Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fay Grim: Hal Hartley hits the screen with his follow up to Henry Fool

Fay Grim: Hal Hartley hits the screen with his follow up to Henry Fool

Originally published in Venus

When I was fifteen-years-old, I had a huge crush on a older guy who represented everything a wanna-be counter cultural high-school freshman thought was cool — he was tall, had a nose ring, listened to bands I had never heard of and had a deep knowledge of independent cult film. We would send each other long, rambling emails and in one of them he cryptically told me to “go watch some Hal Hartley movies.”

Little did I know, while boy-who-shall-remain-nameless and I were embroiled in our pretentious email fandango, Hartley was hitting it big with his film Henry Fool. Henry Fool tells the story of Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a garbage man cum Nobel Prize winning poet living in Queens, and Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a drunken wind-bag novelist who storms into town and changes everyone’s lives. While living in the Grim basement and writing his epic Confessions, a work which he compares to the works of de Sade or Rousseau, Henry prompts Simon to begin writing, sweeps Simon’s nymphomaniac sister Fay (Parker Posey) off her feet and marries her, sinks into a pit of despair as a result of Simon’s success, and flees the country with great fanfare when his past threatens to catch up with him.

Fay Grim picks up where Henry Fool left off. It’s ten years later — Simon is still in prison for abetting Fool’s escape and Fay is left on her own with a fourteen-year-old son. She tells the world that she’s forgotten about Henry, though Hartley underscores her uneasy devotion to the man every time she utters the heavy-handed, transparent, “I’m single — sort of.” Fay is on the brink of succumbing to the foppish advances of Simon’s smarmy literary agent and moving beyond the shadow of her husband’s legacy when two CIA agents pay a visit. Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) and Carl Fogg (Leo Fitzpatrick) enlist Fay’s help in finding her missing husband, embroiling her in an international web of intrigue that isn’t that intriguing at all.

It’s not surprising that Hartley’s film is super self-aware or that most of the action in this unexpected political-thriller-comedy is anti-action. He’s an indie-demi god. That’s what those guys and gals do. Hartley’s bete-noire, however, is that he drowns in his own conceits. Fay Grim lacks the empathic character driven drama that made Henry Fool so memorable. Fool was an intense, though at times grating, meditation about the human spirit, the drive to create, and the rampant egotism concealed therein. In this go around Fool’s cast of anti-heroes in are reduced to marionettes enacting a vacant and convoluted spy spoof that forgets to be funny. But, hey, that’s what sequels are known for.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Let The Punishment Begin

Barbara Sukowa, Günter Lapmrecht
© Karl Reiter

originally published in the Brooklyn Rail. June 2007

Let The Punishment Begin
Berlin Alexanderplatz, Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, MoMA and KW

If 2006 was the year of Werner Herzog, then 2007 belongs to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Herzog captivated American audiences with White Diamond and Grizzly Man—documentaries hypnotized by the exploratory drives of the human spirit in all its glory, hubris, and niggling irksomeness. Both directors show men striving above their capabilities. Fassbinder, unlike Herzog, does not depict the poetic beauty in folly. He leaves little room for his characters’ redemption. Their lives are dominated by bleak, claustrophobic mise en scene and their own despair, rather than a Herzogian awe-inspiring expanse of nature.

Fassbinder, who died of a cocaine and sleeping pill overdose in 1982, shortly after his 37th birthday, will not get to cash in on the critical re-evaluation of his fifteen plus hour magnum opus, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Fassbinder’s complicated and exhausting work is finally available for a new generation of cinephiles to savor. The Goethe Institute subsidized the restoration of the film claiming that the original negative was in “catastrophic condition.” Work began in 2006 and was completed in time for the 25th anniversary of Fassbinder’s death. The combined efforts of MOMA, Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation provide multiple avenues to engage with Fassbinder’s oeuvre.

MOMA presented “Fassbinder in the Collection” in April to commemorate their acquisition of a re-mastered 35mm version of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The series included sixteen films and two documentaries about the making and restoration of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Juliane Lorenz, director of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. KW Institute for Contemporary Art concurrently mounted a sprawling exhibition curated by Klaus Biesenbach devoted solely to Berlin Alexanderplatz. Photographs of Fassbinder’s dog-eared, heavily underlined copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz, sketches and story boards, production stills and video-loops of selected excerpts from the film were all on view. The KW exhibition offered two possible approaches to the work. Berlin Alexanderplatz was screened in its entirety on a central screen in a small basement theater. Individual episodes were also screened on a permanent loop in fourteen different rooms. A massive catalogue with essays by Susan Sontag and Biesenbach, production stills, and a copy of the screenplay accompanied the exhibition. Süddeutsche Zeitung Cinemathek released a restored box set with six DVDs plus bonus materials for the European market. Criterion will release a domestic version with English subtitles by the end of 2007.

