Faucets of Despair: A conversation with A.S. Hamrah

A.S. Hamrah is currently film critic for the Baffler. His book, The Earth Dies Streaming, was published in 2018 by n+1 Books.

This interview was conducted by Andrew Thompson and Kyle Paoletta on February 25, 2020, except for the italicized portion that follows, which was conducted one month later on April 1, 2020.

Andrew Thompson: When we sat down in February, the world was a few weeks away from being swallowed whole by the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems as though discussing anything unrelated to COVID is off-key now. So as a kind of preamble to the original interview, I have to ask how this has affected what you do as a critic? 

A.S. Hamrah: Going to movie theaters is a big part of my life. The title of my book implies that I’m not particularly big on streaming, and right now everything has to be streamed because the movie theaters are closed. The whole thing reminds me of the Philip K. Dick novel where there’s all these miners on Mars sitting at home on streaming, pretending life is normal. However, this all has proven to me that people—at least, the kind of people I know and follow—want to see movies more than they want to see TV. They’re talking about what movies are the best movies to see in this situation. Here’s a list of isolation movies. Here’s a list of plague movies. I just watched Omega Man again and here are my thoughts on that. People have this hunger for movies that can supersede their lazy reliance on television. 

Thompson: I looked at some data recently and when you ask people what they’re watching on Netflix it’s mostly TV. People watched The Office before and they watch The Office now. The same anesthetic tools people used in the past, they’re using now, just in higher dosages. You bring up a really good point about how it’s important to continue to engage in cultural criticism, though. Yesterday when I was doing the opposite of that I had this moment of clarity watching this bad show—

Hamrah: Wait, what was the show?

Thompson: Someone made me think of something that happened in an Entourage episode I’d seen and I ended up watching like the entire show. Which is the lowest of the low, but it made me realize I’m rather disinclined to fill this time with things that are meaningful. I almost want to fill them with the most meaningless thing possible because to fill them with something meaningful implies a future of some kind.

Hamrah: If you decide to watch Entourage over some other thing that is equally empty, you’re making a choice to experience despair in its most soul-destroying form, okay? And that is a choice that people should examine, but they don’t. If you choose to watch The Office, you’re also tacitly choosing despair. Because the whole point of The Office is: it’s cute how much we suck. Friends too. I’m not suggesting that these people have to have a Bergman marathon, but if you’re going to choose to do that with Friends, it’s just like sitting down and eating three pints of ice cream.

Thompson: Why is the despair of watching The Office or binge-watching Friends greater than binge-watching the cinematic equivalent of Friends for the same amount of hours? 

Hamrah: First of all, cinema is better. The second thing is that there’s something in the nature of episodic TV that is itself a form of despair. It goes on and on, regardless of quality. There’s season two of Friends, there’s season three of Friends, there’s season four of Friends. A movie has an endpoint. It might have a sequel, but it has an endpoint. I’m not sure what an equivalent cinematic experience would be—the Fast and the Furious movies, maybe. But even if you watch a Fast and the Furious marathon, each of the movies is over two hours long. It requires more concentration and a more active form of watching. 

Thompson: The part of me that is drawn to binge watching a completely worthless show is the same part that would abuse drugs, essentially. When you choose to abuse drugs, you’re choosing despair, too. Yesterday when I was watching Entourage, that’s what I did, I embraced despair. 

Hamrah: Which makes sense with this crisis that we’re going through. I want to watch movies but I haven’t really been watching that many. I find myself watching Trump’s press conferences, even though it’s a terrible thing to do. I have a desire to be informed about the crisis because I think, like many people, being informed somehow protects me from it. Watching Donald Trump’s fucking nonsense variety hour is not helping, but I do it. It’s so bizarre, he’ll have special guest stars. It’s not just Dr. Fauci and Mike Pence and Dr. Birx, we’ve got the MyPillow guy, too! Since he was elected, the Trump show has taken over things so much that the pandemic almost feels like just an extension of that. The illogical culmination of it. 

