Friday, July 6, 2007

Fassbinder Foundation fracas

There’s very little that called be called “gossip” in the hardcore film-fan — dare I call it “auteurist” — community. Whatever anecdotes you’re likely to hear are things that pretty much confirm what is already known about a filmmaker’s personality, albeit with a new, anecdotal twist (like the recent Fritz Lang biography that sorta, kinda said he might’ve been involved in the offing of his wife). Thus I was actually a bit surprised to read this particular news item about a current film-fan controversy in Germany over the stewardship of the Fassbinder Foundation by former Funhouse guest Juliane Lorenz:

For full disclosure’s sake, I’ll note that I’ve interviewed Ms. Lorenz on two occasions for the show, once in 1997 and again just a few weeks back. The latter interview is being prepped for air by yours truly and should appear during the summer months on the Funhouse. On both occasions, she was exceptionally forthcoming about her relationship with Fassbinder, impressing me with the depth of her love for the man and his work; the latter is something that is obviously highly personal and her own affair, the latter has been demonstrated by her steadfast work at getting his work out to the public. The evidence is available on video store shelves: about 27 RWF titles out on DVD currently in America, 25 of which were instigated by her (and, I’m sure, she’d have gotten us better prints of the other two that she couldn’t obtain the rights to). Thus, I may be seen as slanted towards her in this current “controversy,” in which certain Fassbinder folk have gotten a petition together to attempt to oust her from the Foundation — I really wish the blogger above had given us the names, am curious who they are, but I’m not sure if he had access to them; I’m grateful in any case that he has given us a précis of the affair, since none of it is available in English yet).

Anyway, the first accusation involves something she said way back in 1992 to the effect that Fassbinder was never gay. This is a preposterous statement, and whether she ever believed it or was just really in a pissed-off mood when she said it, I can’t imagine she ever truly believed it. I know she’s never said anything to that effect in the materials that have been translated (even the sleazier bio that is so far the only “personal” portrait we have of RWF in English sadly, Love is Colder than Death). By the time of my first interview with her in ’97, she was saying the following in a very impassioned statement I’ve been very impressed by over the years:

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Fassbinder was of course a man who was primarily gay but who had affairs with women. We can’t speculate on his private life, except for what we hear from his intimates (his central male lovers are now all sadly dead, two of them dying tragically during his lifetime), and most of that is presented with a personal agenda, good, bad, or indifferent. What we do have is his work, which does present an incredibly consistent view of relationships, whether they be man-woman, man-man, or woman-woman. From his best films, we can see that he believed that there is a balance of power, an “exploitation” of emotion (and, obviously, love) in relationships, and he remains one of the cinema’s greatest developers of this theme. He also deeply felt for some of his characters (a question I asked Ms. Lorenz in our recent interview):

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So, the best I can read what occurred in ’92 is that Ms. Lorenz said something on the spur of the moment, something she’s later countered in all of her public statements. The blog entry above notes that she also has downplayed Fassbinder’s drug use: this is a characteristic I think that is common to most lovers/relatives of addicted artists. Note the fact that John Cassavetes’ evident alcoholism, an aspect that did nothing to diminish his incredibly massive talent and innovation, but which clearly manifested itself in elements of his work, is entirely swept under the rug by those closest to him, and has been “written out” of his life by them. I think that some of the overwhelming aspects of Fassbinder’s art, as well as the dreamier aspects of it, seem to emerge from his drug use, and in fact, when one considers the mere stamina of the man, his ability to do so much work, such consistently good work, one knows that he was involved with chemical stimulants to be able to keep up the pace.

I can venture no opinion on how any other person could run the Fassbinder Foundation — it has been her baby since the organization’s inception, and perhaps some other lover of RWF’s work could’ve run it equally well, but it is an inescapable fact that she has given over much of her life to keeping his work in front of the public, so one can’t possibly question the tangible results of her work.

Then we come to the last charge in the piece above: that she was party to the so-called “brightening” of the first episode of Berlin Alexanderplatz. This troublesome part of the first episode — in which Franz Biberkopf talks to two rabbis in a bedroom for some time — is an exceptionally dark scene for television (I mean literally, it’s hard to see!).

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Schwarzenberger has eloquently defended his actions in the supervising the restoration on Criterion’s official blog:

What should be brought up, though, is the fact that the current Criterion release of Army of Shadows has a discussion with the film’s cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, in which he reveals that he brightened one scene he had always felt was too dark. This may seem like a wildly obnoxious thing for a d.p. to do well after a filmmaker’s death (esp. when the filmmaker in question wanted the scene to be only vaguely perceptible by the moviegoer). But then we come to the inescapable fact that most people are going to view these films in their digital format, on a home screen. Lhomme notes that he wanted the viewer to be able to make out Lino Ventura in the darkened room, and presumably Schwarzenberger wanted viewers to see what was actually occurring in Biberkopf’s room (in the blog entry above, he notes that inferior prints were used for TV airings and film transfers in the first place). It can be validly argued that it is not their place to decide how a film should be altered but, again, we have to be honest and remember that films are altered all the time without us realizing it, and if any of us can actually remember our moviegoing roots, we watched the absolute shittiest prints of movies that directors were utterly horrified by (Budd Boetticher had noted to me after I interviewed him that the “pink” copy of Seven Men from Now that was in circulation disturbed the hell out of him). I’m not justifying the alteration of the brightness in a scene, but I can completely understand it — even doing the local cable program I’m doing, I realize that the viewer has to actually see what’s going on, so in the case of certain clips (including one from Army of Shadows that I used two weeks back!), I have had to change the brightness, since: a.) I’m aware that the pristine muted colors of a DVD don’t completely transfer over from the disc to digital tape to a computer editing system; b.) I’m aware that my show is broadcast on a particularly dark channel. Thus, I “play” with the brightness of certain clips on the show on a regular basis, in order for people to be able to see what’s going on in them. Of course, I do this for short clips and not an entire lengthy scene’s duration, and I’m not a person who is altering the master-print of a film, but I will say again that I do understand this impulse, and the fact that filmmakers now know that the bulk of their audience (let’s be honest, you insane couch potatoes!) will be seeing the creation they worked so hard on, on a TV screen of some sort.

Thus, I know that while some of the charges made against Juliane Lorenz seem valid and especially “juicy” (there is a gossip component here, namely the whole question of her marriage to RWF and subsequent emergence as the main heir-keeper to his legacy), her wildly devoted work to the cause of keeping Fassbinder’s work in front of the public cuts her a lot of slack for the RWF fanboys among us. And that, considering the crap representation some great European directors have on American DVD (Rivette, just to throw out one name), is no small achievement.

And just in case you’ve forgotten how magical Fassbinder’s work was at its best, here’s a compilation of short clips I put together when Fassbinder’s main music main Peer Raben died. These moments clearly illustrate what RWF was capable of:

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Thanks to Steve Erickson for the GreenCine link.

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