Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ethnic, Social, and Political Tension in Cinema

Mani Ratnam's Roja (1992) is quite something; in its first hour especially, before the controversial political content really comes into play, it's virtually a masterpiece of popular cinema (simple, accessible, engaging, and itself engaged, spontaneous, vivid, organic, neither stupid nor lazily formulaic). But while I really liked the film overall I am troubled by its jingoism, where Hindu nationalism trumps ridiculously (but no doubt "humanely") sketched Muslim Kashmiri militant villains. It's political-dramatic resolution is akin to Rocky IV's climactic victory speech, where Sylvester Stallone preaches to a hardass Soviet audience (who were won over by his underdog Uncle Sam can-do spirit) that "If I can change ... and if you can change ... maybe we all can change!" Cheers all around. But what exactly is the point of these easy salves in which all it takes for sociopolitical tension to subside is for "our" good guys and "their" not-quite-bad guys to go through a (masochistically?) painful ordeal and come out ready to gasp their way through a chorus of "We Are the World"? It's almost like these types of entertainment are tiny exorcism-attempts for an embattled collective psyche. (And their real world effect is one of the placebo variety. Or sedative.)

Then there's the preachy Peasants in Distress (1994, pictured above), which features two brief kung fu scenes and a bizarre travelogue-ish coda. Authored by His Majesty Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia, its about jealousy and romance among Khmer rebel fighters and two peasants they encounter in the jungle. In it, handsome humanitarian rebel Cheyrith picks up cute peasant-girl Nit. But fellow rebel, and rival officer, Mân, a mean bastard and a genuine civilian-despising militant, doesn't like it, and sees to it that the romance is "tragically short-lived," as the video box copy puts it. (He even twirls his handgun after using it.)

I have no idea who or what this film was actually made for--Western audiences eager to see fictionalizations of problems that the UN has tried to address? Sufficiently un-humanitarian Cambodians? So I'm not really sure how it should be judged; it's an off-the-radar film for me, and I watched it for precisely that reason. Even so, I can't see how justified the film's moralizing is. Once again, we've got political differences--including unsavory political convictions and actions--reduced to character flaws. These sorts of films tell us that people who kill civilians for a cause are either deluded or bad people with any number of vices (smoking, arrogance, alcoholism...). Olaf Möller once icily identified this problem, in which films turn real political problems and disagreements into fiction fodder and personal psychology. (I don't have on hand the issue of Film Comment--at least I think it's in FC--where he wrote it, so no exact quote or citation at the moment.)

One can see this mentality on display in something like The Interpreter, too, Sydney Pollack's recent entertainment that's (kind of) smart and (kind of) has a conscience. For no good reason I can see, Sean Penn's character (and oh does Sean Penn love playing these tortured types) is dealing with his own tough personal tragedy that forms a "strong emotional bond" between himself and Nicole Kidman (a white African who used to be a rugged freedom fighter before she started to "believe in what the UN was doing," got the titular job there, and moved herself into one amazing and tastefully-decorated New York apartment). Penn's character's personal loss is, at least on some level, equated with Nicole Kidman's personal experience of huge social loss and strife. Even if Pollack & Co.'s intentions are good, I tend to view this sort of storytelling as demeaning telescopy of psychological issues onto social ones, and a reduction of sociopolitical realities ...

But that's all I've got for now. Take this as untempered venting rather than a "thesis."

Also, how do people who read this blog like the inclusion of jpegs? Is it good, bad, a nice occasional inclusion?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Strike! (1924)

With shame I admit that I'd never seen this film in its entirety before, and still only saw it on one of those Kino VHS tapes manufacted over a decade ago. Nevertheless I really admired this one, largely for the ingenuity of its strung-along images: the montage isn't only pounding proletariat-versus-capitalist messages (though that, of course, too), it's constantly productive of exciting graphic compositions--lines and curves, contrasts, fierce imagistic switches in each cut. Eisenstein does here in a somewhat comic, maximalist mode what Dovzhenko does lyrically in Arsenal.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Malleswari (2004) / Devdas (1955)


Two Indian films today, one, Malleswari, a Telugu-language musical starring Venkatesh and Katrina Kaif, the other, Devdas, a 1950s classic directed by Bimal Roy, who was the cameraman of P.C. Barua's 1935 version[s] of the tale (there were productions in two different languages that year, I believe Barua was behind both of them).

