THE CINEMA OF STATUES : The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder


“He was a personable looking man. First your eye said he’s not young anymore, he’s not a boy anymore. Then your eye said : he’s not old. There was something of youth hovering over and about him, and yet refusing to land in any one particular place… In short the impression was agelessness. Not young, not old, not callous, not mature – but ageless. Thirty Six looking fifty six, or fifty six looking thirty six, but which it was you could not say.”

FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE by Cornell Woolrich

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Have you ever watched a film, and mere moments into it been so captured by its construction, its strangeness, and its audacity that it earns a spot in your pantheon, your metaphoric showcase of worthy things? I’m guessing the answer for some of us is yes. I say some, because the strange, by its very nature, will not be the cup of tea of everyone.

MARTHA based on a Cornell Woolrich story “FOR THE REST OF HER LIFE” was my first introduction to the world of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and what an introduction. I’ve been a huge devotee and fan of all things Cornell Woolrich since discovering his pulp fiction a few years ago. I own and have read a ton of Woolrich stories and novels. When I heard about this movie based (illegally it seems) on one of his stories, I had to try it.

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And MARTHA finally seen, I was blown away by the strange, nearly alien craft and audacity of that film, and that led me by fits and starts to today’s review of Fassbinder’s WORLD ON A WIRE.

I’ve watched movies all my life, I consider myself well informed when it comes to cinema. I’ve seen all the great genres, and most of the great directors. I can speak to you about German Expressionism, Film Noir, French New Wave, Italian Neo-realism, the Pan-African and Post-Colonialism movements. I can talk to you about blockbusters and straight to VOD masterpieces. And when you have seen as many films as I have, to get me through a movie these days… you have to either a/tell the familiar in a captivating way, or b/create something vibrant and unfamiliar.

Most movies and all Blockbusters are the former, they are variations on types of movies and a thematic structure that we have seen time and time again, since the dawn of cinema; what makes them successful is the ability to do the ‘rescuing the girl from the train track’ in a fresh and innovative way.

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Much rarer is the latter, films and filmmakers that fundamentally challenge and expand are definitions of the scope and pathways of cinema.

I’ve seen two of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films all the way through, and both of them have struck me that way. Now admittedly they are from phase 1 of the three loosely defined phases of his career. Phase 2 being his Melodramatic phase, Phase 3 being that melodrama morphed into his identity films, dealing with themes of national, sexual, and familial identities in collusion and in conflict. (for more on this and for an overview on the films of Fassbinder please see the excellent Film.com article by Daniel Walber here!)

Phase 1 is arguably his most experimental and innovative films, here you’ll find the genre infused stuff, tinged with film-noir, horror and scifi trappings, the genres that I enjoy. Pro-active genres. I find myself generally not the audience for his phase 2 or 3 films, I’m not a fan of melodrama or just statement films. But with most of these later films not yet tried, I’m open to being pleasantly surprised.

But Phase 1, his cinema of statues and stylization, static but wonderfully composed frames, filled with actors who are at times more statues than men, and when they are animated it is often in very jerky, stilted ways. His women, leading ladies, are variations on a theme, big eyed, statuesque but often emaciated to the point of boniness, strawberry blonds, odd beauty bordering on the antithesis of beauty, mannequins and masks, and a wonderful use of angles and reflections.

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In pieces the movies should not work, stilted, unnatural performances, what is generally considered signs of amateurish or bad acting. However in WORLD ON A WIRE (WELT AM DRAHT, 1973), that ugliness and unease, the uncomfortable pauses, the shots held too long, the awkward pacing, inappropriate and at times overbearing use of music, things we typically identify with bad films and bad filmmakers, in these two films of Fassbinder all these flaws are stylistic choices and become instead function, negating themselves and becoming calling cards of a fundamentally different definition of cinema.

WORLD ON A WIRE, which virtually nobody talks about, is this outrageous and ambitious and way long mini-series of a movie, equal parts science fiction, mystery, and avant-garde film, that has this incredibly intriguing and prophetic premise about a world in which they create not just an artificial intelligence, but an artificial world peopled with artificial intelligences.

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The intelligences are programed to be perfect representations of people, and have a based in time and motion relation to each other, and capable of sex and love and procreation. So an AI universe that is self propagating, and more predictive, as the world is designed to be on a 20 year curve, so the shopping habits and economic changes and housing changes and conflicts that occur in the artificial world today, will be predictive of what happens in our world in 20 years.

