Magazine article Artforum International

All the Rage

Magazine article Artforum International

All the Rage

Article excerpt

What can you say about a fat, ugly sadomasochist who terrorized everyone around him, drove his lovers to suicide, drank two daily bottles of Remy, popped innumerable pills while stuffing himself like a pig, then croaked from an overdose at 37? Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil probably said it all: "He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?"

Anyway, there's nothing you can say about Rainer Werner Fassbinder that he didn't say about himself (in countless interviews and the horrific self-portrait in Germany in Autumn, 1978). He was the faithful mirror of an ugly world that has grown uglier since his death, without his brilliance, his starving soul, his exorbitantly calculated persona. The contemporary-model artist, countering a century of both exalting and punitive myths, is a sensibly meretricious decorator, good at business, driven by mortgage payments rather than private demons, preferably married with children, or, if homosexual, devoted to plangent little ironies and charity work. Fassbinder, by contrast, thought it was worth dying young if you managed to live at a certain pitch and get your work done: most people are dead at 37 anyway, they just don't know it.

The current Fassbinder retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art features all forty-three of the director's films, including many never previously shown in America, like the seminal five-part television film Eight Hours Don't Make a Day and the director's sole science-fiction movie, World on a Wire. An important effort, though any five of these films are hard to take at one go. "Life is pessimistic in the end because we die and in between because of corruption in our daily lives," the artist said, and there you have the unvarying flavor of everything. There are no lighthearted moments in any Fassbinder film that I can recall. If a character's happy, it's because he hasn't yet heard the bad news. There is, instead, a lot of hilarious brutality, suggesting a toxic blend of Moliere and Joe Orton.

Fassbinder started in the theater, where his will to power over others quickly manifested itself, though he would always claim that his leader status was forced on him by the group. It was, in reality, a symbiosis, not unlike Andy Warhol's Factory, where people of a certain talent and readiness for manipulation orbited around a demiurge whose work needed collaborators. In the atmosphere of the late '60s, the search for communal utopia produced among "the Fassbinder people," as in many other contexts, a dystopia ruled by the whims and eccentricities of its prime mover.

Both Warhol and Fassbinder, homosexuals with conspicuous, complex attachments to their mothers, used a repertory situation to reenact their childhood humiliations on reversed terms, instilling infantile helplessness in those around them and assuming the dominant role of the withholding/bountiful parent.

They both thought of themselves as unattractive, unlovable, and only able to secure "love" from people by conferring public attention on them, i.e., by putting them in movies. The enormity of these unfillable needs may be gauged by the staggering number of films each made in a short span of years. That the process was more important than the finished product is obvious in Warhol's case; Ronald Hayman's excellent book, Fassbinder Filmmaker, reveals how surprisingly much this was also true of the latter. Paradoxically, in both directors this film-mediated bonding created heightened mistrust of their love objects, more distance instead of intimacy.

In the parlance of sex, Warhol was bossy bottom. The obdurate passivity of his films achieves all the hostile effects of silence and noncommitment. Fassbinder's temperament was far more confrontational, and in compromised ways more generous (to better control people, he actually paid them, unlike Warhol, and used them as actors rather than as personalities), but his first nine or ten films share something of Warhol's quietly sadistic duree, laconic limpness, and chaos in search of a methodology. …

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