Tag Archives: Berlin Alexanderplatz

A Pair Of Book Reviews

On Tuesday, May 9th, 2017 two stories broke on my facebook feed. One was from indiewire that detailed David Lynch’s “retirement” from making films (2006’s Inland Empire is to be his swan song). The second appeared courtesy of the Sydney Film Festival blog and explained why Martin Scorsese believes that the cinema is dead. If one is to take the statements of these two filmmakers at face value than the forecast for motion pictures seems to be pretty dire. However, it seems to me that both filmmakers are speaking with too much haste.

Desiree Gruber, David Lynch and Kyle Maclachlan in Paris

It is true that the mainstream of Western film production is relatively bankrupt. I myself have gone on and on about the irredeemable qualities of the current Hollywood franchises. Yet, this corner of the cinema, the one that dominates our media intake online and on television, represents only a fraction of what the cinema is today. One cannot gauge the current state of affairs in the cinema by using something like the Academy Awards or the Cannes Film Festival as a barometer. Films from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia all indicate innovation and progress in the tradition of such renowned filmmakers as Fritz Lang, Elaine May, Stanley Kwan, John Cassavetes, Ousmane Sembène, Nagisa Oshima, Alan Clarke, Béla Tarr, and Abbas Kiarostami just for starters. Not to mention the legions of underground filmmakers working in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, etc. This, the underground, is where the majority of films are being made today (this leaves out, of course, the iconoclastic filmmakers still working within the mainstream that Lynch and Scorsese have given up on such as Jim Jarmusch, Andrea Arnold, Terence Davies, Atom Egoyan, Claire Denis, Charles Burnett, and Abel Ferrara; to name just a few).

As someone who works as an educator in the medium of film I can attest to a continued interest in the history of world cinema amongst my students. During this last semester I had a student who made weekly trips to his public library to rent Criterion Collection DVDs. I also had a student who, at age 16, had already made two documentaries and has decided she would like to focus on making some comedic short films. I was also fortunate enough to work with some acting students on two short film adaptations of works by Hal Hartley and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. So as far as I can see, the cinema is nowhere near dying off anytime soon.

In the interest of preserving the cinema I would like to recommend two books on the cinema. I often wish I could assign more readings to my students during the time I have with them, but the length, the specificity and some of the academic language of these books would render them inaccessible to my students in the context of the classes I teach. So I will relate some thoughts and reflections concerning these two publications to those who read this blog instead (which, to my delight, does include some former students).

Fassbinder and Thomsen

The first text I would like to address is Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: The Life & Work Of A Provocative Genius. First published in 1991, Thomsen’s piece is unique in the realm of studies surrounding Fassbinder’s work in so far as Thomsen actually knew Rainer Werner Fassbinder quite well and can offer some qualified analysis of his films. The title speaks to Thomsen’s regards for Fassbinder and the text makes quite an argument in support of those regards.

Unlike the work of Wallace Steadman Watson, Thomsen succeeds in contextualizing Fassbinder’s work in the theatre within his filmography. Drawing on aesthetic and political similarities, Thomsen paints a clear portrait of Fassbinder’s artistic development in both mediums. Their mutual friendship also gives Thomsen some unique insights into the more psychological readings of films such as Fassbinder’s segment in the anthology film Germany In Autumn, In A Year With Thirteen Moons and other personal films. Thomsen also brings the importance of the novels Effi Briest and Berlin Alexanderplatz as narrative influences to clearer light, going so far as to identify character types outlined by these two novels that find their echoes as early in Fassbinder’s career as Love Is Colder Than Death.

The true highlight of Thomsen’s book is the close analysis of Fassbinder’s more avant-garde films and videos such as Bremen Coffee, Nora Helmer, The Journey To Niklashausen, Pioneers In Ingolstadt and Eight Hours Are Not A Day. These titles in particular are often overlooked in studies of Fassbinder.

Thomsen’s weakness as a writer, and this may be due to the fact that the text is translated from Danish, is in the prose style. There are a number of instances where the language is casual, lending the text an air of amateurism that I am sure is quite unintentional. This style maybe appropriate for the anecdotal elements of the book, but it reads poorly in the sections of concentrated and deliberate analysis of specific works. That said, while Thomsen’s book is a highly informative and accessible piece of literature on the subject of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it is not as exhaustive in its presentation of information on Fassbinder as The Anarchy Of The Imagination, published by PAJ Books in 1992.

Ms. 45

The second publication I will address exists on the total opposite end of the spectrum of the literary discourse of the cinema. Nicole Brenez’s Abel Ferrara, published in 2007 as part of the University Of Illinois Press’ series on contemporary filmmakers, is an entirely scholarly piece of writing and represents the best of what film academia has to offer in the way of auteurist theory. The structure of Brenez’s book is to present a close analysis of Ferrara’s films in the first half, ending with a second half that is a transcription of a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film ‘R Xmas at the highly regarded Cinémathèque Française in 2003. By structuring her text in this manner Brenez allows her subject to support her own interpretations of his work in his own words, though in a less detailed and more casual conversational context.

Brenez’s book looks at all of Abel Ferrara’s films from Driller Killer to The Blackout in varying degrees of detail. The films that receive the most attention are Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, Bodysnatchers, The Funeral, New Rose Hotel, and The Blackout. Brenez’s exhaustive and highly specific analysis of these films is singular in film scholarship. The kind of thorough and detailed readings Brenez offers us of Ferrara’s films cannot be found elsewhere. Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who is, for the most part, largely ignored within the discourse of film, often surfacing as a topic of interest in a limited capacity primarily in general overview studies of American Independent Filmmaking and its history.

Perhaps the most delightful portion of Brenez’s work on Ferrara is her analysis of the “time image” in relation to The Addiction. Brenez very successfully argues that the shared traumas of war and genocide in the 20th century are in fact what prompts the highly allegorical vampirism of The Addiction’s narrative. Not only that, but she successfully ties in the commentaries on society found within Bodysnatchers and King Of New York as being earlier iterations of the same social analysis found in The Addiction. Likewise, Brenez’s investigation into the modes of character duality in Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45, The Funeral and The Blackout is equally as impressive.

Brenez is wise in her analysis not to look to hard at Ferrara’s filmic influences. Often these kinds of studies on specific filmmakers become bogged down in the auteurist trap of tracing influences as a kind of aesthetic genealogy.  The weakness of Brenez’s book is that, for a few readers at least, the language is extremely academic and the prose highly refined and elaborate.

John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich
In conclusion I would like to return to the catalyst for this piece and discuss briefly my approach to writing this post. Originally I was going to open this piece with a quote from Orson Welles taken from This Is Orson Welles  concerning the nature of film in academia. But given the bleak forecastings of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese I think that the discourse that these two publications represent as well as the example of Orson Welles will dispel any anxieties surrounding the future of the cinema. Consider that these publications represent only a minute sampling of the literature on the subject of film. Then consider that Orson Welles spent the last decade of his life trying to complete a number of films that remain unfinished and yet he never lost hope nor did he ever give up. The cinema is alive and well, without a doubt.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Spring 2017

Twenty Personal Favorites

“Memories of movies are strand over strand with memories of my life.  During the quarter of a century (roughly from 1935 to 1960) in which going to the movies was a normal part of my week, it would no more have occurred to me to write a study of movies than to write my autobiography”-from the preface of Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed: Reflections On The Ontology Of Film

I believe it’s true of anyone who feels passionately about the cinema that, as Cavell puts it, “memories of movies are strand over strand with memories” of one’s life.  Every time people even talk about Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight I think of my first girlfriend and the man in the theater who overdosed and prompted the theater manager to empty the theater we were in.  Similarly, Ringo Lam’s City On Fire always makes me think of my walk to work at The Video Store when I was a Junior in High School (Sunday mornings my brother and I always watched a Hong Kong action film before I went to work).  I have found that the films that I have the strongest memory attachments or the most memories with tend to be my favorites; I suppose that is true of most people.

Yet conditions of viewership have changed drastically since Stanley Cavell first wrote those words in 1971.  The cinema is more a part of our homes than our nightlife, more of a private affair than a communal reverie.  Home Video formats of any type (even streaming) take the cinema from the cinemas and bring it home to us.  In addition the vast repertoire of titles available for the home far out number the annual re-releases.  

The audience owns the cinema now more than ever.  And as you read on it will become apparent that these are the recollections of a singular cinema.  It’s a series of highlights from the Robert Curry program of films that have played the Robert Curry theater at the Robert Curry film festival for only Robert Curry.  It may be disconcerting, but it is true.  The cinema has vastly diverged from the stage.  It is a private affair.  You are alone and the film you are watching is the only other sign of life in the room.  One might say that it is intimacy at its most convenient.

bathingbeauty12

Bathing Beauty (1944)

Dir. George Sidney, cast: Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Basil Rathbone

I have no clue when I first saw Bathing Beauty.  It had to have been after Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon but around the same time as Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate.  Though I probably enjoyed The Crimson Pirate more as a kid, Bathing Beauty has managed to endure more potently in my mind.  I directly credit this film and a slew of other Esther Williams’ films for instilling in me a love for swimming as well as photographing swimming (something I only got to do once in Boy+Girl, Girl+Boy).