It’s a brilliant, mind blowing concept, that you’ll find in better science fiction stories, but not in movies; particularly not in movies of the period, the early 1970s. On top of which the AI universe is viewable and interact-able by means of downloading someone into one of the AI inhabitants of the AI world. What??? That is mind blowingly brilliant and audacious premise for a film, even today in 2016 in an age of avatars, much less for a film made nearly 50 years ago.

And all of that, is not even what the movie is mostly about: it’s a film-noir movie. With a scientist trying to get to the bottom of his coworker’s disappearance. And then there is all the Fassbinder weirdness going on this movie, that just adds yet another level to the movie.

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The doll like women who never seem to blink, random moments of strangeness, [a party scene, where people seem not to move, and the few who do, do the same movements over and over again. A scientist called into his bosses office for serious conversation which they have while not looking at each other and spinning in circles in their chair. a night club with mostly nude attractive Black Men and women dancing while the clothed patrons walk past feeling them up… it is just craziness that comes out of nowhere, but all of it leaves you gobsmaked and off-kilter and not knowing what is coming next.} And it’s not comedy, Fassbinder isn’t just taking the piss or going for laughs here, he is telling a straight story, but he is using a crooked path, fueled by dream logic, he wants the delivery not to be what you are expecting and in WORLD ON A WIRE he succeeds.

Fassbinder, very much the spiritual predecessor to later avant garde filmmakers such as David Lynch and Lars Von Trier, was a young maverick director who died way before his time at the age of 37, however in less than a score of years (before his untimely departure) he would make 44 films, 39 of those being feature films. It is a staggering body of work to have produced by the age of 37. How many of us will ever make one film, much less 44 of them. And to make such across the board unique films, love them or hate them, is a great testament to someone who obviously ate, drank and slept cinema.

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I can see people not liking or dismissing Fassbinder’s 3+ hour Sci-Fi epic as just flawed. And it is flawed, like I said previously, Fassbinder likes the mistakes, the mistakes of time, mistakes of gender, mistakes of intention, mistakes of moment, and out of all these mistakes with WORLD ON A WIRE he makes, at least for me, something composed of the old, that feels endlessly new.

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Grade: B+. It is definitely not for everybody, but if you like directors who are creative with cinematography (not just 360 degree shots but 540 degree shots), adventuresome in storytelling, and loyal to their actors (Fassbinder works with the same actors repeatedly, including actors of color, such as El Hedi ben Salem, rarely done for the period, and still too little done today) then this is a film for you. Recommended.

The Fassbinder Collection Two – MARTHA

World on a Wire (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Speak to Me of Death: The Selected Short Fiction of Cornell Woolrich, Volume 1 (Collected Short Fiction of Cornell Woolrich)

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Currently Watching VOD / On-Demand: 1970s THE CONFORMIST courtesy of Netflix Streaming

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A 45 year old movie, it may be hard to put it’s acclaim into perspective, if you don’t give credence to its age.

In 1970 when this film came out, its visuals alone and sumptuous use of the camera… was unequaled, ground breaking even. This slightly surrealist and absurdist tale of mores in a time where lunacy was sanity, and sanity lunacy, directed by the great Bernardo Bertolucci, still has its dna in so much that has come to be European cinema and transcendent cinema.

Let’s put it this way, every film Danish director Lars Von Trier has tried in the 21st century (the bulk of his 17 film output), to my mind has been his inferior take on the themes of the CONFORMIST. Lars Von Trier movies of the 21st century being very much Bertolucci movies done by someone with none of Bertolucci’s talent or vision. The only exception to this being Lars Von Trier’s first movie, and in my opinion only really great movie 1984’s ELEMENT OF CRIME; which like THE CONFORMIST is a flawed but must see film.

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I don’t think THE CONFORMIST itself necessarily holds up, I don’t think it was ever a masterpiece, there’s is something to cold in it, to fully engage, too rambling, and unfocused, but there is much in the film, in its construction that was and remains… masterful.

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Definitely a film deserving of watching and I think owning in the highest quality possibly, to fully enjoy its visuals and camera-work. Grade: For fans of surrealism and beautiful cinematography, it is a must own. All others may be content with catching it on Netflix.

