The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Takes 450 shots – but doesn’t always hit the mark
commandingly austere, 14-part 1980 miniseries. I don’t think I could have braved that whole thing again in my own Covid bunker. After the false start, Penman latched onto a Fassbinderesque
ethos to get going: “Just sit down and write something.” It took three or four months – the rough gestation period of an Fassbinder opus? – and he landed on the 40th anniversary of the filmmaker’s death as an endpoint.
The book thereby produced is a slim feast of 450 fragments, some a short quotation or pensée (“Aren’t all masks death masks?), some pursuing a line of attack for a page or two. It’s interesting that Penman spends longer on the instructive failures of Fassbinder’s artistry than some of the highlights. Petra von Kant barely gets a mention, but Despair (1978), the stiff, waxworky Nabokov adaptation starring Dirk Bogarde, which Penman deems “pretty much a complete disaster on every level”, pops up frequently, and so does the director’s final effort, Querelle (1982), with its crazily lush, hot-house artifice, training a drug addict’s woozy lens on Jean Genet.
The standard idea of Fassbinder as a Leftist provocateur shaking the world up (“a slob, a barbarian, a punk anarchist queer”) comes in for some stern questioning. (In this regard, Penman follows in the footsteps of the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.) How does one reconcile all of these trapped lives – “nowhere to run, no chance of redemption” – with any particularly open or progressive philosophy? The tang of defeat in Fassbinder is everywhere. The gay characters are largely miserable, yes, but so is everyone else.
Penman touches on this director’s “comfort zone” – something akin to a settled agoraphobia, with his trusted company of actors thrashing out some dank psychodrama indoors. There’s a sense of wallowing in truths that Fassbinder knew only too well. As the author astutely points out, this isn’t often mentioned when we’re busy hailing Fassbinder’s films as uncompromisingly brave: perhaps it was worth more digging.
Do Penman’s flurries of quickfire erudition add up to a dazzling kaleidoscope overall, or a labyrinth of aborted pathways? The answer is “both”. He’s boldly querying his subject’s genius from every vantage point – angry and young; older and (maybe) wiser.