Olmsted’s DVD Astro Hell


Anchor Bay, distributor

   Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders all began their film-making in the 60’s, but the films that brought them critical acclaim arrived almost simultaneously in the early 70’s, a trend that film critics took note of as the German New Wave. Since then, Fassbinder has O.D.’d, Wenders has taken the same mediocrity pill that Bertolluci has apparently swallowed, and Herzog is still going strong. Wenders will undoubtedly return to full strength, if only because of his innate vitality, and providing he doesn’t listen to the critics that liked the extremely tepid BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (Did anyone remember his astounding documentaries TOKYO-GA and LIGHTNING OVER WATER?). That Herzog has not wavered is clear in his own recent documentary MY BEST FIEND, an excellent departure to re-examine WOYZECK, since both are hymns to Herzog’s own creative shadow manifest, Klaus Kinzki. It is interesting that Les Blank’s account of the making of Herzog’s FITZCARALDO still did not reveal the depth of Kinski’s demon art, perhaps out of propriety. Since Kinski has passed on, Herzog clearly felt comfortable to show that not only was Kinski difficult to work with, he was a literally madman – one of those performers that astonishes us by being able to function at all while accessing the depths of shamanic heaven/hells. Having just seen MY BEST FIEND when I sat down to review WOYZECK, I had a new appreciation of Kinski. Who are the truly great actors of film? Oliver, Brando, DeNiro, Clift… I’ll let you decide who joins those ranks. Dean? Hopper? Daniel Day Lewis? Kinski, certainly!

   WOYZECK is based on an expressionist play by Georg Buchner. It is a 19th Century soldier’s final spiral in madness, and from the opening sequence, Kinski indicates the drop is not far. The first 5 minutes are at once hilarious and horrifying – Kinski-Woyzeck going through military maneuvers – half-monkey, half-wind-up doll – that indicate his last scrap of human dignity is rapidly evaporating. In watching WOYZECK, there is a single take where Kinski enters his dreary abode for a long conversation with his common-law wife. He is a man possessed. The take is extremely long and there is no doubt that he must maintain focus not only as the character, but even to remember his lines. The state he has worked himself into seems at Dionysian opposition to the Apollonian discipline he summons. This is his genius. When he does eventually murder his wife (this is not a surprise, it’s on the cover of the DVD) – there is once more an extremely long take where his wife drops out of the bottom of the frame and we only see Kinski in slow motion plunge the blade over and over. It allows us to watch his process in a shot I can’t recall an equivalent of. He is Charlie Manson incarnate when he begins the take, but it is the realization of his own deed, as his eyes well up with tears, that brings this particular scene into a rare pantheon. I have never seen an actor more clearly and painfully reveal the humanity of the mad man, an astonishingly compassionate performance that touches areas that have not been explored since Peter Lorre’s final monologue before the kangaroo court in M. One can only speculate as to why the Germans have been best at revealing the darkest elements that still remain human, if only by a thread. (Hitler weeps & an angel strokes his ebon hair.) The fact that Herzog may have deliberately chosen to not bloody the knife that plunges into Woyzeck’s wife, or even show her at all as this scene unwinds, makes me wonder if we are meant only to meditate on Woyzeck’s mental state, as if the whole thing could be his fever dream. A film like WOYZECK is built around his brilliance, but it’s Kinski legacy in B movies like New Line’s god-awful CREATURE that show he is acting in a mode that seems a full 100 years ahead of everyone else, where impossibly mediocre lines are given fire. He burned his way into my memory as a teenager when I saw Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE – Van Cleef confronts his twitching hunchback character in a saloon and I remembered him every since, long before I learned his name. At the end of MY BEST FIEND, there is a moment in the Amazon jungles where Kinski plays with a butterfly. It literally won’t leave him alone, as if he were St. Francis. Kinski smiles beatifically. It made me weep, for it seemed that some power of truth and beauty was pumping itself through his body at that moment, dispelling any doubt that art and mysticism can meet, and I believe that this is the focus of Herzog’s main fascination, not merely a meeting of discipline and madness, but the only tangible proof for Herzog that there might be a higher power in the face of such an absurd, suffering universe.

