A few scattered thoughts on some memorable bits of culture I’ve taken in over the past couple of months:
-A Fassbinder double feature: The new to DVD Martha, from 1974, and In a Year with 13 Moons, from '78.
The former is from the same early-seventies Fassbinder period as, and shares the sensibility of, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Fox and his Friends phase of the early seventies, a lushly Sirkian, very accessible, very entertaining, and very despairing look at human nature, specifically the need of a single woman who would've been called a "spinster" in the not-so-olden days (Margit Carstensen) to seek the approval of a prison warden of a husband (Karlheinz Bohm, the infamous title character of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom>) after her similarly but much less extremely domineering father passes away. The situation culminates in a sort of poignant, incisive, horrifying resignation. The question: Does real freedom, removal from the sort of interdependence represented by the emotional sadomasochism of Martha’s unhappily married couple, actually horrify us, causing us to accept unbearable conditions, however adamantly we pay lip service to it as the most healthy state of being? Why so many victims, why so many victimizers, and where do the lines of these roles blur?
As usual in Fassbinder, it is the inescapable pull and force of these questions themselves that is etched permanently into the viewer’s consciousness by his masterfully, self-consciously dramatic style; he, like us, can only hope there might be an answer. Like Petra von Kant and Fox both, Martha has beautiful cinematography by Michael Ballhaus and a fine compositional sense that engrosses to the exact degree to which it embraces its own convincing but disconcerting artifice.
In a Year with 13 Moons comes from the later, more decadent, more despairing series of films preceding his glorious BRD Trilogy; this one belongs alongside the unqualified scathe of 1976's Chinese Roulette. The astounding actor Volker Spengler stars as Elvira, a transsexual former gay man (the operation itself was an attempt to keep a male companion; suffice to say the plan backfired tragically) who retraces his convoluted past life- one in which he has always only been seeking, mostly in a way that is to her/his great personal detriment, the basic but elusive thing we call happiness- in a sort of last attempt to come to terms with what seems to be her/his perpetual and irremediable displacement, alienation, and victimhood.
Offsetting 13 Moons’s potent exploration of the passive acceptance of “life” as a mechanism meant to grind us down and away is the finest selection of music I’ve ever heard from the always musically tasteful R.W. Fassbinder (other films have contained music by Verdi and such pop gems as Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity” and The Platters’s “The Great Pretender”): The film’s opening credits appear over a lacerating act of rejection and brutality and are accompanied by the gorgeous third movement of Mahler’s fifth symphony (which, coincidentally, I had just familiarized myself with as part of my dilettantish foray into the forbidding world of classical music). There is also Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop,” a primal scream of urban desperation that fits perfectly with the film’s geographically, socially, psychologically, and emotionally subterranean feel.
Most rapturously, there is Roxy Music’s “A Song for Europe,” which pushed a button in the part of my brain that vividly remembers how brilliant their 1973 Stranded album is. This is the tune I’ve been inspired to play over and over since experiencing 13 Moons, and of the large handful of Roxy Music songs that could be called towering masterpieces, it may be the most moving. Can the post-Holocaust malaise and spiritual degeneration of an entire once-great continent be encapsulated in one six-minute, simultaneously backward and forward-looking glam-rock epic? It can when it has Bryan Ferry intoning, “Though the world is my oyster, it’s only a shell full of memories,” with all of his singularly louche, melancholy Continental affectation. The lyric reads like camp, but it hits the eardrums with a wistful profundity that practically makes you close your eyes. When we come to the chorus and Ferry sings, “I remember/All those moments/Lost in wonder,” the words “I remember” clearly evoke something gone forever, and they sound like the end of the (or at least a) world.
-Ozu’s Floating Weeds, the excellent 1959 remake of his own earlier silent, The Story of Floating Weeds. This tale of a drifting actor, his troupe, and those they come into contact with during one particular run of performances is meant to evoke the seemingly well-worn theme of pain and disappointment lurking in familial and interpersonal relationships, and the final, simple resilience of the human spirit. Thanks solely to Ozu’s style (in Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader called it, along with those of Bresson and Dreyer, “transcendent”), he arrives at something fresh and universal, with a depth belied by the story’s apparent simplicity and straightforwardness.
There is a studied quality, a starkness, a calmness, and a preoccupation with symmetry that does place the majority of Ozu’s films, including Floating Weeds, into that (tonally) cooler , more “modern” category, along with those of Bresson and Dreyer. Ozu is, visually, well served by the idea of cinematic “space,” the Expressionistic concept that the colors of the costumes and sets and the pattern of their arrangement in front of the camera “tell” as much of the story as the narrative plot points. Ozu works wonders with compositional density; very frequently in Ozu, a single frame tells much more than would a long, dialogue-driven expository scene in most other films. It is a sign of his almost mysterious genius that these difficult-to-attain cinematic qualities enhance, through a gradual building-up of the characters’ attributes and situations, the tremendous impact the film finally has on the viewer.
-Very incidentally and loosely, the aforementioned density of Ozu’s compositions reminded me of a similar sense of well-defined form overstuffed with content in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Another simple concept- this time a love triangle- is imbued with that famous “magical realism” (Am I wrong in thinking that this term is so overused as to require a new one? My laziness prevails at the moment.), with the novel’s very powerful romanticism resulting much less from “what happens” (people fall in and out of love, of course) than the accumulation of detail upon detail and digression upon digression, increasingly improbable and exaggerated, but written with such insouciant confidence that it really does force the reader to remember that, without our skewed perception of many people and events in our lives as somehow improbable, exaggerated, but wonderful (or, to be lazy again, “magical") and meant just for us, life would come to seem dull, flat, and empty. The kind of romance Garcia Marquez evokes may be purely invented, but we all get our share of chances to invent it for ourselves, to find our gratification and possibly even our fulfillment in, on, around, or underneath the conventions of “romance,” which don’t exist without our odd, irreverent, or even subversive takes on them, anyway.
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