Thompson: I’m wondering how any image is not impotent right now. 

Hamrah: Cinema answers that type of question. Television is a utility. It’s an appliance. And the stream is also a utility, like water. If you turn on the faucet, water comes out. It just happens. The images are not images in their own right anymore. Right now, as we speak, the most potent image is of dead bodies wrapped in white being taken out of the hospital and put on tractor-trailers parked in the streets of New York. It’s troubling, it’s disturbing, it’s tragic. It has all those elements. That being said, the more we’re exposed to that image, the more normal it becomes, the less that you see it. And that’s the issue. Keeping that image meaningful should be the job of journalism. But it’s not, because television journalism isn’t actually journalism. It’s just a form of entertainment. It’s a 24-hour entertainment stream. It’s their job, in fact, to normalize horrible, tragic things. What is a non-impotent image today? It’s the cinema. Movies can answer the question. 

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Andrew Thompson: There’s a note about the critic Manny Farber in your book, how he’s not interested in pronouncing movies good or bad. But he is still always for or against something. When we’re looking at the reviews collected on Rotten Tomatoes, it ends up being possible to tease out those two dichotomies. You can see the language that’s assigned to positive or negative valences and use it to parse what people are for or against.

A.S. Hamrah: Of course, people think they can already do that with their favorite critics. Some people always read A.O. Scott or Richard Brody or Anthony Lane because they rely on their opinions or believe in their taste. And then there are critics that are very unpredictable, who don’t seem to have any kind of through-line in their criticism. Manohla Dargis is sort of like that to me. It’s a crapshoot, almost arbitrary-seeming.

Thompson: There’s an essay that Orwell wrote about Dickens, and one of the things he said is, “As a rule, an aesthetic preference is either something inexplicable, or something so corrupted by non-aesthetic motives as to make one wonder whether the whole of literary criticism in his case is not a huge network of humbug.” So I’m wondering, when you say that Manohla Dargis’ criticism is arbitrary—what exactly does that mean? And what is non-arbitrary criticism?

Hamrah: In the case of the critics I just mentioned, who are from the New Yorker or the New York Times, they all have a clear aesthetic. A.O. Scott only likes things that are gentle. Things that are about families and marriages that fall apart. He likes domestic drama. He’s not interested in things that are extreme. Because, like the Times itself, everything has to be exactly in the middle. Offensive to no one but also serious in dealing with the human drama in a very humanist kind of way. Richard Brody at the New Yorker, he’s developed a film analysis that comes from André Bazin and Cahiers du cinéma in the ‘50s, which is very catholic. You judge everything in an individual way. Stories that seem trivial or generic are works of art. He also doesn’t like things that are too extreme, or too aesthetically perverse. He doesn’t like anything from the ‘80s—that was a cutoff point for him, the look or the clothes, which kind of coincides with the rise of the blockbuster.

Kyle Paoletta: A lot of his work is literally revisiting stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s as well.

Hamrah: He’s obsessed with that period, especially in France. He’s a Godardian. And then you know, Anthony Lane, the New Yorker’s main critic—he’s British, he’s from Gen X and is more interested in whether films are entertaining and classy. He doesn’t necessarily understand them to be works of art. He comes from a generation in Britain that all thought Spielberg was going to save the cinema so they wouldn’t have to watch Mike Leigh movies all the time.

Paoletta: Lane almost seems to be service-oriented. He wants a movie to do a specific thing: If it does it, he’s happy, and if it doesn’t, he’s not.

Hamrah: He’s also considered a wit, even though he’s not funny.

Paoletta: He’s unintentionally funny sometimes. Like in that weird, horny Incredibles 2 review.

Hamrah: And that’s because he doesn’t really care about movies very much. Dargis, I think, is closer to Lane in some ways. But I’m more of a casual reader of her than those other three, I just can’t figure her out.

Paoletta: I feel like she’s smarter than Lane. More thoughtful.

