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Fox and His Friends (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) 1975

   

    I imagine itís probably best if I preface this review of Rainer Werner Fassbinderís Fox and His Friends with the disclaimer that Iíve never previously seen any of the directorís work. Still, itís hard not to see from just this one film that Fassbinder is a distinctive and bold cinematic voice. Itís no wonder that he is considered by many to be a master director. In the wonderfully original Fox, Fassbinder himself plays the lead role, and slides effortlessly into the world that heís created. The film follows young Fox, a gay carnival sideshow freak who finds his fortunes changed when he wins 500,000 Marks in the lottery. The most surprising thing about Fassbinderís vision is the matter-of-fact way in which he presents his predominantly gay cast. Instead of using gay characters to make a message movie that asserts they are somehow braver or better than straight folks, he does the opposite, allowing them their status as a fringe culture, but denying them the romantic notion that their place outside the norm gives them perspective that the masses lack. He insists that they are just as capable of being petty, exploitative, and bourgeois as the rest of humanity. Now thatís equality!

   

    One of the great observations of Fox and His Friends is the speed with which the acquirement of money turns its protagonist into someone who believes that his money can buy his happiness. Though Fox doesnít exactly become a big spender through his own accord (Eugen, his opportunistic boyfriend makes most of his purchasing decisions for him), itís only because he assumes he is too stupid to make those decisions for himself that he gives away that power. Though Fox initially seems in command of his relationship with Eugen - notice his sexual dominance of him early on - a passive aggressive series of demeaning insults (ďWeíll make a human being of you yet.Ē) that he endures gradually wear down his resolve. Eugenís avaricious attraction to Fox is so apparent to the audience that the film could be scarcely be called a melodrama. Melodramas usually have an element of surprise built in that stunts the audienceís hopes. Not for a moment does Fassbinder indulge our fantasies that Foxís tryst might be working toward a happy ending.

   

    The movie is more interesting than a conventional melodrama, though, since its presentation is so original and thought-through. The way that Fassbinderís camera pans from a haughty Eugen as he mocks Fox to their fabulously ornate bed (which is far more expensive than the bed that Eugen had before he met Fox) makes us question where Eugenís pretension come from. Description as a melodrama would also belie the movieís myriad humorous touches, which mock those pretensions and the willingness with which they are adopted. Perhaps the funniest, and most outrageous scene, takes place in the Marrakesh Holiday Inn. After Fox and Eugen bring back a strapping Arab to their hotel room for a threesome, they are informed by one of the hotelís Arab employees that Arab visitors are not allowed on hotel property. With a bit of petulant indignation, the couple turns their friend away and scorns the worker for his conflict of interest. To console his angry guests, the worker offers one of the staff boys to them! The scene is brilliant because it works on the same principle as the rest of the film, and shows how their eagerness to have a conventional response is completely at odds with their unconventional behavior. Another highlight occurs in the scenes where Eugen takes Fox home for dinner with his parents. The embarrassment that Eugen feels from witnessing Foxís uncouth behavior feels cribbed from an infinite number of movies that featured straight protagonists. The bravery that Fassbinder exhibits as he comically flirts with taboo subject matter is precisely what positions him as one that is qualified to make this sort of cultural judgment.

   

    If itís tough to argue with Fassbinderís assessment of fringe culture, itís a bit disturbing how easily it leads to a rather dim and reductive view of humanity. Since he presents a story told in the milieu of a minority that wants to be like a majority about a minor man who wants to become a major one, he gives the impression that such behavior is universal and there isnít a single person that could exist beyond his disdain. Fox himself is utterly guileless, and even in the scenes where we should be rooting for him the most, such as the one in which his new friends urge him to reject his sister, itís tough to do so (this time because sheís drunk and obnoxious). Every man seems out for himself here, and since thatís the case, none seem any better or worse than the rest. To be a minority isnít reason enough for sympathy, Fassbinder seems to say, since the minority would act as the majority does if positions were to change. An early playful argument between Fox and Eugen about which one of them is ďthe girlĒ initially seems to have only its obvious practical sexual implications, but by the end of the film, it becomes apparent that those semantics reveal a lot about how it is that these characters define themselves in straight peopleís terms. Fassbinder sees nothing but folly in that kind of self-perception, because it is inherently contradictory.  Fox and His Friends works best as a comedy, because it truly manages to create a world where every individual and every individual interest is patently absurd since it follows similar lines.

 

* * * *  

07-15-02 

Jeremy Heilman