May 3, 2019KR Reviews

On The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002-2018 by A. S. Hamrah

Brooklyn, NY: n+1 Books, 2018. 452 pages. $20.00.

“Jessica Biel’s Hand,” a 2008 essay reprinted in A. S. Hamrah’s The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002-2018, should be required reading for first-week freshmen, their adjunct professors, poets, Republicans, buffs and revival-house regulars, dirtballs, Americans, people who aren’t Americans, and anyone who cares about the rationalizations bureaucracies give for wars and war stories. It’s one of the very best essays in one of the very best books from this dispiriting year.

Of Iraq in Fragments (2007) he writes,

[it’s] so good I’m surprised people even recognize it as a movie. It’s devoid of the clutter other documentaries rely on for visual interest. (Most documentaries are radio with pictures.) The person who made it, James Longley, also shot it, recorded the sound, and edited it. His cinematography is so superior to the cinematography in any of these other documentaries that he must be a Martian.

The same could be said of Hamrah’s reviewing. As he points out in the introduction, most film write-ups are “endless plot description,” cheer-sessions about the “pseudopolitical subtext used to mask militarized, fascistic tendencies and themes” in crap like Avengers: Infinity War. If we take it seriously, we’re “playing into the con.” Hamrah doesn’t blame critics for this, or not entirely. He offers something else.

In “Jessica Biel’s Hand,” Hamrah treats John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948); Alec Baldwin and Ben Affleck; the Naudets’ 9/11 and United 93; and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. He lists “tropes of war-on-terror movies,” including “scenes of combat shot in Morocco instead of Iraq” and “a scorpion fight.” He elaborates on PTSD and war profiteering, documentaries and stock footage and The Devil Wears Prada and Abu Ghraib and The Real World. He rates Paul Haggis and Robert Downey, Jr., John Cusack and Marisa Tomei, the last of whom appears with unexpected frequency in these pages. Near the end he laments,

[y]ou always hear conservatives say Hollywood hates America. To me, what proves Hollywood hates America is the way they keep making Batman movies. Meanwhile, no Hollywood filmmakers have gone to Iraq. All the 1990s World War II films Hollywood made, the Saving Private Ryans, with their Pentagon advisers and Department of Defense equipment they got at the cost of script approval, were made by people pretending they wanted to go to war. If only we had a war, they seemed to moan. Ach, we were born too late!

I could burn my 1,200 words on this one essay, but I’d be slighting the dozens of selections that, in total, tell us about our lives as we screen them to ourselves while also trying to live them. Hamrah’s anthology reviews are be-alls and end-alls. “This Planet Is Not Yours to Rule,” one sterling example, links Funny People, Away We Go, Whatever Works, the films of John Hughes, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Limits of Control, The Hurt Locker, and Looker, which he watches because he can’t get a ticket to Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop. In “The Nonstop Zombie Buffet,” he winds through George A. Romero and The Walking Dead before concluding,

[c]elebrated everywhere, zombies are the opposite of celebrities, who swoop into our disaster areas like gods from Olympus to rescue us from the calamities that also allow them to flourish. Zombies, far from being elevated, descend into utter undistinguishable anonymity and degradation, which is why they can be destroyed in good conscience.

Hamrah enjoys, among many others from many countries, John Cassavetes, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Orson Welles, and Chantal Akerman, about whom he writes with care in a review-memoir. Of his own mother, in a piece otherwise about the 2016 New York Film Festival, Hamrah notes,

[s]he was lonely, never meeting any interesting men in our small town, and she was always reading a book from the library. Interested in progress and concerned about the future, she tried to teach me to be decent and kind while the Dead Kennedys and Joy Division were teaching me to be insolent and moody.

A novel in a graf. The more I read Hamrah, the more I want to collage him and present him back to you. He’s great company, a friend. He does what most writers ought to do better. He makes unexpected arguments about cultural texts, in an idiom that is undogmatic and comprehensible, and he changes how we make arguments about our own inmost arks of books and films. As it happens, he’s a wonderful writer of micro-travelogues, on places like Crockett and Bolinas, California. I don’t have space to reprint them, but they’re unlike anything I’ve seen.

Two arguments thread through the essays, and they’re important ones belied by their idiosyncrasy.

(1) Hamrah hates Boston and wants us to know it;
(2) He thinks streaming media, especially “prestige” or “quality” TV, are complex phenomena, overrated and sometimes actively bad.

In his rendering Boston is ugly, full of dons and programmers and insufferable grad students (I am a grad student). It’s at the center of the world because its universities describe to the world where the centers of the world really are. It’s the Hub of a Universe of eggheads and Bo-Bos, a Swiftian parable where people read Twitter on the T. We shouldn’t behave this way. We shouldn’t become Bostonians in this sense, the Bostonians who also live in Brooklyn and San Francisco and Portland.

Similarly, maybe we shouldn’t say we’re *binging* Succession (2018) or The Wire (2002-2008) or, for that matter, the Bergman Criterion Collection. Hamrah doesn’t really motivate the title of the book, and I suppose it’s up for debate how he intends it. But from his rich portrayals of sitting in theaters, I gather he enjoys that experience, among human people, more than the insane-making practice of total screenic inundation. Hamrah is no technophobe. But he implies that, when films are things we choose to attend to, they become worthier of careful attention. They’re a life’s study, and studying them is living well.

Hamrah’s work bears out what fellow n+1 star Mark Greif once told a lecture hall of aspiring writers—in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of all places. Good critics are simply dissatisfied, for big and small reasons, with the world as it is. They ask more of it. It feels wrong to give in to the false “entertainment” Netflix promises. There’s no harm in saying so. To paraphrase David Graeber, a spiritual cousin of Hamrah’s: who would choose to make our dumb world, if we could make any world we pleased?

If we watch seductive junk on our phones, we ought to ironize it, too, in the most powerful sense of the word. We should pull ourselves outside it, throw it against the cultural formations of the past, which of course may have been different junk. This requires patience, and verve, and erudition, and enormous blocks of time spent considering what people and animals and landscapes and governments and militaries do. Hamrah says it of filmmakers, and I say it of him. He’s a genius. He “points somewhere new, the opposite direction of everything else.”

Christian Schlegal
Christian Schlegel is a doctoral student in English at Harvard. The Song Cave published his collection of poems, Honest James, in 2015. He lives in Beacon, NY, and is midway through a dissertation on Donald Justice.