Hamrah: Well, she is. She’s smarter than all three of them.

Paoletta: I like her the most out of that group, probably because of what you’re saying, that you never really know where she’s coming from.

Thompson: What’s so interesting about A.O. Scott’s work, the words that are more correlated with positive reviews are things like “sweet,” “society,” “documentary,” “intelligence.” And the things he likes least are exactly what you mentioned: “comic,” “drug,” “chases,” “politics,” “dark,” “killer.” Whereas with Brody, the valances that come out are a bit more opaque.

Paoletta: The words that correlate positively for him are “crucial,” “intimate,” “quiet”—things like that. “People,” “endure.” That feels very French to me.

Hamrah: The values of a certain kind of criticism are what he applies to his own work. Humanism, but tempered by the realities of wartime, the realities of occupied France and of Existentialism. So those values favor films that are realist. It’s essentially conservative in a way. In other words, it’s not radical in its approach to how things look. The mise-en-scène is very identifiable and real. Everything happens in frame. It’s not explicitly political.

Paoletta: One thing that really interested me about the Rotten Tomatoes data is how Roger Ebert has the most reviews of any film critic. Like, far beyond anyone else, in a way that suggests his criticism is very highly weighted on that website.

Hamrah: Ebert’s very intelligent. He’s a good writer. But he’s essentially a Philistine who hates anything that goes beyond a certain level of formal innovation. He hated Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch. He hated Taste of Cherry, the Kiarostami film. I think he hated Blue Velvet. He hates anything that is pushing the medium to a new place.

Thompson: The words used most in the reviews of movies Ebert ended up liking are things like “sadness.” “Dickens” is my favorite. “Poverty,” “heartbreaking,” “illness,” “touching.” Those all speak to a kind of sentimentality, which a movie like Taste of Cherry really lacks.

Hamrah: Taste of Cherry is very anti-sentimental. The whole point of that film is that it refuses to indulge any sympathy for the character. And yet, it becomes moving despite that—unless you’re resistant to it. Ebert is essentially a popularizer. In the ‘60s, film became very intellectualized. A lot of literary figures at the time were interested in it. Ebert brought it back to the common man in some ways, especially because of the TV show with Gene Siskel.

Thompson: It seems like the entire idea of a red tomato or a green tomato is an outgrowth of that show.

Hamrah: It is. I grew up in a very rural area, so I couldn’t really go to a lot of movies. We watched Siskel and Ebert every week, but we also got the New Yorker in our house so I read Pauline Kael all the time, and there’s a very good public library in my town so I read a lot of film criticism there. The show didn’t mean that much to me because he was talking about a lot of films I couldn’t see, and I already had an oppositional position in terms of a lot of American commercial cinema. Every week they had to argue about if Raiders of the Lost Ark is great or not. And I was like, first of all, I can’t even get to a theater that shows this. Secondly, the films like that I’ve seen, I didn’t really like.

Thompson: Is there something about what Ebert considers to be a good film that you depart from?

Hamrah: His biggest problem with films he doesn’t like is that he thinks they’re boring.

Thompson: Actually, one of the words that shows up most negative for him is “pointless.” Also: “contrived,” “sadistic,” “waste,” “dreary.”

Hamrah: Right. And that’s one of the great questions in any kind of time-based art form. When that show was first on, there were a lot of films that were being made that were doing things with the idea of time and repetition. Chantal Akerman films, people doing a kind of post-Warhol thing. At the time, I was a teenager and watching a lot of Godard films, which are all about this kind of collage effect of not having an Aristotelian structure—three acts, a rising arc, and catharsis. They do something else that is inimical to the cinema. Ebert didn’t seem very interested in anything that was pushing the medium forward. He just wanted a film that told a story and did it well. By the early ‘80s there was a new kind of visual vocabulary that had come out of all the things that Ebert had ignored, punk rock and new wave and post-punk. They all had this look that people from the ‘70s and ‘60s didn’t understand.

