Week 6 — Fassbinder

The readings this week accounted for a fraction of the very diverse readings of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films. I, myself, have a relatively limited exposure to his work–outside of Ali, I haven’t seen anything in full–but I am well aware of the impact and importance of his work as a director that purposefully positions himself in both historical and queer contexts. My film of study for the semester is by a director who is analogous to Fassbinder in this sense–although they share essentially no meaningful stylistic approaches, both Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Fassbinder are deeply concerned with the problematic histories of their respective nations, and unflinchingly present their own queerness in their films. In this response I will take choice quotes from the readings and see what an application of these readings of Fassbinder can yield to a viewer when they are applied to Weerasethakul.

Although very little in Weerasethakul’s filmography (outside of the somewhat bizarre Mekong Hotel) can be called what we traditionally consider to be camp, Johannes von Moltke’s essay has a potent applicability to Tropical Malady. When von Moltke discusses the “very concept of distinction becom[ing] the object of camp’s frivolity,” I am reminded of the foregrounding of disabled bodies in Weerasethakul’s films (82). Jenjira Pongpas’s leg becomes more and more shortened over the decade and a half that he has been filming her, but it is also never an object of pity. Rather, she is treated as a functional, high performing, infinitely capable member of society. I resist politicizing her body too aggressively, but the fact that Weerasethakul is so willing to let her and her work take foreground over a potential politicizatoin speaks volumes to me.

In Thomas Elsaesser’s writing, he points out that Fassbinder’s films “turn on how to (re-)present the present, in order for the past to make sense” (30). I believe that Weerasethakul’s obsession with history and legacy–as seen in Syndromes and a Century (2006), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives (2010), and Cemetery of Splendour (2015)–uses a highly mystic and mysterious modality of storytelling to achieve the same goals. Whereas Fassbinder turned towards an aggresive dramatization, Weerasethakul peels back the layers of storytelling in order to present a bare, stripped down vision of both the past and the present to highlight difference once again. While I don’t think he is trying to make the same kind of occasionally reductive claims that filmmakers like Takahata and Miyazaki are, he does hold a certain reverence for the plainness of the past–or perhaps specifically the plainness with which we used to tell stories–which I would argue situates him in the canon of filmmaker’s indebted to the art of oral storytelling as much as someone like Ousmane Sembène.


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