Saturday, November 15, 2008

Berlin Alexanderplatz

It’s taken me a while, but last night I finished Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz series. I’ve really liked all the Fassbinder stuff I’ve seen, particularly The Marriage of Maria Braun, a really pop, exciting film that’s got such a different attitude from most period pieces. I’d always heard that Berlin Alexanderplatz was in many ways his masterpiece, the one work that contains all his obsessions, but it was the promise of an insane, surreal two hour epilogue that had me really excited about the show. The epilogue did not disappoint, nor did the series, which has its ups and downs, but on the whole is a really fantastic work.

Most of the writing about the film calls it the longest single narrative film ever made. I think that sentiment comes out of the inherent bias a lot of old school film people have against television. The work was made for TV, and originally shown on TV. It’s broken up into episodes, which may flow together seamlessly, but so does The Wire or 24, and those shows aren’t considered the longest films of all time. I suppose the fact that Fassbinder wrote and directed all of it does make it a more singular work than something like The Wire, but at the same time, if it’s shown on TV first, in weekly episodes, that makes it a TV show. And, in that respect, it’s a clear forerunner to a lot of the more arty and esoteric TV shows that have aired in the US in recent years. The Sopranos is the one that springs immediately to mind, simply because of Gunther Lamprecht’s resemblance to Gandolfini as Tony Soprano.

The series has a frequently scattershot narrative approach. Particularly in the earlier episodes, it seems more like a series of short stories centered around Franz than a single coherent narrative. There’s the episode where he sells Nazi newspapers, the time he stays at someone’s house and gets drunk, and son on. Once Franz meets Reinhold, things start to cohere a bit. There’s the great episode where Reinhold continually passes his girlfriends to Franz, which becomes a lot clearer once we reach the epilogue.

Until the epilogue, I didn’t totally get the significance of a lot of what happened. I followed all the events, and understood on a basic level why Reinhold killed Mieze, and why this was so devastating for Franz. However, the epilogue gives a new overall significance to their relationship and Franz’s friendship with Reinhold. Obviously, the epilogue is a really challenging piece of work, a masterpiece of cinematic subjectivity that recalled the descent into madness chronicled in both finales of Neon Genesis Evangelion. A character utterly broken by the world wanders through his own subconscious, constantly taunted by reminders of the world that has driven him to insanity.

In the case of Franz, it’s the pull between the better parts of himself, his desire to stay out of crime and live a good life, and the seductive pull of the criminal world, which is represented by Luders and Reinhold. At the start of the work, Franz decides that he’s going to be good, he’s going to work hard and make it on his own. The show then chronicles the failures along the way that lead him to insanity at the end.

After losing his arm, Franz is nearly broken. But, he’s saved by Mieze, a woman who loves him and believes in him. She will prostitute herself to support them if it means that she’s able to be with Franz. Franz is described as her pimp, but I don’t really see it like that. When her john does come around, Franz is just sort of there, making conversation, but by no means in control of what Mieze does. As a conversation about the uselessness of cripples earlier in the show makes clear, Franz has a lot of self esteem issues. Wtihout his arm, he knows that he can’t support her, and that’s why he’s willing to go along with the arrangment, as long it lets him be with Mieze. I really like the way their relationship is played, from the reckless abandon of them getting drunk together in the apartment, to the way that Eva plays the benevolent mother, pushing the two of them closer together.

Mieze clung to Eva after leaving her own parents, and now Eva is giving her a new parental figure/lover. Notably, Franz is essentially a castrated figure in his relationship with Mieze, he may have sex with her, but he doesn’t have the power, and thus he takes on the hybrid role of father/lover. When it is just Franz and Mieze, they have an essentially utopian relationship. She knows nothing of his criminal life, and he keeps a stark division between the ‘dark’ side of his personality and the part that he shows her.

