Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I think I've finally figured out where to start the Fassbinder paper - I've been writing and writing and writing, all in rough draft/note form and all relatively unstructured; the key hurdle has been trying to figure out that point of entry into everything, and then all of these notes I've been compulsively scribbling instead of actually writing this goddamned essay will be much easier to fit together. The theory, anyway, is that they'll all fall in line, magically, once I figure out where to start. The thing is, because I'm covering so much ground with this thing, the direction set by this first little bit can make a huge difference, up to and including which films the paper focuses on and which critics and theorists are privileged over others: the plan was to write about In a Year of 13 Moons and Michel Chion, utilizing eeeeeeeverything else as support, but I'm thinking a better intro might come from discussing Petra von Kant and a notion of cinematic space that comes mainly from Bordwell and Bazin. That doesn't mean that my main points can't still be Chion/13 Moons-related, but it's hard to make those the home bases around which the other arguments rotate if I'm unable to work them in until page 2 or 3. But I've kind of made up my mind, I guess. I was hoping that by concentrating on one film and one theorist and relegating the rest to supporting roles I might give off the (false?) impression of overall structural coherance rather than the anything-goes jumble I'm worried it will be.

The intro I'm currently thinking of ties the artificial-ness of Fassbinder's filmic space in general - the posing for the camera, the excessive audio-visual stimulation placed throughout the frame, the lack of 360-degree spatial representation (or, as I argue, the lack of 360-degree space, period; his films are shot along 180-degree perspectives, for the most part, although that's an assertion that requires some justification, evidence, etc), the self-awareness and emphasis on looking and the look, the lack of motivation on both the micro and macro levels, and the general (superficial) unreality of the acting - with the "abstract, unlocalized space" that opens so many of his films. In Beware of a Holy Whore, an actor delivers a lengthy monologue, filmed from below with a featureless blue sky his only background. In Petra von Kant, two cats rest on a set of steps, with no indication of whether this is occurring inside or outside. In 13 Moons, the shots alternate between extreme long shot and extreme close-up, a disorienting tactic that allows the viewer to follow the basic action but not to identify with any specificity the characters or, more importantly, how this space will relate to the rest of the story (it doesn't, standing out, paradoxically, as the most "natural" setting of the whole film). The American Soldier opens with three rough-looking men playing cards around a table, with a single overhead light illuminating the men and their cards, but everything behind them being hidden in total darkness. Fassbinder's first film, Love Is Colder than Death, opens in a more literally "abstract" space, with the walls either blank or covered over in solid-colored fabric.

Why this disorientation? Well, that's one of the big questions I need to answer, although the "why" is slightly less interesting to me than the "so what." My argument for the "why" portion of the paper has a lot to do with a similarly abstract notion of time, in which, for example, the past is thoroughly abstracted so as to exist only through its present representations (that's where 13 Moons comes in, as Elvira's past is literally carved onto her body). The temporal relationship between one shot/scene and the next is just as uncertain as the spatial one - which explains Fassbinder's tendency towards long takes when certainty is what a scene calls for. (That uncertainty is something that I'm still working through, but I'm tying it, at least in part, to the ways that space is actually explored in Fassbinder, mainly through the network of looks, stares and glances that play throughout his films.)

The "so what" is where the look/voice split comes in, in how the film cues the audience to interpret the sometimes "illegible" (according to Corrigan) scenes and construct spatio-temporal relationships between one character/shot/scene and another.

When it comes right down to it, though, Fassbinder's films take place in this kind of abstraction because space really doesn't matter. His conception of space is closer to the postmodern one that Corrigan describes, where geographical/physical distance cedes primacy to stress being placed on the hierarchy of information that populates any location. To be more specific, though, I think Fassbinder's films are organized (spatially, but also temporally/chronologically and occasionally dramatically) around sensations, around audio-visual experience of frame/image, of character, of location, etc. While not going so far as to say that, for example, his characters are mere placeholders in a greater aestheticized narrative, I'm going to fall back on the old postmodern cliche and say that his aestheticization - the highly theatrical posing, the audio-visual surplus, etc - is utilized neither in support of nor in ironic counterpoint to the narrative. It exists alongside it as an end in and of itself. A seeming paradox that lets Fassbinder have it both ways, so to speak - his films scream out their status as mere images, as cinema, but that doesn't mean they can't be "authentic."

Right now (cup of coffee #4 of the day, with the first two being very, very large - I guess I'm in place in which clock time doesn't matter all that much; my time is currently measured by pages left to write, caffeine consumed, and hours of sleep gotten), I'm feeling kind of overwhelmed because there's about five pages worth of arguments that I want to make just on Fassbinder's use of mirrors. But, if my dense ramblings above are any indication, I need to be more concise. So, here's the shortest possible explanation for all of the points I feel I should make about Fassbinder's insistent use on both filming in mirrors and on having characters look into mirrors:

1)a mirror reduces whatever it contains into a 2-d image, placing a character looking into one at same level as film viewer (sort of - the character can turn around at any time and see the rest of the scene, the camera cannot because Fassbinder composes his action for the frame rather than embracing Bazinian 360-degree realism... okay, that was too long)
2)mirrors distance characters from one another, wrapping frames around faces and bodies that separate them from the rest of the decor
3)mirrors double the character's image on screen - a typically German preoccupation, except that for Fassbinder this doubling produces both the character and his image, again drawing parallel to the viewer's perspective
4)looking at oneself in a mirror allows a character to understand and rehearse how others see him/her, and to try to control that in some way (a huge motivation throughout Fassbinder's work); plus, it allows characters to see themselves in relation to other people in the scene
5)this is my favorite one, and where I'm cutting off the list: the look has an especially important place in Fassbinder's cinema, and a character looking at someone else is not only communicative and revealing, but the fact that he/she is looking is usually more important than whatever's being looked at - which is a total reversal from traditional subject/object, shot/reverse-shot organization in the classical cinema. That's all been said before, much more eloquently (and packed with Lacanian jargon) than I ever could. The part I'm excited about is my realization that characters rarely lock eyes in Fassbinder, and when they do it's usually right before an outburst (usually very physical) or something climactic. Looks are mostly one-way, and conversations are staged with both characters looking towards the camera, or one staring at the back of the other's head. There's something far too intimate, and powerful, about the returned gaze to allow it casual use. So mirrors are kind of like those little boxes you use to watch a solar eclipse - they let a character see another character's face without actually having to look him in the eyes and meet his gaze. Bam. And it's directly related to 1.

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