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Streaming VOD DVD : Director & Movie of the Day — DEFIANCE by Edward Zwick

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Edward Zwick, the master of the sprawling, thrilling, heartfelt epic, continues his home-run streak with 2008’s DEFIANCE. One of Zwick’s older films, it recently made its appearance on Netflix streaming, and only today made my viewing list.

Following in the footsteps of other Zwick masterpieces such as GLORY, COURAGE UNDER FIRE, LEGENDS OF THE FALL, and LAST SAMURAI, the film DEFIANCE follows his pattern of expertly mythologizing moments of our history, thereby creating visual ballads of those places where we stand up. And like those aforementioned movies, DEFIANCE manages to both rouse and move. Highly recommended. Grade: B+/A-.

All of the Edward Zwick movies named are highly recommended. Most are available on streaming so you can try before you buy, but the films are clinics on film-making, and should be owned for the commentaries as well as being able to see the movies in the best quality available.

30 Years of Jean-Claude Van Damme Films

30 Years of Jean-Claude Van Damme

According to AMG (courtesy of Fandango), Jean Claude’s first film was 30 years ago in 1983 with the romantic french comedy MONACO FOREVER.

So to celebrate 30 film years of Jean Claude Van Damme we’ll start with this simple article listing his filmography over these thirty years, along with random notes.

MONACO FOREVER (1983)

BLACK EAGLE (1986)

NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER (1988) – The film that put the world champion kick-boxer turned actor on the map, here playing a villain

BLOODSPORT (1988)- His first starring/hero role
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CYBORG (1989)- A panned film when not being overlooked, this sci-fi flick mixing a dystopian future with lots of action, while undeniably low budget and of its time, I personally am a huge fan of.

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KICKBOXER 1989
DEATH WARRANT 1990
LION HEART 1991
DOUBLE IMPACT 1991
UNIVERSAL SOLDIER 1992
HARD TARGET 1993
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NOWHERE TO RUN 1993
TIMECOP 1994

STREET FIGHTER (1994) -With the under-performance of this film is where the brakes on Van Damme’s skyrocketing popularity and career (already lessening a bit from NOWHERE TO RUN) began getting applied

SUDDEN DEATH (1995) – A good movie, perhaps one of his best from that period, it possessed a ‘DIE-HARD’ premise to it, it nevertheless underperformed at the theaters.

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THE QUEST (1996) –

MAXIMUM RISK (1996) – His first of many impressive collaborations with Director Ringo Lam, Lam was the first director to get a real performance out of Van Damme, and a fantastic and very nuanced and heart-felt performance it is. It would signal the changing of the guard for Van Damme’s career as his drawing power as a mainstream action star would start drying up, and smaller budget, direct to video films would be the order of the day, but Van Damme as actor would increasingly emerge. MAXIMUM RISK is one of my favorite Van Damme films.

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DOUBLE TEAM (1997)- Tsui Hark, following in the footsteps of fellow country-men John Woo and Ringo Lam, chooses Van Damme to make his Hollywood directorial debut. Unfortunately the film is a creative and commercial misstep, that would signal the beginning of the end to Hollywood’s love-affair with Van Damme.

DESERT HEAT (1998) –
KNOCK OFF (1998) –
LEGIONAIRRE (1999) –
UNIVERSAL SOLDIER:THE RETURN (1999) – For all intents and purposes the end (for a time) of Van Damme’s Hollywood Career.

REPLICANT (2001)- The 21st century has arrived, and the rise of home video and DVD makes direct to video (DTV) productions possible. Alternative avenues to get your movie out there for studios that cannot get or afford theatrical distribution. DTV would allow Van Damme, and other abandoned once Hollywood darlings (such as Seagal and Snipes)to continue making movies. REPLICANT, a merely serviceable film, is the first of Van Damme’s next phase of his film career.

THE ORDER (2001) –
DERAILED (2002) –

IN HELL (2003)- A fantastic Van Damme performance and film, helmed by Ringo Lam

WAKE OF DEATH (2004) – Another fantastic DTV film. This and IN HELL showing the older Van Damme not just a better actor than in his youth, but making better films. As both of these films are better than anything he produced in his Hollywood years, with the exception of MAXIMUM IMPACT and SUDDEN DEATH.

