Tag Archives: Effi Briest

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

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Christian Wolff & The German Cinema

The influence of Protestantism and the Aufklärung cannot, as so often is the case, be neglected in the analysis of German, Hungarian, Austrian, Dutch, Latvian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Swedish cinemas.  Philosophical concepts took root under the Prussian and German Empires of the 19th century, derived from Protestant theologians, that would have ramifications running through to the 21st century.  Despite inevitable changes in government over the course of two centuries, the popular ideas of the 18th century have become so rooted in the psychology of these masses that they have evolved.  Germany, whose history is perhaps the most well-known of these European nations, gives evidence that the ideas that first took root in the late 1700s continued to dictate practice and the motive for these practices through the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, to its contemporary federal parliamentary republic.  The “ideas” at work here are those of Christian Wolff and his predecessor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz.

EFFI BRIEST

In these Germanic nations Pietism and the Aufklärung (or Enlightenment) captured the zeitgeist simultaneously and would continue in their development on a parallel course.  However, by the 19th century, philosopher Christian Wolff’s notions of “pure logic”, born out of this congruent development, had become widely accepted.  Wolff, building upon the earlier work of Leibnitz, proposed that the world at large operated as a machine, and that human beings, endowed with a soul, seek to understand themselves, their surroundings, and ultimately gain control of these things through that understanding.  That is to say that the more completely one understands a thing, the more complete one’s pleasure becomes, and vice versa.  This emphasis on “pleasure” stems from the influence of Pietism, whose symbiotic relationship with the Enlightenment is entirely unique to these regions of Europe.

By the early 1800s Wolff’s emphasis of knowledge (“understanding’), and the cold analytical means by which he believed that knowledge could be achieved, had become part of the bureaucratic machinery propelling not only the Prussian and German Empires, but also the Austrian-Hungarian Empires.  In the latter works of Theodor Fontane, particularly Effi Briest (published in 1894) and the characterization of Innstetten, one can find these principles of Wolff’s logic as elements of characters existing in autocratic positions of authority in which such elements of character are derided for the benefit of comic relief and social satirizing.

It is from this point that I wish to leap into a cinematic comparison between the character of Innstetten (Wolfgang Schenk) in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 cinematic adaptation of Fontane’s novel with that of Inspector Karl Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) in Fritz Lang’s M-Eine Stadt Sucht Einen Mörder (1931).  Both characters, despite some unique neurosises, represent characterizations of the infamous “cold German logic”, a character trope popular with audiences internationally, born out of Wolff.  It speaks volumes that in 1931 elements of Wolff was still so much a part of the German political machine that it should surface in Wernicke’s Lohmann (just as it would again in 1933 in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse).  Fassbinder’s treatment of Innstetten, though not as campy as Lang’s treatment of Lohmann, also functions upon similar assumptions and takes into account the same truths.  However, Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974) has stylistic concerns with emotional realism worlds apart from Fontane’s emphasis on the psychological in his novel.  Despite this aesthetical difference, elements of the broader depiction of Wolff’s impact evident in Lohmann still manage to surface in Schenk’s Innstetten.

Logically such characterizations have found their most popular outlet in depictions of Nazi and Soviet officials.  These depictions exude Wolff’s principles to cartoonish proportions, distorting much of their relevancy to the psychology of these nations today.  There are still examples of characters in authoritative positions that conform to Wolff’s principles to be found, for sure, however they tend to be marginalized when compared to the Nazi/Soviet stereotype.  One such exception exists in Béla Tarr’s The Man From London (2007).  The character of Inspector Morrison (István Lénárt), despite being British, conforms to the mold of Fritz Lang’s Lohmann.  This reveals Tarr’s Hungarian background as well as to reenforce the notion of this archetype’s (which is surely what it has become) contemporary relevancy since Morrison is neither an overt figure of fun nor a parody.

Yet, what is perhaps most compelling, is the influence of Wolff upon the construction of montage and image composition.  Despite the fact that rapid montage and the “city film” are distinct products of the Soviet Cinema, both found a sort of purity in the hands of the Germans.  Consider first Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony Of A Metropolis (1927), a film whose montage is a rapid fire depiction of images even more succinct in their content than Vertov’s film.  This approach to dynamic compositions to capture quick and telling moments became a staple in the propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl.  By the 1970s, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg had adopted the style of Ruttmann and Riefenstahl for his own post-modern spectacle Hitler: A Film From Germany (1977) to dispel the very web they spun with the same cinematic tactics.  Likewise, this same approach first found a foothold in narrative realism in Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s People On Sunday (1930) that would evolve into the pulpy film noirs of German Expatriates during the decline of the Hollywood studio system.

