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The life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder in pieces

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1978, while filming Despair.  Rudolf Dietrich/Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1978, while filming Despair. Rudolf Dietrich/Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy.

Fassbinder Thousands of mirrors. By Ian Penman. New York: Semiotext(e), 2023. 200 pp.

PICTURE THIS: Camera slowly pans across shelves littered with dog-eared paperbacks, soiled scripts, handwritten corrections, framed stills, loose pills. A copy of Ian Penman Fassbinder Thousands of mirrors (a book of personal notes on – to? – the late director) quietly buttressed amidst a somewhat spooky recreation of the filmmaker’s final living quarters. Two or three televisions in each empty room. Headlines and obituaries (“RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER, 37, FILMAST, DEATH”) flash between barrages of clips from his more than forty film and television productions playing in the background.

Artistic guidelines: Full ashtrays, empty bottles, coke dust on the furniture, dirty clothes on the floor, images so visceral and precise you can barely smell the cigarette butts, taste the residual vomit on the leather jacket , tracing the mottled semen stains on the sofa like braille . (Insert: Hanna Schygulla, the RWF star cast to play Marlene Dietrich to her Josef von Sternberg, recalling, “He had a strong smell around him. He smelled what he looked like. Like a spotted rebel filled with angst.”)

Summary in seconds: Cabaretsperm– “Sister Ray.

story arc: “He began at the end of the 1960s with a naked piece and an idea of ​​theater and arrangement of the bodies of several friends. Anti-theater, he called it: restless, precise, improvised, basic, utopian. He finds himself entangled in a multimedia constellation of the early 1980s. . and a dull sort of 24/7 non-stop chemical addiction.

Capital Moon: Fassbinder’s titles hit you like a whim: Love is colder than death, Beware a holy whore, plague gods, Chinese roulette, The bitter tears of Petra von Kant, fear eats the soul, Despair, Satan’s Brew, I just want you to love me.

First person, third man: Penman’s book is a voiceover that rewinds and rewinds “certain movie moments that haunt you for the rest of your life.” . .” How Fassbinder’s films imprint themselves, “engrave themselves deep within you”. Like an upside-down penal colony tattoo, body and soul, each film is a segment in a serpentine pattern that devours complacency and well-being one beautiful/unbearable suture at a time.

Quick product: thousand mirrors is just two hundred pages long, written in a short burst to mimic the filmmaker’s process of shooting first, asking questions later. Aiming for the speed of revelation that allowed Fassbinder to produce three or four feature films a year. Yet this meditation on life and Fassbinder’s scorched-earth aesthetic had been germinating for four decades: an obituary for an unwritten obituary.

Shock Corridors: It’s a trance, a runaway state of mind. Drifting through personal alleys and intellectual boulevards like the wanderings of Walter Benjamin and Geoff Dyer. A labyrinth of epigrams, aphorisms (“Aren’t all masks death masks?”), anecdotes and numbered fragments. An exquisite companion guide to a vast, intimate mental space that Penman dubs the Fassbundesrepublik.

Fun house: Fassbinder’s worlds – on screen, on set and in “real life” – were built on power plays and naked abjection. Skeptical stories and bad memories. Reservoirs of tears overrun with crocodiles. Formal gestures and disposable vanities. Mirrors, mirrors everywhere: The book doubles the reflections, a party in Penman’s head where Fassbinder correlates Douglas Sirk, Brecht, Godard, Artaud, Samuel Fuller, Gerhard Richter, Jean Genet and Jean Génie. “Broken English” on the stereo. Let’s play a game of truth or despair. . .

It is a requirement: RWF stands for “something you can’t defend against”. A caustic dream of modernism, a self-preserved mythology of dissolute genius, a world-historical petulant sense of entitlement, a ruthless display of self wrapped in societal and ideological exposes. A symbiotic tangle you can’t break – none of that separates the artist from the art of song and dance here.

Pulled from both sides: Not to mention a brutal encounter between queerness and class consciousness that makes current iterations of Intersectionality look like the ladies’ garden club luncheon at The Manchu Candidate.“Problematic” is its raison d’être; it’s aesthetics. Because life itself is inevitably a valley of betrayal, with love particularly heavy in the realm of cruelty, deceit, and projection. The personal infects the political as much as the reverse.