His relationship with Mieze, and to a lesser extent, Eva, is what supports him through all the bad times. His relationship with Reinhold is what pulls him back into the darkness. Franz can’t help but want to show up Reinhold by introducing him to Mieze. He brings Reinhold into their apartment, and for some reason, hides him under the covers of the bed. Later, Eva and Mieze ponder why Franz would put Reinhold in their bed. The obvious missing answer there is that Franz he uses Mieze as the excuse to put Reinhold just where he wants him. But, I don’t think Franz or Reinhold are really aware of how they feel about each other. Franz has this dark side in him, and by bringing Reinhold into the house, he deliberately breaks down the wall between his dark side and the good part of him that Mieze knows. Once that divide is broken, he proceeds to assault Mieze in a scene that plays like an exact echo of the oft repeated death of Ida.

The assault on Mieze is the key turning point in the film, setting up her eventual death and Franz’s descent into insanity. Afterward, Franz takes Mieze away to the woods, an idyllic place, totally removed from the gritty, urban world we’ve seen in the rest of the film. Despite the visible scars on her face, things are good here. However, when they return to the city, Mieze makes Franz take her to the bar where he hangs out. He denigrates the losers that he spends his time with, but still brings her along. Bringing the good and pure part of his life into the corrupt part engineers his own destruction.

While Reinhold and Mieze represent opposite poles of Franz’s morality, Meck is somewhere in the middle. He’s always nice to Franz, and helps him out early in the film, but at the same time, he encourages Franz to get involved with Pums, and prolongs his involvement in the gangster’s world. Earlier, Reinhold attempted to exert control over Mieze, but she rejected him. In the bar scene, Reinhold uses his leverage over Meck to lure Mieze into a trap. Meck offers Mieze the chance to learn more about Franz’s background. She loves Franz so much, she wants to know everything about him, and Meck takes advantage of that love to destroy her.

Meck’s betrayal is at least partially motivated by the fact that Franz forgives and talks to Reinhold after losing his arm, but seems incapable of speaking to Meck. I’d argue this is because Meck is too much like himself, torn between the good and bad. Franz idealizes Reinhold because he’s alluring, like the devil himself. It’s Reinhold’s nature to be evil, and Franz can’t blame him for it, but Meck should know better. It’s Meck’s moral capacity that makes Franz hate him, he knew how dangerous that mission could be for Franz, and still went along with it.

Meck drives Mieze out to the same place she and Franz went to escape from the city. In a cruel echo of that scene, Reinhold draws her out, brings her to the woods and attempts to seduce her. The scene is strange because Mieze fluctuates between fear of Reinhold and at times attraction to him. Perhaps she, like Franz, is attracted on some level to the evil that Reinhold incarnates. Or, maybe it’s that she hopes to understand what makes Franz so devoted to Reinhold. This guy shoved him out of a moving car, made Franz lose his arm, and yet he remains loyal. If Mieze can make herself love Reinhold, maybe she’ll be one step closer to Franz.

Earlier, we saw trading women function as a way for Reinhold and Franz to have a relationship by proxy. The woman involved changed, the two constants in the relationship were Franz and Reinhold. Here, Mieze becomes involved in that cycle, the difference being that Franz has real feelings for Mieze. Unlike earlier, he doesn’t want to lose Mieze, and that means that he doesn’t want to be with Reinhold in their strange way anymore. By killing Mieze, Reinhold will exert total power over Franz’s life, and ensure that he has no rival for Franz’s adoration.

The last episode of the series is the most intense and emotionally potent. Opening with the bizarre image of Franz in Mieze’s clothes, we proceed through a series of events, including a lengthy botched robbery sequence, which are made all the more foreboding because we’re constantly waiting for the bomb to drop on Franz, for him to find out about what happened to Mieze.

One of the things I love about the series, even before the insanity of the epilogue, is the way it takes place in a heightened emotional reality. Fassbinder will have the characters behave in strange, unnatural ways as a way of illuminating their inner mental state. I can see that bothering some people, as the work swerves from raw naturalism to totally stylized, melodramatic behavior. But, I find it enhances the emotions because it makes the entire work incarnate the characters’ mental space, the world is their feelings. In the final scene of the series proper, Franz finally finds out that Mieze has been killed, and he just laughs uncontrollably. It’s uncomfortable and strange to watch, surely not the way that someone in reality would behave after hearing this revelation, but it works perfectly in context.

