Thursday, October 19, 2006

I'm in the Mood for Dread, Simply `Cause You're Near Me

Another thing about Dostoevsky that I should have said above but didn't: he appeals to me in certain morbid moods. I don't think of myself as a particularly morbid fellow, but for the past few weeks, I've really been heavily into the doom and gloom crowd. First, there's Dostoevsky and all that heavy soul-baring Russian angst.

And then, there's The Cure, a band I never really cared for back in their heyday 20 years ago but which I've been listening to a lot lately, along with a lot of Joy Division. Both of these groups trafficked rather heavily in suicidal despair, particularly Joy Division, whose lead singer was actually playing with real bullets. To listen to the two main Joy Division discs, Unknown Pleasures and the aptly-titled Closer is to hear someone not just talking himself into plunging into the abyss but almost looking forward to it. This should depress me, I suspect, but it doesn't. It just kind of, oh, I dunno, interests me in a kind of weird way. It fascinates me.

The Cure has been reissuing their records on Rhino since sometime last year, and I started buying them for no other reason than that they just looked cool sitting there on the shelf at Papa Jazz. The first one I got was a deathly masterpiece of sorts called Pornography, which I found perfectly absorbing. Then there was this rather stark, moody thing called Seventeen Seconds. And last week I bought one that came later than those called Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, which is very patchy, possibly because it suffers the usual fate of double-albums: excess. A handful of good songs, an abundance of mediocre or uninspired ones. These reissues all come with an accompanying disc of outtakes and live versions, and in the case of Kiss Me it's a bit of a rip, since the so-called studio demos mostly are just uninteresting backing tracks without vocals. Good for Karaoke Night, I guess. I got tired of listening to it today and popped in Pornography, which by contrast sounds perfectly focused and inspired, even if it was recorded in what I understand was an endless druggy haze.

Speaking of endless druggy hazes, I picked up for review a new book about the making of the Stones' Exile on Main St., which (based on a quick scan) will likely provide even the most hardened Stones junkie with more than enough reasons to question why Keith Richards is still breathing.

Oh, and here's another aspect of my latest obsession with gloom, I've been watching a lot of Fassbinder.

A few thoughts I jotted down last week:

Live Fast, Die Young, and Leave a Staggering Body of Work

I was first exposed to Rainer Werner Fassbinder sometime in 1985.

The film was Berlin Alexanderplatz, which runs for over 15 hours and which I saw over the space of about four or five weeks; three hours every Sunday afternoon. It was easily one of the great, one of the truly signal experiences of a movie-going life, and not just because of the huge investment of time. It was a week-by-week emotional experience in which I felt plunged, drowned really, in what I can only call (at the risk of sounding silly) a rich and exhilarating sadness. I say this despite the fact that I don't remember the story all that well, except that it had something to do with the horrible and endlessly tragic life of a character named Franz Biberkopf, living between the world wars, and to watch him stagger from one wrenching episode to the next was overwhelming in the fullest sense of that word. It knocked me over, swept me along in its dread-soaked tide, and the feeling did not diminish when I left the theater. The length gave it time to really get into your skin, and it went way overboard in a way I've never seen in another film, ever -- mainly in the performances of Gunter Lamprecht and Barbara Sukowa, who plays his girlfriend Mieze. There's one scene in the latter third or so where Sukowa has this big out-of-control scene where she is crying, just bawling with such out-of-her-mind hurt, grief and intensity -- it seems like maybe Franz was leaving her or being taken away -- and she wasn't overacting at all. It was the difference between emotion and emoting. She was lost in the moment and the moment lasted a long nerve-shattering time.

I think it may have been my first huge binge on Das Neue Kino, the New German Cinema of the 1970s, in which Fassbinder was the dominant figure among Wim Wenders, Volker Schlondorff, Werner Herzog, and Margarethe von Trotta. I came to love a number of these films much as I love Italian Neo Realism, mainly because it's so deeply personal -- much more so than anything passing these days for independent.

For another thing, the movies were just so damned, well German, I guess. I don't know anything about Germany except that it's not America, that in my mind it's the opposite of America. In America, there is, I think, at bottom, this sense of success or happiness or contentment, and that if you don't have those things you should have them. For all its backwardness, for all multiple problems and strife and intolerance and rancor, there is always a sense that it really is morning in America, there's a sense of the positive and the possible, that life is just waiting to be recreated. I've been reading this amusing history of the National Lampoon, and it struck me over and over again that the main thing people parody about America is its sunny optimism, its incorrigible belief in itself, its sense if not its regular practice of self-reliance.

