Tag Archives: In A Year With 13 Moons

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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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

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R.W. Fassbinder’s In A Year With 13 Moons

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1978 offering In A Year With 13 Moons tells the story of a man, Erwin, who becomes a woman, Elvira (Volker Spengler), to win the affections of a man who “can never love anyone”, Anton Saitz (Gottfried John).  The film follows Elvira for five days of her life as she attempts to find meaning without love and justification without reward.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film In A Year With 13 Moons focuses with unflinching precision on the self-sacrifice of love and the conditions that precede suicide.  Fassbinder made the film in reaction to the suicide of his then lover Armin Meier, hoping the film would function as an outlet for all the emotions and questions the suicide had raised in him.  Because of this, In A Year With 13 Moons is perhaps Fassbinder’s most personal film.

The entire film is wrought with illusions to death, expanding beyond the dialogue of the characters into the soundtrack (Suicide’s song Frankie Teardrop), the settings (a slaughterhouse), and the peripheral action (the many empty business offices in Anton Saitz’s building).  The duration of the film, and the number of these illusions make it a difficult viewing experience, unrelenting in its quest to articulate in image and narrative the reasons for suicide.

I am going to focus my analysis of the film to a scene where Fassbinder himself seems to feel responsible for his lover’s self-destruction.  In the scene where Rote Zora (Ingrid Caven) is channel surfing in Elvira’s apartment, she passes by an interview with Fassbinder that is juxtaposed with news reports on General Pinochet in Chile and a soap opera.

The interview is culled from excerpts of Life Stories: A Conversation With Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  The themes and subjects Fassbinder chose to include from his interview directly correlate with Elvira’s quest for understanding.  Fassbinder discusses first his communal childhood upbringing, which parallels Elvira’s youth in an orphanage.  Later, Fassbinder attempts to explain why he drives his sexual partners away with sociopathic games of dominance.  This behavior that Fassbinder tries to clarify is exactly what Elvira projects onto her romantic obsession with Anton Saitz.  After all, it was Saitz’s off handed comment about Erwin becoming a girl, which prompted the sex change, though, that may just be a subconscious foil on Elvira’s part to avoid any admission of self destructive behavior.  In Fassbinder’s final interview excerpt, he reveals that his obsessive mode of film production is derivative of escaping emotional expression with other human beings.  This relates more easily to the character of Saitz.  As it’s explained to Elvira by Smolik (Gunther Kaufman), Saitz’s chauffer, Anton Saitz become so involved with re-building Frankfurt’s poor districts, that it allowed him to escape the moral ramifications of his personal behavior as well as the numerous families he evicted.

By contextualizing himself this way in his own film, Fassbinder provides his audience with a number of signifiers that correlate to produce an intimate portraiture within the film’s narrative as I mentioned above.  But it is his use of juxtapositions in this scene that complicate an otherwise relatively easy way of reading the scene.  At this time (the late 1970s) Fassbinder had completed two controversial films about terrorism in Germany, The Third Generation and Mother Kusters Goes To Heaven.  Due to his radical views, which condemn both the left and right political movements, Fassbinder was labeled a fascist by the German press.  Fassbinder has in every available interview I have read stated his anti-fascist sentiments, however by placing Pinochet’s image alongside his he makes clear the serious mislabeling at work.  In Chile, Pinochet was heading up his own pseudo-fascist political agenda, committing some of the centuries greatest crimes against humanity.  But it is clearly ironic to Fassbinder that the press is more concerned with the perceived fascism in his films than with the fascism in Chile, whose ramifications are much more threatening and immediate.  Secondly, Fassbinder juxtaposes himself as a filmmaker with a low-grade soap opera.  Here it seems Fassbinder wishes the audience to relate the obvious artifice inherent of the soap opera with his own filmography, leveling the plain of critical worth for all media based art.  This juxtaposition is interesting in that it seems Fassbinder is attempting to diminish his own self worth as an artist, trying to excuse his relationship and responsibility for his lover’s suicide in the process.

Moving forward in the film’s narrative, the parallels between Fassbinder and Saitz as well as between Elvira and Meier manifest themselves in the interactions of the two characters.  In his office, Saitz tells Elvira (in words almost exactly the same as those which can be found in Fassbinder’s interview that was featured earlier), that the damaging interview she gave can never concern him because so many people try to damage his reputation regularly.  In this brief exchange, the relationship between Saitz and Elvira becomes painfully similar to that of Meier and Fassbinder.  Of his own admission, in the unabridged form of the featured interview, Fassbinder relates how his former lovers often try to damage him, but that the controversy of his own work over shadows any efforts and grants him a sort of immunity.  By articulating this parallel in this scene, it’s as if Rainer Werner Fassbinder has caught himself simultaneously assuming responsibility and rejecting that responsibility for Meier’s suicide.  So it becomes Fassbinder’s own internal paradox that becomes the driving force behind In A Year With 13 Moons.

