Thursday, March 30, 2017

R.W. Fassbinder's IN A YEAR WITH 13 MOONS

To begin, I wouldn't say to start with this as your first film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; it's the end of what Richard Linklater calls in the introduction on the Fantomas DVD RW's "middle period" where he crafted some of the most original melodramas and riffs on them that one can ever see (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fox & Friends and Merchant of Four Seasons come to mind), as well as other oddities that are great outside of that (World on a Wire and Satan's Brew as two examples). But it's also a film that was made when Fassbinder was in an extremely dark and tumultuous mood following the suicide of his lover at the time. He almost contemplated leaving filmmaking altogether, however realized the not so much best but only way he could get through it was making a film and leaping off from this experience to explore deeper issues involving loneliness and being a 1000% outsider in this world.

The revelation about the dead lover I didn't know about before watching the film (I waited until after to see the Linklater intro), and now it's something I can't stop thinking about in context of the film. I think in merely the less than an hour it's been since I finished watching '13 Moons' I admire it more than while I was sitting and actively engaged with it. This is because what was going on in Fassbinder's life, for me, elevates it and makes things a little more profound: this was an artist crying out in despair and trying to find some redemption through his art, or whatever that might be, as well as for his lover. I don't know if the relationship was with a transgender or transsexual or what have you, but Fassbinder was at least bi-sexual if not flat gay (I feel like I read he had sex with a *lot* of people, men and women, but I digress, sort of), but that also plays into it as well, as an outsider filmmaker trying to find a voice for his narrative through the character.

Speaking of which, I think something that threw me off some time into this was that Fassbinder didn't make a film that really conforms to how we think of transgendered women. The character of Elvira ("deadname"? Edwin) is someone who seems so lost that it's difficult to tell if this person always was a woman from birth, as is the case with transgendered women and for men it's the opposite way, or if he had a sex change operation in haste due to a comment made by a man who Edwin at the time was in love with, Anton Saitz (don't forget, always with an 'ai').

Clearly at the least Edwin is gay and had a wife and daughter before and was closeted, but I wonder if Fassbinder thought through about the actual definition of trans and terms like "deadname" (which may not have even been a thing like it is now in 1978), but I think that at least a large part of Edwin/Elvira's identity is sexual but it's also just a struggle of self on the whole: did he/she make a mistake in getting genitalia discarded forever in the hope of new love?  At the least, it never feels in the slightest Fassbinder means offense (if some do, I don't know what to tell you), it's all about the confrontation of whoever the audience is and seeing if they'll come along with him on this downward spiral death-trip. In that sense it's a boldly experimental film.

Right at the start Fassbinder sets the tone through two sequences: the opening, which plays out over the opening credits, where Elvira is beat up by some guys when one of them discovers "he" is a she, and then when Elvira crawls back home with her dress down and faced beaten, her current lover Christoph decides to leave her and packs up and leaves as she begs him to stay.

Through this I thought this might be the, or one of the first, looks at a transgender protagonist in a sympathetic, even empathetic, light that likely hadn't been made at such a level as this (perhaps there were more underground films, I'd have to do more research). But this is really a jumping off point for a theme that Fassbinder was often concerned with, but that here is made more explicit and, in how things unfolds, experimental in structure: how to simply LIVE in this world that is needlessly cruel and strange and off-putting and where even the ones who seem like they'll be with you - the girl Zora played by Ingrid Caven, seems to be acting both for and in total disregard for Elvira, sometimes in the same scene - and, ultimately, if the doomed feeling of living a life that is a constant BATTLE is worth it at all.

'13 Moons' was difficult at times to watch for reasons that were intentional and made a disturbing impression - the slaughter-house and seeing all of the cows with slit throats and skinned (the most graphic outside of Franju's Blood of the Beast) and perhaps the closest tie in to this idea of fully *seeing* and get a different take as opposed to simply being told (i.e. recognizing that a trans or gay or 'other' person has rights without meeting them as opposed to really meeting it and not looking away) - and other times for going on too long.

Monologues by characters go on and on and on; some are more compelling than others (the weird guy in the darkened apartment with the screeching music in the background is one, while the nun who knew Edwin as a boy gives one of the most overloaded backstories where it felt almost like a deadpan satire of movies where a character gives an over-loaded backstory), and then there's a scene like when Elvira is going asleep and Zora is watching television and playing music and... what was the point of all that (by the way, Fassbinder makes an uncredited cameo as himself briefly on the TV being interviewed... talk about a truly odd meta moment, and I mean odd even for this director!)

This is a film that may be most daring in juggling tone; this isn't so much in the look of the film, though one has to be prepared for many shots that confront the audience by how long they are and the self-consciousness of some of the acting (not all but some, like the random guy who for what seems like four, five minutes, talks about Anton Saitz in the building before Elvira goes up to see him, and he's in the same pose of looking up, not moving from his spot, the entire time), rather it's how jarring Fassbinder will make things just *happen*. For example, Elvira finally gets to meet this Saitz person we heard about earlier (he's the closest one might think to be some kind of antagonist or a conflict at least outside of the interior kind for Elvira), and what one might think is about to be a dramatic confrontation is... broken up by a quasi-musical number that Saitz makes his lackeys put on (Elvira joins in, of course?) and Saitz is sitting there pouting like a child. Just... huh?

It's this daring though that makes me like the movie all the more in retrospect. I'm not sure if it will make the film more alienating for viewers or not and, again, this is probably the place to come to cinematically once one is comfortable with this director's work, to get an idea of what the years of melodramas and (direct/indirect) Sirk homages lead him to. Not to mention the performance by Volker Spengler, who gives so much pathos to this character that there's always that potential, danger even, of it going into camp like it could be a John Waters turn or something. But it never happens, and while we do get a lot of other characters talking about him/her, by the end, when we hear this audio interview playing over what we know is the only way this story could end, it's a truly heartbreaking piece of acting - just like the film, and hopefully, through seeing it, one sees and feels what it's like (even for a moment) to be in his/her/whoever's shoes.

(PS: Not sure if the fatalism of the 'moons' in the opening entirely works for the benefit of the story - like, would Elvira be any *less* depressed if it was 1979 somehow - but it's a pretty piece of poetry to begin the story, dark, too)

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