Germany is the opposite. In Germany it's always a late afternoon with storm clouds gathering. Industrial and efficent but also moribund, blasted, bored and boring, where the air is so thick with existential alienation you feel yourself choking -- or, as I said, somewhat turned on emotionally; I felt it as soon as Berlin Alexanderplatz began, where Franz hears a high-pitched siren and covers his ears. A title card appears reading "The torture begins."

I hope to say more next year, when, hopefully, Criterion at long last releases the full version on DVD. Maybe by then I will have also read the Doblin novel on which it is based.

For now though, I think because that movie has hung in my mind for so long that it's time to do something about Fassbinder, to go back and look at all his films. I recently put on my Blockbuster queue every Fassbinder in stock. As sometimes happens, the first disc they sent wasn't a movie but a bonus disc of supplementary material from a larger set, which was perfectly okay. It had one full-length documentary of his life and career -- I Don't Just Want You to Love Me -- as well as a lengthy interview for German television, and two other juicy and extremely informative interviews with his editor and cameraman.

The first thing to be said about Fassbinder, watching him in one clip after another, is that he's a cliche. He has that same big walrus moustache of Gunter Grass or Nietzsche, and like them he just oozes brooding Teutonic despair. He could have easily appeared on Sprockets without much invention on the part of Mike Myers as Dieter, who was used to introducing guests like Gregor Was, auteur of such masterpieces as Irritant Number Four and Here Child, Finish Your Nothing or Karl-Heinz Shelkar, who plays the wacky neighbor in the popular Munich TV sit-com “Who Are You to Accuse Me?”

Wouldn't the director of Love is Colder than Death and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? fit right in?

The other thing is that he was passionately addicted to film in a way that makes Martin Scorsese look like a piker, leaving behind a fairly vast legacy for someone who died at 37 from a mixture of sleeping pills, drugs and almost certainly overwork. He made a total of 45 films, many of which he acted in, most of them (save for a few early student films) feature-length and one of them, of course, the length of about seven features.

Even more amazingly, he didn't stop at film; he also wrote and directed plays, and acted in works by other directors. He looked nothing like Lord Byron, but he approached life in the same reckless and thoroughly productive way, and lived about as long.

It's an output that continues to amaze most of those who knew him, and the comments they offer in the documentary are a reminder that nothing shapes a director's style like his budget (a fact equally true of Godard and Bunuel). Fassbinder's early films are supposedly comprised of long static shots and rarely used more than one take. According to the director it was because he wanted to show the stasis of modern life and because he found close-ups or zooms distracting; according to his director of photography, it was also because he could afford to do little else. Schlondorff points out that while other young dirctors were waiting patiently for jobs from television or the state, Fassbinder simply made movies without asking anyone for money -- he rented or borrowed cameras he couldn't afford and figured the gamble would sooner or later pay off.

The documentary indicates that for all Fassbinder's professed affectlessness where style is concerned his films very closely planned and thought-out; one scene in particular from a later film is held up for close symbolic and compositional analysis. One fact from the old days remained, though, according to the testimony of all those who knew him: he continually insisted on doing it all in one take, which focused all the actors and crew, knowing they had only one chance to get it right. That's one of those behind-the-scenes stories whose truthfulness you can't help but question -- surely someone blew a line at least once, didn't they? -- but it certainly helps explain how he did so very much in so little time.

The main thing you get is that this was a man who truly loved film, loved everything it could do, and for whom making movies was living, whose art was truly his life.

I've always been attracted to Fassbinder's work, what little of it I've seen besides Berlin Alexanderplatz, but maybe I just like the idea of him -- the impassioned, tormented artist, born to burn out completely, challenging every law of morality and mortality along the way -- than I do his actual artistic output. Maybe I like him as a character, the way I do Dostoevsky, who strikes me as far more singular than Raskolnikov or Stavrogin.

I think I'm going to give myself a self-administered class on Fassbinder, focusing less on the available criticism -- which is available in plenitude on the web -- than on just the films themselves, tackling them in a sequential and ordered fashion but hopefully not the kind of uselessly obsessive one with which I am all too familiar. I think it could be great fun if I handle it well. It could be illuminating.

No comments: