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Rewatching the Queer Canon, Part 4: Fassbinder's Gaze

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by Oliver Skinner
March 7, 2014 12:11 PM
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If, for whatever reason, some prophetic stranger were to approach me at this very moment and tell me  I was about to be plucked from my spot upon this futon and flown to a desert island with nothing but a DVD player and my choice of a director's filmography to keep me company for the rest of my days, I would pick Rainer Werner Fassbinder. For one: his body of work is so terribly immense that in between moments of say, gathering coconuts or building an escape raft, I could spend weeks engaged in his cinema. And by the time I'd finished the final of Fassy's films, there'd be the fervour of flipping back to square one to see them all over again. 

His movies, in top form, also encapsulate so much that cinema has to offer:  unbelievably real characters, exquisitely-composed story arcs in pictures that never fall prey to their plots, surreal multicoloured set pieces, crashing melodramatic moments, comedy, despair, pretty men and handsome women, musical interludes, and the revelation:  the revelation that good intentions in this world are probably never enough. 

Rainer Werner was an extremely significant era of modern art manifest — he was the full-cheeked face of the 'New German Cinema', with a reddish brown moustache atop the usual scowl. This is a face that would come to freeze at the age of 37 in 1982 with a cigarette still perched between its lips. To live fast and die young was a philosophy alive in all of Fassbinder's flicks and the production processes preceding them, and so like a character in his own movie, his story came to an end . . . and with it, put to sleep the New German Cinema for good.

R.W. never held himself back:  "The Jews have never been ashamed of being Jews, whereas homosexuals have been stupid enough to be ashamed of their homosexuality." The director was out of the closet from the get-go, but does the closet ever exist for people such as him? More seamlessly than any filmmaker of his time, he included queer characters who were not sentenced to queer purgatory. His gay characters needed not pronounce their gayness. Fassbinder was considered promiscuous and spent a lot of time with both men and women — he even married his regular actress Ingrid Caven. She said of their relationship, "Rainer was a homosexual who also needed a woman. It's that simple and that complex."

These 4 films aren't solely masterpieces of the queer canon. They have their place in art history, in my heart, and on our blog… for they feature protagonists who are a little, well, bent.

THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (1972)

Petra (Marget Carstensen) is a powerful and talented, if not a little shut-in, Bremen fashion designer. Her previous marriages have ended disastrously and now she works from her apartment, relying on visitors and her live-in assistant whom she treats like total shit. Enter Karin (played by Hanna Schygulla, a very prominent face of the New German Cinema — [seeMarriage of Maria Braun, The]), a friend of a friend whom upon their introduction Petra proposes move in and train under her wing to become a world-class model. But to great misfortunate the illustrious Petra von Kant not only welcomes Karin in as her latest project, but as a lover she longs to possess. 

What touches me so about the film was how hopeless, despite enormous success, Petra becomes upon falling into the black hole that is unanswered love… How close it must have hit home for Fassbinder himself to so faithfully portray this process that makes the perfect imperfect. That makes devils out of angels. 

On her birthday and at the peak of her devastation (don't these two always coincide?), Petra's closest friend, mother, and boarding school daughter stop by to celebrate. In return Petra smashes plates and acts out some mode of death on the carpet, telling her visitors: "Her little finger is worth more than all of you together!" 

When your heart's on fire, you must realize, smoke gets in your eyes (thus the bitter tears)… before proceeding to slide down your cheek and into your glass of gin. The disturbance Petra's mother feels in learning her daughter has fallen for another woman does not compete with the wreckage Petra outwardly becomes, and this is what makes the film hurt.


FOX AND HIS FRIENDS (1975)

In one of Fassbinder's definitive films, and certainly his most definitive role, he stars as Franz "Fox" Bieberkopf — a down on his luck circus act whose ringleader boyfriend is sent to jail in the movie's opening scene. On the search for income elsewhere, he is picked up by an older wealthy gentleman and introduced to a circle of professional homosexuals with successful careers and three-piece suits, who dine at upperclass restaurants and discuss the arts and finance. Although he's used to barely living paycheck to paycheck in a small apartment with his alcoholic sister awaiting the day he finally wins the lottery, Fox begins seeing one of these men and is briskly thrust into the high life of these West German gays.

The film is bold, especially for its time, in portraying gay relationships as no more free from the evils of capitalist society… having the same pitfalls of their heterosexual counterparts. Fox is innocent and strives so badly to make things work but cannot let go of his old, less sophisticated self in order to serve this new persona his boyfriend perceives appropriate. While he's cruelly treated like an old dog who can't be taught new tricks, Fox is merely the tragic figure caught up with a man who uses their romance as a means of taking advantage. There is no way to be with a man who buys and sells love yet does not possess a heart. 

Is getting what you want and then losing it really better than not getting it at all? "Fox and his Friends" is a failings-of-humanity tale that deserves to be mentioned alongside "The Bicycle Thieves". Social tragedy aside, it's terribly clever and Rainer Werner's really cute in it.

Better than a trailer, watch clips from the film set to a Morrissey song:


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