Bathing Beauty is concerned, as so many old Hollywood comedy-musicals are, with the battle of the sexes.  Yet Red Skelton isn’t exactly the manifestation of macho idealism.  And Esther Williams comes across as tough, assertive, intellectual.  Psychologically it is a role reversal, with a focus on the physical of the sexes in Skelton’s comedy sketches.  This odd pastiche is probably why the film, intentionally or not, remains fresh even today for me.

But back when I was four years old and first becoming acquainted with Red and Esther what really got me was the music.  The songs still play my emotions today as effectively as they did then, to give you an idea of how much this film has endeared itself to me.  The Harry James numbers are especially enthralling, sometimes ironic, sometimes playful, but always shot with that trademark MGM dreaminess.

In 2012 when I was shooting a musical with Caroline Boyd (titled Michael’s Match; never released), I revisited Bathing Beauty for the first time in years.  It gave me two essential ideas which I used on my film.  The first I mentioned above, the psychological role reversal.  The second was to capture the numbers in as few shots as possible.  George Sidney does this better than any of the other MGM directors whose work I have seen (which is a lot, trust me).  His shot progression of Anne Miller’s first big number in Kiss Me Kate is a virtuoso exercise in cinematographic minimalism that is remarkably effective.

The-Strange-Woman-1946-1

The Strange Woman (1946)

Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward

I didn’t really immerse myself in the work of Edgar G. Ulmer till late in 2012 after reading Todd McCarthy’s indispensable The Kings Of The Bs.  This was the fourth film by Ulmer I saw, and I immediately fell in love with it.  Admittedly Bluebeard is more visually arresting, but Heddy Lamarr’s performance in The Strange Woman is simply staggering.  She is the epitome of sex-soaked camp enticing men to their doom.  George Sanders, cast against type, brings a sophistication unique unto himself to a role better suited to Edward Arnold.

Typically of Ulmer, he’s utilized his budget constraints on The Strange Woman to formulate a pseudo-expressionistic American frontier, parts Fritz Lang and parts Merian C. Cooper.  Yet, from a director’s perspective, the most inventive quality to The Strange Woman’s direction is how intimate the film feels without ever becoming claustrophobic.  More than any other Ulmer film The Strange Woman is overflowing with close-ups.  One scene in particular, when Sanders finally calls out Lamarr for what she is, features a close-up on Lamarr that is sustained just a beat too long which is devastatingly effective.  This moment in The Strange Woman inspired how I cut together the sequence where Jessica Mockrish murders Robin Friend-Stift in An Atrocious Woman.

coo3-1

Bill & Coo (1948)

Dir. Dean Riesner, cast: George Burton’s Birds

“What the fuck is this!?!” was Thomas Lampion’s first response to when I showed him Bill & Coo back in 2010 as Julie Lovely was born.  It seems to be the reaction most people have to this film.  On an intellectual level, I agree, “what is this?  It won an honorary Oscar?”  Still, it’s closer to my heart than I should probably admit.  

I don’t know when I saw it first, but I had to have been very young.  In 2004 I remember going to Movies Unlimited in the Great North East when they were selling off all of their VHS.  That’s when I saw a copy of Bill & Coo.  Looking at it’s cover (I still own this copy) I remembered it somehow.  Needless to say I bought it, along with To Sleep With Anger, The Cars That Ate Paris and Blank Generation (I got some looks at the register).  Once I was home I watched it.  It was like a flood gate had burst.  I had seen this weird bird movie before.  I was transported to a safe and loving place of innocence.  That hasn’t changed no matter how many viewings later.  But I still have no clue as to why?  Maybe I am one of those damn birds reincarnated?

11330266

Vengeance Valley (1951)

Dir. Richard Thorpe, cast: Burt Lancaster, Robert Walker, Joanne Dru

“The Skipper” was how I knew Burt Lancaster as a kid.  His real name was unmanageable to a three year old.  He was just “The Skipper” because that’s what his crew of pirates with hearts of gold called him in The Crimson Pirate.  I watched so much Burt Lancaster when I was three or four (who’s kidding, I still watch about two Burt Lancaster films a month even now).  

Still, when I put this challenge before the regular contributors to this blog and we all started working on our lists I surprised myself.  The Crimson Pirate, as beloved as it is, did not stay in my head the way Lancaster’s quickie B-Western Vengeance Valley did.  Being famous in my family for my love of “The Skipper” while also being somewhat surprised by this revelation I started second guessing myself.  I can vividly remember the Saturday afternoon I first watched the chase scene where Lancaster pursues Robert Walker, but that isn’t the image that remains vital in my mind.

There’s a scene right after Joanne Dru gives birth to Robert Walker’s illegitimate child.  Lancaster arrives, before his brother Robert Walker, to see the newborn child.  Lancaster looks rugged, dressed for the cold, unshaven, his large frame towering over Joanne Dru.  There’s hardly any dialogue.  Lancaster removes his gloves and takes his nephew in his arms.  The stoic features of Lancaster’s face give way to a vulnerability that is utterly disarming.  Dru looks at him, a face full of hurt, ambiguous.  Then Walker appears in soft focus behind Lancaster and Dru, who are now so close that if not for the baby it would be a love scene.  Walker’s appearance throws off the composition, casting a threatening presence into the tender moment.  That is what has stuck with me.

large-screenshot1

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Dir. Douglas Sirk, cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead

I don’t believe this is Douglas Sirk’s best film.  Still, it’s my favorite.  It probably has something to do with my background in Catholicism (CCD every Tuesday night).  Films that address an affirmation of faith or a crisis of faith tend to affect me in unusual ways.  Magnificent Obsession is never explicit in what matter of faith Rock Hudson finds after killing Jane Wyman’s husband and blinding her, but from the music cues and Sirk’s camera placement which clearly recall DeMille’s Biblical epics it has to be some form of Christianity.  And with Douglas Sirk being Douglas Sirk he subtly scrutinizes and evaluates man’s relation to faith.  When I first saw this film I interpreted its message being something along the lines of “faith in a higher power is stronger than faith in a master”.  Though that sophomoric interpretation at that time is probably some sort of subconscious projection.  Honestly I always thought that Magnificent Obsession would make a good double feature with Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door?

Empress_Yang_01

Princess Yang Kwei Fei (1955)

Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, cast: Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Sô Yamamura

I was in ninth grade when I first saw this film.  It was late Spring, the second week in a row that my father, brother, and I all drove down to Movies Unlimited together.  The fruits of the previous trip yielded Bill & Coo and an assortment of other cult classics, but this trip was all about Japan.  This is when I first became familiar with New Yorker Video with whom I would have dealings with some nine years later working for my friend Amber at CIP.  New Yorker Video put out this series, Japanese Masters, that collected major works by Ozu, Oshima, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ichikawa all in beautifully letterboxed editions.  These were gorgeous VHS, I couldn’t believe I was getting so many amazing films so cheaply.  I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s van (a huge van that my brother and I often compared to the shuttles in Star Trek: The Next Generation) gazing over the titles I had purchased; Equinox Flower, Cruel Story Of Youth, Enjo, and of course Princess Yang Kwei Fei.

Strangely, I only watched Princess Yang Kwei Fei once early on a Sunday morning.  I never watched that VHS again.  But those images, those dreamlike pastel colored images remained etched into my mind’s eye for years.  There really was no reason to rewatch it when I was reliving it again at the most spontaneous of times daily.  So I gave it to my friend Josh.  

Yet, once I was working for Amber, I began to desire to see Princess Yang Kwei Fei again.  I thought it would be a great if somewhat unexpected representation of Mizoguchi for a program I was developing.  Nothing ever came of that.  Then three years later my collaborator Thomas got me really into Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor and the flames of desire were fanned again.  The spectre of what Princess Yang Kwei Fei had become obsessed me.  I had to see it again.

Finally, I ordered the Masters Of Cinema release a month or more back.  It was spectacular.  Mizoguchi weaves such a delicate fantasy out of such concise compositions and designs that the film transcends folklore and opera, achieving a symbiotic fusion of the two as flawless as a Mazarin stone.  Anyone invested in the lyricism of artifice, Kenneth Anger fans, fans of The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T., and appreciators of technicolor will find this film indispensable.

M4DDACR EC001

Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955)

Dir. Norman Foster, cast: Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen, Hans Conried

I have few vivid memories of my grandfather.  One of them is of going to a small carnival in the woods out near his home in Mt. Carmel.  I rode a wooden roller coaster with my dad that day which scarred me for life.  But I also got my first and only coonskin cap.

