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An Enchanting Proscenium: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore

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An Enchanting Proscenium: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s <em>Beware of a Holy Whore</em>

The operative sensibility of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cinema is panoptical. One is always being watched by the indiscriminating, playful eye of seductress and demagogue, treating filmmaking as a messy encounter between fantasy and reality that transpires across rooms rather than on stage. For Fassbinder, rooms are prosceniums that enchant the camera. His Beware of a Holy Whore, from 1971, makes an inventory of its characters as they slouch on sofas and sprawl across beds. They’re the cast and crew of a troubled film headed by an incongruously tempered director (Lou Castel) supplemented by an aged Eddie Constantine and a Monroe blonde dressed in a skimpy variant from The Seven Year Itch. And as an inventory in images, Fassbinder’s film is peculiarly elusive, its camera almost always panning and surveying, its characters dancing in rococo rooms to the sound of American pop music. It’s a film stocked with incidents that deceive, and with moments of alleged narrative import that devolve ad infinitum into fragments that resist narrative coherence.

Coherence, however, isn’t a virtue of Beware of a Holy Whore; rather, what matters about this film—and what ultimately maintains its interest—is its rather insistent and schematic way of answering the question, “How do you make a movie about the making of a movie?” Fassbinder’s answer shares with an itinerant film like Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie not only its suggestion of sexual promiscuity (hence its title), but also its interest in a promiscuous aesthetic; his garish and costumed characters—and their uninflected conversations, their disproportionate personalities—ask that our attention be distributed horizontally, as though no single component of the frame should be privileged. Even the high-pitched and perpetually dissatisfied Castel can’t give us an adequate point of narrative or thematic orientation. Instead, we have a film populated by dissonant and impasto personalities; this, of course, isn’t a weakness of Beware of a Holy Whore, but, rather, a consequence of a compelling and aleatory visual style.

Unlike Godard’s characters, however, Fassbinder’s are not necessarily surrogates for ideas, despite what might be suggested by their penchant for inexplicable activities (smashing liquor glasses, testing each other’s reflexes with hand games, etc.). There’s no Anna Karina the Saint, the Martyr, the Joan of Arc; there is, however, a certain relationship to religious experience pervading this film, alluded to by its title. The whore is holy, we are told, although holiness is hardly compensatory or ameliorative given the warning issued by Fassbinder: “Beware” (a command directed toward us, toward the characters on screen?). Holiness is too serious a sensibility, too stodgy and repressive a disposition to earn a place in Fassbinder’s film; it shrivels spontaneity and disorder, it makes life less promiscuous, more burdensome.

And spontaneity, again, is a requisite condition for these characters: Bacchanalia replaces the Passion as the dominant mode. Its vision isn’t apocalyptic, but insouciant, present tense, a call for experiences that are cyclical rather than linear and impending (hence the camera continues to pivot, the jukebox continues to play American pop songs, the film shoot continues to be interrupted, etc.). Neither God nor whore nor Messiah is watching; instead, these characters watch themselves, and it’s to their great pleasure and fulfillment that they perform unceasingly, that they’re on all the time. (Thus, the words of one character to Castel’s Jeff: “But you know so much about the same thing.”)

Thus, too, the film’s epilogue, provided by Thomas Mann: “I am weary to death of depicting humanity without partaking of humanity.” Above all, Beware of a Holy Whore is an evocation, an enthralled pronouncement about the pleasures of being on all the time, about knowing so much about—and continuously participating in—the same thing without hesitation. Despite the strenuousness of filmmaking, Fassbinder reveals that his relationship to it is tender, reverential, and requiring all kinds of concessions. But concessions, too, can be fulfilling; performing demands self-annihilation, a perpetual turning away from the self. Here, Fassbinder’s film finds its most meaningful link to a certain style of spiritual life, one that makes suffering—whether on or off the film set—a necessary corollary to partaking of humanity.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore will screen, along with Satan’s Brew, at the 92nd Street Y on June 29, 2012. For more information, click here.