by Jerry Johnson
Depending on whom you ask, German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder was either the saint of international cinema during the 1970s or its scourge. Come to think of it, he was both for most people. Working at a breakneck speed, he made 41 feature films in 14 years (that's nearly three movies per year, many of which he also acted in). He would stack an ornate costumed period piece against an off-the-cuff exploration of Marxist culture. In a single dizzying set-piece, he could follow a liberating explosion of flaming gayness or mannered distancing effects with the repressive claustrophobia of generic Hollywood formulas. He pissed off gays by being too classically melodramatic and angered the establishment by being too avant-garde and politically acute. His films cover a range of diverse genres from gangster to comedy to melodrama and had budgets that varied from shoestring to Hollywood proportions; yet by using basically the same cast, crew, and themes over and over there emerged a beauty in their similarity. In a word, his style could be summed up as "anti-style" and the exposure of duplicity and the myriad forms of cultural and internalized oppression are his recurrent themes. He was perhaps the greatest of all German filmmakers, certainly of the modern period. He was Rainer Werner Fassbinder: He took no prisoners and he left no middle ground.
Fassbinders stars in Fox and His Friends
"Fassbinder's career represented something of the supernova of cinema, and we are still feeling the effects," says Richard Linklater, artistic director of the Austin Film Society (AFS), which is putting on the 15-film retrospective of the German meister's work, "Decadence & Melodrama: A Rainer Werner Fassbinder Retrospective." "My favorite quote when he died in 1982 was by a film critic who said, 'His output was so fast and furious that we will be years in catching up.'"
It was only very recently that Fassbinder's oeuvre seemed destined for the cinematic dung pile of neglect. The vast majority of his work was unavailable on video, and the only titles available for theatrical distribution were a few moth-eaten 16mm prints carried by New Yorker Films. Two years ago, however, the Fassbinder Foundation committed itself to the very expensive project of striking new 35mm prints of almost all of the late director's work. Since then, retrospectives in New York, Los Angeles, and other centers across the country have brought renewed respect and re-evaluation of Fassbinder's career. "Fassbinder's work will always remain timeless," says Linklater, "because though the politics and style of his films are subject to the fashions and fads of any particular time, they are essentially about the inter-dynamics between people. Very humanistic. And that is what will stick."
For Linklater, this series represents a full circle for AFS. Fassbinder was the subject of the group's very first "director's retrospective" back in 1986, and they pulled it off with only nine 16mm prints of questionable quality. This time around, they have accessed brand-new 35mm prints of 15 programs, including several Austin premieres, as well as some never-before-seen shorts. And although the series represents only one-third of Fassbinder's total output, it is masterful in its documenting of all the phases of his career. As critic J. Hoberman once said, "The prolific and daring Fassbinder was the most torrential force in cinema since Godard." There is no better opportunity to experience this force. Fassbinder may have died at age 36, but he filmed the cinema of many lifetimes.
9/8 Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (7 & 9:30pm)
9/15 The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (7 & 9:45pm)
9/22Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (7 & 9:30pm)
9/29The Merchant of Four Seasons w/ "The Little Chaos" (7 & 9:30pm)
10/13Martha (7 & 9:30pm)
10/20Katzelmacher w/ "The City Tramp" (7 & 9:30pm)
10/27In a Year of Thirteen Moons (7 & 9:45pm)
11/3Beware of a Holy Whore (7 & 9:30pm)
11/10Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (7 & 9:30pm)
11/17I Only Want You to Love Me (7 & 9:30pm)
11/24Veronika Voss (7 & 9:30pm)
12/1Fox and His Friends (7 & 9:45pm)
12/8Effi Briest (6:30 & 9:30pm)
12/15Satan's Brew (7 & 9:30pm)
"Decadence & Melodrama: A Rainer Werner Fassbinder Retrospective" is presented by the Austin Film Society every Tuesday beginning September 8 through December 15 (except October 6). Each film screens twice at the Alamo Drafthouse (409 Colorado) and admission is free. Doors open 30 minutes before showtime. For more info call 322-0145 or see http://www.austinfilm.org.