I had just discovered Davy Crockett, I watched this film so many times back then.  I read everything that was at the Herbert Hoover Elementary School library on the man and even gave a presentation in second grade as Davy Crockett relating the life of Davy Crockett.  Davy Crockett meant so much to me.  I wanted to be like him.  I wanted to end conflicts with good ole common sense, grin down bears, and give my life for something I believed in (not America, more like an endangered species such as Bison or for Captain Kirk)!  Not much has changed.

It’s so rare to find a film for children that actually follows a child’s logic in terms of narrative structure.  And when Davy Crockett can’t do that during the original episode breaks, there is an informative and catchy song ripe with puns.  It is easy to resent or harbor hostility for the Disney Corporation with all of the shady things they do.  Still, now and then, something a little more artful, meaningful can occur.

The day Fess Parker died when I was entering my Junior year of college was extraordinarily tough.  He had never been the “cinematic best friend” that Burt Lancaster was, but I still felt somehow close to him.  So my dear friend Lauren and I shared a bottle of Fess Parker wine and watched Davy Crockett.  I memorialized Fess Parker and Davy Crockett further a few months later when I made a video on the shift of American morality post-WWII and took all of my images from Davy Crockett (the audio came from all over the place).  My teacher, Pete Rose, said my piece, titled Davy Crockett & The Fall Of The American Dream, was “obsessive”.  

redballoon

The Red Balloon (1956)

Dir. Albert Lamorisse, cast: Pascal Lamorisse

When you are a little boy like I was when I saw The Red Balloon for the first time it has an indescribable effect on you.  Sure a film like Davy Crockett can instill a child with some moral values just as The Crimson Pirate can ignite one’s sense of adventure, but The Red Balloon poses a question that only a child might ask.  “What makes make-believe make-believe?”

Lamorisse is not interested in an answer.  The Red Balloon simply asks its audience to accept, to feel without thinking.  It isn’t one of those obnoxious children’s films that pretends to do that with talking animals or a superficial visual perfection.  The streets in The Red Balloon are real streets.  The faces of the people on those streets are just like anywhere in the world.  The only fantastic element to the film is the balloon.  It is in this contrast that the film finds its success.

It’s difficult for me to discuss the aesthetic virtues of The Red Balloon.  It’s a film that is just too close to me.  When I turned twenty-five a few years ago and my mother gave me the Janus Films restoration of The Red Balloon on DVD I’m sure she didn’t think I was grateful.  I just don’t have the words to really talk about this film.  Of all of the films on this list, this one has been the most important to me.  

Marnie pic 1

Marnie (1964)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, cast: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Martin Gabel

Personally I find that this film conveys Hitchcock the person more clearly than any of the master’s films.  His chauvinism has been well documented by his countless biographers just as critics have so often cited his voyeurism and his fetishization of blonde haired women.  All those things are found in ample abundance in Marnie.  Though in the instance of Marnie these components become  a frenzied whirlwind of a nightmare equal parts Freudian and, in terms of design, heavily indebted to the films of Fritz Lang, a one-time mentor to Hitchcock early in the latter’s career.

Marnie is as disturbing as it is irresistible, the current of sadism wraps the viewer up in a setting as familiar as it is subversive.  The Birds prepared audiences for the spectacle of Tippi Hedren in jeopardy and pain, Dr. No established Sean Connery as a womanizing masculine ideal of heterosexual impulses bordering on the violent, but Marnie delivers both in extremes.  Gradually, over the course of the film, both attributes of these celebrity signifiers are amplified, culminating in the most degrading exploitation of someone with PTSD that I have ever seen in film.

Oddly, it is the familiarity of these celebrity players and what they signify within a narrative context that enables the viewer to invest in the film.  For a filmmaker that is no easy accomplishment and testifies to Hitchcock’s powers as a director.  Add to that the sensual set design, the sharp tweed suits, the lure of the American upper class, and the sexuality of Tippi Hedren and the film becomes almost as enjoyable as North By Northwest.  

When I first became acquainted with Marnie I had been reading Norman Mailer’s essays collected in Existential Errands.  Mailer, for a large part of this anthology, sought to tangle with the relationship between the binary sexes in the context of feminism and the sexual revolution during the sixties.  The rape that opens Mailer’s An American Dream serves as a precursor to his perspective of “conservative” masculinity as outlined in Existential Errands.  Needless to say, this brand of “manliness” shared by the protagonist of An American Dream and the authorship of Alfred Hitchcock provide a reflection of masculine identity at a major shift in sexual politics within American society.

Picture 10

Flesh (1968)

dir. Paul Morrissey, cast: Joe Dallesandro, Geraldine Smith, Patti D’Arbanville

Kenny used to manage TLA video back before it shut its doors forever in 2010.  In 2006 he held onto copies of Flesh, Trash and Heat for me, for about two weeks, till I could purchase them.  The Image DVD release of Paul Morrissey’s films was such a big deal for me.  I had wanted to see these films ever since I had gotten Andy Warhol’s Bad a couple of years before.   I love all of Paul Morrissey’s oddball films, but Flesh in particular.  At one point I was so enamored of Joe Dallesandro in this film that I painted three portraits of him, one in color, two in black and white.

Flesh, much like Trash, isn’t a film where narrative is particularly important.  The films Morrissey made before relocating to Europe in the mid-seventies are characterized by their emphasis on interactions in the form of brief encounters.  As Joe hustles his way from client to client in episodic form each interaction becomes a piece in a larger tableaux.  The overall achievement of the film is that, in this loose form, it still manages to say so much about how people not only relate to one another but also accomplishes a comic critique of American life in 1968.

When I had the chance to speak with Paul Morrissey at length about his career in 2012 I was surprised that he didn’t seem to realize the extent to which his films still matter to so many young people today.  The free spirit and subversive sexuality of Women In Revolt and Flesh in particular represent some of the few truly articulate commentaries on non-binary sexual relations and kink lifestyles.  Though, I suppose, it would be nice if these films were indeed more popular than they already are.

sonmonkey

Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

Dir. Werner Herzog, cast: Helmut Döring, Gisela Hertwig, Gerhard Maerz

This is another of those films I purchased on a trip to Movies Unlimited.  It swept through my consciousness again and again all through the summer of 2003 after I first saw it.  I credit it with sparking some of the more cruel images that appear in my first films shot on VHS.  There are few films as cruel as Even Dwarfs Started Small.  The excess of its cruelty, its absurdity, its sheer volume often give way to comedy, which is perhaps why this is still one of the least popular of Werner Herzog’s films.

I have heard Even Dwarfs Started Small compared to Jodorowsky’s El Topo, though I find all they really have in common is their multitude of dwarfs.  Herzog’s film, as with much of New German Cinema, is a distinctly German in its execution of allegory.  The notion of having a dozen psychotic dwarfs stand-in for the whole of society in an anti-fascist tale is very much in line with a German’s sense of humor.  To go further, the degree of artifice it conveyed by performance and framing in Herzog’s film recalled Brecht.  

Now imagine the effect all of this must have had on me as a teenager.  It was completely inspiring.  I clearly remember showing some of Even Dwarfs Started Small to my friend Dan and can recall how it inspired him as well.  Then, some years later, I can remember my one girlfriend’s reaction to the film, “How can you like this?”.  She was mortified by the chickens fighting and the blind dwarfs flailing their sticks.  I was watching it for a paper I was writing for class while she was working on her own paper concerning Madame Bovary.  A couple of strange kids I suppose.

vlcsnap-485254

Husbands (1970)

Dir. John Cassavetes, cast: Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes

For a long time this film was nearly impossible to see.  John Cassavetes is my favorite filmmaker and for a long while this title eluded me.  My friend Dan had a bootleg of which I was insanely envious, largely due to the fact that it came with the BBC documentary on the production of the film.  Then in my sophomore year of college I was able to persuade my friend Jennifer to rent a VHS of Husbands from TLA video.  I quickly made a DVD copy of that VHS.

Immediately it surpassed all of Cassavetes’ other films I had seen to that point (which was all of them except Love Streams, which Jennifer kindly rented for me the following week).  It’s not as emotional as A Woman Under The Influence or as poignant and timeless as Love Streams, yet Husbands spoke to me in a very specific and personal way.

Unlike Cassavetes’ other films Husbands is focused on friendship, the very nature of that relationship, as opposed to romantic, sexual, or career oriented relationships.  To put an even finer point on it, Husbands is about the friendship between men, linking it thematicly with Elaine May’s masterpiece Mikey & Nicky (in which John Cassavetes and Peter Falk also star).  The theme of friendship amongst men is so very often relegated to the War and Western genre films that seeing a straight contemporary narrative with such a focus executed in Cassavetes’ brutally honest realist style is a revelation.  So many filmmakers would have opted to make every character redemptive within the narrative, but not Cassavetes.  Like all of his works Husbands is about truth.

