In A. S. Hamrah’s review of Michael Mann’s Ferrari, published this morning on the NYR Online, he describes the Italian Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 paean to machines:
He demanded glorious deaths in car crashes, and lauded war and destruction. “Time and space died yesterday!” Marinetti screamed. “We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.”
The film dwells on the promise and peril of mechanical craft, alternating between the splendor of speed and the gloom of destruction. Ferrari may not be Mann’s last movie, but its “intense concentration on death, on the cemetery and the tomb, positions this melodrama as a consecration and summation of his life’s work,” Hamrah writes.
Hamrah regularly writes for n+1, The Baffler, and Bookforum, among other places, and a book of his criticism, The Earth Dies Streaming, came out in 2018. His previous essay for the NYR Online was a review of Mission: Impossible–Dead Reckoning, Part One, which in its own way is also about old-world craft and decline, as an aging Tom Cruise doggedly performs his own stunts while battling a killer AI, “presciently combat[ing] the studio bosses’ insistence on a new filmmaking world of computer-generated screenplays and performances along with special effects.”
I e-mailed Hamrah this week to ask him about accents, car crashes, and what, if anything, to take from the Oscars.
Willa Glickman: Ferrari certainly glorifies speed in the way of the Futurists, but it’s also unflinching about the toll of racing—do you think it tries to resolve the competing themes of “the mausoleum and machinery,” as you put it?
A. S. Hamrah: Those themes could not be resolved in a direct way without admitting something too dark for a Hollywood feature film (though Ferrari is technically an indie). The wife of one of Enzo Ferrari’s drivers forever referred to him as “the assassin” after the 1957 Mille Miglia. A movie portraying him as simply an uncaring and ruthless businessman who, despite being a former racer and mechanic, was indifferent to the lives of his drivers and to the women in his life—he also had a second mistress who is not portrayed in the film—would not have been made. And not just because it might alienate the audience. Would Michael Mann want to make that movie? Take Oppenheimer, which I think is a lesser film than Ferrari: Christopher Nolan could not have made a film at that level of production and simply have said, “nuclear war is bad.” Who knows what he really thinks of it? That it’s awesome but probably a bad idea? I don’t think it’s necessarily the point of drama to resolve these tensions, but to bring them to the surface so we can see them for what they are without stating it in a banal way.
There has been some criticism of Adam Driver’s and Shailene Woodley’s Italian accents. Do you think accents are important in movies?
I never notice accents in movies unless the movie is not very good, and generally I don’t care if actors speak in the proper accent or use any accent at all. So I didn’t notice that in Ferrari. I thought everybody sounded just fine. If you want to talk about bad accents in movies, let’s discuss the subpar American accents used by British actors in maybe three out of every four American films. How about Gary Oldman’s Harry Truman accent in Oppenheimer? The worst accents I heard in a new movie this year were the terrible Boston accents in Eileen. First of all, I don’t like when movies are set in some specific region in the past when the story doesn’t require it. I know it’s based on a novel, but Eileen could have taken place in the present in any part of the US. So to have the actors speaking like they are from a town in Ireland that is also somewhere on Mars is doubly insulting. Eileen’s lead, Thomasin McKenzie, who is from New Zealand, is a fine actress, and her American accent in Leave No Trace was excellent. Bad accents are a failure of direction.
What is your racing/crashing movie of choice?
Car crashes are a staple and almost a requirement of the cinema, and movies and automobiles developed hand in hand, in every way. Joseph Cotten’s speech in The Magnificent Ambersons about how “all outward things are going to be different” because of automobiles is so central to understanding America in the twentieth century. I guess my favorite car crash in movies—though “favorite” is a strange way to put it—is the one that ends Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. We see Bardot and Palance only after the crash has happened and the whole thing looks fake and dumb, and that does not matter at all. The fakeness does not affect the tragedy at all. Godard is good at that, as in Weekend also. A recent French film, Bruno Dumont’s France, had the best, most harrowing and “realistic” car crash I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. Are the French beating us at car crashes in movies? I recently saw a horror movie called Body Parts from 1991 that had a most excellent and unexpected car crash in it. It’s so good that it’s hard to believe the filmmakers didn’t really crash a car on the highway. And it was shot in Canada.
You worked as a brand analyst in the late 1990s and throughout the 2010s. What was that job like?
I had to apply a sensibility based on critical theory and other obscure qualitative methodologies to everyday products, but then mostly to television. I also had to write a tremendous amount of a kind of commercial criticism every year, just reams of it. Whenever you apply yourself to a specific subject, the world starts telling you things about it, and that job caused me to notice that effect in a more acute way, which has been beneficial to my life and to my writing in general. But I am glad I don’t do it anymore. I’m especially glad I don’t have to watch every new show on TV, as I had to do for eight years in a row. It made me dislike TV series in general, and it made me see television critics as lazy. It also honed for me the stark differences between TV and movies, which is a valuable distinction to understand, especially as more and more people insist there isn’t one.
You’ve written about wanting to avoid easily blurbable reviews that declare a film to be good or bad. Is there a particular form or length of writing that you’re drawn to?
Though I have now written two such essays for you, I consider the one-off film review, by a writer who is not employed by the publication as a full-time film critic, to be a dead form. This is a problem now that magazines generally do not employ full-time film critics. I prefer to write columns that gather together many of the films I have recently seen in a series of short segments, which I arrange in a certain order. And I believe in making it new. In the current one-off model, it is often impossible to tell if what’s being discussed is a film or a novel. Too often there is very little film sensibility in these one-offs.
Speaking of which, can we look forward to another one of your Oscar roundup columns this year? Are there any films you think were unjustly snubbed by the academy?
I’m working on that now, but I still have some films to see. The biggest snub to me was that Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves was not nominated for a Best International Feature Film Oscar. But I don’t really care which films get nominated for Oscars. That’s not the point. The group of films that get nominated tells us something about a point in history and a point in the history of the Hollywood film industry. That some people are enraged that some specific movie didn’t get nominated is alien to me. Ferrari didn’t get nominated for an Oscar and I think it’s a better film than any of the ten that were. So what?