Monday, January 31, 2011

Tell Them Ricky Rezzori is Here: Fassbinder's The American Soldier (1970)


Assassin for hire Ricky Rezzori has been surrounded by death for as long as he can remember, even before he was in the business of collecting cash for killing. Returning home to Munich after a stint in America and Vietnam, Ricky can’t escape the shadow of his murderous past for long as a corrupt police unit enlists him to kill 3 specific targets. Depressed and sexually frustrated, Ricky attempts to find solace in porn and prostitutes but he can’t escape the obvious fate that awaits him.

The American Soldier is an effective if fairly little discussed early offering from legendary German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Released in 1970, along with a whopping four other major productions for film and TV including Gods of the Plague and Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, The American Soldier isn’t one of Fassbinder’s finest films but it’s much better than the footnote status many fans have given it.

Shot in black and white by prolific German cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann, who would end his 30 year career behind the camera on such Hollywood offerings as The Peacemaker and Deep Impact before his untimely death in 1997, The American Soldier is a startling looking work clearly inspired by Fassbinder’s love for American Gangster films, Noir and The French New-Wave. It also shows Fassbinder’s obsession with cinematic mavericks like Fuller and Godard and lovers of both will delight in spotting references to such works as Pick-up on South Street and Breathless. Fassbinder would recall a year after the film's release that, "it was larded with quotes from Hollywood films as well as French Gangster films and above all from the films of Raoul Walsh and John Huston." Of course, as with all of Fassbinder’s remarkable films, The American Soldier feels at once similar to the works that inspired it and yet totally unique. Fassbinder clearly loved his influences but, even at this early stage of his career, he already had a totally distinctive voice that was pitched quite unlike any other in cinema.

From its long and relatively static opening focusing on a gamblers playing with a deck of pornographic cards, to its haunting slow-motion closing that stands as one of the strangest moments in all of Fassbinder’s filmography, The American Soldier is never less than compelling even though its hindered by an extremely quick shooting schedule (with typical brevity, Fassbinder shot it in under two weeks) and small budget (which admittedly was the largest Fassbinder had had up to that point). Fassbinder’s astonishing creativity wins out in the end though and ultimately The American Soldier’s technical faults are more endearing than distracting.

While I was watching The American Soldier I noted the connections to the many classic gangster films Fassbinder clearly adored, but my mind kept connecting it to Bob Chinn's Johnny Wadd series that premiered a year later and stretched throughout the seventies. Like Chinn’s work, Fassbinder’s film has the same stagy (yet inventive) feel and the technical limitations (highlighted throughout by the shadows of camera rigs, lighting equipment and even crew members) remind us that this is essentially a very low budget film made by a group of artists with not quite enough time on their hands or funds at their disposal. Professor Thomas Elsaessser would note as well that the actors in Fassbinder's films of this period had, "the exhaggerated gesture of self-conscious make-believe, not unlike the performances in a pornographic movie."
While many will scoff at the connection between someone like Fassbinder and Chinn they had both soaked up the American Gangster film and Noir, and they were attempting to pay homage to those classic genres with their works. The biggest difference though is that the Wadd films were all about sexual release (with John Holmes' title-character ultimately capitalizing on the hinted at sexual-appetites of the characters that Bogart, Cagney and Robinson were known for) while The American Soldier is all about frustration and its title character's inability to perform, outside of killing.
It is that wall of frustration that might prove the most difficult aspect of The American Soldier for many modern audience members to accept. Ricky seems positively obsessed by the prospect of bedding any lady who might be at his disposal, keeping very much with the idealized Hired-Killer, but when we finally find him in bed with someone all he can do is lay there in almost total stillness as if he is waiting to be interrupted, which he finally is. Ricky finally only achieves a truly passionate embrace in death, via the film’s mesmerizing closing shot that has to be seen to be believed.

Fassbinder would call The American Soldier, "a synthesis between Love is Colder than Death and Gods of the Plague", and it remains a key work among his early films. Many Fassbinder regulars pop up in The American Soldier, including Fassbinder himself and future filmmakers Margarethe von Trotta and Ulli Lommell. As the title character, Karl Scheydt is quite compelling, as is Elga Sorbas as the doomed call-girl by force Rosa. The film ultimately belongs though to the haunting score of Peer Raben, the photography of Lohmann and to Fassbinder’s altogether original visual eye.

The American Soldier is available from Wellspring on DVD with a sharp looking print. Sadly no extras, outside of some Fassbinder related liner notes by Elsaessser, are included.