To attempt a comparison, the literary equivalent of a John Cassavetes’ film, Husbands in particular, I believe would be the works of Richard Hugo.  Hugo and Cassavetes both seek to reveal the truth of their own inner emotional lives tirelessly.  The truths they find often being so undesirable that their work, be it a poem in Hugo’s case or a film in Cassavetes’, is often interpreted as controversial at best and chauvinistic at worst.  Hence the debate that Kathleen Hanna articulated so well in her Le Tigre song What’s Yr Take On Cassavetes; “genius or chauvinist”?

6ae4e2f11

The American Dreamer (1971)

dir. Lawrence Schiller & L.M. Kit Carson, cast: Dennis Hopper, Lois Ursone,

My copy of this film was procured from a gentleman out in Colorado in 2008 by mailing him a check for thirty dollars with a slip of paper attached with the titles I desired written inside.  I requested The American Dreamer, My Hustler, and The Connection.  All three arrived roughly a month later in the mail; three DVDs of 16mm prints.  It was an unorthodox transaction, but at the time none of these films could be found in any other way and certainly not in their entirety.  My friend Dan had turned me on to this reclusive cinephile gentleman when he began tracking down and collecting obscure films as well.  

At the time I was just becoming aware of L.M. Kit Carson’s work, which is as eclectic as it is fascinating; I have nothing but admiration where Kit is concerned.  But in that moment it was Lawrence Schiller who fascinated me more.  I knew of Schiller from Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.  Schiller researched that book and packaged the project for Mailer, as he did with Mailer’s Marilyn (Schiller also directed the film of The Executioner’s Song as scripted by Norman Mailer).  What was really chilling was that the project that was eventually published as Marilyn got its start because Schiller was the last photographer to do a photo session with Monroe before she died (all of this celebrity fetishization and morbidity definitely informs The American Dreamer).

The American Dreamer is part documentary and part performance piece, but it is wholly hypnotic.  The film focuses on Hopper at his home in Taos New Mexico where he is completing post-production on his film The Last Movie in 1971.  And Dennis Hopper has never played Dennis Hopper better than this.  Anyone fascinated with 1970s culture is sure to revel in this crackpot film which has more to say about the “New Hollywood” than Hopper’s own masterpiece The Last Movie (a film which almost made this list).  Hearing Hopper espouse on subjects such as why he is really a lesbian, Orson Welles, and burning all of his possessions is the closest most people should get to the kind of serious drug abuse Hopper was indulging in at the time.

In 2011 when Thomas was staying with me, sometime between watching Bill & Coo and The Jolson Story, we watched The American Dreamer.  We quickly became obsessed with the Hello People song Pass Me By used in the film.  In fact, I believe we were singing it in a pool one night and, if memory serves, Lertch might also have been there.

agonya_slider

Agoniya (1975)

dir. Elem Klimov, cast: Aleksey Petrenko, Anatoliy Romashin, Velta Line

There is a surprising lack of literature in English on Elem Klimov.  His films are neither the fantasies of Tarkovsky nor the character portraits of his wife Larisa Shepitko’s films, but meet somewhere elusive in the middle.  Much of Bela Tarr’s latter works remind me of Klimov’s Come & See in their expert blocking and fluid long takes.  Come & See is a masterpiece, one of the greatest films I have ever seen, but not my favorite.  Agoniya, the first of Klimov’s films I ever saw, tells the story of Rasputin and his power over the last Tsar of Russia; this is my favorite.

A series of experiences as a child sparked a fascination with Russian history which was only encouraged further by my mother.  In fact Agoniya was a Christmas present from her and my father.  Unlike many other Russian films I have seen on the history of their national identity, Agoniya beautifully slips from “fantastique” expressionism to an almost Peter Watkins-esque factual account.  The overall experience is thusly as informative as it is overwhelming to the senses.

I would now like to clarify that it was not Don Bluth’s Anastasia that introduced me to Rasputin, nor was it Hammer Horror with their free Rasputin Beards!  In fact it was Richard Boleslavsky’s Rasputin & The Empress, released in 1932 and starring John, Ethel, and of course Lionel Barrymore at his best (post Tod Browning’s West Of Zanzibar) as Rasputin.  I rented this film from the library as a little kid, probably when I had run out of new Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes mysteries to watch.  Anyway, it was my love of Russian history and of Rasputin that probably prompted my parents to turn me onto Klimov’s beautiful film, and I’m glad they did.

Berlin-Alexanderplatz-c-Global-Screen

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, cast: Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Barbara Sukowa

Rainer Werner Fassbinder made dramatic films that convey more emotional desperation and philosophical nihilism than any other filmmaker and this is his Magnum Opus.  My relationship with this film is one of obsession.  Despite its running time of over twelve hours I must have seen it at least six or seven times.  Recently I showed three excerpts to my students who were stupefied by this film’s brilliance.  I think Jonathan Rosenbaum has summed up Fassbinder’s legacy best when he said that Fassbinder’s films had become “ever fresher” with the passing of time.  The reaction of my students clearly supports this thesis.

I could easily write about Berlin Alexanderplatz again here.  Yet, having already written about this film roughly three times for this blog, I think that I will just simply recommend that if you want to know more, please just search this site for either the film’s title or its director.  Thanks.

91Ru9OwSfZL._SL1500_

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

dir. Nagisa Oshima, cast: David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti

Guilt and regret are two emotions that I have personally always found overwhelming, primarily because they are responsible for so much of my character.  It is those two emotions that are at the heart of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence uses these two emotional experiences to explore the nature of war; the way war distorts and perverts the mind and the soul, how violent conditions can propel, strengthen and shatter human beings.  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is by no means a violent film.  It often comes off as placid till an eruption occurs.

Nagisa Oshima is, in my mind, one of the most important filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century, at least equal to Godard.  And given the stylization of so many of his films it is always surprising to me how fragile Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence feels.  Oshima’s delicately lit close-ups, his slow panoramas through the prison compound, the gentility of movement in his tracking shots all work in coordination to convey an existence that is hardly truly there, always on the brink of collapsing.  

As if to accentuate Oshima’s visual dialect in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, David Bowie was cast as Major Jack Celliers, the primary point of contention between the British POWs and their Japanese captors.  As with Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie utilizes his inherent alien qualities to create a distance between himself and his fellow characters in the film.  Though in this instance that “outsider” quality is not indicative of a literal other-worldliness, but rather of a character so bereaved with guilt that he simply cannot emote as other people do.

The greatest strength of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is that it never addresses these concepts head-on.  The film is ambiguous.  It conveys all of these emotions with the faintest clues as to their cause and effect.  So one can imagine what an intense experience this was for me in 7th grade.  I had never been moved by a film in such a way before.  I believe it is also responsible for solidifying my love of David Bowie.

maxresdefault

Rendez-vous (1985)

dir. André Téchiné, cast: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Wadeck Stanczak

I bought this film on DVD six years ago when I was at the Princeton Record exchange with my friend Josh.  There were three reasons for my purchase.  The first is that Josh and I both love the Princeton Record Exchange.  But being that we only get out there every couple of months and they are an independent business one is likely to feel terribly guilty if one does not buy something.  The second reason is that I had always wanted to see an André Téchiné film.  I had read about him and read about him in numerous books at the UArts library but had not seen one of his films (I’ve seen ten of them now and they are all excellent).  The final motivating factor was that Rendez-vous stars Juliette Binoche.  Binoche’s performances are always revealing and captivating, I will at least see any of the films she is in once because it is absolutely worth it.

Rendez-vous is relatively early in both Juliette Binoche and Téchiné’s careers.  Binoche had yet to develop the kind of kinetic energy she would while working with Leos Carax (another favorite filmmaker of mine) while Téchiné is in transition between the more formal approaches exhibited in his films The Bronte Sisters and Hotel America and the visual stylization and cinematic improvisation of I Don’t Kiss.  I could go on and on about the aesthetics of Rendez-vous but I won’t since I have written about this film three times already for this very blog!  What I am willing to elaborate on is how Rendez-vous taught me a very valuable lesson.  

Unlike most reflexive narrative films (Jean-Luc Godard is a good example of such a filmmaker), Rendez-vous is less concerned with its commentaries on the cinema and more concerned with the lives and world of its characters.  This gives the film a density, a sophistication.  The revelations concerning the very notions of cinematic performance within the film are tucked beneath the surface of the drama.  This opens Rendez-vous up for multiple viewings very easily.  For the combinations of dramatically diegetic and the abstract reflexive components of the film are layered so densely that the dialogue they create feels different during any and every viewing.