Malleswari is, as far as I can tell, a piece of mildly charming total hackwork, which is exactly what I wanted to see. I think it counts as the first nondescript, unspectacular, virtually reputation-free Indian film I've ever seen. It's not even listed in the IMDB. (Somebody correct me if this is an inaccurate characterization!) What I thought was interesting about the film was the dichotomy between its leads. Kaif is not so much a mystery: everyone seems to agree that the Indian film industry favors light-skinned women who tend to also look fairly European. From what I've read this bias has long had a place in South Asian cinema. Kaif is an Anglo-Indian who apparently can't speak Hindi (let alone, I presume, Telugu) well enough to voice her own lines (gleaned from Amardeep Singh): she's a beautiful woman and not necessarily much more. But Venkatesh! He's got no American equivalent that comes to mind, and novice that I am, I'm puzzled at what elements of his star status and image are generic and which ones are peculiar to him. Is he considered good-looking? (The film makes jokes about his ugliness. But clearly he's not that bad-looking, just something less striking than say Shahrukh Khan.) Are many male stars in Indian popular cinema required to break out Jackie Chan moves on demand?

(And what differences in star conventions are there between regional/language centers of commercial filmmaking, if any?)

No doubt as I see more I'll be able to answer some of my own questions.

Devdas is anything but a disposable work of popular cinema, though it too was made squarely within the confines of the commercial drama/song/dance film. I sort of wish that I had seen Guru Dutt's Kaagaz Ke Phool, which strongly and deliberately echoes the Devdas tale, after this one. But Roy's film is a strong effort, cleanly directed, with its narrative trajectory coursing at a steady and irreversible pace towards its tragic end. In this film, too, I find the leads intriguing. Dilip Kumar, a major introductory force in naturalistic or somewhat "methodic" acting in Indian classical cinema, has a nice, intriguing face that feels to me like it can express a lot of emotion but not so much a clear and direct emotion. Perhaps it's only the role he's playing, as the film is about unrealized emotions, unattained satisfactions, and deferred love. The ending is a torrent of emotion that's been simmering underneath for the preceding two and a half hours; Kaagaz Ke Phool, by contrast, seems to let the energy of its own sad ending come in the difference between its dizzying dramatic heights and its quietist denouement.

(I've tried posting some images here to see if I know the first thing about how to use Blogger's "extra" features. Hope they work OK.)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

On the Agenda

The past two weeks or so have been educational ones concentrating mostly on Soviet and Indian cinema. And these will be the areas I'll continue to 'crash course' myself in through December, I think.

1) For Soviet films, I plan to catch up with the remainder of canonical and semi-canonical works I haven't seen (e.g., Mother) from the first two decades, and then move into the Soviet fantasies, children's films, epics, sci-fi films, 'Easterns,' and all-around entertainments for a while. I am also toying with the idea--yes, it's tentative, mind you--about writing on the different employments (graphically and maybe even philosophically) of very similar landscapes (grasslands, plains, hills) in a lot of Russian films, as well as in, for example, Jansco and Malick. Thus far I have some notes and am gathering illustrative stills from the Web; I'll update with progress on the project if anyone is interested. At the very least I suppose I can make a blog entry about it in the end.

2) I've been thinking about the best approach for Indian film, and will try to concentrate on pre-1970s cinema first, with a few more recent examples to get a taste of different regional flavors and contemporary trends. After I see a nice handful (or the closest available) from Bimal Roy, Satyajit Ray (whom I still barely know!), Ghatak, Dutt, Kapoor, etc., then I'll move on to more of the New Cinema. It seems like the New York Public Library's Donnell branch actually has a fine selection of VHS tapes and DVDs of various languages; it also seems that there are people who rent these films constantly, because (like HK/Chinese films) the available titles at each of my visits can change drastically.

3) I'll make stabs at the Film Forum Hitchcock retrospective, and I'll see Fred Kelemen's Krisana at Anthology, but I really want to focus my celluloid viewing in December on MoMA, which is showing some 1920s-30s Chinese films and continuing their Japanese series.