Paoletta: You’re saying that the aesthetics of filmmaking had changed.

Hamrah: Yeah, and he couldn’t like anything that came out of that.

Pauline Kael only used the term “movie” because she didn’t want to imply a value judgment. She refused to say “film” in that sense. For the generation slightly before Ebert, a “film” was a Bergman film. A “movie” was like, Singin’ in the Rain.

Thompson: Do you feel like Ebert is fairly representative of the general public’s taste?

Hamrah: I think he represents very closely the point of view of American Baby Boomer male film critics. He’s the pinnacle of that way of understanding things.

Thompson: Something that’s maybe most decisive with Ebert, but true across most of these critics, is that the most negative term you see is the word “movie.” If he uses the word “movie,” he doesn’t like something. And if he calls it a “film,” he probably likes it.

Hamrah: Pauline Kael writes about this issue. She only used the term “movie” because she didn’t want to imply a value judgment. So she refused to say “film” in that sense. I just alternate them, I don’t really care. But you know, for the generation slightly before Ebert, this was a big issue. Like a “film” was a Bergman film. A “movie” was like, Singin’ in the Rain.

Paoletta: I would argue that Ebert’s criticism was about elevating what that generation understood as good movies to the status of film.

Hamrah: Well, that’s what Pauline Kael’s move was. It was specifically a Kaelian goal. But it’s funny that for him it’s like, even though the films he was describing as films probably would have been movies to different generations…Did he ever review Sátántangó? It’s a Hungarian film from 1994 and seven hours long. Béla Tarr. It would be interesting to see what he said about a seven-hour black-and-white film about the expropriation of farmland and Hungary in the post-communist era.

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Thompson: To zoom out and consider Rotten Tomatoes in the aggregate, when you do this analysis of the whole universe of their critic reviews the term that was most associated with the red tomato was “T’Challa,” from Black Panther. Number two is “Wakanda.” As you go down there’s terms like “heartbreaking,” “restoration,” “mesmerizing.” And then on the negative side, one of the greatest sins you can commit is to be “unfunny” or “uninspired.” Then it’s, you know, “mediocre” and “slog” and such. When you just look at users, it’s similar. “Unfunny” is at the bottom.

The words in the middle of the image are superimposed over the critic/user section proportional to their prevalence among that group.

Hamrah: I use that term myself. I enjoy that term, but it means something else for me. At my Q&A in Seattle the other day, someone asked me if I try to make the stuff that I write bleak. And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I try to make it as bleak as possible.” That is a conscious thing. I try to use a lot of terms that might show up on that list, but in the opposite way they’re sometimes used by other critics.

Paoletta: What about the idea you write about in your book of never wanting to use phrases that can be extracted from your reviews by publicists? A lot of what comes up as the most positive on Rotten Tomatoes are words like “masterpiece.” I can only imagine calling something a masterpiece if that’s exactly what you’re hoping will happen.

Hamrah: So that’s an interesting problem. In the post-Pauline Kael, post-Farber period—the period of the so-called Paulettes, people like David Denby—at that time, the idea that you would just say you liked something or disliked it was very looked down on. Just evaluating things in a thumbs up or thumbs down way was seen as poor film criticism and bad writing. I don’t mind saying something’s a masterpiece now because so many people would never do that.

Thompson: I went to see Parasite in December, and as soon as the lights had come on this guy behind me said, “That was a masterpiece!” I was like, that’s a judgment you should sleep on.

Hamrah: The best reaction I ever heard was this older couple in Brookline, Massachusetts. I went to see the movie Traffic with my friends. We were in line, and the previous show was coming out. And the first people who came out were a couple from Brookline, probably about 72 years old. And the guy looked at his wife in front of everyone in the line, and he says, “Well, just another day in the drug trade.” I saw the movie, and I was like—that guy totally nailed it. That was the exact right reaction to that. It was such a nothing film. I think as a film becomes more and more successful and more critically lauded, the more time that passes between when it came out and when someone sees it becomes meaningful in their reaction. They’re going to hate it because they heard too much good about it and then it didn’t live up to their expectations. Or they’re just going to say it’s great no matter what they really think. I think people are too reluctant to describe things as “great,” or even a “masterpiece” now, because everything has to be seen through the lens of ideology. Because you’re not a fascist, and you’re trying to show people that you’re not one. Nothing can really be a masterpiece under that regime of thinking.

