Who the hell does this kid think he is?!
I remember thinking that the very first time one of my articles was challenged by a reader named Robert Hamer. I never mind being challenged of course, but it was the way he did it, with such confidence and brashness. I fired back and he fired back and soon I learned that Mr. Hamer knew his stuff. He was a different sort of reader and commentator, one with brains and real knowledge of the cinema which I found out later was almost entirely self-taught. I found when Robert posted something – even if unrelated to me or my writing – I read it with interest, just as I read the other writers writing back to him with their thoughts on his comments. He was provocative, articulate, and opinionated. In other words, everything a good film writer should be. More importantly, though, is that his convictions were strongly held, “While it may not be obvious, I’m fairly open-minded to dissent as long as the arguments are sound and valid. But I make an effort to solidly back up my opinions. If someone challenges one of them, they do have to bring their ‘A-game’ if they hope to persuade me to their point of view.”
When Robert joined the staff of The Awards Circuit in March, it was not a surprise but instead seemed the natural evolution for his life, and I vouched for him when Clayton was looking through résumés of prospective new writers. Strangely enough, he confessed that he was surprised at his acceptance since in his mind he had no real “credentials,” but really, who does? Sure, I studied film as an art, I studied acting, but everything I learned about how to truly absorb a film was from personal study, reading Pauline Kael or other critics. Robert has had the bonus of the internet and extra features on DVDs and I suspect he has watched more than one. What does he possess that permits my absolute acceptance of him as a film critic in the great community of film critics? He loves film, through and through, and with unbridled passion, which to me was always the most important ingredient to being a critic of anything.
Robert is a recently-commissioned Ensign in the United States Navy Reserve. It is very possible that he will receive active duty orders and ship out to serve his country, and we may lose his gifts on the site…for a while at least. Studying for that career in California allowed him an opportunity to see a lot of films in his spare time, and not being a heavy partier he watched movies instead of attending keggers, “There was literally nothing to do on weekends without spending a lot of money besides drinking yourself half to death on campus. I knew classmates who would get wasted every weekend, and while I certainly was not above partying hard, I didn’t want to fall into the trap of planning every week around alcohol, so I turned to films as a form of recreation.” Eventually it became more than that: he became somewhat infamous in college for his movie knowledge.
Perhaps it is his military discipline that informs Robert’s writing, that sense of clear thinking and hard-line arguments, but whatever it is I think he has found his calling as a film writer. He readily admits there are many films he has still not experienced, Mean Streets (1973) surprisingly being one of them, but that fact only cements that he is one of us. Who has ever seen “enough” movies?
“Most kids probably see films as nothing more than pieces of entertainment to pass the time, and I was no different. It had never occurred to me that they could be considered on a critical level,” he explains, “Two films released in 1999 changed all of that for me. The first was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. As a kid, I was a huge fan of the original trilogy and watched them on VHS all the time. Seeing this new prequel was an ‘event’ for me, and I knew I was going to love it because the possibility of ‘disliking’ a film had never even crossed my mind. But then the lights dimmed, and the movie went on, and I started having feelings and thoughts that I never had before in a theater. Thoughts like, ‘What was the point of that first half-hour?’ ‘Why is everyone so obsessed with getting to Coruscant, but when they arrive there not much happens?’ and ‘Oh my god, Jar Jar Binks is the most irritating thing I have ever seen!’ It was at that point that I realized there really was such a thing as a ‘bad movie.’”
His first exposure to films as art was through Fight Club: “I realize that’s a boring thing to say from a guy in his early twenties, but I literally had no idea what to make of David Fincher’s work when I first saw it. Before that I was in a very comfortable, predictable place in my film experiences, knowing exactly what to expect based on genre. Since then I started frantically seeking out other ambitious, offbeat auteur movies. Time and maturity has made me realize that it’s not a perfect film, but I still give it enormous credit for making me first see cinema as art as opposed to just entertainment.”
As with many film enthusiasts his age, a whole new world of information opened up beyond sites like IMDb to sites like this one, where film and the Academy Awards were discussed seriously, and were discussed and commented upon for much of the season, “So I joined in, commenting, writing in when I was moved to do so. I look back on some of my earliest discussions on the internet in a permanent state of cringe…thankfully I’ve improved my abilities somewhat.”
As for future of film criticism Robert feels, as do I, the internet has opened up a can of worms that might never be closed again. There are film writers all over the web now, some very good, some not. There are some people that frankly should not be writing about cinema at all because they simply do not have the goods, or lack the history of film, which I believe to be essential, and I have wondered aloud whether our presence might actually be destroying the Oscars. I confronted Robert with my worries: “I do understand your concerns about whether or not we’re making things ‘worse’ by adding to the media saturation of the Academy Awards,” he starts, “but I feel that writers like us can also do a lot of good, especially when we expand our focus past the myopic awards season boundaries dictated by Hollywood studios. I see too many pundits encouraging the marginalization of cinematic achievements for the sake of Oscar politicking. As far as I’m concerned, any attempt to fight that trend will make our site a positive influence in the industry.”
I am a 52 year-old film writer, have been on TV as a critic, written books, and studied film since I was 12. There are very few critics I read with any real regularity: Scott Feinberg, Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan, Peter Howell, Guy Lodge, and I confess Robert Hamer. I like the sense of love he brings to his writing, and I enjoy reading what the “new breed” are saying about a film. Guys like him keep us old boys young, you know.