I attempted this a little bit myself on Bitches, then I made this aesthetic the stylistic crux of A Debauched Little Rogue without too much success.  I eventually accomplished maybe 15% of what Téchiné had done aesthetically in Rendez-vous on The Blasphemy Of Owen Barnes, but I am still going to try again some day.  As a filmmaker there is nothing more delightful than a film that pushes and shoves your own aesthetic possibilities and understandings, even if it does become endlessly frustrating.

melo-1986-05-g

Mélo (1986)

dir. Alain Resnais, cast: Fanny Ardant, André Dussollier, Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi

In many ways Mélo feels like Resnais’ homage to Josef von Sternberg.  Josef von Sternberg’s films are noted for their theatricality, expressionist lighting, romantic melodrama and, above all, their sensuality.  Nicolas Roeg is the only filmmaker I can think of who rivals von Sternberg’s cinema for sensuality.  When one thinks of Resnais’ films, one does not usually associate them with any of these elements.  Mélo, however, is ripe with tragedy, romance, theatricality, and sensuality.  In many respects Mélo may be Resnais’ best film because, not only is it a master class in cinematic technique, it is brimming over with authentic human emotion.

Mélo exists in another world, a Paris exclusive to the cinema, found in the works of Minnelli, Carné, and Demy.  This is a world of Romanticism.   Mélo functions as a fairytale for adults, extending Life Is A Bed Of Roses that much further conceptually.  It warns of love pursued at all costs, of love given beyond selflessness, and it does so in a space of fantasy so closely tied with a sense of secure escapism in its audience’s mind that as Mélo descends its characters further and further to their fates the emotional impact is quadrupled.  

r6ow

The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

dir. Hal Hartley, cast: Adrienne Shelly, Robert John Burke, Chris Cooke

When Hal Hartley first emerged on the American Independent Film scene with The Unbelievable Truth it was like nothing else.  The fusion of the literate with the plastic, his long takes, the off-beat blocking, and his own signature style soundtracks stood out from the pack, announcing a new and wholly unique voice in American cinema.

When I discuss low-budget and independent filmmaking with my students I assign them an interview with Hartley that was originally published in Sight & Sound to read; they all end up loving him if not his films.  When we work with blocking I often screen a scene from The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, and Surviving Desire, one scene apiece.  Again, most of the students fall in love with his style.  Which is no surprise since his influence can be felt in both Noah Baumbach’s and Wes Anderson’s films.

I saw No Such Thing before I saw The Unbelievable Truth.  Dan lent me his copy of The Unbelievable Truth in the summer of 2011 so I came into Hartley’s early films rather late.  The impact of this film on my own work is rather considerable and certainly more obvious on the shorts I made back in the summer of 2011.  I would recommend that anyone interested in making a film on their own should invest some time in studying Hartley’s works.

006

Beyond The Clouds (1995)

dir. Michelangelo Antonioni & Wim Wenders, cast: Chiara Caselli, Irène Jacob, Vincent Perez

In my adolescence I had acne, I was at least 8” taller than any other kid my age and I had the face of someone four years older than I actually was.  I was an outcast, just like everyone else.  That’s how I felt when I saw Beyond The Clouds.  I had seen The American Friend so I knew who Wim Wenders was but I had not seen any of Antonioni’s films.

What struck me was how Beyond The Clouds so delicately recreated so many emotions, both familiar and unfamiliar.  So seamlessly do these narratives intwine and accent one another that one might miss the dialogue occurring between each separate vignette.  This was Antonioni’s last film and I think he finally said everything he ever wanted to say about how our contemporary existential quandary subverts human romantic impulses.  He takes an existentialist’s view on questions like “is there just one special person for all of us?”, “is love eternal?”, “would things be different if I had told her how I felt?”; that answer is always “no”.  And yet, despite these cold realizations each character still remains somewhat hopeful.  The hope that the Romantic could be the truth is what sustains, that is what Beyond The Clouds is about.

When I was fourteen or fifteen that meant something to me, it sustained me I suppose, in a way.  Today it represents a bittersweet truth.  Having been in some relationships, having experienced the euphorias and the suffering life has to give that are just incomprehensible when you are twelve, I have to admit my perspective on Antonioni’s last film has changed.  You realize that the only way one can remain hopeful in the face of the existential machinations of our society and our relationships is to learn to live with regret.  Regret is what unites all of the narratives, all of the characters in Beyond The Clouds.

Afterward

Pandora's Box

When I first thought of having the Zimbo Films’ staff write about their “twenty favorite films” I was thinking that it would help demonstrate our collective aesthetic interests and sensibilities in preparation for fundraising for Thomas Lampion’s Julie Lovely.  The experience of actually writing this piece and reading Thomas’ contribution for the first time a month ago was one of both catharsis and renewal.  Renewal in the sense of rekindling a thought process surrounding the cinema that is more subjective than say the academic realm in which I often find myself and ground my own works as a filmmaker.  Though I honestly doubt that the casual reader will take away the same emotional responses as the authors of these posts will, I do hope that they, the readers, do find a renewed interest in avenues of cinematic expression that they may have though they out grew.

Lastly I would like to pay my respects to the films and filmmakers that did not make my final list.  The journey to the list you have just read was a long one; sometimes it was excruciating.  Different iterations of this list were born out of two motivating factors, mood and ego.  Regardless as to why the following films did not make the list in the end I believe that their inclusion here will serve as an appendix that will illuminate and accent the twenty films listed above.  Without further delay those films are Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2009), Histoire de Marie et Julien (dir. Jacques Rivette, 2003), Pola X (dir. Leos Carax, 1999), Naked (dir. Mike Leigh, 1993), The Last Bolshevik (dir. Chris Marker, 1992), Wild At Heart (dir. David Lynch, 1990), Bad Timing (dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1980), In A Year With 13 Moons (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978), Mikey & Nicky (dir. Elaine May, 1976), Der Tod der Maria Malibran (dir. Werner Schroeter, 1972), Goodbye, Columbus (dir. Larry Peerce, 1969), The Swimmer (dir. Frank Perry, 1968), Faces (dir. John Cassavetes, 1968), Reflections In A Golden Eye (dir. John Huston, 1967), Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor (dir. Kon Ichikawa, 1963), The Leopard (dir. Luchino Visconti, 1963), Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal (dir. Fritz Lang, 1959), The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (dir. Roy Rowland, 1953), Earth (dir. Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930), Pandora’s Box (dir. G.W. Pabst, 1929), and lastly The Dying Swan (dir. Evgeni Bauer, 1917).

by Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Summer 2016

Hitchcock’s Best, Marnie

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most highly regarded and popular filmmakers who ever lived.  His aesthetic and narrative tropes are as immediately recognizable signifiers as the music of Bernard Hermann and the face of Cary Grant.  His films Rear Window (1954), North By Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and Notorious (1946) are regular staples on critics’ “must see” lists.  Yet somehow the most Hitchcockian film the director ever made, the one that best represents the filmmakers encapsulated film aesthetic is one of his most often over looked films, Marnie (1964).

Adapted from Winston Graham’s novel of the same name by Jay Presson Allen, Marnie concerns itself with the title character (played by Tippi Hedren), a compulsive thief and liar who is morbidly afraid of the male touch.  As she flees one crime scene to find work in Philadelphia at Mark Rutland’s (Sean Connery) publishing firm, she does not expect the rich playboy to blackmail her into marriage.    Despite the fact that the source material is inherently chauvinistic, Hitchcock’s brand of visual storytelling (infamous for its objectification of women) pushes the film into the arena of self-psychoanalysis.

Marnie set piece

Throughout the film the frame isolates parts of Tippi Hedren’s body in long tracking shots, focusing the audience’s gaze.  This technique gives the film an inescapable masculine perspective.  The audience must therefore navigate the narrative from a man’s perspective, regardless of the fact that the film’s narrative arc is a classic example of the thriller sub-genre of “women in trouble” films.  The design of the script calls for our sympathies to lie with Marnie, yet the language of the film insists that a distance is maintained in so far as empathy for Marnie is concerned.  Likewise, Rutland is hardly likeable, manipulating Marnie, objectifying her, and even raping her.  So the entire cast of characters is quickly laid bare as corrupt people with pathological obsessions.  Hitchcock takes these unruly characters and instead of imbuing them with sympathetic traits he presides over the entire affair as a sort of objective spectator, willing his observations onto the audience, and by proxy revealing himself to be equitable at times with both Marnie and Rutland.

