14 January 2009

Fassbinder Pt. 2 - IN A YEAR WITH 13 MOONS (1978)

Richard Linklater introduces Fassbinder's In a Year With 13 Moons as Fassbinder's most personal film and Linklater's personal favorite. Later, when I was looking up more info on the film I found that this was Fassbinder's second favorite of his own films, according to Jim's Reviews. So, unlike Chinese Roulette, this is essential Fassbinder viewing.

The story focuses on Elvira, a lonely man-turned-woman who underwent a sex change operation in Casablanca for the man she loves. Things start badly for Elvira from the beginning of the film, when she is beaten by male whores, and get even worse as she tries to seek Anton Seitz, her love interest, to give an apology and to seek his love. Seitz is now a powerful pimp-turned-millionaire businessman who hardly remembers Elvira (as Erwin, her former male self). The forgiveness Elvira seeks has to do with an interview she gave in which she mentioned his name, later fearing he will be enraged by slander. The trip Elvira takes to Anton is a search for identity, love, and life's meaning, which turns into a dream-like and surreal journey which unfolds in a series of bizzare tableau.

Elvira is powerfully played by Volker Spengler, who invests into the portrayal of Elvira's emotions and inner-turmoil with everything he has. At first Elvira looks absurd. When she first appears on screen she so little resembles a woman she seems almost laughable: a rather well-built man with a big jaw walking around in garters, silk underwear, and a bra. After a while, as Elvira's lover Christoph makes a big break up scene with her and she is tormented, it is clear that Elvira is not a burlesque character, but rather someone confused, lonely, and hitting wall after wall of bad luck. Spengler's acting and the tone Fassbinder sets through camera duration allow for Elvira to be relatable and sympathetic in a way that looks past the exterior and goes straight for the heart.

Though there is plenty of attention paid to the exterior as well. As with the two previous Fassbinder films I've seen (Fear Eats the Soul and Chinese Roulette), 13 Moons is visually beautiful. For someone who makes films at such an incredible rate, it's hard to believe that Fassbinder's films feel so fully-realized: the style is so finely-tuned to effectively convey the emotional/thematic content that there is hardly ever a time when sound and image aren't working together in an intriguing and fascinating way.

The most dramatic example of this would certainly have to be the butchery scene. Elvira and her friend Red Zora walk through a slaughterhouse as Elvira speaks about her past as Erwin: how she used to work in the slaughterhouse and loved it; how she met her ex-wife, who stayed with her even after the sex change operation; how she used to rehearse with Christoph for his acting parts. As Elvira says all this, the image of her and Red Zorba become displaced by the incredibly graphic images of cows having their throats cut, hanging, being skinned, and butchered. Thus Elvira's monologue becomes a voiceover of sorts as the two bodies are seen walking through the hanging carcasses, which removes enough realism for the horror/beauty of the slaughterhouse to seem like some delirious dream. This sequence reaches a rather incredible climax as the audio tracks have Elvira reciting Goethe in crescendoing volume while Handel's somewhat melancholy concerto plays at the same time. As this happens the images of the butchery become somewhat more graphic (I think skin being ripped off). The result is somewhat dizzying and horrifying. The butchered animals could be interpreted several ways, but for me the scene reminded me of man's fate to die as flesh, which is both melancholy and somewhat insightful.

My heart ached to see Elvira as she continues to seek Anton. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but things don't go well. There is a dark irony in the way we find out how Elvira has decided to castrate herself and become a woman, and it becomes almost unbearable to the point of becoming the blackest of comedy. And Fassbinder does inject some humor, too (in the form of a Martin and Lewis musical number, and in Anton himself), which only makes things sadder. In the end, however, 13 Moons is a completely honest film and I feel like it says a lot about Fassbinder, especially knowing that he made it after he discovered his lover committed suicide. Though it is a bit of a downer, it is not completely dreary -- Linklater points out that Fassbinder insists that suicide claims the happy moments in life, not the sad ones. He quotes a character of Fassbinder's previous film, Third Generation, as saying, "As long as movies are depressing, life isn't." Let's hope so.

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