Gardens of Artistic Delight

The other day I was driving past Lake Minnetonka, thinking about how much this area sucks, and then started wondering what I would prefer. And I realized that I wish it were more like this.

Mmm, forbidden fruit.

This is a detail from the center panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s great, beautiful triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. A night spent examining this painting is what Ashley and I consider our first date – and it certainly beats going to some random movie or eating dinner. Why did it come to mind when thinking about how to fix the Lake Minnetonka area? Because around here, everyone cuts up the lake and seals off their own little spots – either they’ve got lakeside property that they hoard like a defensive rodent, or else they’ve got some boat they’re obsessively proud of, or some other bullshit attitude toward the lake that comes down to “this is mine.” Well, fuck that. And it occurred to me that the opposite attitude – “this is ours,” more or less, with “ours” referring to all of us, everyone who lives here – is wonderfully embodied in Bosch’s frolicking debauchers, all naked and gleefully having whatever kind of fun they want to (albeit amidst scads of 16th century Dutch symbolism). Honestly, why can’t we have more of this?

I want a peach/flower submarine, dammit.

And don’t give me any of that “It’s completely physically impossible” bullshit. If all the uptight, self-obsessed suburbanites that live around here would just start acting a little more nude-friendly and orgiastic, soon everybody could be hugging owls, eating enormous, allegorical strawberries, and fucking everyone else out in the open. So, to make it short, that’s the reality I want to live in. Even if it is deliberately surreal and a giant religious metaphor. With mermaid knights, too!

And now, I think I’ll talk about something I should’ve brought up a long time ago. There is a blog. I haven’t been there for a while, but when I’m not indulging in punk cabaret, it’s one of my major sources for music. It’s called “Music for Maniacs,” and its premise is carved out of sheer awesomeness. As the homepage explains, it’s “the Web’s longest-running strange-music blog! Dedicated to extremes in music and utterly unique sounds.” Strange, extreme, and unique, in this context, translate into outsider, avant-garde, and novelty music, along with weird, out-of-left-field recordings from mainstream artists, or else music that’s extreme just because it’s so bad. (If you’ve ever heard of The Shaggs, you know what I’m talking about.)

Singing Sadie: Australia's multi-untalented queen of nostalgically obscene ditties

It’s all well and good to gravitate toward “great” works of art, after all – your Citizen Kanes and Hamlets, your lovely lovely Ludwig Vans and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bands. But sometimes you just need something that, good or bad, is out of the ordinary. Weird. Or, if you’re me, then you need it more than sometimes and you end up writing about it ad nauseum. My point is that Music for Maniacs is a great source of weird, and provides a needed service on the Internet. They introduced me to the untalented, yet weirdly wonderful Singing Sadie. They uncover long-buried treasures, whether sublime or, uh, not so sublime.  I see M4M (as the blog’s author calls it) as providing a service not unlike my beloved publishing house Feral Press: turning over those big rocks in the garden of culture and bringing all the worms and pillbugs out into the sunlight. So go browse through M4M’s archives, check out some mash-ups or long-dead musicians you’ve never heard, and dive into the world of weird music. It’s very worth the effort.

Speaking of something that’s worth the effort, I finally finished Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1980 mega-film Berlin Alexanderplatz this morning. It’s pretty much the longest narrative film ever made (15 1/2 hours), and it earns the title. Incidentally, it’s also a great, visually impressive, emotionally involving film about a simple man who longs for escape but finds his environment (the scummy yet resplendent Weimar Berlin of 1926-28) perpetually dragging him down. That man is Franz Biberkopf, played to perfection by Günter Lamprecht. Franz is an endlessly fascinating, well-developed character, yet one of his defining characteristics is that he’s so ordinary and complaisant. As the film starts – the first episode is fittingly entitled “The Punishment Begins” – Franz is being released from Tegel prison after serving 4 years for killing his girlfriend Ida. (The verdict was manslaughter, and the murder itself, in which Franz mercilessly beats Ida with a shaving brush, is repeated periodically throughout the film.)