Thompson: And when you say people, you mean…

Hamrah: I mean other critics and users too. Other people that watch movies and comment on them. Especially on Twitter. Twitter users are always fronting to some extent, while these users, or IMDb users, they’re baring their souls more. These are people who are just like, “I paid 15 bucks to see this movie. It sucked.”

Thompson: I think ultimately Ebert’s criticism is the most salient to the largest group of moviegoers, it’s the perspective that most people walk into the theater with.

Hamrah: Right? Because that’s premodern. It’s humanism, basic decency in both senses of the word. It’s a decent film, the characters are decent. It’s not, you know, Bad Lieutenant. The average person does not want to see a film about sick evil perverts whose activity is tacitly supported by the state. Tarantino is like that. He doesn’t care about anyone’s opinion. Ever. Most filmmakers are very concerned about their image and their reputation. If they can make another film. There’s very few people who don’t care about anything.

Paoletta: Casting himself in roles where he uses the n-word, that schtick?

Hamrah: Yeah. There’s certain Gen X filmmakers who have been successful in negotiating that line, more so in Europe than America. Like Lars von Trier. Richard Linklater is kind of like that in a way, but he’s more of a crowd pleaser.

Paoletta: He’s more heartfelt.

Hamrah: But his distance from Hollywood allowed some more freedom to experiment. These are all kind of post-Cassavetes filmmakers. They take the nihilistic version of ‘70s genre filmmaking and combine it with the more personal filmmaking of Cassavetes. But most filmmaking these days just comes from Spielberg and George Lucas.

Paoletta: That’s definitely become the dominant mode.

Hamrah: Most filmmakers aren’t going to do anything that’s in conflict with the heartwarming, family-centric, happy ending world of a Spielberg. Spielberg dominates. This is why the idea of influence is so useless. Because clearly Spielberg is the most influential filmmaker of other filmmakers. But all the things that he influences suck.

Paoletta: His presence in 1917 felt very obvious.

Hamrah: I hated that movie. The Spielberg aspect is, you know one of those guys is going to die, right?

Paoletta: And the other one’s gonna stay alive.

Thompson: So we’re kind of critiquing the use of the term “unfunny” as an example, which gets at the Consumer Reports sense of movies as a product for which you expect between 12 and 15 laughs and anything less you’ll be disappointed.

Paoletta: And if it’s a tragedy, you expect at least one really good cry.

Thompson: But that’s still just a version of thumbs up, thumbs down. It still feels like people want to know whether they should see something. There’s a finitude of time.

Hamrah: They want an advocate.

Thompson: Do you think that that has value? Do you think it is valuable to tell people yay or nay?

Hamrah: I think by reading what I write, you should be able to make that decision on your own without me being explicit about it. And if people in my personal life ask me, should I see 1917, I would say no. But I don’t think that function of criticism exists anymore. I think that’s a midcentury concept somehow. And I think people know too much about the movies before they get to the point where they’re reading a review of it, right? They’ve already kind of made the decision whether it’s something they would see or not. The point of writing is not to do that, but to be a writer. There’s so many ideas about criticism, but for me, the point is that we should literally criticize things.

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Thompson: Rotten Tomatoes has reviews for TV as well as film, and when we looked at the words most prevalent in those television reviews it’s basically all people’s names and show titles. “Costner” and “Broadchurch.” So there isn’t really a language around television the way there is around film. It’s all about the characters within the show or the people involved in the process of making it.