-Robert Curry

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The Age Of Innocence

The following was written some years ago.  The references to page numbers refer to an edition I can no longer remember, and I apologize for that.

Edith Wharton’s novel The Age Of Innocence is among the greatest novels in modern American Literary history, which finally gave a voice to a gender whose voice had been denied.  Wharton’s novel is both satirical and objective in its analysis of the social hierarchy of old New York.  It is this novel that filmmaker Martin Scorsese adapted to the screen in 1993.  Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence is as much a character study of Newland Archer as it is satire in the strictest sense of Dark Comedy.  This suggests that Scorsese, in adapting Wharton for the screen [with fellow screen writer Jay Cocks], has also re-interpreted the novel, manipulated and paraphrased the text so it may bare the fruit he so desires.  The real question is, what are the ramifications of a film adaptation?  How can Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence still claim the name of its original source?  If Scorsese’s film varies in themes from Wharton’s text, and therefore fulfilling a different purpose, it’s legitimacy, as an adaptation, may seem faulty.

From the very beginning of Scorsese’s film, the focus is Newland Archer.  He is first to appear, and it is from his box at the opera which Scorsese allows his audience to see the sequence unfold.  The audience’s empathy is immediately invested in Newland Archer, the audience also becomes aware or rather assumes that this is his story.  In Wharton’s text, the immediate assumption tends to be an objective social commentary.  The first two paragraphs deal exclusively with the societal goings on at the opera, best demonstrated in the opening paragraph of the book.

“On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.”  [Wharton, page 3.]

Scorsese seems to bypass the significant action in the introductory pages of chapter one, simply allowing those menial events to play out almost unnoticed in the background of Newland Archer’s scene.  Where further, Wharton reinforces the notion that hers is a book about a society with no one central hero.   Wharton dutifully follows through with a sort of “background story” for each character, no matter how trifle, in her objective analysis of old New York.

“Lawrence Leffterts was, on the whole, the foremost authority on ‘form’ in New York.  He had probably devoted more time than any one else to the study of this intricate and fascinating question; but study alone could not account for his complete and easy competence.  One had only to look at him,” [Wharton, page 6-7]

Thus, from the start of Scorsese’s adaptation of Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence, he seems to be on a different page with a different purpose.

Even in Scorsese’s cinematic style he empowers the character of Newland Archer in a way uncharacteristic of the book.  Archer, in the novel, is a character Wharton seems to use as a ship on which she sails her reader through the complex world whose social scrutinies she so satirically sends up.  Scorsese’s empowerment seems, as such, ridiculous if to be a faithful adaptation of Wharton’s intentions, which as an adaptation it assumes to be.  Through out the film, and especially at the van der Luyden’s party for Countess Olenska, Scorsese permits Archer to lead the frame and in turn the audience.  This device implies that Archer moves the narrative, that his story is the focus, his is the important character, and that all of Wharton’s other characters are merely present to support and help to explore the character of Newland Archer.  This is graphic support of Scorsese’s infringement on the principals of adaptation.  In the same sequence, Scorsese and his cinematographer, Michael Balhaus (this was their second film together, the other being The Last Temptation Of Christ), provide numerous eye line matches for Newland Archer.  The audience is only permitted then, to look away from Newland Archer when he looks at a person or object out of frame that has some significance to his character.  Newland Archer, throughout all of the film, with little exception, is completely empowered with carrying the audience narrativly and empathetically; hence the film becomes Newland Archer.  Sorsese’s choice to deploy these cinematic devices the way he does simply reiterates his interest in the character of Newland Archer over the complete context and purpose of Wharton’s novel.

In contrast, when Wharton writes of the van der Luyden affair, she is skeptical and objective, all seeing and all critical.

“The dinner was a somewhat formidable business.  Dining with the van der Luydens was at best no light matter, and dining there with a Duke who was their cousin was almost a religious solemnity.” [Wharton, page 43]

Wharton does not immediately go to Newland Archer to paint the scene; her backdrop is a tongue in cheek analysis of the hosts, the van der Luydens.  Scorsese’s incorporation, and less illustrative interpretation, was a pan of a table at which the characters (not dissimilar to the moving camera shots of interiors in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon) were seated, a pan whose direction followed Newland Archer’s gaze.  At this point, Wharton seems less concerned with her narrative, but rather her political meaning, for all social commentaries are political in nature.  These ‘commentaries’ [like the one cited above] have little ramifications in Scorsese’s film by contrast.  The same commentaries, when touched on in his film, emote from the Archer character by virtue of plot focus and the before mentioned shot design.  It would appear Scorsese has little of a political nature to say unless it is in direct confrontation with Newland Archer.