These won't be the only things I'll blog about, but for the next several weeks I want to make them major components, and try to write with some regularity (if also with brevity, sometimes) about what I see. I'm doing this largely as an exercise in self-discipline, which I sorely lack. I need to make myself truly focus on these reading/viewing projects. At the very least it'll be good preparation for grad school.

Edit - Postscript - I just wanted to say, with regard to these projects I'm so bad at following through on ... there have been several things I've expressed flashes of intense interest about on this blog in the past, but which appear to have disappeared. Not so in many cases--they've simply turned into longer-term, slow-simmer projects. Surrealism for example is still a frequent series of questions & concepts I think about, but feel that I need to spend a long time directing my antennae to the Surrealism/surrealism of individual works of art before I can really say anything productive about it as a movement. The specter of Walter Benjamin always hovers, as do a number of film critics and philosophers, over so much of what I think and write. John Ford? Still working out thoughts on him and doing viewing "research." Silent cinema, avant-garde film traditions, impersonal genre work, Abel Ferrara, Japanese cinema? Ditto. Slow-cooked meals are often the best ones, I tell myself, and I hope my knowledge and written work in the end will reflect this assertion.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Critics I Like: James Cheney

James Cheney is a member of the Mobius Home Video Forum, which maybe my favorite online discussion site of which I am not a member. (The moderators never responded when I applied, and I'm pretty sure I applied the correct way.) There are a lot of good, intelligent people in this forum, with bloodshot eyes, no doubt, from seeing so many Chor Yuen and Antonio Margheriti films and videos. But Mr. Cheney, whose writing and name I've never seen attached to anything else on the web, is probably the individual amidst this fine company whose posts I've personally found most enjoyable, informative, and insightful. He posts mainly in the 'Arthouse, World & Hollywood Cinema' forum, I believe.

I'll provide a few excerpts from posts he's made, since MHVF doesn't seem to allow direct links to threads or posts, and I hope I'm not doing anything wrong here, since MHVF's archives are open for public viewing. Unfortunately, in the little .doc where I occasionally post some of Cheney's "keepers," I haven't kept track of what threads any of them have been in. Nevertheless:

On White Nights (Visconti, '57): "Kubrick and Fellini must have been enviously fascinated by what Visconti did here. He created a whole city, or parts of one, for a stage set, a night time noir-town of canals and bridges, neon signs flashing in the fog and snow, streets, buildings, entire neighborhoods ... or the illusion of such with the fog, snow and darkness functioning as "smoke and mirrors" to foster the illusion while reinforcing the unreality of a vivid dream. That's just the mood the Dostoevskij story called for in the first place. His drama was one of midnight sun perambulations, the adventures of a sleepwalker. You can't really translate night that looks like daylight to film, and Visconti substitutes this very successful equivalent concept instead.

On The Wings of Eagles (Ford, '57): "Like much of late Ford, there runs alongside the uncosmeticized, realistic approach a vein of weirdly vivid and disturbing sentimen, Ford's old sentimental repertoire gone slightly awry ont he subjects of patriotism and duty and family love and the superior family love of comrades in arms, [sic] It's almost as if Scotty of VERTIGO were shooting this film. I was often in awe of the cinematic mastery and deep honesty when watching this, but I sensed a tortured psyche coming through less mediated than before, deep disappointments and terrors displaced directly onto the screen and then overcompensated for by maudlin lurches into 'Wonderful Life' wish fulfillment, so dreamlike as to seem a troubled sleeper's fugue into happier fantasy, which only makes the underlying nightmarish grimness throb all the more painfully. (Don't want to exaggerate the unintentional Expressionism, but I swear it's palpable)