SECOND IN COMMAND (2006) –
THE HARD CORPS (2006) –
SINAV (2006) –

UNTIL DEATH (2007)-
THE SHEPHERD: BORDER PATROL (2007)

JCVD (2008) – This is the movie that really revitalized Van Damme’s image, and by so doing, his career. Part action/heist flick, part psuedo-documentary, part bio-pic, it’s a deeply personal film that uses innovative 4th wall breaking cinematography and exciting story and action, and a wrenching performance by Van Damme to make it one of Van Damme’s most critically lauded films.

In many ways JCVD signals the third phase of his career, his return to mainstream prominence while continuing to also do his DTV work, a two pronged ‘best of both worlds’ approach where Van Damme is increasingly the action equivalent to Brando (in terms of longevity) to younger actors’ Pacino. He brings the name and gravity and they bring the youth and the bulk of fight scenes. Most notably this dynamic is seen in his very successful, recent collaborations with the amazing Scott Adkins.

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION (2009)- A direct result of JCVDs popularity, sporting an exciting new director in John Hyams and littered with brutally talented young MMA performers, this is a sequel that completely improves upon its inane and mediocre predecessors. It is, without reservation, a great action film.

THE EAGLE PATH (2010)-
KUNG FU PANDA 2 (2011)-
ASSASSINATION GAMES (2011) -Another fantastic action/thriller co-starring Scott Adkins.

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SIX BULLETS (2011)-A strong first half, goes off the rails at the end with the parents unbelievably becoming Mr and Mrs Rambo.
DRAGON EYES (2012)-
EXPENDABLES 2 (2012) – A rare return to villain status for Van Damme. Good to see him back, thanks to Stallone, in Hollywood’s good graces.

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER:DAY OF RECKONING- Van Damme’s third collaboration with John Hyams, while sporting very little Van Damme, is a home-run and illustrates a bit of that passing of the torch that is going on between him and Scott Adkins (with that whole Apocalypse Now vibe running through it). I loved REGENERATION and DAY OF RECKONING is even better. Part Horror, part sci-fi, part thriller, part action, it is some of the most exciting film-making I’ve seen in a while. Really quite impressive.

And 2013 and 2014 has other projects in the pipeline for Van Damme, and whether these projects are met with accolades or are derided, the given is Van Damme himself shall continue to be a charismatic and watchable screen presence, that gives his all.

I look forward to seeing the work yet to come.

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SPACE 1999 vs MISSION IMPOSSIBLE! and Crop Rotation?!!

Okay I don’t mean to make this the SPACE 1999 hour, but I’m listening to the Gerry Anderson commentary on the first episode BREAKAWAY, and it spurs me to some comments of my own. First it’s not really a commentary, it’s maybe 15 minutes of comments by Mr. Anderson sprinkled throughout the hour long episode.

But the comments he does offer are riveting. He discusses just the immense pressures and issues getting this series made. From trying to acquire American leads, to problems with the first director, to set issues, to basically ITC America telling them what stories they definitely couldn’t do.

Even problems with having stars Landau and Bain stand near each other in a two shot. It seems that Martin Landau wanted to show off his California tan, and Barbara Bain wanted to appear as white as possible, so when the two were in a shot together, grading the film became nearly impossible, as the color film stock lacked the range of the Black and White film stock. Martin Landau would either end up looking Black, or Barbara Bain would end up looking transparent. So they had to compromise a bit, with Landau toning down his tan, and Bain adding some color.

It’s little anecdotes like that that make commentaries fun. Of course today in the age of digital, film grading is not an issue, but in 1975 technological limitations ruled. Yet another reason the show looks better on Blu-ray today than it ever did.

It’s a fun bit of behind the scenes business. And it highlights why the people that move any medium forward be it radio or tv or movies or music, are generally under 30.

Whether it’s Paul Robeson redefining the theater in the 1920s while in his 20s (after also breaking barriers in both academics and sports), or Orson Welles redefining theater, radio and film in the 30s (while in his 20s), or if it’s Steven Spielberg and George Lucas defining the modern blockbuster with their one two punch of JAWS and STAR WARS, while they were 29 and 33 respectively (given Lucas a pass here), changing the face of the world in small ways and large… is generally a job for the young.

Even to this generations JJ Abrams, who started in his 20s changing the face of television and now cinema.

The movers and shakers all start young, because impossible has not yet become part of their vocabulary. It’s young people with hunger and vision and boundless energy, that have to get these visionary shows made around and through and despite the objections or qualms or head shaking of the gate-keepers. The old people, who hold the purse strings, and want to keep attracting/appealing to a new audience but are generally afraid of the new.

