ve done, I haven’t done them every year, but I’ve done several of them now. They have to be about the films that are nominated for Oscars that year, so that creates a certain kind of cohesive feel, I guess, because a lot of films that are nominated for Oscars aren’t really that interesting. Or they’re prestige films that Hollywood producers think are important, but they’re not really—oftentimes they are not very good. So the Oscar column probably will always be funnier than other ones because it’s easier to insult those films or to put them down if they’re not very good or there’s something pretentious about them, or something that doesn’t work. It’s easier to do that because those aren’t normally films I would go see all at once like I do when I do that column.
MD: Tell me about this phenomenon of the prestige Hollywood movie. What do you mean when you say that?
ASH: Well, by that I mean films that are nominated for Oscars. They’re the kinds of films that successful film producers in the US think are important. They try to tackle subjects that are of societal interest, like Spotlight, you know, the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in Boston. They’re very heavy dramas, they tend to have certain actors in them that are not in other kinds of films, and they’re not usually genre material, although Mad Max: Fury Road was nominated for Oscars this year. Normally those kinds of films are only nominated for special effects or costume—whatever, wardrobe, makeup Oscars, not for the big categories like acting, directing, writing, producing, which is the Best Film Oscar.
They’re usually films that are trying to be significant and important but don’t necessarily reach the level they’re shooting for. And, increasingly, they’re films that fewer and fewer people have seen around the world by the time the Oscars happen because they’re not giant, huge blockbusters. They’re not films that necessarily travel well overseas. So the film industry’s splitting into two kinds of filmmaking, one of which is blockbuster filmmaking like Star Wars movies and the other is this kind of prestige, Oscar-bait movie. Increasingly you see the Oscar nominees being the same across different kinds of awards shows, like the Independent Spirit Awards and so on, and Sundance, maybe. Things that would not have been Hollywood films in the past now increasingly are Hollywood films as the film industry kind of bifurcates.
MD: This sort of bifurcation of Hollywood filmmaking into the prestige and blockbuster genres makes me think of other genres of non-prestigious—but also not particularly monetarily successful—Hollywood movies that I remember that maybe have fallen out. I’m specifically thinking of this dumb dude comedy genre that was a big deal in the 2000s. Stuff like American Pie—Eugene Levy was in a whole lot of that as sort of the blustering Dad.
ASH: Like Harold & Kumar.
MD: Harold & Kumar, yeah!
ASH: Or Dude, Where’s My Car?
MD: Dude, Where’s My Car?, where Ashton Kutcher was a big character—
ASH: Or Rob Schneider films.
MD: All the Rob Schneider films, yeah.
ASH: Well all of those made a lot of money, those were not unsuccessful films. They made a lot of those, they did quite well. The Hangover is the kind of last gasp of those. But I’m sure there will be more of those soon. I mean, they’re not very interesting. Freddy Got Fingered is in the news now because of the guy in North Carolina who got arrested for not returning a videotape that he rented sixteen years ago.
MD: What? I didn’t hear about this!
ASH: A guy in North Carolina, I think it was North Carolina.
MD: This sounds like something that would happen in Florida.
ASH: It does sound like a Florida story, but it was North Carolina. A guy was driving somewhere with his daughter, I believe, and he was stopped by the police because he had a taillight out, and they had a warrant for his arrest because he had a videotape that he had not returned in sixteen years. Or maybe fourteen years. And it was a VHS tape of Freddy Got Fingered, and he was taken downtown and booked because he hadn’t returned his copy of Freddy Got Fingered. And the video store’s not even open anymore, so it’s a sad tale about video stores as well as a ridiculous arrest for no reason, which I guess—that can happen now. So if you have anything you haven’t returned to a video store, you know, make it right.
MD: I wonder if that’s sadder because of the waste of law enforcement resources, or if it’s sadder for how embarrassed that guy must be for having rented Freddy Got Fingered.
ASH: The fact that it was so stupid to arrest him for that overwhelms the potential embarrassment of keeping your copy of Freddy Got Fingered all those years, or forgetting about it. And also, Tom Green intervened and said he would pay his legal fees or something.
MD: Oh, well that’s very kind of Tom Green.