Fassbinder is perhaps the least accessible of New German Cinema, a movement of young filmmakers that spanned the 1960s through the 80s and was heavily influenced by the Nouvelle Vague and Italian Neo-Realism. Although a madman like Herzog and intensely personal like Wenders, Fassbinder lacks Herzog’s stunning cinematic style or Wender’s cynical romanticism. Fassbinder is as remembered for his flamboyant, drug-soaked life style and acerbic personality as he is for his Bundesrepublik Deutschland Trilogy (including The Marriage of Maria Von Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola) and Ali, Fear Eats the Soul. The latter is a heart-wrenching fable about a cleaning woman in Hamburg who falls in love with a much younger Moroccan immigrant inspired by master tear-jerker Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. With an economy of visual means and moments of silence that say as much as his dialogue, Fassbinder created a tableau as engaging and emotionally harrowing as Sirk’s Technicolor drenched melodrama and every bit as subversively camp. It is not surprising that Fassbinder, a portly, openly gay West German with proclivities toward deep, complicated, pseudo-sadistic relationships with his regular company of actors, built his reputation on the depiction of outsiders.

Fassbinder adapted Berlin Alexanderplatz from German Expressionist author and psychiatrist Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel of the same name for West German television in 1980. The story follows Franz Bieberkopf, a Weimar-era everyman and his struggles to reintegrate himself into society. Emerging after serving four years in Tegel prison for the murder of his girlfriend, Franz is thwarted at every turn. Bieberkopf, played to sweaty, smirking perfection by Günter Lamprecht is a rootless drifter with, at times, incomprehensible motivations. He—like his nation—makes himself a lot of promises and doesn’t keep many. During the course of thirteen episodes and an epilogue, Franz reinvents himself as a shoelace salesman, Nazi newspaper peddler, small time crook, and pimp. Shot in rich, muted chocolate and grey hues by Xaver Schwarzenberger—the cinematographer of Veronika Voss and Lola—Berlin Alexanderplatz is the ultimate expression of many of the themes that Fassbinder—with a staggering 44 films to his credit—presented throughout his career.

Fassbinder maintained a life-long interest in Döblin’s novel. A character in Fassbinder’s debut feature, Love is Colder than Death—played by Fassbinder himself—is named after the murderer cum honest man cum early Nazi cum pimp. Döblin was the first German writer to adopt the literary techniques of James Joyce. The narration constantly shifts person and is intercut with author-omniscient views of slaughter houses and random glimpses of strangers on the street that are never reincorporated into the story. Actions generated outside of himself consistently shatter Bieberkopf’s stream of consciousness. He shifts with alarming alacrity from being in control of his destiny to his life living him. In this way he resembles the down-and-outers in the films of German master Fritz Lang.

While Berlin Alexanderplatz is far from perfect, Fassbinder visually translates Döblin’s literary style with remarkable ease. Fassbinder’s visuals and his direction of the actors reveal the tension of the double-man. His gestalt oscillates between the poles of restraint and hysteria and Fassbinder makes sure that the audience never forgets the artifice inherent in either. As is to be expected in a fifteen-hour-plus film, there is a hell of a lot of talking. Fassbinder does not mix it up Hollywood style with establishing shot, reaction shot, close up ad nauseum. For long durations, it’s either/or. Fassbinder depicts lengthy deliberations through medium shots from static cameras far from any action (often in another room if he is shooting interiors), or the director will hold a close-up reaction shot for so long that it ceases to be a glimpse into a character’s soul and instead further emphasizes alienation and despair. Fassbinder allows his characters wide emotional berth—within the space of minutes they can go from a perfectly normal conversation to laughing maniacally or screaming with their eyes bugging out of their heads. In Episode Ten, Bieberkopf caresses and talks to a table full of beers for nearly five minutes. However, Fassbinder always reels it back in. Berlin Alexanderplatz has several moments that reach howling, clawing emotional pinnacles, yet despite the naturalistic mise en scene, we remain aware we are watching a film. The camera pulls away to depict a static tableau of suffering, underwriting Fassbinder’s dichotomy of restraint and theatricality.

Fassbinder usually loses me when his characters freak out. Their psychosis works brilliantly, however, within the seedy, simmering life of Alexanderplatz, the heart of old Berlin’s nightlife, prostitution, and bars. The cabarets, half-naked whores, and barely restrained anxiety of Berlin between the wars are perfectly suited to Fassbinder’s metier. Many of his films are glaring incitements of German society—class issues, masochism, dominance—while paradoxically being funded by German public television.

An Unsentimental Education

Originally published in Ukula, May 2007.
Les Amants Réguliers (2005)
Phillipe Garrel
178 minutes

"We're all slaves of fashion," former Red Army Faction member Astrid Proll whispered to an interviewer in 2002. Revolution is sexy. Who could forget that god awful Diesel ad campaign? Or "Prada Meinhof chic" ? Is it my generation's careful attention to surface coupled with relative political complacency that leads media and fashion circles to fetishize violent youth movements? Phillipe Garrel's film Les Amants réguliers, an unsentimental meditation on Paris 1968 and its aftermath, takes the glitter and sensuality out of youthful dissent.

