Tag Archives: Love Is Colder Than Death

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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Katzelmacher

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 towards the mainstream, 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 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, imitating heavily 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 low budget filmmaking.

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 cautionary, 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 diatribes 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 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 film.  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 shift his cinematic interests into the Sirkian melodrama.

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, 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 mainstream 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

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