And Gerry Anderson, who started producing shows at 28, talks a bit on the psuedo-commentary about the hurdles involved in creating the show.

This isn’t to say only young people change their respective mediums, there are tons of people late in life who decided to change the world… and have.

George Washington Carver comes immediately to mind, who in addition to finding hundreds of uses for food byproducts including dyes, oils, charcoal, conditioner, glue, bio-diesel fuel, etc., pretty much single-handedly saved the economy and agriculture of the south. It was his creation and tireless implementation of a program of crop rotation, that kept the Southern United States from destroying its soil and looking like what Haiti has become [a country that can’t grow its own food due to soil depletion].

But geniuses like Mr. Carver aside, as a general rule it’s the young who blaze the trail into the new. Be it science or architecture or… tv/cinema.

You see what I did there? Like how I brought it back on track? Yeah I though it was nifty too. 🙂

All this to say. it’s a fun commentary. Go pick it up and give a listen. 🙂

Oh and a few words on the stars:

Martin Landau, who it’s worth mention at 84 is still going strong, has 5 films in production! Wow! In addition to SPACE 1999, he’s known for Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST, ED WOOD his 4 year run on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, the recent stints on EVIDENCE, ENTOURAGE, and WITHOUT A TRACE, and memorable guest spots on shows as diverse as OUTER LIMITS, GUNSMOKE and SIMPSONS.

Barbara Bain- The lovely Ms. Bain who is also going strong, and like Landau, has forged an amazing career. From the film AMERICAN GUN to PANIC to Zack Horton’s POLITICAL DISASTERS to GIDEON to ANIMALS WITH THE TOLLKEEPER to SAVAGE(also stars Landau and directed by Steve Spielberg) to GOODNIGHT MY LOVE (doesn’t appear to be on DVD yet, but has great reviews) to the RICHARD DIAMOND television series to her 4 years on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, and mountains of shows and movies between and since. CSI, DIAGNOSIS MURDER, the list goes on.

You can see why the studio pushed hard to get the two of them together in SPACE 1999. They wanted to capitalize on the two actors previously starring together in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. Instant marketability.

However that said I have to agree with Sylvia Anderson the co-creator and producer, who didn’t feel Martin Landau or Barbara Bain were right for the show. I think the show worked in-spite of the leads, particularly Martin Landau, not because of them. There are some shows you look at the cast, and say ‘Well I can’t see anyone else doing those roles. That’s perfect casting!” You can say that of the first STAR TREK series (even in light of the movies etc, that first crew is perfect, seminal casting) and FARSCAPE, etc. You can’t say that of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, I think numerous actors could have done the role of Commander Koenig to equal or better effect.

Particularly when you hear Sylvia Anderson’s interview (which is available on the Blu-Ray) and Gerry Anderson’s commentary and the concessions they made to get Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, and the problems they had, it makes you question whether the roles would have been better served inhabited by unknown actors, etc.

Well those are questions beyond the answering. What is known is that with the departure of Sylvia Anderson, at the end of season one, the show lost its rudder and its way.

Sylvia Anderson fought hard in the first season for script conferences and to give some sense of weight and seriousness and cohesiveness, a heart if you will to an admittedly fantastic show. But I think she understood that the more fantastic the show, the more important it is that the little things, the connections and reactions of people ring true and be grounded and relatable. And with her out as producer, the show also lost its voice of reason in front of the camera… Barry Morse, and ultimately the show succumbed to dumbed-downed storytelling and pandering to audiences with spectacle and rubber monsters… rather than craft and story.

And that difference is clearly seen in the first episode of season 2, METAMORPH (kindly included on the Season 1 Blu-ray’s special features). Devoid of Sylvia Anderson and Barry Morse, and anyone to fight the cliched ideas coming from the American office of ITV, the show increasingly looked like a poor man’s Buck Rogers.

But hindsight is always 20/20. Hurdles and politics and all, the 1st season of SPACE 1999 was pulled off, and flaws accepted, it’s ambitious television, it is television that tries to say something. And that is television to be proud of.

And since I’m talking about the show thirty five years after its cancellation, it seems that it is also television… that endures.

That’s all for now. Come back later for more reviews!

Space: 1999: The Complete Season One [Blu-ray] – Buy it here!