On Roger Corman: "For more cutting loose AND good direction, look no further than ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE, which typifies much that's best about the director. He has smart material to work with, a great cast (Jason Robards as Al Capone, young George Segal, Ralph Meeker, Bruce Dern), a burlesquing attitude that sits somewhere between gangster movie-parody-nostalgia and anarchic sixties-style satire; there's a lot of flair, a surprisingly sophisticated Brechtian or 'postmodernist' brand of dramatic distancing (for one thing, there's that great 'Walter Winchell' or 'Jack Webb' voice-over (by Paul Frees) telling us the eventual fates of all the characters before we've even properly met them), an exuberant and faintly dangerous "New Hollywood" attitude, plus it moves very fast and smoothly between raunchy screwball farce and blood drenched massacre without batting and eyelash. Corman's seemingly picked up some tricks from Italian Spaghetti Artists like Leone, but he's got a jump on the then-planned ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA project by well over a decade, and his quick take on the topic made up for in timeless and freshness what it may have lost out in the deepdish ruminating department, or the finesse (though, I repeat, it's remarkably sophisticated as 'art house genre cinema.' Corman knows this territory as well, and in much the same ways, as a theorist of same like critic (and Antonioni scenarist) Peter Wollen.) Corman's "Last Thirties Gangster Movie" was the first out of the gate of many, and remains among the very best."

The above tends to crystallize Cheney's writing at its most run-on sentence happy (though who am I to criticize when it comes to this?), but when winding sentences are this saturated with well-informed passion and allusion, maybe they're not bad after all. It's one of the reasons why I visit MHVF.

[By the way, MHVF member Brian Camp may be the person behind this list of Amazon.com reviews. There's a lot of manga and anime, so it's a little ways of my own beaten path, but quite interesting nonetheless.]

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Bollywood Mania?

So at least three stores on a single stretch of 30th Ave near my home sell South Asian videos; today I walked into the one that looked the most promising, and came out with used DVDs of Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975) and Devdas (Bimal Roy, 1955), the former having been recently enjoyed viewing, the latter a blind buy but not an uneducated one. I was also looking at a few Raj Kapoor films that I passed up--I didn't have much cash to expend today.

On thing peturbed me early on. As I walked into the store, I immediately asked the attendent in the tiny shop if he had Hindi and/or Bengali films with English subtitles. No doubt a bit surprised at seeing a white guy and his white girlfriend in his store, he sputtered back something to the effect of, "No Bengali, just Hindi. All of them having English subtitles." Fair enough. So I started looking, and he asked what kinds of things I wanted. "Well, I'm not really sure, I'm just looking for now. Classical films, I guess." "You mean black-and-white? Here is Barsaat, this is classic." "OK. Oh, do you have Awaara?" "Hmm. I'll look." Etc. I saw a DVD spine that read 'Ghatak' and I pulled it out. "That's action film," the clerk tells me. "You want action film?"

"No, not really. I just saw the name, and I'm looking for films by a director with this last name, Ghatak." It was at this point that I realized the clerk's English wasn't very good, because it was very difficult for me to explain that, no, I wasn't looking for action films. It doesn't help that I'm stupid and not thinking on my toes, that Ghatak made Bengali films and that the clerk said right off the bat that he doesn't have anything Bengali. (There's a place two blocks away that does advertise both Bengali and Hindi stuff, but when we looked in the store window that appeared to have almost entirely music, few movies. I didn't go in.)

And so I'm realizing how difficult some of this subcontinental cinematic exploration might be, because the monolithic Indian cinema we tend to think of in hip "multicultural" white America is no monolith at all, and really diving into the stuff of the subcontinent means sampling things and tracking down titles in several different languages of production. I have no idea where to find anything in the Tamil-language cinema, or Punjabi, for starters, except online. This makes things tough, because part of me doesn't want to resort to ordering everything online. For better or for worse I want to cling to the idea that hunting through the films of other cultures necessitates a certain personal investment in those cultures' communities, particularly the communities here who share my home in New York. Being into South Asian cinema because you saw Ghost World, then Lagaan, and then started renting a lot of Bollywood DVDs from Kim's Video isn't likely to work as a lasting foundation for real cultural contact. It's a trend, like East Asia has provided many trends to American viewers in the know, for decades now. (My antipathy towards trends comes partly from the fact that I am so hopelessly inept at them.) I kind of want to be the awkward white guy harassing bored Indian store clerks to find the particular masala movie I'm looking for. I want to discuss with friends of mine how their culture, and how their parents, see these movies, and think of these movies. Otherwise any amount of multiculturalism is really just variety for a white person's--this white person's--cultural capital, and not real dedication to learning about something new, something different.