The film depicts young revolutionaries/opium addicts in the tedium of their day to day existence. Over the course of three hours they make art, hurl bricks, smoke opium, fuck, smoke more opium, write poetry, fall in and out of love, and smoke even more opium. This may sound lofty, but love and revolution is portrayed as overwhelmingly ordinary, almost haphazard and accidental. The film lacks the gritty air of sexuality historically ascribed to the French student movement, Baader Meinhof Gang/RAF and the Weather Underground. Garrel's unflinching view of the 1968 protests is based on lost documentary footage he shot of the riots as a young man. There are no climatic demonstrations, slogans or fancy Alpha Romeo get away cars in this film. The brick hurling in Les Amants réguliers is depicted in ultra-static long shots. A few cars burn, but other than that not much happens. The glacial pacing and austere high contrast black and white film posits a distance between the spectator and the film's characters that mirrors the distance between the characters and their actions.

After the demonstrations, an almost wordless love affair ensues between the disillusioned young poet François, played to pouty perfection by the director's son Louis Garrel, and Lilie, a sculptress played by Clotilde Hesme. The two pass each other with little fan fare dans la rue and meet several months later in the home of Antoine, a wealthy and troubled young man who financially supports a motley crew of twenty-somethings in his sprawling Parisian apartment.

Despite being set in a supposed revolutionary hot bed, there is little romance or political fervor in their intimacy. Francois and Lilie are resigned rather than compelled to acquiesce to the loose and easy sexual mores of the late 60s. In one scene, Lilie tells Francois that she wants to "do it" with their benefactor Antoine's cousin. Garrel does not follow the drama to the bedroom, but keeps his camera focused on Francois laying bored and dejected in bed. Lilie soon returns showing no signs of arousal or sexual abandon and plops down on their bed announcing that the cousin has "the smallest pecker ever" and that Francois' is much larger. The emotive threshold of the characters is surprisingly low and the overarching emotion tenor seems to be blankness and fear, but mostly blankness.

Garrel's film will not feed an audience hungry for a stylized depiction of revolutionary defiance. He gives us the moments in between. The moments where aimlessness is merely aimlessness and unease, self doubt, and boredom rule the day.

Förderpreis Bildene Kunst der Schering Stiftung 2007

Originally published in Whitehot Magazine, April 2007.

The Ernst Schering Foundation Art award, a bi-annual prize that fosters the development of young German artists, set its sights on sculpture this year. The work of five artists, selected by jury from nominations by ten German cultural institutions was on view at the Berlinische Galerie through April 9th. Iranian born, Berlin based artist Nairy Baghramians won the grand prize, a grant of 10,000 euros. Baghramians, the only woman in the show, creates sparse geometric constructions from mirrors, wood and metal. Within the context of this exhibition, Es ist Ausser Haus (It is Outside of the House), with its impressive formal elegance, stands as an almost cliched example of feminine understatement in a room full of boys . The rough hewn works of the other nominees, all of whom are male, share a charmed appreciation of everyday objects, associations and gestures.

The show begins with a bang. Literally. A sculpture by Marco Schuler depicts two stubby men seated back to back wearing work gloves and dustbins on their heads. One holds a wooden wheel while the other proudly spreads his hands to showcase an erection almost as large as he is. The sexual energy continues in Jan Bünnig's moving, humorous sculptures which are described by the artist as "muddy, solid, slow and alive." Bünnig 's tumescent clay spire has the impressiveness of a monument and the innocent charm of a child's sand castle.

Michael Sailstorfer fuses two loci of masculine aggression in Drum Kit, a drum kit fashioned from the scraps of an LAPD police car. The playful open ended-ness of the piece makes it one of the standouts in the exhibition. The drummer and police man are recurrently imagined as rogue figures, however the police officer only becomes one when teaming up with other officers to create "force." The LAPD is one of the most violent police departments in the United States and the drummer is perpetually cast as the craziest band member in our pop cultural memory. By poetically dislocating both the form and its source material Sailstorfer potentially subverts the efficacy of power and violence.

The most modest and touching work in the exhibition belongs to Hamburg based artist Thorsten Brinkmann. The artist states that his work is born of an interest in exploring the "value of used objects and their relation to human beings." The fashionable dustbin chapeau makes a reappearance Soviel wie möglich auf einmal tragen (All That I Can Carry), a photograph of the artist laden with household appliances and construction materials. True Romans, an infinite series of small sculptures presented on Ikea drawer pedestals, explores the magical use value of recombined everyday objects- a water glass is split in two by a tennis ball lodged inside and a packing balloon is constrained by zip ties. The clumsy tenderness of these gentle restraints and reformations reinvigorate the objects with new life.