The Man From London

What unifies all of these films is their priority on narrative progression.  Where Jean-Luc Godard may use a cutaway to infer a political motif these films would advance toward one ultimate goal devoid of subtext.  Parallels between these German films and the films of Czech and Polish animators are perhaps the most obvious.  Though one may also propose that Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2001) represents the same basic technique but with a far less rate of montage.

The underlying factor that separates the Wolff influenced alignment of images, including the rate of montage, is that none of these films has any allegiance toward social realism.  On the contrary they are stylistically concerned with the fantastique, even when they assume to be non-fiction films.  In no other region is this style of film apparent than in these areas of Europe to whom the Enlightenment came late in the 18th century.  For these reasons there has been an evolution within the culture of Wolff’s philosophical teachings that have become inexplicably bound with national identity.

-Robert Curry

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Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance

Albert Brooks’ second feature film Modern Romance (1981) is a satire unlike few others in popular cinema. As the title suggests, Brooks’ has honed his comical eye on the conventions of romance, but the film extends into the realm of reflexivity as it parodies the directorial excess that marked the American auteur films of the early eighties. However, the primary concern of Modern Romance is in fact with modern romance. To understand the conventions Brooks’ rails against in his film it is, for better or worse, necessary to determine where contemporary notions of what is romantic derive from.

It is well known that until the First World War the intelligentsia was predominantly of the European aristocracy. The customs and etiquette of this exclusive world have been popularized by the likes of Jane Austen for over a century. In the aristocratic world of privilege education was taken for granted and marriage a means of securing position. In this environment, where women marry men of equal or superior social rank, a fantasy was allowed to evolve. This fantasy existed out of necessity, a coping mechanism to ensure individual emotional sustainability. A woman married to a man for whom she harbors no genuine affection or admiration is likely to fantasize about a suitor driven by his love for her. Likewise another scenario that is equally probable is that of the male suitor who is totally obsessed with his romantic fixation on a particular female. Both fantasies offer what in reality is sorely lacking.

Brooks and Harrold in Modern Romance.

Brooks and Harrold in Modern Romance.

These romantic fantasies have been permitted to permeate our popular culture since their conception, from Bronte’s Wuthering Heights to Walt Disney’s Cinderella. Though it is almost immediately clear that equating true love with obsession is in actual implementation quite unhealthy for all parties involved, relatively few artists have sought to discredit this notion. Surely Jane Austen felt it fit to weave a cautionary tale or two around this dilemma in both Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice. Theodor Fontane warns of the emotional death of a poorly made match in Effi Briest, in which the title protagonist’s obsession with another man causes irreparable damage to her relationship with her husband. Similarly, Goethe pinpoints the tragedy of romantic obsession with his bitter and tragic The Sorrows Of Young Werther, which ends in suicide. It is Brooks’ scrutiny of romantic conventions and expectations that place his film in the same critical realm as these novels by Austen, Fontane and Goethe.

Yet, Brooks is not particularly concerned with literature. His unique approach to discrediting popular romantic notions is certainly indebted, knowingly or not, to the novelists mentioned above, but his over all concerns are in the filmic tradition of narrative, which is by all means a direct descendant of the novel. Where Jane Austen’s protagonists were bookish and intellectually inquisitive, Robert (Albert Brooks) of Modern Romance is a neurotic film editor. The occupations and hobbies of Austen and Brooks’ protagonists pits them against the conventions of the mediums in which they exist by making them aware of the conventions of these mediums, either the novel or the film. The difference is that the proto-feminism of Austen’s protagonists places them in opposition of convention, Brooks’ Robert seeks to conform to the conventions of romance that exist only in the un-reality of film.