Maybe my recent interest in South Asian cinema will fade after a few more titles and a little more reading under my belt, because it's just a phase; or perhaps it will morph into a more manageable slow burn, like my spark for silent film caused earlier this summer by reading Paolo Cherchi Usai. Really I'm talking about Bollywood and the cinemas around it as a way of getting at the central point, which is that cinephilia need not be about only amassing knowledge and experience for oneself, but stretching oneself to meet other people's knowledge and experience.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Critics I Like: Carloss James Chamberlin

Carloss James Chamberlin writes only for Senses of Cinema as far as I know, and I didn't really pay attention to his work overall until earlier this year, I think. I remember reading and not much liking the piece he wrote on Mystic River, but now I see that I was put off more by the colloquial tone, and confrontational attitude towards Kael and Rosenbaum (not that I mind that with Kael), than the actual thought content of the piece. He's written very perceptively only both of Clint's recent films, the two that I actually don't like that much. (Oh, I do like Million Dollar Baby, reservedly--but it's problems are so heavy that I kind of feel that I don't like it.)

More than these well-considered defenses of Eastwood, however, CJC has a distinctive taste. (One of my favorite parts of breaking into the "thought" of a new-to-me critic or cinephile is discovering his or her unique tastes, and the more prickly and unpredictable, but sensible, they seem, the better. Web-surfing cinephiles have all had their pleasant alarm at seeing Dan Sallitt's idiosyncratic favorites, I'm sure. When I first glimpsed some of those lists back in 2001, I was blown away.) Chamberlin has written also The Ister (one of my most regretfully missed films in recent years), Varda's Le Bonheur, Fassbinder's Despair, Wenders' Lisbon Story, and the Slamdance film festival.

Here is a Great Directors entry on that most taste-divisive of French liberal humanist filmmakers, Bertrand Tavernier, and a contribution to a Spielberg symposium that counts among the best write-ups on Spielberg I've read. The latter displays superbly one of the things I enjoy in Chamberlin's criticism--a willingness to break things down without breaking them down into black-and-white, good-or-bad binaries, and a feeling for language that gives birth to such categories as 'Angel Eyes,' 'Blondies,' and 'Tucos.'

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Ritwik Ghatak

Additional recent viewing was Ritwik Ghatak's mind-blowing The Cloud-Capped Star (1960), which is as amazing as people say. Raymond Bellour has what looks like a pretty amazing "close reading" here at Rouge, where he "accompanies" the film. (I've read only the first fifth or so.) And Moinak Biswas has an article on Ghatak in the same issue. (Speaking of Rouge, when will the next update be!?)

Ghatak has a sensibility that startled me, but I was put in mind of Mizoguchi a bit. Both of these filmmakers have a way of bridging broad sociological insight (e.g., characters exploit other characters out of poverty, hunger, greed, etc.) with sharp psychological resonance. They make social webs palpable with their articulations of individualized nodes; inversely they place individual feelings into deeply social contexts. You always have, or come to have, a decent idea of why characters act in certain ways, or why certain events take place, but you don't necessarily feel abstracted from the action.

Conan Crisis

I must not have watched my DVD of Conan the Barbarian before, only the bonus features. I was in for a big shock.

Many of you may know my affection for this film, which extends from childhood and has more or less held up. I make no claims that Schwarzenegger & Co. are fine actors (in fact the majority of the actors with major characters weren't even "actors first"--bodybuilder, NFL star, Fosse dancer, etc.). There is a lot of undeniably goofy material here, and its execution is often stilted to say the least. (Then again, in ten or twenty years let's all look at those cinematic Tolkien masterpieces and see how goofy they seem to us then...) But it's good fun, and it has the virtue of its brilliant climactic scenes which transform this object of good fun into something with a measure of profundity. I kid you not.