Boredom: “If I ever bore you, it will be with a knife,” Louise Brooks once said, a phrase that sums up almost all of Fassbinder’s films. RWF has consistently used Brechtian distancing devices to put the odd in the distance, piercing our defenses to “relate to” and “identify with” characters, situations. It’s the feeling that the world is a movie stage and everyone is standing on a trapdoor. Fassbinder’s hand is on the lever and Death is in the wings, waiting for a signal.

Personality crisis: Penman rather brilliantly embraces the Fassbinder segment in Germany in autumn (1978) as the quintessence of man and his paradoxes; it’s a tour de force of all-out psychodrama cut with the politics of depredation and exhaustion. Fassbinder roams his apartment like a cocaine-addicted bear, prey to anxiety and paranoia. It is supposed to talk about the political crisis in Germany but becomes the portrait of a private collapse. Somehow its disjunction connect to the pathos of a person and a society, each on the verge of a psychotic crisis.

Anti-Edifice: Whatever form enlightened bourgeois respectability takes, Fassbinder opposes it. Anti-masterpiece. Anti-idealization. Anti-closing. Anti-uplift. Anti-moralism. Anti-transcendence. Anti-Complacency. Anti-exceptionalism. Anti-hope. But nonetheless, he deftly played the system and hustled the cash to make forty films (on a scale from very cheap to budget) and the fifteen-hour TV mini-series. Berlin’s Alexanderplatz (1980). Anarchic, uncompromising, sure, but practical, ingenious, he would have sneaked up to HBO and Netflix.

Goods damaged: I love that Penman is drawn to earlier misfires or quirks – they speak to him more intensely than the internationally recognized canon films. (Even if these later hits poke fun at their prestigious attributes in myriad ways.) They’re all so unstable, dissonant, lacking in boundaries. (The later ones just tend to be less in front of their primal incongruity.) No one has made films so one-sided and single-minded and yet shot through with so many question marks and counter-minor gestures.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, model: What does this mean in the context of the book? (What could that mean in any context?) Penman discovered Fassbinder’s work after moving to London in the mid-1970s to become a music journalist. The director – already something of a self-penned legend – slapped it as “reckless, uninhibited, inappropriate, unattached. But also . . . to do work.(Italics his own.)

Self-taught: Fassbinder’s appetite for self-education and destruction turned his films into learning laboratories. Penman saw all the high and low underground tracks of the previous century converge in a frantic piling up of irreconcilable trauma. If that’s not an education, what is?

Cracked glasses: Penman invokes a Guy Debord movie title as if it were an ancient coin pulled from a wishing well. In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. (“We turn in circles in the night, consumed by fire.”) It was there that he found the secret motto of Fassbinder’s peripatetic destiny: leave no cobblestone unturned, no bridge unburnt.

Best Pictures: The book notes that when John Waters was asked to name his favorite films of the 1970s, he listed fourteen Fassbinder titles. Penman doesn’t say if this list was exclusively Fassbinder, but as Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” says, “I like to think so.”

“Difficult to assimilate”: thousand mirrors does not seek to resolve the contradictions of its subject but arranges them like a costume and inhabits them. Live a moment in tatters. Make yourself at home in a perpetually divided consciousness. Accept the trauma. Stroke the triggers.

Where it didn’t all go wrong: There was a method to his incredibly self-medicated productivity, a Faustian bargain that left behind colossal, impossible work and a bloated corpse. So Penman is only a little surprised that RWF hasn’t quite become a saint of LGBTQ+ households; his artistic personality reeks of fatalism and malevolent intentions.

This rare species: Penman summons the the spirit of the times And geist of someone whose films feel like unprotected sex or unlabeled drugs – chasing catharsis, hiding from it, catching a fleeting taste or shrinking into a ball of misery and doubt. Movies that play out like endless fights all night in your throbbing head. Movies that feel like a dose of homeopathic detox, make you question your loves and desires, make you want to crawl under a rock and break down there. Films that shine with exhilarating banality and impenetrable imagination. Films that never leave you the last word.

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