While not one of Fassbinder’s major films, The American Soldier is essential viewing for fans of the legendary director and modern German film in general.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dedicated to Catherine Spaak


I want to turn everyone reading here on to an absolutely beautiful new blog entitled La Calda Vita. This entrancing site is dedicated to the legendary French actress and singer Catherine Spaak and it has already become one of my favorite online stops. La Calda Vita's creator Dylan is creating a visually dynamic and moving tribute to the great Spaak and I can't wait to see what else he comes up with.
So, take a moment and visit this fabulous tribute to one of cinema's great beauties and put it on your own blog-list as well if you can.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Faces and Names: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Devotion to Character

***Back in September for my Paul Thomas Anderson Tribute Month I wrote several pieces that I didn't end up posting, due to the fact that the response to my Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon was much greater than I expected. I didn't want to let these pieces go to waste so I will be presenting them sporadically throughout the year, along with some promotional PTA scans I didn't have back in September. I hope they prove enjoyable and interesting.***



Director Jack Horner and his assistant Kurt Longjohn have been in the editing room for hours creating the title sequence for Jack’s newest opus, Angels Live in my Town. For the first ‘Brock Landers’ film Jack had hoped to creatively go farther than he had before and, as the opening titles play out before him, he realizes he has accomplished his goal. Visibly moved by what he and Kurt and have come up with, Jack exclaims that this is the film he wants to be remembered for.

In any other film outside of Boogie Nights, this little moment would have been played for laughs, or would have played out at the expense of adult maverick Jack Horner, as Angels Live in My Town wouldn’t exactly be the film most would choose as their greatest cinematic legacy. However in the hands of Paul Thomas Anderson, the scene is incredibly moving, sincere and humane. For all of his considerable skills as a screenwriter, and his extraordinary technical skills as a filmmaker, the relationship Anderson has with his characters remains perhaps the most resonate aspect of his career. Anderson has, time and time again, presented us with some of the most flawed and damaged characters imaginable but his love and compassion for them shines through, just like the love Jack Horner had for the flawed little films he created.



From the first frames of Hard Eight, to the final chilling moments of There Will be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson has shown himself as modern film’s greatest humanist. Nearly all of his characters are injured lost souls, but Anderson refuses to pass moral judgment and he asks the same from his audience. He asks for compassion as he recognizes we are all ultimately flawed, which is one reason the characters in Anderson’s films continue to live and breathe long after the final-credits roll.



Strip them down to their barest element and all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are essentially very vivid character studies. While most modern American filmmakers are more comfortable building their films around situations, it is the people in Anderson’s films that guide them. All of them, from Sydney in Hard Eight to Daniel in There Will be Blood, are haunted by Quiz-Kid Donnie Smith’s line in Magnolia concerning the fact that “We may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.” Like the great early seventies character studies by the likes of Rafelson, Altman and Scorsese, Anderson’s films are populated with people looking for something usually just past their grasp, while attempting to escape from something that is always close behind.



Anderson has clearly been fascinated by the idea of character since his very first work, the short film inspiration for Boogie Nights, “The Dirk Diggler Story.” The emphasis is always on the people in Anderson’s films and he clearly loves his characters and embraces their flaws; even when that character is monstrous like Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood.

Because of Anderson’s attention to his characters, and his astonishing ability at writing them, many of them have taken on an iconic stature typically reserved for figures decades old. As far as modern filmmakers go, only Quentin Tarantino has rivaled Anderson’s knack for introducing characters that immediately feel like they are a part of our popular culture. Whether it is Dirk Diggler or Frank T.J. Mackey or Daniel Plainview, Anderson has given us some of the most memorable characters in all of film history, and he has allowed actors as famous as Mark Wahlberg, Tom Cruise and Daniel Day Lewis the opportunity to disappear in the best roles of their careers.



While his most famous characters have entered the popular consciousness, Anderson’s many supporting players also occupy the thoughts and dreams of his many fans. What Anderson devotee hasn’t been occupied by thoughts of what happened to the likes of Roller-Girl, Buck Swop, Claudia Gator and Dean Trumbell? For people who become truly invested in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, these characters finally become a part of us in a way typically reserved for the just the most famous icons of art, literature, and film.



Of course, the many memorable people that have occupied Anderson’s films have taken on an added relevance when one considers his unnerving ability to match the perfect actor with each part, and his braveness at often casting underestimated actors. Who would have thought an often maligned performer like Heather Graham could have delivered such an emotionally devastating turn as Boogie Night’s Roller-Girl, and who else in the mid-nineties would have trusted a then considered past his prime Burt Reynolds for the pivotal character of Jack Horner?

Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are finally transformed from just potent character studies into astonishing works of cinematic art, due to his astounding technical skills as a filmmaker. Anderson has, in the span of the less than half a dozen features, become far and away the most technically accomplished American filmmaker of his generation, and his films are as cinematically dazzling as his characters are damaged.



With his next project The Master sadly on hold, let us take a moment and recall the many faces and names that have populated Paul Thomas Anderson’s first five features. To quote Lou Reed recalling the films of Andy Warhol, “Images are worth repeating”, and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson continue to become richer and richer with each viewing. Like the sharply drawn characters he has presented to us, Anderson’s works are very much alive in a way reserved for only the greatest of cinematic achievements.

-Jeremy Richey, 2011-

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

02/15/2011