DON'T LOOK BACK IN ANGER (THEY'RE GONE, AND IT FEELS LIKE THE WORDS TO A SONG)
-A great many Fassbinders:
From the earlier phase in his career- just as he was letting the Douglas Sirk influence seep in- The Merchant of Four Seasons. A struggling fruit vendor (he has a street cart) returns from the horrors of the Foreign Legion into the seemingly more pleasant but equally imprisoning arms of his family and their economic aspirations for him. Nobody quite captures the creeping futility of modern life (or, as Blur pointed out, that it’s rubbish), quite like Fassbinder.
As we recognize from our own lives, everyone in Merchant of Four Seasons is caught between their need to be human and their need to get ahead; there’s a gorgeous moment where the fruit vendor’s wife (played to melting-ice perfection by Irm Hermann, who also played what may be the quintessential Fassbinder role as the mute secretary in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) is catcalled by a passing driver, who has mistaken her for a hooker. As she turns to her verbal assailant, the camera frames her against a shop display window containing a “bride” mannequin arm-in-arm with a gaily dressed “fashionable bourgeois lady” mannequin; the way that these characters are mere products, molded to roles they might not even be able to articulate, is summed up beautifully during this one brief sequence.
Fassbinder sidestepped the pedantry of so many social-problem films by always attempting the big picture, taking the role of the observer over that of the judge, and it works. There’s real narrative pleasure to be had from witnessing the insidiousness of conformist values passed, in a bitter cycle, from person to person, causing sisters, wives, brothers, fathers, and mothers to brutalize one another in subtle ways. The real onus of all the misery seems to be placed upon the fruit vendor’s intellectual, independent, cosmopolitan, and generous sister, who is too absorbed in a book at her brother’s hour of most dire need, a time that a sage word or even a listening ear could have altered the course of his downward spiral.
Less successful but also beautifully made is Chinese Roulette, which was released in 1976 (midcareer). The plot is simple: A disabled, spoiled, all-seeing child confronts her parents and their lovers (one of the lovers is Anna Karina, the spectacular screen apparition familiar from so many Godard films) at their country house, where she pits them against one another in a “game” of only barely concealed malignancy. The film is 3/4 great, but there are patches where Fassbinder’s coolly decadent style becomes almost a parody of itself; there are arch, brittle exchanges that recall nothing so much as the “Sprockets” sketches from Saturday Night Live. Well worth a viewing, but not Fassbinder at the top of his game.
No, that designation belongs to the absolutely essential BRD Trilogy, recently released by Criterion in a deluxe four-disc package (including one disc of supplements).
The films each explore the “economic miracle” undertaken in postwar (West) Germany as the country struggled to piece back together some sort of identity and goal, to wake up from and forget a national nightmare of incomprehensible proportions. Each of them witnesses this miracle through the experiences of a female character. And each of these films vie with one another for sheer gorgeous perfection.
Maria Braun was the peak of Fassbinder’s perpetual collaborations with Hanna Schygulla (and his last film shot by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who later parlayed his work with Fassbinder into worldwide renown as a perennial Scorsese collaborator). Maria is a war bride who had exactly one night and half a day with her soldier husband before he leaves to fight, and who for the first half of the film staunchly holds onto the hope that he’s made it through Germany’s WWII defeat alive, though all evidence and common sense point to the contrary. When her husband does miraculously return apparently unscathed, Maria immediately commits a crime of passion for which her husband takes the jail sentence, leaving Maria to wait for him again.
All of this waiting leaves Maria torn between the stasis she desires and the inexorable momentum of the world around her. Germany must get up and go, start moving things forward again, making money, and Maria- a pragmatist who prefers taking action to pining- becomes a razor-sharp, extremely successful businesswoman, an identity she tells herself she’ll discard in a second once the real goal- a married, comfortable, conventional bourgeois life with her husband- can be reached. Of course, years at war and in prison leave her husband unprepared for life in a home bought and paid for through the remarkable accomplishments of a woman he no longer really knows (or knows him), and the film’s climax depicts the inevitable explosions of repressed truths, Maria’s and her husband’s concretely, and and the nation of Germany allegorically.
The entire trilogy has a classic sheen to it, stylistic extensions of Hollywood moviemaking, though with very different ends in mind; it takes Hollywood’s “dream factory” aesthetic ideals to pierce the complacency of blind patriotism and false identity; Fassbinder knows that manufacturing dreams, whether on screen or in life, has a steep cost that needs to be counted.
Maria Braun is the least artificial (and therefore, in some ways, the least interesting) of the three films, but that Fassbinderian distance is still there, in the framing, in the visual and narrative perspective which allows us to see the characters’ complex imprisonment, in the tension between form- cinematic beauty, the luxurious image, the concocted space of the mis-en-scene- and painful, even brutal content.
Veronika Voss- “BRD 2”- is a black-and-white marvel, predating Woody Allen’s Zelig and the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There in painstakingly mounting a black-and-white world- the look of classic Hollywood, where light and shadow reigned- in service of a singularly modern vision.
Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) was a Third Reich-era movie star who, in the postwar years, is a morphine addict, imprisoned by her prescribing doctor and desperate for a taste of her former fame and public approbation. She attempts to seduce and impress a sports writer as a publicity detour in her bid to get back in front of the camera; she also slyly, in true junkie-con style, saps him of cash in an elaborate scam.
There’s a tangled “thriller” plot, and the film has very strong shades of those most memorable B&W bastions, Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard. As usual for Fassbinder, however, the real plot is something else, something to do with those who enforce repression, escapism, and forgetfulness (Veronika’s doctor, the public health minister), those who can’t seem to stop themselves digging up what’s being repressed (the sports writer, who obsessively leads himself and his long-suffering girlfriend to a discovery of the real, degraded nature of Veronika’s current life while also unearthing a number tattooed upon the inner forearm of another of Veronika’s doctor’s patients: A concentration camp survivor who, like Veronika, takes the morphine to forget, though for a pointedly different reason), and the one trapped- by herself, by the people around her, and by the mood of the time in which she lives- in that purgatory between trying to remember and trying to forget: Veronika herself.
Lola was released, chronologically speaking, in the middle of the trilogy, though it is labeled “BRD 3” in the titles and is the only one of the films that announces itself as part of a trilogy. It’s an almost insanely giddy cinematic pleasure to follow the brilliant black and white of Veronika Voss with the “jellybean colors” (in the words of profoundly gifted cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger, who also shot Voss and is interviewed extensively on the supplemental disc) of Lola.
It’s well known that Fassbinder worshiped at the similarly jellybean-colored altar of Douglas Sirk- were it not for Fassbinder’s enthusiastic and oft-quoted adulation of Sirk, the entire late-seventies body of critical/feminist theory devoted to viewing Sirk afresh and developing a new appreciation of him might never have been- and Lola is undoubtedly his most Sirkian film in both form and content.
Our first glimpse of the titular character (played to glamorously frenetic perfection by Barbara Sukowa) is in a mirror (a recurrent visual motif in both Sirk and Fassbinder) as she prepares for the evening’s show. Lola is a performer and prositute at a cabaret owned by the land developer Schuckert, to whom the postwar boom has been most kind and whose property more or less includes Lola herself. Armin Mueller-Stahl is von Bohm, the town’s new zoning commissioner, a somewhat prudish man of integrity who likes to think of himself as modern and a friend to Germany’s new “economic miracle.” He will do business with the land developer, but won’t go to his whorehouse. So, when von Bohm and Lola fall in love, he’s unaware of her actual occupation. A love triangle develops, or rather, a love square, with Lola, Schuckert, and von Bohm as the three melodramatic points, and Lola’s more practical concerns- financial independence, economic security- as the silent fourth corner.
I’ll go out on a limb and submit that of all of Fassbinder’s visually impressive, ultimately melancholy works, Lola could very well be the most beautifully sad; beautiful because the film is a hermetically concocted, plastic world in which every object, color, light source, and person seems decorative, something more than itself, and sad because this world is a prison to those who, knowingly or not, create, occupy, and perpetuate it.
After tracking down a copy of it from the library a while back, I finally obtained my own sure to be cherished copy of Christian Braad Thomsen’s out of print (and priced accordingly) book, Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius. Thomsen, who also provides audio commentary on the Lola disc (sounding like a Danish Sean Connery) is a filmmaker/critic and was a friend of Fassbinder’s; therefore, his insights are at once juicy, informative, and reasonably objective; the book is a combination biography and detailed chronlogical filmography via essay. Add the absolutely gorgeously designed booklet accompanying Criterion’s trilogy release and you have a virtually complete goldmine of information/background on what may have been the most proliferative filmmaker of all time; both (especially the Criterion booklet) are also remarkably rich in on-set photographs and stills.
-Speaking of Fassbinder and goldmines (velvet or otherwise): Todd Haynes’s just-published screenplay omnibus, Far from Heaven, Safe, and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story - Three Screenplays has a lucid and erudite (qualities Haynes has in abundance) introductory essay and includes the complete original drafts of the screenplays, meaning that the reader is allowed to see (or at least read) what may have ended up on the cutting room floor. The most interesting revelation upon first skim: Safe was initially to have been divided into “chapters” via intertitles, as in Kubrick’s 2001 (a model for the film in other, deeper ways) and The Shining or Godard’s Vivre sa Vie. They’re described as “white letters on black, hard cuts in and out, without interruption to the soundtrack). There were to have been seven: FREEZING; STRESS; CRASH; CONTROL; CLEAR; IMMUNE; SAFE.
-Party Monster. The filmmakers, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (creators of the worthwhile Eyes of Tammy Faye), had already created a 1998 documentary of the same title and detailing the same lurid story: Michael Alig, a picked-on nobody from a small town, comes to New York and redefines hedonism for the nineties by taking over the club scene. He succumbs to the druggy emptiness of the club lifestyle and ends up murdering his drug dealer. Why on earth they had to fictionalize it, I have no idea, but the result is unwatchable.