The Punishment Begins: Franz Biberkopf leaves prison

Franz vows to go straight, but is unprepared for the trials he’ll face. From episode to episode, he meets a variety of characters, each played by a member of Fassbinder’s stock company (and surrogate family). As enormous a film as it is, a synopsis could never do it justice, but suffice it to say that Franz encounters one challenge after another, and is frequently overcome. Some characters help him (the maternal whore Eva pops up now and then, played by The Marriage of Maria Braun‘s Hannah Schygulla, and there’s also Franz’s old friend Meck) while others put further obstacles in his way – the gangster Pums, the unscrupulous peddler Luders, and the sniveling, stuttering villain who’s also Franz’s best friend, Reinhold (Gottfried John).

Berlin Alexanderplatz might be interesting to examine (if one had the inclination) vis-à-vis a film made shortly after it’s set, Fritz Lang’s M. Although Fassbinder had the benefit of hindsight, both films still follow helpless protagonists (Franz due to his past and economic conditions; Hans Beckert to his own psychotic impulses) trying to navigate through a city (and nation) teetering dangerously close to the abyss of Nazism. I’ve thought in the past about the German New Cinema: if the orphaned Werner Herzog, through his remake of Nosferatu, sees himself as a child of Murnau, whose legacy is Fassbinder picking up? His Lola refashions elements of The Blue Angel – so maybe, with his glittering visual excess and doomed heroes, he could be the offspring of von Sternberg and Lang. Just a thought.

Mieze screaming in the pink glow of neon lights

So, Berlin Alexanderplatz… where to even start discussing this movie? I haven’t yet mentioned one crucial character: Mieze, aka Sonia, whose real name is Emilie Karsunke. An innocent, joyful prostitute (man, this movie piles up contradictions) introduced to Franz by Eva, she rapidly forms a close attachment to him, making up for all the brief, shallow relationships Franz has throughout the film’s first half. She’s played by Barbara Sukowa, who’s cute as a button, wears a little ribbon in her hair, and is prone to breaking into ecstatic screams around the people she loves, Franz und Eva. (Or not-so-ecstatic, like after she receives a particularly brutal beating from Franz that’s terrifyingly reminiscent of Ida’s murder.)

Berlin Alexanderplatz is on one hand a study of the blithely childlike couple of Franz und Mieze, each of whom have an uneasy, uncertain relationship with Reinhold, and on the other hand a probing look at the very specific historical conditions that force Franz from place to place, like hands moving a pawn across a chessboard. It’s also a masterpiece from a brilliant but troubled director, as well as a very personal one – Fassbinder claimed that the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz saved his life, that he knew it by heart, and that Franz, Reinhold, and Mieze were all him in different ways. He had an amazing devotion to the project, and it shows; only such devotion could produce a work of this magnitude, and yet have it all come out coherent and beautiful.

Fassbinder, who made 40 films, yet died at age 37

I’m still pretty much at a loss as to how I can get a handle on this movie. It’s so sprawling and has such dramatic breadth. It’s been said that the novel’s author, Alfred Döblin, was inspired to write it by reading Ulysses. Well, along those lines, I say this: if there’s a way to turn a novel as allusive, complex, and defiantly literary as Ulysses into a movie, Fassbinder found it. The narration (provided by the director himself) recites newspaper headlines, crime statistics, poetry unrelated to the plot; the length doesn’t seem excessive, because Berlin Alexanderplatz is so broad it needs a full half-day to unravel. It speaks of violence and theft and their effects on Franz’s precarious psyche; there’s the impossibility of being as sweet as Mieze in so sour a place as Berlin; and then the omnipresent problem of politics, as Franz goes from selling Nazi newspapers to attending communist rallies, without ever ideologically committing himself. Unless, of course, you count the ideologically of “trying humbly to get along in the world.”

The fact is that to get through the whole movie, you need to have some level of commitment to these characters, their personalities and experiences, even their disastrous mistakes. Special kudos should also go to Xaver Schwarzenberger’s cinematography which lets eyes and skin shine in the city lights and lets us see the beauty in beer, hats, and bird cages. For such an abysmally gritty place, it sure looks great. If you’re still not convinced that Berlin Alexanderplatz is worth spending so much time on, take a look at the trailer. It’s a great movie and even if you’re not a hardcore cinephile, even if you wouldn’t normally go out of your way for an art film – you should still watch it. It’s a valuable experience, and it’s very worth the effort.

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Filed under art, Cinema, Media, Music

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