The final scene of the film (if you haven't seen it and don't want to know, read no further!) is effectively a coda that depicts our musclebound hero at the mountain fortress of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones), where he fulfills his lifelong goal by butchering the villain who murdered his family and village decades ago, and forced Conan into slavery as a child. As Thulsa Doom speaks thunderously to the gathered crowd of cult followers at the foot of his lair, torches blazing in the night, Conan appears from behind (he's come from inside the lair itself) with the hilt and broken blade of his father's making. (One of Doom's lieutenants took the sword Conan's family makes at the film's opening: though it's not underlined by dialogue or even close-up shots, the mildly observant viewer will notice that Conan, in defeating the lieutenant in battle and breaking his sword, in fact breaks the very same sword his father crafted, which he takes up again as his weapon of choice.) Decapitating Thulsa Doom (an echo of TD's decapitation of Conan's mother) he flings his head down on the steps before the cultists, then tosses down the broken sword. The cultists slowly disseminate, distinguishing their torches, and the editing has Conan simply sitting around in the empty night, making his way down the fortress steps. In a final Herculean effort he throws another torch up onto the fortress entrance, where it catches fire. Thulsa Doom's power is destroyed; his palace burns in a long shot of a desolate night. End of the film, except for a still shot of Conan sitting on a throne, with Mako's voice intoning vaguely about the immediate and long term aftermath. ("So King Osric's daughter was returned to her father, and Conan and his companions went West ..." etc.)

This scene is dark, sad, spartan, and bitterly lonely. It's, by miles, the best bit of filmmaking in the entire movie. What makes it so important, and what gives Conan the Barbarian the majority of its very real philosophical heft, is that in its process surges up deeply buried subtexts to the surface. It's one of the biggest "what now?"s in the history of the cinema. We've just fewed the negation of everything the film's mythos (and, truth be told, John Milius' Weltanschauung) would appear to uphold--the power of gods and fathers, the nobility of quest, the purpose of storytelling itself. Milius lets tip his Straussian hand and for this haunting coda we see a completely unexpected depth and honesty wherein all of the myths of this film are exposed precisely as myths. Conan has fulfilled narrative expectations for revenge; he has sated his psychological drive; he has murdered his symbolic father who had (as Thulsa Doom points out) subsequently given Conan's life all meaning. And it's so powerful precisely because it is unexpected--this film does not lead you to believe, for its preceding two hours, that there is much going on philosophically in it. And for those first two hours, there isn't. But, as I said, subtext bursts through into immediate, immanent text and theme, which makes for an unforeseen and genuinely unsettling experience, rather than an intended and coded unsettling experience.

But. In the "restored" sequence at the end of the film, we see footage of the Princess ("King Osric's daughter"), who was the one presumably who led Conan back into Thulsa Doom's fortress (she was one of his followers), and with whom Conan wordlessly "shares" his unnamed existential moment.

In addition to effecting the color palette (the princess' pale skin tones and purple clothing) and drastically rupturing (and harming) the editing rhythm of the scene for those accustomed to its original cut, the insertion of the Princess does two things that partly ruin the power and meaning of the ending as it was cut for so long: 1) it destroys the sense of solitude and inscribed reflection that we/Conan have, and 2) it reinforces the existence of the continuing plot, making the scene pedestrian rather than ethereal.

I was seriously disturbed after seeing this yesterday.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Action Films

A brief observation after watching Ringo Lam's City on Fire (which has been on my to-see list for years): a film like this, and a lot of HK action cinema, naturally locates much of its action in the space of the city. American action films from the past few decades have a big tendency to locate their action in jungles, deserts, remote islands, etc (think of a number of Schwarzenegger or Stallone vehicles, or even things like American Ninja 2, if you've even seen or heard of it). Even those American films that do take place in cities (like the Die Hard series) seem more remote from the daily life of the city than that depicted in HK cinema. City of Fire has a robbery in a jewelry office that looks like a real office; when the robbers escape there are street vendors outside the financial building who flee to safety; the camera is always catching the actors moving among other people in the action scenes, whereas in Hollywood conventions the people we're meant to follow are very often foregrounded against blurry backgrounds of crowd commotion.

I don't know how well this observation would pan out if I gave it extended comparative study, but it seems to broadly break down this way.

When John Woo came to America, his films tended to be shot in open spaces and even largely in remote locations. Tsui Hark's Van Damme vehicles are both urban-centered, though, aren't they? I wonder how the two cultures/industries' spatial senses (and consequential impacts on storytelling) meshed and clashed in the big HK talent drain of the 1990s.

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.