Whity – Fassbinder and the dark side of the Western. (film Review)
How interesting to see Whity just two weeks after I saw Django Unchained. Both Fassbinder and Tarantino pay homage / deconstruct the Western in the two films, while Tarantino goes the Blacksploitation route and Fassbinder goes the gay/subteranean-fucked-up-route. It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I preferred Whity. It displays ten times the courage and is a thousand times more insightful than Tarantino, even if I did have a pretty good time with Django Unchained.
Of course, Tarantino is much easier than Fassbinder, and does much less with much more. A viewer can relax in Django Unchained, even when the blood splatters. But how many of us can relax when the owner of the largest plantations son wears his mothers coursetry, when distorted cupids spy from the background of almost every shot and the overriding implication is that gun slingin’ cowboys are clearly gay. (long before Brokeback Mountain) Whity reaches into every stereotype you can imagine with the classic Western, digs it up till we can see the roots, and plants it back in the ground upside down. Amazingly, the final scenes are extremely similar to Tarantino’s film, except with far more shock value and far more emotional impact. Tarantino must have been influenced by this film, even if he doesn’t credit it, (Or if he does credit it, I haven’t read that anywhere). There are so many similarities it can’t be an accident.
Having said that, Whity is a Western like none I have seen before. Fassbinder applies his ferocious intelligence to the genre in a way that changes it forever, getting to the worm-ridden heart of the western and makes us squirm in our love for it. After hiring the sets off Leone who recreated the “west” in Spain, Fassbinder pushes his actors to aesthetic extremes to the point where the film has become notorious for the complaints and problems on set. The next film Fassbinder will make is Beware of a Holy Whore, a funny look at the trials and tribulations of making a film, and one of my favorite films of all time. Given the pace Fassbinder worked, its impossible not to imagine Beware of a holy whore being influenced by the making of Whity.
One of the major complaints of the actors, and as it turns out, one of the films intense strengths, is the makeup. The Nicholson family are literally plastered with weird off-color make up that sits mask like over their faces. When we first see the family they are seated at dinner, in a last supper set up (a favorite image of Fassbinder’s) each looking like death. Racism is a subtext of the Western Fassbinder wants us to examine, and with painted faces like these, there is no mistaking the message. The fatuity of judging a person by the color of their skin is immediately obvious. Even Whity wears a white powder dusted across his lips in the earlier shots of the film, as he speaks the words that support the lifestyle of the man he calls ‘Massa’ (who is also his father). Most shocking of all would have to be the make up of Elaine Baker who plays Marpessa, Whity’s mother. She is painted almost black minstrel style and dons an afro wig. It’s an instantly shocking statement, coupled with her singing of old negro spirituals. Because this is Fassbinder and because almost everyone in the film wears a mask, we immediately recognize the commentary on the way blacks are portrayed in Westerns. What takes this performance beyond a mere lecture in racism however, is the compliance of the African-American slaves in their own subjugation. It’s deeply unsettling. This is off set against the emotional illness of the Nicholson family – also ghoulishly made up – to reveal the death of the human soul and its willingness to turn on itself in perpetuating decay of the human spirit. The Nicholson’s are as enslaved as the slaves they whip and beat and abuse and Marpessa’s crys of ‘We will overcome’ never amount to a liberation in the true sense.
Another potent strength of the film is the acting style Fassbinder imposes on his cast. Movement is deliberate, laden with dramatic meaning (in many ways this is a famous Fassbinder melodrama rather than a Western) and pregnant with consequence. For a film shot almost in slow motion it seems at times, the suspense is gripping. The actors move as if they’re trapped in psychological quicksand, and the odd swift act comes out of no where, shocking the viewer. I was reminded here of Herzog’s heart of glass in the way the actors moved, making me think Whity might have been what Herzog was trying to do when he had a hypnotized cast. Fassbinder creates a series of individuals who move and act as though they have been hypnotized by a certain way of life, a certain set rules and a certain lack of moral principle. The soul is removed from every character – and why not? They live in a Western after all. Fassbinder places emphasis on the process, his sensuous camera moves around the action (or emphatic lack of it) revealing over and over the various prisons and treadmills each character finds themselves trapped in. I didn’t know before I watched Whity, but found out in reading later, that Fassbinder made the film up in long takes, stretching the movement out emotionally, so much so that actors often had to leave a scene to apply their heavy makeup only to return before the end of the take.
Mention must be made of the sadomasochistic underpinnings of the film, which is obviously Fassbinder’s ‘reasoning’ behind the Western genre and our passion for it. Fassbinder sees sadomasochism in slavery as well as in the desires to shoot an enemy dead in the street and he relates it powerfully to sex and sexual perversions such as incest, sadomasochistic domination and submission and economic power. Money is never far behind in a Fassbinder film, as Capitalism is the ultimate sadomasochistic dominant. Whity and his lovers, male and female, are all controlled economically, forcing them perpetually into new levels of depravity and self loathing. Fassbinder has no sympathies (or rather few sympathies) for the repressed individual that won’t fight, be they female, black or gay. His films always reveal the perfect / imperfect balance between self-awareness and self-mutilation, and the resulting throat cut capitalism will dish out to the weak. Compare this with Haneke who sees violence as a churned up inner response to external turmoil. Both the directors will blame a capitalist society and our own inner fury, for the violent acts we perform upon one another, but Fassbinder’s overt Freudian readings contrast with Haneke’s religious and moral dominance in a very interesting compliment to the ongoing commentary on culture and why we love what we love.
Check out the IMDB for cast and crew. I haven’t said anything about the incredible music, cinematography or cast here. Oh, and ignore the ratings. Rotten Tomatoes gives this film a 100% and it deserves all that. This is easily one of the best films ever made.