What political concern is apparent in Scorsese is Wharton’s theme of romantic and sexual suppression.  Scorsese illustrates this most effectively with the visual palette in the Coach Scene.  Here, Newland Archer removes the glove of his would-be mistress as they take a carriage ride from the train station to the Mignott house.  In slow motion with a warm tone to a slight under exposure, Scorsese and Balhaus collaborate to push the sexual tone further, while the suppression is read by the audience in the character’s facial expression (this sequence is only comparable to Balhaus’ cinematography for In A Year With 13 Moons, in so far as his filmography is concerned).  Scorsese’s political narrative is one of suppression, the sexual suppression of a by gone era.

Unlike Scorsese, Wharton’s notion of political commentary extends as far as to criticize the traditions brought about by the very virtues of the political landscape of the times.  She remains ever skeptical throughout her novel of its characters and their purpose.  She insists on second guessing her characters every step of the way.

“It was undoubtedly gratifying to be the husband of one of the handsomest and most popular young married women in New York, especially when she was also one of the sweetest-tempered and most reasonable wives; and Archer had never been insensible to such advantages.  As for the momentary madness, which had fallen upon him on the eve of his marriage, he had trained himself to regard it as the last of his discarded experiments.  The idea that he could ever, in his senses, have dreamed of marrying Countess Olenska had become almost unthinkable, and she remained in his memory simply as the most plaintive and poignant of a line of ghosts”. [Wharton, page 145]

Wharton remains Archer’s skeptic, playing devil’s advocate as it were, undermining her reader’s expectation of an all too ordinary novel, which Scorsese seems to prefer.  The critical difference here is that Scorsese still harbors a naïve trust in the factious narrative and the role of the so-called hero, which Wharton quite readily rejects in her approach to The Age Of Innocence.  This in turn justifies or rather explains each artist’s take on tradition and its political ramifications.  One may assume that Scorsese perceives these traditions as a foil or plot device in the romantic story of Newland Archer.  While on the contrary, one may assume that Wharton uses the subversive effects on her characters induced by tradition to further dissect and criticize the society which her characters occupy.  Does Newland Archer not desire Countess Olenska simply because he cannot posses her, is that not the root of his obsession?

To propose that Scorsese uses the traditions and their subverting effects as romantic material through which Archer’s passions flourish may also propose an explanation for his treatment of the book in the second half of the film.  Scorsese’s approach to the romantic side of his ‘hero’ Newland Archer is a retro one, or maybe even an unsung homage.  This is most strikingly proven in the cinematography of the Pier sequence in which Archer watches Countess Olenska from the shore as a boat passes the lighthouse.  That shot is eerily similar to the harbor shots in Fassbinder’s final film Querelle, on which Xaver Schwarzenberger was the cinematographer.  Quoting another film that way has its implications, Querelle is, after all, a film about subverted sexuality in the classic melodramatic sense that so obsessed Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Can we, the audience, then assume that Scorsese is referencing that film and the sensations it emotes?  Is Scorsese suggesting that Jean Genet and Edith Wharton are both dealing with similar themes and similar heroes?  This is uncertain, but it’s a justifiable assumption given that the similarity between the two films extends further than just similarities in cinematography, but also to set design and special effects.  Both the sailboat in The Age Of Innocence and the steam ships in Querelle move in the same fashion as the  effects found in the dance films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger [whom Scorsese also admired and actually knew].  But Scorsese goes so far as to isolate these instances of heightened cinematography and ‘retro’ effects to what may be called glimpses into the mind of Newland Archer (a sensibility favored by the German Expressionist filmmakers).  These cinematic instances only occur when Archer is alone as the spectator in the before mentioned scene and at the end of the Boston sequence.  The audience is given an exceptional insight of Archer’s world in these sequences that no other character receives, which once again contradicts the nature and intentions of Wharton’s novel.  Scorsese quotes Fassbinder and Powell but only as privy insights into the mind of his hero, Newland Archer.

Scorsese is then making a film about one man’s journey through life employing the cinematic devices of his influences to tell that man’s story which unravels in Edith Wharton’s world of Old New York.  The basic plot is still the same, but the execution and the emphasis differ immensely.  Wharton seems concerned with a conservative political and traditional landscape no longer in existence, but wishes to scrutinize it thoroughly with the narrative as a device to do so.  While oppositely, Scorsese is interested in the individual, not the whole of a society, and will only permit a pin hole view of that society to the audience if his main character, by narrative inclination, allows it. Given what appears above, one may say that Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence is merely an interpretation (which perhaps all adaptations of novels to films are) of a novel called The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

-Robert Curry

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