I learned about AS Hamrah from the NYTimes book review of The Earth Dies Streaming. The link arrived at a vulnerable time: I was under the gun to finish two presentations I would be giving the next morning, back to back, in the first two slots of the American Economics Association conference. I clicked the link to Jennifer Szalai’s laudatory review, which I read, and then opened an n+1 tab in my overloaded browser to find his available backlog of reviews. They delivered. With lines like the following, who wouldn’t agree?
“Defeating these aliens requires dry-erase conspiracy charts, a trip-wired perimeter, homeschooling. It’s a paranoid fantasy for dads who want to move upstate. The family is Pinteresty and wholesome in a Kinfolk magazine way: sustainable-farm craftspeople who the director-stars John Krasinski and Emily Blunt have observed from their Brooklyn town house on the way to Court Street Grocers.” (on: The Quiet Place; November 2018)
“Democracy dies in darkness, sure, but if Spielberg really wanted to make a movie about the fate of journalism in America, he should have made one about the founding of USA Today in 1982.” (on The Post; Spring, 2018)
“Period-specific music from the Cure, XTC, and New Kids on the Block bolsters the tone, but with all the talk in the movie about how everything floats down here, it’s disappointing that the music supervisor missed Hüsker Dü’s “She Floated Away.” (on It; Winter, 2018.)
It wasn’t a bad way to develop a habit, but the timing was something less than ideal.
Since that night, which stretched quite long as I kept finding reasons to read one more review (finishing a slide here, struggling on some speaking notes there), I’ve made my way through the content n+1 made available for free to readers, mostly in stolen moments before needing to go to some meeting somewhere. But all good things must come to an end, and I didn’t want to handwrite every sentence I particularly liked to better remember them, so I ordered the book.
Reader, it’s everything I hoped. References that delight abound:
— to that particularly glum menace of Boston: “I’m sure that woman puts an orange traffic cone in her parking space in May” (Hamrah, 2018, 160)
— Gasland’s presentation of “the new American landscape, where George Romero meets Henry Thoreau” (Hamrah, 2018, 249)
— the callback to a 2011 review of The Town in a review of Lion that leads with the words “Google Earth has finally made a movie” (Hamrah, 2018, 89)
If there’s a thread to be found (besides the very fine writing that everyone rightly recognizes on display), it is the subtle points about economics and humanity throughout Hamrah’s work. He describes scenes set “in the kind of nothing restaurant that is everywhere in the US but that is never shown in movies,” praises a “corporate promotional video made in the style of Michel Gondry (whom it mocks)” in Sorry to Bother You that nevertheless “leaves out the combination lavatory-abattoir where the workforce is imprisoned”, and teases the reader with the words, “Strange, since Michèle’s father, a mass murderer who dragged her to his homicides, killed people for being rude.” (Hamrah, 2018; 3, 9, 116)
If I came for words like, “Django Unchained is not so much the evil twin of the saintly Lincoln as its nasty, more clever kid brother,” (219) I stayed for the point that Hamrah, who:
“saw The Hateful Eight while the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was happening, [where, holed] up in the middle of nowhere in winter, a group of armed men telling one another bedtime stories about the Constitution threatened to make a bloody mess. Outside, the nation tore itself apart because a large segment of the population refused to give up old myths.” (Hamrah, 2018, 158)
believes that “The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s most timely film.” (Hamrah, 2018, 158) Reading this book with reverse sequence should leave you inclined to agree.
It’s been an inspiring read, and an affirmation of the value of movies, the good and the bad. Even when Hamrah pans a movie I enjoyed (Arrival made me cry, and I still want to know why Portuguese is so different from Spanish), I chuckle, not even grudgingly. His less than gentle critiques of the slide into family entertainment from movies with perspectives that had something, however unpleasant, to say about people or the world, which is often unpleasant, are restorative, and make me want to see movies like Good Time, despite other reviewers’ arguments that there is nothing redeeming about the experience. Having just watched and debated the relative conservatism of Quentin Tarantino’s vision for Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (not for the first time, I assume), and having turned down opportunities to see other movies because I just didn’t want to feel gross, I feel both redeemed and challenged. (And by the way, his bit on Open Source about the newest Tarantino movie is well worth seeking out.) Hamrah is never priggish. I love his argument against animated movies for grownups who are not trying to appease tiny tyrants, and feel newly emboldened in my rejection of certain animated movies with my own.
As I worked my way through The Earth Dies Streaming the way one should (which is to say leisurely and without agenda; the cover is battered from my carting it around on weekend trips this summer), a new crop of Hamrah’s reviews posted on n+1. I noted on Twitter that “the only sad thing about a Hamrah post is knowing how long until the next one.” Hamrah himself kindly thanked me and suggested reading this book in the meantime. So I’m equal parts pleased and pained to share my discovery that he approved of 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Sydney Lumet’s last movie before his death. I had anticipated its release in my first semester of grad school, was slammed with end of semester work while it briefly played at the local theater (just one weekend, I think!), and eventually watched it the following summer as my very first Netflix DVD rental. Remember those? Pleased, because I think he would appreciate the delayed reward in waiting to see something that delivers as one hopes (or fails to predict). But pained, because there are only 32 more pages to go, not counting the acknowledgements, which I’ve already read. To butcher the Shakespeare, I know that parting with this book will, indeed, be such sweet sorrow.