Fantoma, distributor (out-of-print)

Film scholar Paul Stiver suggested I take a look at Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1971 film WHITY as he himself began to explore DVD. Frankly, Paul is far more capable of a cogent review than I am, but the bait is taken.

   Fassbinder had the opportunity to use Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western sets, and yes, they are quite recognizable. However, it should not be surprising that WHITY is much closer to Fritz Lang’s RANCHO NOTORIOUS than FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and in fact chooses to ignore the gritty and muddy look Leone and Pekinpah had already brought to the Western by 1971 (much as DePalma, consciously or otherwise, ignored everything past the 1964 ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS with his recent MISSION TO MARS). If you haven’t seen RANCHO NOTORIOUS but think you may have a clue to Lang’s ouvre, be assured that RANCHO stands by itself as a weirdo Technicolor Western starring Marlene Dietrich that is in itself closer to Nicholas Ray’s delirious JOHNNY GUITAR than Lang’s own expressionist noir. Like RANCHO, WHITY opens with a bizarre pseudo-serious cowboy ballad on the soundtrack, using a shot of Whity collapsed in the street, a shot that occurs again in context, but here as the first image we see – Whity clutching a rose in startling Cinemascope – it seems a reference to James Dean with the toy monkey in the opening titles of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. In case you think I’m reaching, take a look at Fassbinder’s QUERRELLE with Brad Davis covered in oil, an equally clear reference to Dean in GIANT.) Fassbinder is generally linked with Douglas Sirk as a major influence, but he is clearly a student of all film history with enough genius to make references that are not merely homage. He was a startling and disturbing director with an unparalleled output year after year of his short life. Having seen a half dozen of his films I still feel like I am a dilettante in exploring planet Fassbinder. Robert Katz chose a film title of Fassbinder’s to sum him up when Katz released his critical biography – LOVE IS COLDER THAN DEATH. This seems to be as apt as David Weddle’s Pekinpah bio, IF THEY MOVE, KILL ‘EM! In Fassbinder’s cocaine and alcohol fueled wilderness of mind, Love is considerable darker than Bukowski calling it a Dog from Hell (to which Ginsberg replied, “He’s right.”) Though few can deny that Love can most certainly be an infernal beast, less want to relate to the corpse-like, under glass detachment of Fassbinder (even if simultaneously compelled to watch). Fassbinder’s own lover of many years, Gunther Kaufman, plays Whity, and one can only imagine the patience and/or obsession such a relationship must have required of him – considering that, even on a professional level, actor Udo Kier eventually refused to work with Fassbinder.

The plot, stated simply: Whity is a light-skinned black male servant who has completely Uncle Tom’ed himself in a rich household of degenerates bent on killing each other. Whity’s own mother is coal-black, literally a white woman in black face in just one of Fassbinder’s nutty choices. She regards his integration with contempt, and why not? He is the product of her rape by the head of the household. The white people of this house also wear a strange albino grease paint that gives them the syphilitic look of George Romero zombies. Shot by Michael Ballhaus (who went on to do GOODFELLAS), it is impossible to believe Peter Greenaway was not deeply influenced by this picture when he made THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER. There are the same carefully lit and, at times, artificial painterly tableaus, arranged like unfolding comic book panels. Ballhaus and actor-producer Ulli Lommel are on the DVD commentary, adding to the legend of Fassbinder with characteristic anecdotes of his drug-fueled and alcoholic genius behavior on and off the set.

It is a film I admire even as I didn’t like it, a psychic car crash which, like Greenaway, has the terrible dream-like discovery that the bodies in the wreckage have our own faces.

So achtung, baby! Catch a dose of German – it’ll prep you if we get Bush’s New Order. Astro-Hell gates closing, the sound of Republican jack boots on the icy earth above. Your humble servant will return, providing he’s still legal.