Paoletta: This reminds me of another point about your criticism you bring up in the book, that you avoid mentioning obvious biographical details. The example you use is Jennifer Aniston, that some reviewer felt it was necessary to say that she was in Friends. As if people wouldn’t recognize the name.

Thompson: I think it’s notable that television writing is so obsessed with plot and the business of creating the show—that really comes through here. I do remember when we talked before you said that you hated television, that you think it’s sort of a base medium.

Hamrah: With some exceptions. But mostly it’s essentially a form of celebrity worship. Nowadays, people worship the character sometimes more than the actors.

Paoletta: Like McNulty on The Wire.

Hamrah: Exactly. But you know, the thing that’s so galling about it is that people have forgotten what television is. TV is live events, like sports and award shows, the news and talk shows. That is the actual glue of television.

Paoletta: It’s a way to capture something happening in the world.

Hamrah: Something that’s happening live, or that just recently was live. All this other stuff is just figuring out how to fill up the schedule for advertisers. There can’t be a mass shooting 24 hours a day or the Super Bowl every day of the Grammys every day. So we have to fill the schedule. And people get tired of old movies. So we have to create something ourselves. The things that are good, they’re good in a way that the better they are, the more they are like a movie. Twin Peaks is good, because obviously it’s like a David Lynch movie. Curb Your Enthusiasm, to me, is good. Deadwood is good. Or The Sopranos. But most things aren’t like that. And because they’ve gotten so good at making TV cheaply, reality TV starts to take over, sitcoms become very codified. If you go back and look at a sitcom from the ‘50s—Jack Benny or something—it kind of has a cinematic quality. But if you look at Friends, it doesn’t. They got rid of that because they figured out how to do it in the studio with three cameras. It’s all part of the great Baudrillardian fatberg: politics, sports, and media all become one thing that just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. There’s no difference between sports, entertainment, politics, and media commentary. When one sees something that’s good on TV, it’s only because it’s so not like TV. If something on TV doesn’t completely suck, TV critics say it’s great.

Thompson: The business of television is inseparable from the form itself, right? The plot determines whether people like the show, whether they like it determines whether it exists.

Hamrah: That’s one of the main problems with TV: its episodic structure means that they will extend the life of the show past the point where it can possibly be good. Even a series like Game of Thrones, when they run out of books for it to be based on, it just becomes a freestyle.

Paoletta: And then once they do end it, they’re like, “Don’t worry, we’re going to make a prequel!”

It’s all part of the great Baudrillardian fatberg: politics, sports, and media all become one thing that just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. There’s no difference between sports, entertainment, politics, and media commentary. When one sees something that’s good on TV, it’s only because it’s so not like TV. If something on TV doesn’t completely suck, TV critics say it’s great.

Hamrah: It just goes on and on and on. When quality television started, places like AMC and HBO let people do whatever they wanted. The people who made The Sopranos and Mad Men and Breaking Bad, they were like, “I’m not going to fucking do this forever, it doesn’t matter if they think it’s successful.” There is a history of actual theory about television, you know, but it’s largely very negative. It’s all about how bad TV is for you. Marxist television theorists like Raymond Williams, he’s like the anti-Marshall McLuhan because he argues that television is neutral. It’s not hot or cold. It’s only what you make it to be. It needs to serve people in a certain way in order to be good. It needs to serve the community, it needs to be about something. It needs to admit that it’s political. McLuhan is still valuable in some ways. Even Daniel Boorstin, who wrote The Image, which is a great book, or Neil Postman. All those people are right, but the postmodern theory kind of eradicated the argument that TV was bad because Buffy studies started, you know, and once we had Buffy studies, it was kind of done.

Thompson: I think of Baudrillard as being postmodern, and the postmodernism of Buffy studies is sort of a continuation of his work right?

Hamrah: Right. But Baudrillard is hypercritical of the simulacrum and the hyperreal and all these things. He’s describing a dystopian situation, whereas the person doing Buffy studies is not describing a dystopian situation.