I saw the trailer for the film and read some of the bad reviews, yet I was still shocked by how roundly poor the film was. “Amateurish” is much too kind a word. During the brief moments you could look past the embarrassingly bad performances of Macauley Culkin and Seth Green as the lead “club kids” (imagine two very, very straight guys drunk at a frat party trying to get a laugh by pretending to queen out; imagine it stretched to feature-film length), you can see that the film is vastly understructured and way overwritten. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film so badly in need of a dialogue editor, or just some help- any help! Not only is the conception of the film terminally flawed, but each detail of the execution- the pacing, the editing, the music, the timing of the performers- seems designed to come off as relentlessly static as possible.
The one miniscule bright spot is Chloe Sevigny in a very small turn as a suburban girl from Dallas who sees the club kids on TV and decides to join them. That’s really faint praise, though; anyone who can act (as Sevigny can, usually quite well) is bound to look stellar when surrounded by the wearying anti-acting on display in the film’s other main roles.
Party Monster is the must-skip of the year; it takes all the worst aspects of Bully (a complete failure of a film and waste of time that still manages to seem bearable compared to Party Monster) and takes them to their furthest, most excruciating extreme: The asinine tone of naughty provocation that is in reality nowhere to be found in the picture, the gruesome, self-impressed “acting,” the laughable cheesiness made all the less impressive by the obvious conviction of the filmmakers that they’re being daring and decadent, the failure of the writing and direction to reign anything in, shape anything, or even seem particularly interested in the characters or subject at hand. They’re all here, boring and insulting the audience to tears and giving independent American cinema a bad name.
-I also caught a screening of Matrix: Revolutions. Now, I’m not a zealous fan of these films, but unlike some other famous sci-fi movie trilogies I could name, they are well put together and enjoyable (intermittently very enjoyable) to watch. I’m not prepared to geek out and go into all the little details of the self-contained yet very familiar (messianic-apocalyptic) mythology involved, so I’ll just say this: If you need a bit of mindlessness and are in the mood to watch a film that does your thinking for you, you could do much worse than this. There are a few too many explosions, and the CGI-heavy battle scenes go on maybe twice as long as they really need to, but it does work, more or less.
-It’s the end of an era. Two bits of saddening press yesterday (both from NME.com):
”Suede are to split. The band, who released their 'Singles' album last month, have announced today (November 5) that they will each be working on their ‘individual projects’ from next year.
The band have issued a statement, that reads: ‘Suede would like to announce that from next year they will be working on their own individual projects.There will not be a new studio album until the band feel that the moment is artistically right to make one.This announcement does not affect the forthcoming touring commitments. Suede would like to thank the fans for their wonderful support over the years. See you in the next life.’”
...and a bit later in the day:
“NME.COM understands that the decision to split came from Brett Anderson during a band meeting yesterday. However, there have been rumours of a split ever since the commercial disappointment that greeted the release of last album 'A New Morning' last year. A band source has said that "some of the members of the group are more happy with the decision than others," and it is likely that singer Brett Anderson had the final say.
Following the release of their album the group were thought to be working on new material. It is currently unclear how many songs were actually completed, and if they will ever see the light of day.”
This feels like the final blow in a series of pop losses: Pulp is on indefinite (likely permanent) hiatus, Luke Haines is currently without a record label, and now this. Even considering the strong second string of Blur, Elastica, and Oasis, these three groups, along with PJ Harvey, were head and shoulders above anything else to come to attention in the pop scene of the nineties (the time of my own musical awakening), and I loved (and still love) them all.
In addition to Suede’s eternally memorable melodies and stylish, smart, multilayered capital-P Pop-Poetry lyrics about achieving grace amidst modern complication via a simultaneous devotion to and disbelief in glamorous dreams, there was the beautifully indeterminate sexuality emanating from the band and their music as both an attribute and (more rarely and more importantly) as a serious but insouciantly tackled subject. They sang about sex in a way that was fanciful, subversive, incisive, and all-encompassing; when Brett Anderson’s sleazy-choirboy falsetto climbed all the way up the Kinsey scale and back down again, it was clear that it really doesn’t matter if you’re straight, gay, or somewhere in between. All that, and it was only the down-to-earth drummer that was actually gay! They threw people off, ignored categories and expectations; in this way, Suede truly was the Smiths of the nineties. Both Morrissey and Brett Anderson know that sex and humanity are inseparable, that easy titillation in the name of sexuality is a cop-out and no substitute for real, lacerating, laconic provocation, and that something deeper, richer, and greyer binds all emotion and sexuality together into a common human experience.
I could only be devoted to the sociosexual intelligence of Morrissey as a lagger, someone who hopped on the train after it had already left the station (The Smiths broke up in 1987; I became a die-hard Smiths/Morrissey fan in the mid-nineties). But Suede was something of my generation, something I felt a part of from the very beginning. They were just a pop group; they had recognizable influences, internal strife, the occasional creative misstep. But they aspired to something few aspire to anymore, and the absence of any fresh expression of their galvanizing vision will be noticeable long after the fresh shock of yesterday’s announcements has passed.
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