The ending is so full of portentous foreboding. We’re expecting Franz to assault Eva in the same way he did Ida, to act out against the injustice done to him, but he just laughs uncontrollably. On one level, it is deeply disturbing to find out that Mieze has been killed, but he had been sitting there depressed because he thought that she walked out on him, that she never loved him. But, he’s found out instead that she did love him to the end, the good part of himself is validated, he is someone worth loving. This happy discovery meshes uneasily in his brain with the growing realization that she is in fact dead, and Reinhold did it, which leads to his insanity in the epilogue. I particularly like the title after episode 13 which says something like, “Franz has reached the end of his journey on this mortal plane. Now, we break him.”

I love the sort of psychologically subjective, surreal filmmaking we see in the epilogue. More than any other artistic medium, I think cinema has the ability to immerse you in a character’s mental state, and use a combination of visuals, music and dialogue/narration to create a rhythm and feeling that becomes trance like and hypnotic. You see it sometimes in features, certainly people like Fellini created really interesting, psychologically subjective stuff, but the most powerful examples of this kind of filmmaking have all come in television. The reason for that is that something that surrealism works best when it also has a grounding in emotional reality. If you just watched the epilogue on its own, it would probably still be an interesting experience, but it wouldn’t have the emotional or intellectual impact that it does here. The thirteen episodes that preceded it give us the grounding to understand what the scenes in Franz’s mind mean, and also allow us to relate the at times seemingly random sequences to everything that happened previously, and therefore understand it all more than we otherwise would have.

It reminds me a lot of the ends of two other series, Twin Peaks and Neon Genesis Evangelion. The last episode of Twin Peaks, and segments of Fire Walk With Me are as purely experimental filmmaking as anything Lynch has ever done, but they’re also profoundly emotional because we understand the symbolic system he’s built. Berlin Alexanderplatz’s epilogue reminds me the most of the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion, both the TV finale and the End of Evangelion film. The last episodes of Eva, like this film, focus on a character traversing the ruins of their own mind, a traumatic experience in reality has forced him into a regressive mental cocoon. And, like the finales of Eva, this epilogue is at times oblique, but always visually fascinating and strange and exciting filmmaking.

The epilogue, for all of its visual insanity, does a brilliant job of tying together the at times seemingly disconnected events of the series into a linear whole. Characters I barely remembered from earlier in the series were brought to the fore and connected with later events. I particularly like the way that the incident with Luders and the stuff with Reinhold were brought together. Luders got Franz involved in petty crime, and ultimately led to him betraying the kindly widow who had associated Franz with her late husband. Now, that widow is associated with Mieze, and Luders becomes a proto-Reinhold. Franz has been on one journey throughout the series, he already started to fall at that point, Mieze was his last chance to save himself, and her death sealed his descent into insanity.

Much of what I was discussing earlier, with Reinhold and Mieze as the poles of Franz’s morality, comes out of the epilogue. Literal angels walk through the scenes with Franz, but the only devil is Reinhold and the Pums gang. The epilogue also makes the homoerotic subtext of the Franz/Reinhold relationship into text. First, there’s the scene in prison where Reinhold expresses love for his fellow prisoner, and a desire to never let him go. It’s such a contrast to the way Reinhold behaved earlier, it makes clear that Reinhold repressed his homosexual urges through chronic womanizing and his weird partner trading with Franz. It was only in prison, where homosexuality was socially acceptable, that he could comes to terms with his true desire.

Throughout the epilogue, there’s a bunch of scenes that spin the Franz/Reinhold relationship through a variety of homosexual iconography. There’s the surreal scene where a makeup wearing Reinhold whips a similarly madeup Franz, all in a strange homoerotic hell, filled with steam, leather and naked men crawling through the dirt. There’s also the fantastic boxing match scene, which is perhaps the best encapsulation of Franz’s love/hate relationship with Reinhold. He’s there to beat up Reinhold, to avenge Mieze, but he winds up kissing Reinhold. That scene is visually realized through a surreal rear projection that turns Franz and Reinhold into tiny warriors in front of a massive, constantly swirling crowd.