Paoletta: That’s an outgrowth of fandom. It’s a way for someone to legitimize their fandom in a critical way.

Hamrah: The other thing about that is how, because it’s all part of the fatberg, there’s this porousness between the writers and the people that make it. So, writers like Emily Nussbaum are constantly telling you how great TV is, and then they’re shouting out on Twitter, “Hey, great episode last night, Mindy, keep up the good work!” I would never fucking do that to an actor or director or screenwriter, or, you know, anybody.

Paoletta: Another example of that porousness is the career of Andy Greenwald. He was the TV critic at Grantland, and now he’s a showrunner. It’s as if being a TV recapper is a form of auditioning for the role of showrunner, or maybe just to be in a writer’s room. It’s a way to prove you understand the structure, you understand the way a plot arcs across a season, and so on.

Hamrah: In All About Eve, there’s a moment when Marilyn Monroe is failing in the theater and she asks George Sanders, “What about TV? Are there a lot of auditions? “He goes, “It’s all auditions, my dear.”

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Paoletta: When we talked before, I think you estimated like 40% of the grades that Rotten Tomatoes has given your reviews were off.

Hamrah: I think it’s 20%.

Paoletta: Either way, this idea of figuring out which words correlate to positive and negative reviews is inherently problematic. We’re sort of taking these ratings for what they’re worth; do you think Rotten Tomatoes is doing a similar analysis of the words in these reviews to reverse engineer the grades?

Hamrah: Once they decide you should be “Tomatometer approved,” they assign one of their employees to you, and she has to read every one of your reviews and decide whether it’s good or bad. The thing that’s interesting about Rotten Tomatoes to me in the larger picture is, first of all, it’s owned by two studios, right? Secondly, all the studios hate critics. They really resent it when the critics don’t like their films. And they think it hurts them financially. So if I said that whatever big movie is coming out this weekend was a terrible, terrible film, people in Hollywood think that I’m basically taking money from them. But at the same time, they want to be able to advertise that their film is “100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.” They’re obsessed with that.

Paoletta: I remember seeing an ad for a movie recently that showed the “certified fresh” logo along with all the blurbs from reviewers.

Hamrah: The studios are fixated on the Rotten Tomatoes percentage, putting the red tomato on the poster, no matter what kind of movie it is. Like if Sátántangó came out now, probably the distributor would put that on the poster. There’s both this animosity toward critics and this obsession with Rotten Tomatoes ratings—it’s kind of a schizophrenic attitude. As I said in the introduction to my book, if the film fails, they blame the critics. But if the film succeeds, it succeeded in spite of the critics, no matter if every critic loved it. That attitude is becoming more pronounced over time.

Paoletta: Earlier, you said that you would intentionally use words that other critics might assign a positive valence in a more negative way or vice versa. Is that part of their confusion about how to read your work?

Hamrah: I don’t know. I’m not gonna ask them because then the Heisenberg principle would come into play. I had to write to them at one point because they had a review I wrote about The Magnificent Ambersons as rotten. I shouldn’t care, but I was compelled to correct that because I couldn’t deal with someone asking me, “What? You don’t like The Magnificent Ambersons?” But if it’s a new film that I like and they say I don’t like and vice versa, I don’t care. I don’t care if someone thinks I didn’t like The Mule. Or they think I loved Aquaman. But if it’s like a Godard film and they say I don’t like it then it starts to bother me.

Paoletta: I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that there are all these weirdos out there who are going to Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb to decide whether to watch a movie or not. If they were looking up The Magnificent Ambersons and were persuaded to not watch it by a misjudgment of your criticism.

Hamrah: Who knows? When Rotten Tomatoes approved me as a critic, they wrote me like, “Hey, guess what? Big day for you because now we’re going to rate your reviews, congratulations.” Then they say, “By the way, if we ever misrate one of your reviews, you can contact Sharon.” So they encourage you to correct them. And by correcting them, you’re actually teaching them how to read.