“Everything in excess: food, sex, drinks, drugs, cigarettes; but also work. Fassbinder gives the lie to the idea that productivity is in itself a ‘healthy’ thing. There is nothing necessarily ‘healthy’ about the pursuit of any demanding or difficult or very personal art. There may be cruelty involved, to self and others. It throws into question what we might consider a ‘healthy’ productive life at all. The line between self-medication and lethal dose become increasingly thin. The same thing that cures you of one malady exacerbates another.”
What does it cost to make a movie?
What does it cost to make forty-four movies in a decade-and-a-half?
For one thing? You die.
The grand corpus left by German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder at the age of thirty-seven—over forty films and television projects, plus plays in a decade-and-a-half of cold fury—is the subject of Ian Penman’s short, sharp shock of “Fassbinder: Thousands Of Mirrors” (Fitzcarraldo Editions/Semiotext(e)).
In fragments, Penman kaleidoscopes facts, fancies and fixations, like Roland Barthes or David Markson or Walter Benjamin. His slim companion, written in about the length of time it would have taken for RWF to complete any one of his movies (a compressed duration of seldom more than twenty or thirty days) after a lifetime of intermittent contemplation (and dithering), is the kind of sparking free-association that would be expected by anyone who’s read the best of Penman’s criticism over the last decades.
“How to recapture him in all his stubborn, unyielding, messy glory? How to proceed in the spirit of? I decided to try and write the way Fassbinder himself worked: get straight to it and get going right away. The very opposite of what Robert Musil called an aesthetic of postponement.”
Some of what we get is Penman’s immersion as a young man in the demimonde of London in the post-Punk era, notching RWF not-so-neatly into his own discoveries. I could readily place an overlay of my own similar experience with Fassbinder atop the body of work and how it came to me, and I, to it. “The world is a looking-glass and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face,” wrote Thackeray in “Vanity Fair.”
And thus and so with Ian and Rainer: A commonplace book of fractions, reflections, refractions of a demiurge: Penman is willing cataclysm in finely forged bursts, some macro, some micro, minted as gleaming coin: “Life lived at a hurtling rate: beyond a certain point impossible to tell whether it’s speeding up or skidding down or whether finally these now amount to the same thing.”
Writing about movies isn’t exactly the same as music being “dancing about architecture,” as comic and painter Martin Mull put it, but the concrete fact and the elusive allusion of the audiovisual form is usually taken up in essays of variable length and oral histories and coffee-table books.
Penman cites the Fassbinder canon of influence, led by those he adapted—Alfred Döblin and Vladimir Nabokov—and those he ably aped, like master melodramatist Douglas Sirk. But his own book is collage, or bricolage, a term popular when Penman first encountered art high and low, a life captured in the fashion of a literary compositor like David Markson (“Wittgenstein’s Mistress”).
“He is not an exquisitely doomed wit or decadent or dandy. He is rough and ready and grand and grimy and loudly specifying and spilling out all over the sides. How does this line up with the ‘artificial’ aesthetic at play in so much of his work?” Penman writes, hoping to reconcile a life with so much lyrical sorrow.
“Organic: this is never a word we are tempted to use about his work. Nature is almost entirely absent. Here is his world—one of niggling arguments in cage-like rows, under oppressive or inadequate lighting.” Thought skitters in stolen memories of encounters past and freshly unforgotten: these dreams are now part of him. “Decades on I still recall the disconcerting power of certain films seen for the first time in a cinema. Something close to epiphany. Not just behind the eyes, but resisted in the body. A disturbance in your experience of time.”
Penman mulls how, precisely, does a viewer absorb—or in the case of this project, re-absorb—such a vast mass? (But also in its most specific or particulars.)
“Natural versus artificial: isn’t this an outmoded opposition? If someone says of a film, ‘Everything is bathed in an artificial light…’ we know roughly what to expect—what it is shorthand for, in a technico-poetic sense; what sort of film it will be, how it will look. But isn’t it maybe also a holdover from a time when criticizing something or someone as ‘artificial’ was a kind of coded homophobia? (Or even coded praise, between queer friends.) Everything drained of natural life/light. High modernity and high camp in low side streets and alleys… an improbably vivid dead end or impasse. Dying embers and covert glances. A freely chosen and liberating artificially versus the supposedly ‘natural,’ which turns out to be anything but.”
Penman cites RWF on high stylist von Sternberg: “I have always thought that the more beautiful, and well-made, and better produced and edited beau are, the freer and more liberating they are.”
Fassbinder lived in brute fashion in his own life—sexually, emotionally, with cruelty, liquor and drugs—”Cocaine allows you to construct vast mental or stylistic edifices without at any point registering any real emotion. Cocaine is architectural, manic: add this bit, now add this bit, and let’s add this other one… numberless additions, with no end in sight.”
Penman goes in and out of wanting to be subsumed, consumed by the tight range of the work, but he returns to the fragments of time: “Certain moments in films that haunt you for the rest of your life, though you may struggle to explain why; they do not seem to be what is called important or meaningfully. What sticks in the memory are small sounds, looks, gestures…. A memory more clear, more certain, than many from my life.”
He fixes on how his perspective on Fassbinder changes from youth to his own middle age, projecting himself, inevitably, ineffably, upon the work of the man dead young, leaving a bloated corpse.
“‘Fear Eats the Soul’ is unquestionably a masterpiece; a sublime balancing of Fassbinder’s operative fatalism and something far more human and tender. There is a magnetizing restraint everywhere—in the staging, design, use of color, cinematography, and of course, the heartbreaking performances. ‘The Marriage of Maria Braun,’which I found glum and disappointing at the time,” he writes, “now seems luminous, sublimely crafted. Here, Fassbinder’s detached and distancing gaze seems to full serve the tale. I wonder now about my finding it ‘disappointing’ back then. Though why wouldn’t I? I was a nineteen-year-old boy-man who knew next to nothing about life.”
Walter Benjamin, Penman writes, “had an unrequited dream of assembling a book that was just a constellation of other people’s quotes,” and then, as he must, cites Benjamin, “Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow, but in dreaming, precipitates its awakening.”
And each such book like this.
Lost in the broken dreams of Europe but also the finite work of Fassbinder, Penman offers a taste of the sorrowful gay Greek poet Cavafy, considering the place where the man lies: within the work he left behind.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
There’s no ship for you, there’s no road.