Discover more from The World of Tosh Berman
Tuesday, May 31, 2022
I saw Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Fox and his Friends” at the Fox Venice Theater sometime in the late 1970s. Recovering from a tragedy in my life at the time and just trying to find a solid piece of ground to walk on without feeling ill to my stomach, I wander into the beloved movie theater on Lincoln Blvd; without a thought in my head, and then leaving impressions on me that since then, became tattooed to my sensibility. It doesn’t happen all the time, but sometimes one sees something and gets pulled by the collar to another part of the room, which is how Fassbinder’s films affected me. Before then, I dreamed of a world that consisted of punk rock, an instant ramen noodle diet, Bertolt Brecht poetry, and a one-way ticket to an unknown destination. In other words, I was lost, with only the live soundtrack of DEVO and The Screamers playing in the foreground of my almost pathetic life. The 70s was a great decade because, for the first time in my life, I saw everything I cared about being dumped into the trash can be that was my destiny. Or that is exactly how it seemed at the time. In other words, I was no longer a happy camper. Before Fassbinder, I watched "Taxi Driver" at least 25 times in a movie theater, due and I couldn't concentrate on anything else for an extended period. Thank goodness, Punk came, with the two-minute 45 rpm single, because for my attention span, that was the time limit for me. Till the moment, and the height of my misery, I found myself at a showing of "Fox and his Friends."
For the first time, I saw something in the cinema that explained to me how society worked from the ground up. The story of a gay man being exploited by a group of upper-class homosexuals was an eye-opening experience for me. It had nothing to do with sexuality but more that a system was being analyzed and exposed to an audience. After seeing “Fox, ” I went to see all the other Fassbinder films every night. Each and every one of the films knocked me out. Sitting in the dark theater, and usually by myself, I felt being healed through the magic of the projected light and just thinking, “so this is how things are worked out in life.” At the time, the new German cinema was the latest movement that had the cineaste falling in love. Without a doubt, there were the three: Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and then of course Fassbinder. The other two I thought were OK to very good, but Fassbinder was the only one of the three with a brilliant sense of style that was sometimes realistic and almost over-the-top campiness. It became virtually a Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles type of situation. I felt that most filmgoers were into Herzog due to his talent and a certain amount of badass, and the iconic German spiritual vision of nature and life. To this day, I love Herzog’s documentaries, but I find most of his other films silly or laughable, at the very least. When I think about Herzog, I think of the sad but still cliché death of Ian Curtis of Joy Division, hanging himself while watching a Herzog film, with Iggy Pop’s “The Idiot” on the turntable. Woe, romantic me, it turned my stomach in a digest, and it made me love Fassbinder’s work much more, way much more than anything else that was out there at the time.
“Katzelmacher, ” made in 1969, an early film by Fassbinder, was another film that left me reeling in the theater. Very minimal and visually stark, it is a narrative of sorts that is about a group of bored young couples who hangs out in one area of Bavaria, and basically focused on a visiting immigrant worker from Greece, and therefore becomes a magnet of resentment and jealousy, which is just a reflection from the citizens of that space and time. The fact that Fassbinder plays the immigrant (as well as playing Fox) made him my favorite movie star in the 1970s. My favorite Fassbinder films are where he is in it, either as the star or just a cameo appearance. Nevertheless, most art raises questions, but I feel that Fassbinder had an answer to these questions for the first time. His films were so pragmatic and lacked absolute respect for spirituality that I thought it was highly intoxicating in that I’m seeing a world in a different light.
When the retrospective was being screened at the Fox, Fassbinder was alive and still making films. I think his works were getting better and better. At the time of his death, he made at least 44 films, not including the countless plays he wrote and other films that he starred in. I remember the day he died because I was home in bed and very sick. I think I had the flu. My only company at the time was a portable black and white TV set with small rabbit ears. Sometimes I did have the picture, but I was watching a screen of moving snowflakes in most cases. Through this haze, I saw a news clip that announced his death, and it mentioned that he was watching the TV show “Dallas” when he passed on to another state. It was reported that he had a cigarette between his lips at the time of his death. I didn’t feel sad at that moment; I believe it was expected that his death would come early, and it did. He was only 37 years old. When he died, my interest in the cinema also perished with him. I still went to films, and I even programmed a film series at Beyond Baroque. Without a doubt, I lost interest in ‘contemporary’ films. So at the moment of his death, I became aware of the cinema as a piece of history because I wished to be finished with ongoing cinema. He was the last significant figure in contemporary (living) cinema.