Robert’s obsession with his on-again off-again girlfriend Mary (Kathyrn Harrold) suffocates her identity and independence as much as it flatters her. What Brooks has done was to transpose the obsessiveness that is glorified as romance in films such as Richard Thorpe’s Knights Of The Roundtable (1953) and Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate (1952) into a contemporary setting. Where Robert Taylor’s pursuit of Ava Gardner was chivalrous in it’s context, now Brooks presents it as the fantasy fulfillment of a highly neurotic editor. Robert’s gestures of affection by no means match those of Taylor as Lancelot, but the parallel does point to the notion that such behavior is masculinely romantic. This parallel is successful in Modern Romance because like Gardner’s Queen, Mary is constantly smitten by such gestures. What Brooks does add to the equation in Modern Romance is the fruition of such behavior through to its logical course in the character of Robert. If a man is so determined and obsessed with possessing his partner as Lancelot is in our “modern” society, it only makes sense that he would stalk her and spy on her; Robert does both.

These romantic attributes of Robert’s character make him completely unlikeable. His behavior constantly jockeys Mary from intimacy to expulsion, break-up through to reunion. This kind of love affair, though exaggerated in Modern Romance, does in fact exist outside of the cinema in our reality. Even people I know conform to such behavior and some even go so far as to measure a lover’s commitment by their obsessive one mindedness as it pertains unto themselves. It is a sickness, and Brooks takes no prisoners in lampooning this sociological infection that began with the aristocracy so long ago.

Modern Romance does not, however, trace this conditioning as far back as that, instead settling on the cinema itself as the propagator of such immoral inclinations. Midway through the film Mary questions if Robert’s love for her is real or just “movie love”. This statement could very well be the thesis of Modern Romance, but Brooks takes his indictment of popular narrative cinema further in his scenes with Bruno Kirby editing a Star Wars (1977) knock off film featuring George Kennedy similar to the Roger Corman produced cult classic Star Crash (1979).

This George Kennedy science fiction epic signifies the uniformity of the Hollywood machine responsible for the sociological conditioning that has informed Robert’s romantic sensibilities. In Modern Romance, James L. Brooks plays the director of this sci-fi blockbuster, and voices all sorts of concerns from the sound of George Kennedy running to the use of the phrase “bowels of the ship” in his own film because the same phrase was used in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Similarly the 87-minute version of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) is explicitly referenced at the conclusion of the foley sound sequence. These filmic reference points reflect the concern Hollywood has not only for mass-market accessibility, but intellectual closed mindedness. Both are symptoms of the same sickness that has contaminated Robert’s psyche and has shaped him into the neurotic mess that he is.

from left to right: James L. Brooks, Albert Brooks and Bruno Kirby.

from left to right: James L. Brooks, Albert Brooks and Bruno Kirby.

Albert Brooks manages to skillfully balance these allegations with the comedic scenarios he puts his character Robert in. Often Brooks’ criticism of our media addicted society into the subtext of scenes by allowing the scenes to play out a superficial surface comedy. This balance that keeps Modern Romance cohesive can be largely credited to the film’s co-writer Monica Johnson, a veteran screenwriter of the sitcom.

This is largely the reason why Modern Romance, along with many others of Brooks’ films, has been unable to find a long-term niche audience. Unlike a writer and director such as Woody Allen, Brooks’ films do not cater to one kind of comedic sensibility at a time. Allen’s films range from high brow dramas like Another Woman to a kind of low brow escapist filmmaking like Bananas (1971), with each film concentrating on its supposed stylistic elements. Albert Brooks’ fidelity is not to the elitist auteur notion of comedian, but seeks instead to mask the more pointedly intellectual investigations and satires of his films behind an easily accessible humor akin to that of Nora Ephron or Elaine May.

That the comedic sensibilities of Modern Romance should be so closely linked to the aesthetics of two female filmmakers is also rather telling. Quite like Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1970) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972) as well as Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998), Albert Brooks’ comedy about the sexes does not align any greater degree of audience sympathy with either the male or female sex, opting instead to equalize the two by developing neither the male nor the female characters in a way that presents them to be morally correct nor more virtuous. The history of film shows that the majority of filmmakers who are male, from Woody Allen to Mike Nichols, will construct their relationship comedies to show either the male or the female is the “right” one, thus aligning the audience with either one sex or the other. In Modern Romance the male lead is despicable and needy just as his female counterpart is overly defensive and aloof, effectively negating the polarizing sexual politics of other film directors.

The sum of these various components is what keeps Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance from any kind of popular sustainability. The film, with its loud surface and intellectual subtexts, is just too dense to sit comfortably with most contemporary audiences. In America, audiences like to be told or shown who to root for, and to be instructed as to what intellectual notion is the most politically correct and acceptable at the moment. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why a new codification to romantic narrative seems so unattainable and distant.

-Robert Curry

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