Sunday, November 19, 2006

Swank Western: Gunther Kaufmann and Hanna Schygulla in Fassbinder's Whity.

Blogging Fassbinder, Part 4: Whity

I suspect Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have gotten a massive hard-on over the movie I saw yesterday afternoon at the Nick, if only because it was drenched in artistic romanticism and the usual accompanying despair and rot: Factotum, based on a novel by Charles Bukowski, starring Matt Dillon and directed by Bent Hamer. Hamer made a charming little film some years ago called Kitchen Stories; as for Factotum itself, I'm tempted to say that I liked it better the first time I saw it, when it was titled either Tropic of Cancer or Henry and June, although in truth I never much liked those either, as books or as films. Bukowski was a kind of West Coast Henry Miller, from what I can tell, one of those drink-and-fuck beat types whose writing is all about living on the edge, tempting fate, and the grand pursuit of artistic sensation, which usually involves being broke, jabbering away endlessly about the joy and torture of writing, and hooking up with unstable but voracious women, like Jan, played by the still-hot Lili Taylor. ("Jan was an excellent fuck," Dillon's character tells us, v.o. "She had a tight pussy. And she took it like it was a knife that was killing her.")

I've never actually read Bukowski, but that's the impression I get. There have been other movies made from his books and stories. One I liked was Tales of Ordinary Madness, which starred Ben Gazzara and Ornella Muti, which was bizarre and interesting. Some people will no doubt find Factotum inspiring, presumably people who think of themselves as tough-guy writers, and who despite all their effort still aren't getting anywhere. Personally, though, I most like the Beats, or people like Bukowski who kind of traffick in that world, when they get outside of themselves, when they write about something besides their own mundane existence, which is all this thing really amounted to. Writers lead such boring lives. I've got to start looking closer at the Nick schedule. I thought I was going to see This Film is Not Yet Rated, which closed two days ago.

It's been a little while since I've said anything about Fassbinder. Since then I've seen five of the films in succession, some more than once, and I usually took notes: Whity, The Niklashausen Journey, Beware of a Holy Whore, The Merchant of Four Seasons, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and I caught up with a pair of early shorts: The City Tramp and A Little Chaos. I also tried sitting through a couple of documentaries on Fassbinder (on the Merchant of Four Seasons DVD, which includes a commentary by Wim Wenders) that were so long and so lamely put together that I couldn't bring myself to finish them. As far as the films go, you can see some real development, as Fassbinder emerges from ambitious student to a full-fledged artist in his own right.

Whity, yet another attempt at genre subversion, impressed me the least: a ludicrous and lurid Western somewhat in the tone of Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, where decadent Berlin -- or is that Tennessee Williams? -- meets the Wild West, and mutual hatred, lust, greed, jealousy, homosexualitry, sadism, incest and miscegenation (is that term still in use?) are the order of the day. It's terrible, but it has some interesting things in it. I said near the beginning of this little series that Fassbinder always had visual style, just not always the technical aptitude to go with it. Every bad film he made has ambition, some ideas, a little craziness, as if he's trying to move ahead, to bite off more than he can chew. I think sometimes he was effectively trying to eat his way through film history -- his work sometimes feels rushed, as if he's trying to learn everything he can, trying to consume as much as he can in the hope of finding himself, and on that level maybe he succeeds even when the films fall way short.

The title character is a black butler working for a wealthy, thoroughly decadent family situated somewhere out west in 1878. Though no longer a slave, Whity (Gunther Kaufmann) accepts his role as a sub-human servant to the family. He concedes to the idea of his own inferiority and seems to wish he were white -- which, in this society, is what freedom means. He doesn't like it when his mother, the maid Marpessa (Elaine Baker, whom I can only assume is a white actress wearing black-face), sings "black songs," or Negro spirituals, and he even thanks his massa, Ben Nicholson (Ron Randell) when he's whipped. This doesn't stop him from having an affair with the local whore, Hanna (the ubiquitous Hanna Schygulla, looking like Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again); when the locals beat him up for touching her, he glumly accepts his fate.

The Nicholson family have their own dark secrets. Ben Nicholson's new wife, Kate (Katrin Schaake), seems to be having an affair with her dim-witted stepson Davie (Harry Baer), as well as a real and obviously sadistic affair with the family doctor. Another son, Frank (Ulli Lommel), has the hots for Whity himself, and at one point even dresses up for him in female undergarments, looking somewhat like an early draft of Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Whity not only returns the affection, but takes whippings for him.

Everyone in the family, also, hates everyone else, and Whity's loyalty to them all and to the notion of white supremacy is tested when everyone asks him to kill someone ese. Hanna, the only person who truly loves him, wants him to kill them all and run away with her -- which he eventually does, but not before we discover that Whity is Ben's son by Marpessa. After wiping out the only family he has ever known, Whity and Hanna run off to the desert, where -- McTeague-like -- they are apparently destined to die of thirst, such being the cost of liberation.

At one obvious level, Whity is a a rarity: a German-language American Western. I've often wondered why it is that while Americans make films set in countries all over the globe, with English-speaking actors playing native characters, other countries rarely ever do. They don't tell stories set on our soil using their actors. It's as if only Americans can make films about American life as experienced by Americans. People accept an American movie where Ralph Fiennes plays a Czechoslovakian businessman, saving Jews from Nazis in World War II. But I don't think they would accept, say, a Czechoslovakian film, starring Czechs, speaking Czech, about a pair of teenagers in Alabama. Hollywood can make Madame Bovary; why can't France make, say, The Grapes of Wrath?

Beyond that, it's pretty thin. Fassbinder never seems all that sure of his tone; it's like some kind of queer genre-bending comedy played perversely straight, scattered with half-baked ideas (all the white characters get increasingly paler) and lame inside jokes (the maiden name of the femme fatale Kate is Stanwyck.) Much as as it may sound like bold, anti-Hollywood, myth-smashing moviemaking, it also doesn't look or feel like much. Michael Ballhaus, making his debut with Fassbinder, delivers the kind of elaborate camera movements the director apparently preferred: occasionally drifting from right to left then back, not to convey the story in the most direct possible way but to disorient the viewer and remind him that he's not seeing an ordinary Western. It reminds you, too, that the film is a good deal more icon-smashing style than substance, and that merely "reinventing" a genre isn't enough -- it takes interesting characters and a story that aims for more than little shocks, and that has some feeling to it, at least. It's a thin, shrill act of criticism. It's amateurish. It's apprentice work. It's schoolwork. Onward.

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