Just on a visual level, the epilogue is a joy. I wouldn’t disagree with critics who say it could be tightened a bit, but the brilliance of it far outweighs any demerits. The most striking visual sequence is Franz’s trip through a slaughterhouse. It’s a huge break from the aesthetic of the rest of the film, all white and red, bright instead of dark. The scene also features a great meta moment, where Fassbinder himself watches the scene, backed by the two angels. Like Wong Kar-Wai, Fassbinder has a ‘uniform,’ a fedora and big glasses. He looks really cool here, an appropriate meta intrusion in light of the fact that this whole sequence is his dream of Franz’s dream.

Like the best surreal imagery, the slaughterhouse scene also functions as a multi-layered metaphor of what is going on with Franz. He had his arm cut off due to his involvement in the Pums gang, and Mieze has died at their hands as well. They tear him up and destroy him. But, there’s also the dark allure there, which is represented in a later scene, where Franz goes back to the slaughterhouse and finds an orgy in progress. With no energy to do otherwise, Franz jumps into the mix.

The other really notable thing about the epilogue is the use of music. I love the fact that he used contemporary tracks, the Kraftwerk song in particular becomes a haunting anthem, a rhythmic base for the visuals to build on. I love period films that use contemporary music, any period film is as much a reflection of the time it was made in as the time it’s depicting. So, using the musical language of the contemporary world helps tie those connections together. The greatest problem with period pieces is making the characters feel alive and relatable, and using contemporary score can help make that easier. Fassbinder’s got great taste, and the soundtrack to this final episode is killer.

The surreal parts of the epilogue are juxtaposed with scenes from the real world, showing Franz’s descent into insanity. They’re pretty harrowing to watch, to see the guy we’d spent thirteen hours with broken and drooling in a mental hospital. The lengthy scene where three psychiatrists debate what to do with him is one of the few scenes here that runs a bit long, but it’s interesting thematically. Two of the psychiatrists want to give up on Franz, after all this is a convict who’s been accused of murder again. Why should we bother trying to save him? But, because we’ve been through so much with Franz, we do want him to be saved, we know that there’s still a human being left in the swirling mess of mental trauma.

In the dream world, Franz plays through endless variations of his core traumas, in the same way that the series endlessly repeated the murder of Ida. Looking at it now, I feel like those repeats of the murder sequence were designed to show that Franz is still consumed with guilt over what he’s done. The threat of that violence is present in every relationship he engages with, and the scene is consciously evoked both when he is attacking Mieze and in the last episode, when Eva stands where Ida did, and we’re just waiting for Franz to snap. In the dream, the loss of his arm is echoed again and again, replayed in an ever changing haze of characters and circumstances.

I’d argue that the entire epilogue is about Franz’s inability to choose between Reinhold and Mieze, between the good side of his personality and the bad. In the first scene, he is adrift without Mieze, the constantly spinning camera in a broken down war zone evoking his own unsteady mental state. He finds Mieze there, and for a brief moment, all seems well, but she disappears and he must travel on through his mental landscape, seeking a final mental resting place.

This struggle in Franz’s mind eventually leads to the destruction of his passion, of the lifeforce that made him who he was. This is most vividly dramatized in the epic crucifixion scene, which serves as the climax of the surreal journey through Franz’s mind. Betrayed by his best friend, he is placed on the cross and perishes as atomic bombs explode in the background. It’s an amazing scene visually, a great fusion of classical iconography and more contemporary images of apocalypse. We’ve been with this guy for fourteen hours now, and it’s nice that he gets an appropriately over the top send off.

I like the way that Fassbinder mixes all kinds of iconography in the epilogue. Our minds exist at the crossroads of the past and the present. In the hazy realm of the subconscious, it makes perfect sense to jump between 20s Berlin, a contemporary slaughterhouse and the pure surrealism of the crucifixion scene. Sure, this could result in an unfocused jumble of scenes in the wrong hands, but here, it’s all in service of the story, of illuminating this man’s mind, and that’s why it works so well.

In the end, we return to Franz in reality. I was surprised by this because I assumed that the atom bomb sequence was a symbol of his death. It turns out that in many ways, that was a correct assumption. Franz’s body didn’t die, but the person he was expired. Rather than engage with the conflict between two extremes of good and bad that raged in his mind, he essentially shut himself down and became a resigned shell of a man. He testifies against Reinhold, perhaps the best evidence that he’s given up the fire, cutting off his arm didn’t do it, but at this point, Franz is done with Reinhold.

The final scene of the film shows Franz in his new job as a night watchman. He does his job, wandering from car to car, but at this point he seems like an old man, just doing his daily routine, nothing more. He has become a mindless person, and you could certainly read that arc as a comment on Germany itself at the time. After the fire of the Weimar period, it probably felt nice to surrender to the total control and security that someone like Hitler promised. But, in doing so, they obviously enabled many terrible acts. Without the passion for life that Franz had, he becomes nothing more than a sheep.

Berlin Alexanderplatz isn’t an easy work to undertake, and its long absence from distribution probably only added to the legend. Fassbinder’s work at times has an alien quality that I find unnerving. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a wonderfully made movie, but it’s absolutely painful to watch. That was probably what he was going for, to accentuate the melodrama of a Douglas Sirk movie, but in so doing, he makes a film that’s just emotionally brutal. The advantage of Berlin Alexanderplatz is that you spend so much time with the characters that you get used to the world. Particularly from the introduction of Mieze on, the work is very easy to engage with and full of entertaining nuances. I think spending so much time with his work here will make it easier for me to engage with any other Fassbinder films that I watch.

It’s hard to believe that one man could make as many films as Fassbinder did in as short a period of time. There are directors who don’t direct 15 hours of content in their entire career, he did it in one year, and directed several films around that. It’s also hard to believe that he would have the chance to make a series like this for German television. Until recently, you’d never see a vision so idiosyncratic and singularly auteur-driven on American TV. I’d argue that only The Sopranos and Mad Men feel as fully realized as this series does. This is the best of what TV can do, and I love that Fassbinder had the chance to do a story on this scale.

So, in the end, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a masterpiece. It’s got some rough patches along the way, but the epilogue fuses everything together into neat thematic cohesion, and makes it a lot easier to understand some of the seemingly disconnected sequences earlier in the film. I really enjoyed the first thirteen episodes, and then the epilogue was like crack for me, exactly the sort of thing I want to see in a film, strange, visually and musically experimental, and all in the service of illuminating character psychology. Those two hours are the sublime, surreal capper to a thoroughly engaging series.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Astonishing X-Men: #1-12

I would seem to be the target audience for Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. I love Joss’s work, I loved Claremont’s X-Men, and I loved Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. But, I don’t quite feel the love for Whedon’s own X-Men stories. Having read half the run now, it hasn’t totally gelled for me yet. It’s definitely well put together, but it lacks the crazy improvisatory feel that both Claremont and Morrison’s work had, and I feel is kind of essential to making a great X-Men comic.

Astonishing is a decidedly prestige comic, a much more cohesive package than Morrison’s messy run on the title. John Cassaday was given time to draw every issue, no Igor Kordey fill-ins here. In the early going of NXM, the jump from Quitely to Kordey really hurt the title. It was a schizophrenic read, where the story had to work in spite of the art. Here, the art is totally consistent, but even reading it in the trade, you kind of feel the impact of those delays. Morrison’s X-Men felt like the X-title, he defined the world and made it feel like a whole bunch of other stuff was happening, but his book was the only one that mattered. Whedon’s X-Men has a similarly sealed off feel from the rest of the line, but in this case, it makes it feel a bit like an Elseworlds, a piece of fan fiction he wrote as a tribute to both Morrison and Claremont.