Hitchcock in his choosing of how information and what information is presented to the audience transform each character, at different times in Marnie, into a mouthpiece for his own views.  For instance, there is a paradox at work throughout the film, given voice by each sex and in opposition of the other.  Consider Marnie’s exchange with her mother (Louise Latham) early in the film.  Both women agree that men are “worthless”, and that a “real lady” has no need of men.  This is the philosophy of Marnie, which dictates every interaction she has with a male character in the film.  In opposition to the feminine perspective is Mark Rutland, amateur zoologist, who equates women with predators, a class of animal he terms as “nature’s criminal element”.  Rutland’s ideas of femininity explain his masculine desire to contain and control Marnie, directing her every action in much the same way as Hitchcock himself directed actresses.  This paradox is not a subtext in Marnie; both sides of the argument are equally celebrated so that the paradox itself becomes the point of the film and the viewing of the film as kind of meditation on this paradox.

This paradox is also central to the male and female relationships in Rear Window and North By Northwest, but to a considerably lesser degree.  The superficial tone of its treatment in Marnie, coupled with the film’s visual style constructs an insular world of highly stylized action and behavior more akin to a dream state than anything Hitchcock had done since his film Spellbound (1945).  All of these components that work to make Marnie exist within a separate insular world are indicative of a cinematic trend Hitchcock observed during his time working for Fritz Lang in the 1920s, German Expressionism.

The implementation of rear projection and matte paintings, and their deliberate obvious artifice coupled with a heavy use of shadow recall the Expressionist development of a cinematic world that exists exclusively within a character’s mind, most notably in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).  In the case of Marnie, the mind in which the film’s world and narrative exists is Hitchcock’s.  In this way Marnie is the acclaimed director’s most reflexive film in which the artifice of narrative filmmaking is perverted to directly correlate to a heighten extreme with the psychosis of the film’s author, becoming a self-portrait in themes.  Of course this sounds like Andrew Sarris’ take on the French Auteur Theory, but that theory was not designed to accommodate an extreme case such as Marnie.  One could even go so far as to compare Marnie and its position to Hitchcock with that of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Epilogue to Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).

The heightened stylization I speak of is most evident in two sequences in Marnie.  The first is the rape scene.  During their honeymoon, Rutland forces himself on Marnie.  The space between the two characters is exaggerated; neither appears with the other in a single shot.  Hitchcock cuts from a close-up of Rutland to one of Marnie.  Rutland’s close-up is ominous and bathed in shadows as his face moves toward the camera and into soft focus.  In contrast, the images of Tippi Hedren are idealized, flatly lit to flatter her beauty, and framed to suggest as much nudity as the censors would allow.  Marnie’s expression is frozen in horror or disgust, and she makes no variation to this expression just as the shot itself never varies.  In this way the masculine image is dominating, aggressive, and mysterious.  The female image is one of idolized unchanging beauty.  In the vernacular of Hitchcock’s cinema, both represent their subjects’ ideal, and therefore are representative of Hitchcock’s view of the sex as a whole.

Tippi Hedren as Marnie

The second notable sequence is the flashback at the end of the film.  The camera move at the beginning of this sequence is a deliberate reference to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) to which Hitchcock’s own Psycho has often been compared.  This shot establishes a psychological subjectivity to memory recall, and sets this sequence apart from the world of the rest of the film.  This sequence cuts back and forth between film present and flashbacks, with overlapping sound.  The characters in the flashback are framed much like the figures in Eisenstein’s Bezhin Meadow (1937), with portions cropped by the frame.  The quick cuts isolate body parts and actions, creating an obscure and disjointed visual narrative that is held together only by the sound design.  Once the child Marnie has murdered the sailor, the camera cuts to a trickle of blood on the floor, panning to reveal more blood, until the entire screen turns red and glows with the color, finally cutting back to Tippi Hedren as Marnie.  The red flashes in the film, of which this is the last, are signifiers meant to represent when Marnie has been motivated to fulfill the conditions of her pathology.  This flashback sequence also establishes that it is Marnie’s mother who is responsible fore her daughter’s pathological condition, and is thus a continuation of Hitchcock’s treatment of mothers as villains begetting villains.

The most disturbing part of Marnie is the film’s resolution.  After Marnie has come to terms with her half remembered past, she is prepared to surrender herself to Rutland.  Rutland’s terms are those of total ownership, and represent a rejection on Marnie’s part of female independence in preference of being the captive trophy wife of Sean Connery.  There can be no doubt that this resolution represents Hitchcock’s idea of how women should behave and what it is they should strive for.  But for all of these disturbing sociological elements at work in Marnie, one can also not deny that it is Hitchcock to an extreme, representative of his most honest and personal expression.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Spring 2013

Sad Gay Stories

To this day, to be a homosexual is to be an outsider.  Granted, things have improved tremendously over the passed forty or fifty years, but mainstream acceptance can only be afforded to homosexuals in American film if they adhere to certain stereotypes and designated behavioral patterns.  In film in general, the characters of homosexuals are the comic relief, the villains, or objects of superficial pity without the necessary dimension to make them relatable to a heterosexual audience.  The filmmakers who broke the taboos, who challenged convention, were often working on the fringes, subversive revolutionaries, relegated to the background of cinema and often suppressed.  The luminaries of these “rebels” come from around the world, and each participates in a filmic dialogue distinctly removed from that of their comrades.  Kenneth Anger worked in the world of short experimental films while his contemporary Jack Smith constructed experimental narratives.  Jean Cocteau, Jean Vigo, and Jean Genet brought a dreamy surrealism to the Romantic French narratives of the late nineteenth century with a collective output of less than a dozen films made in their lifetimes.  Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol set their 16mm camera on the world of camp and drag queens, culling their aesthetic from the old Hollywood musicals of the thirties.  Monika Treut made her lesbian dramas as a continuation of Morrissey’s work but in a distinctly German voice.  Pier Paolo Pasolini turned to classical painting and philosophical themes to articulate what he saw as the political struggle out of isolation that faced homosexuals such as himself in Italy after WWII.  All these filmmakers, whose work appeared before the New Queer Cinema of the nineties, represent a unifying tendency to remove the emotional experience of their films from the reality of their audience.  These filmmakers are reactionary; they trapped within an insular sub-culture, and are designed to keep a certain distance between the art and the audience.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Only one director ever successfully transposed his own emotional turmoil and political exile as a homosexual in the preferred language of film realism and melodrama, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  Fassbinder’s body of work surpasses that of any filmmaker’s fourteen-year output, which was the precise length of time during which Fassbinder made over forty films.  Throughout his expansive filmography Fassbinder was able to experiment with a number of modes of filmmaking before settling on the classic melodrama, a style he himself revived in West Germany under the tutelage of Hollywood master filmmaker Douglas Sirk.

In the world of melodrama, with its heavily saturated colors, lush musical scores, elaborate camera moves, period costumes and sets, Fassbinder sought to address the issue closest to him, a controversial issue for the mid-seventies, his own experience as a homosexual.  Never explicitly autobiographical, Fassbinder’s films on gay culture each represent a facet of his own experience and its political ramifications, imbuing every protagonist with an element of what can best be called “subjective truth”.  The single truth at the heart of Fassbinder’s films is tragedy, a unifying loss of power and spirit.  This is not strange when one considers Rainer Werner Fassbinder the man.  All his life he dealt with a disconnect from family, struggled with multiple drug addictions, lived in a self imposed exile due to his leftist political views, and burned through relationship after relationship with a sadistic abandon worthy of a Gothic Romance novel.  Fassbinder’s life, which ended in a drug overdose in 1982, is only tragedy.

In Fox & His Friends (1975), Fassbinder himself plays the lead, which upon winning the lottery begins an affair with a manipulative partner, whose only interest in Fox is to exploit his sudden financial security, eventually leaving him penniless.  This film articulates better than any other of Fassbinder’s films the danger of Romantic inclinations and naïveté in the insular world of Berlin’s gay subculture.  Fox has nowhere to turn where he will be accepted, and he is far too trusting and too much the idealist to realize what is happening to him.  For Fassbinder, Fox & His Friends is a cautionary tale about first love, trust, and an account of his own failed early affairs with men.  The sexual politics of the dominator and the dominated form an over arcing narrative device in his films that he himself described as “he who loves less has more power”.  The same power struggle is the centerpiece of his Sapphic chamber drama The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant (1972).  In the world of a single apartment, the nexus of gay Germany has shrunk further still, and the emotional power struggles ever more violent as Petra rejects lover after lover.  More so than Fox & His Friends, The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant is a study in unhappiness and unfulfillment.  Where Fox was easily contented with kind words of love, Petra (Margit Carstensen) must control her partners beyond a doubt, must rule her relationships in a neo-fascistic fashion.  But as much as these two films deal exclusively with gay culture, their themes of sexual power and dominance are universal, and the dynamic of high drama permits the audience to invest themselves in the characters without the dreamy remove of fantasy or camp.