ASH: It is, and it helps everyone. You know, it helps Tom Green, it helps that guy, it helps videotape awareness. We’re lucky to still live in a city where there are still video stores that rent DVDs. There’s one in my neighborhood that I go to all the time, and it’s great. They have many, many things that are not available streaming. I mean, probably 90% of the stuff they have you cannot get streaming because as streaming increases there are actually fewer and fewer films available because places like Netflix or Amazon want you to watch new things that they’re producing. They don’t really care about old movies. What they call “old movies.” In my other job someone from Netflix once said to me that they’re not in the “old movie business.” So it’s getting harder and harder to see classic films, foreign films, art films, et cetera that aren’t new.
MD: Where do you go to see those?
ASH: Well, one of the great things about living in New York is that there are so many movie theaters and there’s so many new ones opening now. The Metrograph just opened, and Lincoln Center just opened extra theaters, and there’s a lot of places that are opening up like this in addition to Film Forum, and Anthology Film Archives, and the IFC Center, or Angelika, or wherever you might go. Places in Brooklyn too, like Spectacle—we’re very lucky that all these places are here.
MD: It’s interesting that you mention places like Spectacle, and I’m thinking of Light Industry, and they do sort of serve an archival function. A lot of it is about seeking out somebody who’s long dead and showing his favorite movie. It’s a little backward-looking, and I’m wondering if you see venues opening up for new independent cinema or art cinema as well.
ASH: Well, the kind of places you mentioned are essentially doing curation. I don’t think they’re that backward-looking, as you say. I mean, they do that, but people have to do that now because of what I said about streaming. It’s going to erase film history as much as it can. There’s more curation going on than film criticism now. In the past, this kind of curation wasn’t as necessary. I mean, it was necessary also, but it’s becoming more necessary now, it’s becoming more pronounced, and I feel like people who are doing that are taking over from film critics in some ways.
MD: Could you say a little more about the distinction you’re making between archival projects and criticism projects?
ASH: Well, film criticism is a dying profession that is not supported by newspapers and magazines very well anymore. I mean, there are specialist magazines—film magazines that are filled with film critics. But most people doing that aren’t making a living doing it. The way that people used to make a living being film critics was by writing regularly in magazines and newspapers or going on television, like Roger Ebert used to. That kind of thing doesn’t really exist anymore, so very few people actually make a living just by being film critics. There are not really graduate school programs to become a film critic. That’s not something that’s really taught in schools. I mean, it is now, a little bit—there are some things like that, you know, NYU has that.
But being a curator or an art historian or an archivist, those things are taught, so people can have jobs doing that. They can make that their profession, and they can—you know, it’s competitive, and not everyone can make a living doing it, and some people just do it freelance, but you can make a living doing that in a way that you can’t as a critic. You can write and you can program and you can discover things that need to be revived or that no one has seen before. Those are important functions of being a critic, also. But now, because the media in the United States doesn’t really support film criticism, a lot of things that are interesting are moving into a more curatorial space. More programming, festivals, programming small cinemas or museums—all that kind of stuff is replacing film criticism.
Most film critics that write today regularly are essentially publicists for Hollywood films. Their criticism is intermingled with this form of entertainment journalism that really has nothing to do with criticism. So a lot of times when you read a film review now, in addition to getting a lot of plot description—which I don’t think is really necessary in film criticism anymore, because everybody knows everything about films before they come out now because of the internet—you get a lot of histories of the people who are in the films or made the films. You get a lot of speculation about how films are going to do at the box office or how fans are going to react, fan-boy type fans. All these things have nothing to do with criticism, in my opinion, but they’re taking over film criticism in the popular press, and that’s because you can make a living as an entertainment journalist reporting on the film industry or the television industry. But you can’t really make one just as a critic anymore. So there’s this split now between entertainment journalism and more intellectualized, curatorial work.
MD: Speaking of how hard it is to make a living, I know you also teach.
ASH: Well, I just teach an occasional class that someone invites me to come in to teach.
ASH: Yeah, I’m not an adjunct or anything. People I know who are adjuncts or professors have me come in sometimes to teach things. I did one recently at NYU.
MD: Can you tell me a little bit about that class you were teaching?