A large part of my problem with the book comes from the fact that I consider Morrison’s ending salvos on the title to be a pretty definitive conclusion to X-Men. I don’t think any stories really need to be told about these characters post Here Comes Tomorrow. Obviously they’re going to be told, but I’d have been more interested to see Whedon tackle a different batch of characters than the ones Morrison was dealing with. The stuff with Kitty and Piotr works better than the Cyclops/Emma Frost for me because Whedon’s able to put more of a stamp on them and go into new territory. But, in general, it’s hard for me to read what’s essentially a sequel to Morrison’s run when Planet X and HCT were the perfect pop avant garde wrap up for years of X-stories.

In that respect, the toughest issues for me to read were the first couple. There, Whedon presents the idea that the X-Men should present themselves as superheroes again instead of the stylish emergency rescue team of the Morrison run. This means getting new costumes that just don’t work for me. I love a lot of Cassaday’s art here, but when he’s drawing the team in costume, they just look weird. Cyclops’s outfit is the biggest offender, it’s like he’s wearing a giant condom, and after the ultra-stylish Quitely outfits, it’s hard to go back to Wolverine wearing a blue and yellow spandex jump suit. I much prefer the Morrison outfits, but I suppose these outfits are part of the thematic missive that the X-Men should present themselves more as a superhero team.

To this end, there’s an attempt to integrate them into the larger Marvel Universe as a whole. I always prefer the X-Men when they’re sealed off in a world without other superheroes or space travelers. Generally speaking, most sci-fi works have one central conceit that defines their world, in Terminator, you can buy that robots come back from the future, but it would stretch credibility if Sarah Connor all of a sudden could fly. Similarly, I like the idea that the one conceit of X-Men is that mutants exist, throwing in other superheroes and aliens like Ord just takes it further and further away from the reality based storytelling that I think serves the title best. My favorite eras of Claremont’s run were Paul Smith and the Mutant Massacre to Fall of the Mutants, when the book was grounded in something closer to reality. As such, Ord doesn’t really work for me as an X-Men villain, he doesn’t say anything interesting about the characters, he’s just sort of there.

To enjoy the book, I had to get past the fact that it wasn’t trying to do the same thing that Morrison did. Morrison’s goal was to take the best aspects of Claremont, jettison the rest and explode the book into the 21st century. Now, you could argue that he failed in his mission and by the end had reverted to simply replaying the same X-Men vs. Magneto conflict that had been going since X-Men #1. But, I think the ragtag bunch of X-Men left behind at the end of that storyline was decidedly different than what we’re used to from the title.

Morrison riffed on the archetypal X-Men stories through the lens of his personal thematic concerns, and I suppose that’s what Whedon does as well. Kitty Pryde is in many ways the template for all of Whedon’s strong, but neurotic female protagonists. She’s a remarkable character, so vastly different from most female comic book characters, who are statuesque goddesses, and Whedon makes her the star of his run to date.

In general, the character stuff works really well. I like the way he writes Scott and Emma, though the endless teasing about Emma possibly working with the Hellfire Club doesn’t bode well. Also, I have issues with his more aggressive Wolverine. I prefer the zen warrior Morrison wrote, and even though a gag like Logan’s “I like beer” thought caption is really funny, it diminishes the layers that both Claremont and Morrison wrote into the character. But, Scott and Kitty work really well and function as a strong emotional center for the story.

Most of my issues come from the plotting. I like the idea of the mutant cure, but it doesn’t really go anywhere, which leaves us with Ord and Danger, two really weak villains. The beauty of Claremont’s run at its best was the fact that there weren’t really any villains, just a whole bunch of moral ambiguity. Danger and Ord are very one note villains, they have motivations, but they’re not interesting in any way. The Danger arc in particular is nonsensical, and falls prey to the same logical absurdities that any evil computer story, outside of HAL, has. Shouldn’t Whedon have learned his lesson with “I Robot, You Jane.”

So, I’ve got a lot of conflicted feelings on the book. It’s objectively better than the vast majority of X-Men books, but I got more of a charge reading the early part of Mike Carey’s run than I did reading this. I suppose it’s expectations, there I was surprised by just how much I liked Bachalo’s art and the character stuff Carey was doing. Here, I’m getting what I paid for. It’s good, but there’s no real surprises. But, perhaps the rest of the run will treat me better.