Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Critics I Like: Andrew Grossman

I wanted to put out a brief series of blog entries highlighting the work of critics, scholars, or journalists whose work I have come to really like and which I think deserves a lot more attention than it probably gets. The other criterion is that I want to name writers with whom I've had no (or practically no) personal interaction.

The first entry is my most recent "discovery," an individual by the name of Andrew Grossman who writes largely--if by no means exclusively--on Asian and queer cinemas. He has a long list of articles available here at Bright Lights Film Journal, which I have been going through slowly over the past few days. These often dauntingly long works allude to films from all time periods and countries with ease, drawing many diverse connections without forcing them. In his "Bleeding Realism Dry" (on part 2 of part 1 ... yes, it is long!), he writes this amazing paragraph that I'll reproduce in part as exemplary:

"At the risk of errant foolishness, I attempted a nationalized semiotics of squibbing: what will the squibs of each country's films tell me? Japanese squibs seem like giant, excavating chunks - do Japanese bleed the volcanic holes of their own insularity? In Rajiv Rai's Tridev (1989), each bullet hole seems to serve a thick tikka masala. In the Mexican Western, the cheap, earthy holes seem tilled not freshly by hot lead but messily with their faulty hoe of agrarian reform. And what of the pattern? Will it be the linear swath of the machinegun, or the plaid intrusions of the shotgun blast?"

In this superb article on Tsui Hark and the Hollywoodization/1997-isation of HK cinema, Grossman writes of his futile personal attempts to find refuge from evil Hollywood corporatism (even if it be hypocritically in the evil HK commercial cinema):

"Give me some very bad yet undistributed Russian films and I will sit through them more readily than American films I can rent down the street, just to make a point. And I would do so for years--forever, in fact, until I die."

What makes statements like the above so moving (to me), and not "merely" contrarian, is that Grossman does not fall back on any stances by reflex. (Well, almost--his tastes are predisposed against "the art film" in a lot of its manifestations, so when he mentions Denis' Beau travail or the Dardennes' Rosetta or Hou's Flowers of Shanghai, or when he damns Cassavetes with the faintest of faint praise, he tends to inscribe foul intentions upon these sorts of artworks: they're constantly referred to as "self-satisfied," "self-impressed," "self-important." It gets tiresome to this admirer of these figures!) By far, however, Grossman tirelessly thinks through all of his propositions, and does not ever let himself play the unaware roles of voiceless victim, know-it-all tastemaker, or ethical paragon. At the risk of merely sounding like Diane Keaton in Manhattan, I'd say he has a fine awareness of the rhetorical implications of negative capability; he's aware of the paradoxes, contradictions, and binds he gets himself into, and rather then "celebrating" them in postmodern fashion, he appears accepting of his great political/ontological standstill, hoping perhaps to have said something interesting in the process. (I don't know if that's how Grossman would characterize himself but this is the sense I get thus far, anyway.) And above all what marks Grossman's writing is that he, like the other critics I will want to mention in the near future, imparts to me a genuine feeling that he has--even if only in a limited way--rethought cinema from ground zero, and is willing to risk the demise a few cherished assumptions in order to see the cinema (and the world) a little more clearly, that much more correctly in their full depth, breadth, and complexity.

Two more articles Grossman wrote for Senses of Cinema:

"The Belated Auteurism of Johnnie To" and an entry on Fay Tincher in a 'Cinema and the Female Star' symposium.


Brian said...

I always liked that piece on Johnnie To and felt a certain kinship with its author because we both prefer Too Many Ways To Be #1 and a Hero Never Dies over the Mission, but I'd never really kept his name in my head. Thanks to this post and pointers to his other pieces, I don't think I'll forget it again.

Zach Campbell said...

I read over that To article today, Brian. It's good and provocative, like everything Grossman writes. The only To films I've seen are The Mission (which I remember liking, but don't actually remember much) and his co-directed Full-Time Killer (thought it was decent, nothing special).

Brian said...

Do try to track down Too Many Ways To Be #1 and/or a Hero Never Dies if you can, Zach. To me they represent recent Hong Kong cinema at its excessive best. The Mission is a much "cooler" film, and Fulltime Killer's excesses are perhaps spread a bit too thin.

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