In A Year With 13 Moons (1978) Fassbinder tackles an even darker theme prevalent in the popular German perception of the homosexual outsider, suicide.  The transgender protagonist Elvira (Volker Spengler) spends most of the film tracing her life from childhood to adulthood by visiting old friends and caretakers.  In scenes of long dialogue exchanges, Fassbinder presents a portrait of Elvira as a perpetually isolated and lonely character, whose sexual preference evokes only violence and exploitation from those around her.  The excessive use of dark reds coupled with slaughterhouse visuals and music by Suicide imbue the film with an inescapable emotive quality designed to both provoke the audience and to evoke utter despair.  When Elvira takes her own life at the end of the film following a final rejection from the man for whom she pines, Anton (Gottfried John), her death is both a tragedy of character and that of an entire society.  To Fassbinder, who made the film in response to his own boyfriend’s suicide, Elvira is a victim of a society intolerant to homosexuals.  This theme of unrequited love and societal condemnation carries over to Fassbinder’s magnum opus, the epic made for television film of the novel by Alfred Doblin Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).  Franz (Gunter Lamprecht) and Reinhold (Gottfried John), who share a common attraction and homoerotic desire for one another, are not permitted to act on their feelings because of the society that surrounds them.  They may articulate their thoughts and desires to themselves, but to act upon them is taboo, and therefore manifest in displays of violent aggression and self-destruction.  Due to the long running time of Berlin Alexanderplatz Fassbinder is able to put onto film with tedious effect the relationship between Franz and Reinhold from their first revelations of homosexual desire to their final destruction and mutilation.  This journey represents how Fassbinder saw the trajectory of all of his homosexual romances, as well as that of the gay culture in Germany at the time.  This fatalism on Fassbinder’s part is the product of his own experience, his own hopelessness for recognition in Germany of homosexuals in general.

The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant

By the time Fassbinder made his last film Querelle (1982), from a novel by Jean Genet, his treatment of homosexual love and sex had deteriorated to the point where it became only a means of manipulation and destruction, appearing without any hints of romance that manage to sparsely populate his earlier work with the subject.  Like Genet and later William S. Burroughs, the treatment of homosexuality in Fassbinder’s Querelle is an act of two-dimensional political ramifications, simplified to the point where it represents only the power struggles between characters.  Such an approach marks a departure for Fassbinder from the melodramas that came before and saw him adopting a more expressionist approach to filmmaking derivative of F.W. Murnau.  Visually, Querelle contains more artifice than either The Niklashausen Journey (1970) or Whity (1971), and marks a turn toward the visual iconography of gay culture as put forward in the films of Kenneth Anger.  This change is also the product of Fassbinder’s own disillusionment, which appears to have only gotten worse following In A Year With 13 Moons.

For all of Fassbinder’s bitterness and despair, his films about homosexuality are each works of transcendent beauty, whose ability to evoke strong emotional responses from their audience classifies them as timeless.  In many ways this is a singular achievement in the world of Queer Cinema.  For the most part, films about homosexuals are inescapably tied to their moment and often appear dated only a few years after their initial release.  This makes it even more bizarre that Rainer Werner Fassbinder is often passed up in survey studies on gay filmmaking in favor of far less influential and enduring films.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Winter 2013

Katzelmacher: Fassbinder’s Cinematic Beginnings

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most infamous play, Garbage, The City, & Death (1975), is a kind of revisionist cabaret assault on the audience.  By that point, Fassbinder had extended his creative aspirations beyond the tutelage of Jean-Marie Straub, and had mastered the reflexive political filmmaking sensibilities of Jean Luc Godard, with a healthy dose of Brecht’s self awareness and artifice tinting his theatrical works.  Despite the mature themes and prowess with which Fassbinder instilled into Garbage, The City, & Death, what remains one of his greatest works on both the stage and in the cinema is Katzelmacher (1969).

Katzelmacher is as simple in its execution as Garbage, The City, & Death is complex, designed to replicate the Bavarian “folk plays” of Marieluise Fleisser (to whom Fassbinder dedicated the piece).  Katzelmacher originated as a play at the end of Fassbinder’s hey-day with the AniTheater, and the dissolution of his association with Jean-Marie Straub.  Fassbinder’s film adaptation of Katzelmacher occurred just four months after completing his film Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), during a period in his career when the full potential of the cinema was still beyond his grasp, and his films were still stylistically fused with the AntiTheater.  Within a year, Fassbinder would begin his experimental period, drawing heavily from the films of Godard, but in 1969, his approach to film was still very much indebted to the works of Straub.  Given Fassbinder’s budgetary restrictions and artistic limitations of the time, Katzelmacher represents Fassbinder’s most successful and fascinating exercise in the film medium.

On the stage, Katzelmacher can best be described as minimalist in terms of its set and lighting designs.  The play itself is set in a singular location in which all of the action (the action itself consisting of mostly dialogue) takes place.  From this fixed setting, the residents of an apartment building in a Bavarian suburb pass judgment and exhibit hostility toward a Greek immigrant worker.  The characters taunt and transgress against the Greek, while some, in a twist of ironic hypocrisy, are simultaneously endeavoring to seduce or exploit the Greek.

Fassbinder’s presentation of prejudice and exploitation articulates a contemporary fear of foreigners; that immigrant workers were taking all the jobs, that they would delude the German culture.  The particular theme of Katzelmacher pertaining to the corruption of German culture (manifest in all its brutality when the Greek is severely beaten) is played up to great effect to recall the circumstances through which the Third Reich rose to power some thirty-five years earlier.  Fassbinder’s career is marked by a thematic trend of drawing comparisons between the German cultures he experienced and that which allowed the Nazis to come into power.  In almost every case, when Fassbinder employs this tactic, it is a cautionary method, tinged with a sense of historical awareness.  Not surprisingly, such a mode of thematic operations was not easily received by the general German public, let alone when presented in such an “in your face” approach as that employed in the production of Katzelmacher.  Keep in mind that the actors articulating Fassbinder’s harsh diatribe were positioned against a brick wall set facing out across the stage to the audience.

To transition Katzelmacher successfully from the stage to the screen, Fassbinder wrote entirely new scenes that had only been referred to in the original stage version.  These scenes take place mostly within the apartment building itself, in the rooms inhabited by the film’s characters.  These scenes allow the film audience to engage the characters in a more intimate setting, providing a greater insight into their behavior and moral contradictions.  Film can do this in a way the theater cannot, where devices such as the close-up, and the POV shot articulate visually the sub textual experience of a character.  Fassbinder’s grasp of these methods is not entirely developed in Katzelmacher, but one could argue that it is for the better.  Katzelmacher’s exhibition of filmic principles is as limited as those in Love Is Colder Than Death, but benefits from these limitations because it was at one time a stage play, and not an attempt at a genre picture as its predecessor had been.  In this case, when Katzelmacher utilizes film tactics, it is to punctuate issues and circumstances, making the overall piece far more aggressive than its counterpart while never losing the subtlety that would force the audience to withdraw from the cinematic experience.

The long takes that define the visual dialect of Katzelmacher (with the exception of two tracking shots that book-end the film) provide the groundwork for Fassbinder’s successful evolution from stage director to film legend.  Long takes, or shots, in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder develop in leaps and bounds over the course of the next decade, from the pans and tilts employed in Whity (1970) to the long and terrifically elaborate tracking shot that commences the epilogue of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).  Though Jean-Marie Straub’s minimalism suits the early films of Fassbinder, Katzelmacher in particular, it becomes more than evident that by the time Fassbinder directs Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1969) he is prepared to expand his cinematic vernacular.

What is most surprising in Katzelmacher is Fassbinder’s sense of dramatic rhythm as it pertains to the editing of the film. Almost every scene exists as a single shot, of which there are eighty or so, each with duration of about one minute.  Though the film is stagnant with camera moves, the lengthy shots of the film maneuver across the screen to a definite beat.  This not only signifies a rapidly building tension between the native residents and the Greek, but an understanding of the needs of a mainstream audience.  Jean-Marie Straub’s work in film at the time are heavily encumbered with long shots, sometimes lasting over three minutes, that prevent Straub’s films from finding an economically viable demographic.  Fassbinder manages to balance his “art-house” credentials with commercial possibilities, a creative move that caused a number of his oldest supporters to turn from him.