ASH: My friend who’s an art critic and also an adjunct professor, Jennifer Krasinski, teaches a survey class of art from the early 2000s, the last ten years of art making. She picks something from each year to represent that year, and they talk about that in each class. They go through the decade. I went in and did one on depictions of collapse and decline since the economic collapse in 2007 and 2008. So I showed an episode of the television show Hoarders—the reality TV show that was on A&E—and then I showed excerpts from the Lars von Trier film, Melancholia, and Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, and the Aleksei German film Hard to Be a God. I wanted to end the class by showing the Pharrell video for “Happy,” but we didn’t have time. So, I picked these films and the TV show to show how depictions of collapse and decline took over all kinds of televisual film production from the lowest, like reality TV, which Hoarders is—it’s low, it’s cheap, it’s ad-supported, it’s on cable—to the higher end of these European art films. And that’s what that class was about.
I became obsessed with Hoarders when it first came on when I was working in television branding and cultural analysis. I used to watch it all the time because I couldn’t believe that all of a sudden this was a form of entertainment for people. Going to the homes of these average kind of people who are also mentally ill who had turned their houses into huge piles of worthless junk right after the housing collapse and the mortgage crisis happened. This kind of entertainment became very prevalent on television—where America was presented as just a huge collection of junk and garbage that had to be picked through and sifted through by people looking to extract small amounts of value from it. So Pawn Stars was like that, and American Pickers, and some other things. Hoarders was kind of the most extreme example of this.
But the way Hoarders looks was strangely similar to certain kinds of art films that were being made, like Trash Humpers. And these other films, the films that I mentioned—Melancholia, The Turin Horse, and Hard to Be a God—also were about the end of the world. So I wanted to show films in which decline, collapse, and piles of stuff were really the visual landscape of the films. I just read an interesting article, actually, right after I did this class, in the New Left Review by Frederic Jameson called “The Anti-Aesthetic,” which is about Hard to Be a God. He talks about it as a film that can’t be enjoyed, that can’t really be assimilated into any kind of understandable way to see films that people are used to.
MD: Sounds amazing.
ASH: Yeah, but we didn’t get to see “Happy.” I wanted to show “Happy” as this kind of—there’s a lot of American films that are about this too and they’re all dystopian films usually based on young adult fiction, like the Hunger Games movies in which revolution—in the context of dystopia—is presented as just entertainment. And I don’t think it’s really productive for the people that watch those films. Those films exist instead of revolution, somehow. Whereas the films that I was showing—revolution is not part of those films, but they create a kind of consciousness in the viewer that’s productive, I think, even though they’re very bleak films. In America, commercial filmmaking doesn’t deal with things that way at all. There’s this enforced idea, especially sold to younger people, that they should be optimistic, and that becomes really overpowering. So, when Pharrell did that “Happy” video that was twenty-four hours long, that seems to me to be an example of overkill.
MD: Yeah, maybe just a tad.
ASH: That’s very extreme, in the same way those films are. But it’s so false. And there was a woman in 2014, also in North Carolina—we were talking about North Carolina before, with the Freddy Got Fingered thing—there was a woman driving to work one morning in North Carolina, and it was about eight in the morning, and she was texting. She was listening to “Happy,” the song, on the radio in her car, and she was texting, “The ‘Happy’ song makes me so HAPPY,” you know, all-caps, “HAPPY.” And she drove her car into the abutment of a bridge and died. But she sent the text right beforehand, and then the police came. So the text was sent at, like, 8:17, and then the police were there at 8:18. That to me is a statement also about collapse and decline.
For a long time I was so busy in my day job that I didn’t write my column for n+1 or anything else for n+1 that much, so I feel like a missed a lot of films that I should’ve seen during that period, but I couldn’t because I was working all the time. And I want to crowdsource from readers what films I should see that I might have missed, and then I want to write about those. You know, if it was something I didn’t want to see, if people wrote in and said, “You should see this,” and they wrote a sentence or two saying why and it was convincing or compelling to me, then I would see it.
MD: I’m going to say that if anybody wants to send suggestions to Scott they can email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll forward it along.
MD: Thanks so much listening to the n+1 podcast. I’ve been talking to our film critic, A. S. Hamrah. Thank you so much for being here.
ASH: Thank you for having me.
Malcolm Donaldson: This has been the n+1 podcast. Our producers are Moira Donegan, Malcolm Donaldson, Aaron Braun, and Eric Wen. Thanks as always to Dayna Tortorici and, of course, to our guest A. S. Hamrah. Thanks for listening.