Forty-three years later, now that Fassbinder has passed and his position in the cinema is unshakable, it is becoming more and more difficult to access his early films within the context in which they were produced.  The lengthy shots and self-aware performances of his players are not easily digested by most audiences and present an almost insurmountable problem to American audiences.  In America, access to Fassbinder’s AntiTheater work (scripts, notes, etc) is almost non-existent outside of the occasional Fassbinder biography.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Autumn 2012

Nostalgia: Memory & The Experience Of Time

It’s interesting to consider how the depiction of memory has changed since the 19th century.  James Longstreet’s memoir From Manassas To Appomattox reads of it’s time, when it was taboo to detail personal relationships to persons, events or otherwise.  The antithesis to this being the seminal work of Bergson.  Since the 20th century it is standard for any art form to depict that that is wholly personal to its author.  This is true of the artist’s approach to memory.  Where Longstreet would restrict his accounts to statistics and figures, Frank Harris would supply a reader with story warts and all in My Life & Loves, but specifically with his own ideas included.  Hollis Frampton does the same, but transposes a biographical account to the medium of film.  Is a biography not just one man’s account of his life as memory serves?  This is the question of 20th century art forms.  Frampton may even go so far as to dissect this proposition of biography in Nostalgia, much as Borges did in his text Borges & I, though with the elegance reserved for such endeavors as proposed by Bergson’s work that made both men’s works possible.   Yet, the question is, within art, how does the incorporation of “time” (reflexive or not] manipulate the memories which the artist depicts?

In Creative Evolution, Bergson proposes all experience takes place in time, and for a film artist such as Hollis Frampton this is inescapably true.  Film as a medium manipulates and transposes time in an accepted narrative line whilst still adhering to it’s very own duration as a piece.  Frampton works his art on Bergson’s “sensory plane”, in that his piece Nostalgia is both visual and audible; however Frampton takes one step beyond this in how he manipulates this ‘sensory plane” to be even more reflective of his film’s duration.  To put it simply, the audio of Michael Snow’s voice-over narration’s content does not sync with the image which Frampton presents his audience.  Therefore, the audience must do two things which as a byproduct bring the film’s duration in time to a sensory forefront.  First, one must pay close attention to that which Snow describes, for it will be the backstory to the anticipated image yet to be seen.  Furthermore, one must retain the content of the image, to better understand the preceding explanation Snow has given the audience.  This is a process as muddled as it appears here, hence, the primary sensation Frampton has given his audience is not one of a documentary (which Nostalgia essentially is as far as content is concerned], but rather illustrates through the audience the time it takes to remember and the sensation of remembering.

Frampton’s background as a photographer, which is the focus of Nostalgia, has conditioned him to deal with time in a unique way.  As is well known, photography began as a documentary tool in the 19th century, and has arguably never lost the association.  Therefore, it seems fair to suggest that Frampton manipulated his film with the essence of the photographic purpose in mind.    Justifying the duration of shots as well as documenting in real time the experience he meant to capture.  That is to say as a recording tool, the movie camera operated within the parameters of Bergson’s “mechanical time” whilst documenting the organic, which in this case are flames.

On the other end of the avant garde film spectrum is Jean Genet’s The Song Of Love.  Genet comes from a literary background similar to Pasolini, though having done more serious jail time.  It was this time in prison which his film is an account of.  To illustrate the emotional content of his memories, Genet employed many of the effects pioneered in the fantasy films of Jean Cocteau [who often visited Genet’s set].  Genet opts for emotional content, and emotive experience over the reflexive technicalities of Hollis Frampton, preferring a fantastical approach more instep with Alfred Doblin’s depiction of memory in Berlin Alexanderplatz.  Genet and Doblin pose the antithesis to the artist’s responsibility when dealing with time and transversing it’s sensations to an audience that Frampton and Borges are so concerned with.

“The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.” (Borges, page 246]  It’s that sensation of remembering from the present that Borges makes tangible in his story Borges and I, and is also the aesthetic sensation of the author in Frampton’s Nostalgia, the author who is Frampton himself, just like Borges.  Borges uses his “present voice” to recall his past in the third person, and splitting the identity of Borges into the Borges of then and now.  Frampton makes the same tactic applicable to film in an arguably reflexive manner in that the image is the work of Hollis Frampton photographer made in the early 1960s, while the voice of the now (during screenings] is of Mike Snow, a filmmaker.  The change in identity, Frampton to Snow is just as significant and meaningful in the continuity of continuous time as the change in career, photographer to filmmaker.  Hence the identity of both Borges and Frampton has been split by past experience to present “shared” experience with their respective audiences/readers.  This division of identity over a matter of time reinforces Bergson’s idea of “organic time”.

Borges’ approach to the theory of “organic time” is of the very poetic, in which he juxtaposes the physical author with the mental representation of the same author, and though they share one identity, only the “mental” is given a voice.  Throughout the piece allusions are made to the everyday life of the writer Borges, yet, according to Bergson, no act can ever be exactly repeated by an organic entity.  Thus, Borges when writing Borges & I was remembering uniquely, as will his reader.  But upon a second read, all will not be as remembered, which is a point the voice of the “mental” makes in the piece.  It is then arguable that Borges’ piece is as reflexive as Frampton’s.

“Efforts stored up in the present is indeed also a memory,”[Bergson, page 51] describes perfectly the sensation the audience feels while ingesting the works of Frampton and Borges.  Though the audience/reader feels they are taking part in both respective works in one single moment, in actuality they are experiencing physically the passage of time.  Thus the suspension of mental awareness by stimuli creates a plastic sensation of time, which both Frampton and Borges exploit in their audience/reader as well as depict within their pieces.

The latter proposition seems particularly relevant in Nostalgia.  Film is the physical representation of time in it’s passing, which the audience surely knows though is compelled to understand the plastic time of the film as a given reality.  Thus, as each photograph in Frampton’s piece is burnt and replaced with a new photograph, the audience resets its mental clocks.  When a film is understood on such a compartmentalized level, one begins to understand better the beginnings and endings which exist within a film working down from scenes to sequences, sequences to shots, shots to frames.  The construct of Frampton’s film, it’s repetition, disjointed information, and split author all work in unison to likewise compartmentalize the audiences sense of time.  For instance, at the start of a new shot it is typical a viewer will ponder the facts before, the photo now, and the photo to come; in other words they are remembering to remember what they remembered while only being conscious of the now while sub-consciously acknowledging the passing of time.

Bergson’s phrase “organic time” has some rather unique ramifications.  “Organic Time” when put in the most simplest of words means that organisms, always undergoing the process of change and development, cannot repeat the same action twice.  This opens up a new theory in the interpretation of Nostalgia.   Though Snow’s voice over is a constant mechanical recording, a change will occur within the audience.  No audience member will view the film and take part in it’s process of remembering the same way twice according to Bergson.  Thus it is proposed that Frampton has constructed a film which builds layer upon layer of remembering to remember having remembered again; a process so complicated in the mechanics of the mind, but yet trivial to human experience.

Which is where the before mentioned concept of plastic time becomes dominant.  Borges construction of time in Borges & I is stilted in it’s retrospective observations since text must occupy a “mechanical time” in contrast to Borges the man who exists in “organic time”.  This is not so much a juxtaposition as an ending achieved through contrasting means.  For only in the medium of “mechanical time” can Borges illustrate the sensations of “organic time” which are then shared with his readers.  It is an uneasy contradiction which is addressed with in the text itself.  The “mental” of the author in Borges & I experiences organic time, but perceives his physical counterpart to inhabit “mechanical time”.  It may even be read as a dehumanization of one in favor for the other by Borges himself [outside his text that is].  The same is applicable to Nostalgia.  The mechanical time of film embodies in it’s visual illusions the organic time of the director and his audience.

It seems a justifiable counter argument that film and literature are void of “organic time” because such a sensation is only achieved via an illusion.   But it is the illusion which is the sensational for the persons observing, the tangible to those unaware of the nuanced mechanics within the mediums that the pieces exist.

It is through such rigorous manipulations of time that the sensation of memory and in turn self reflection can be emoted through a piece and too it’s audience.  As a race, humanity has been obsessive  about shared experiences; one may argue that all art is fundamentally inspired by such a drive.  Yet, it seems relevant that the pre-occupation with time, which so clearly defines humanity on a person to person basis, should provoke the highly conceptual planes of experience that Borges and Frampton strive to lift their audience.

The plane of experience though mathematical and calculated in Frampton’s work, does lack the lyricism of Borges.  Borges has the ability to, in his fiction, wed the differing approaches to the experience of time and sensation of memory which Jean Genet and Hollis Frampton represent.  The poetry of lyricism is a human sensibility, and may indeed move Borges’ piece deeper into the spectrum of “organic time”.   Consider the emotive quality of poetry, and it’s contrasting meaning to those who have varying experiences and backgrounds.  Thus it seems reasonable to propose that poetry has the organic quality that most writing does not.  Since Borges [being a skilled poet himself] plays with time through his poetic sensitivity, isn’t it fair to gander that his work will posses the merits of “organic time” more dominantly that Frampton’s Nostalgia?

Bergson’s notion of “organic” and “mechanical” time define the back bone of the works Borges & I and Nostalgia.  The pieces differ immensely in form, medium, and reflexivity, but share the common concern of what does memory mean to human kind and how is it felt?  Perhaps to broad or too vague, but none the less, Borges and Frampton endeavored to search themselves for an answer.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Autumn 2012