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  • Whity
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2010
(From my original 1999 review on IMDB. Thanks to DVD, I think the film is better known now.)
Rarely screened, forgotten by even the most devoted admirers of Fassbinder, "Whity" is nonetheless a crucial film in Fassbinder's own development as a film-artist. For one, the style of the film marks Fassbinder's turn away from his earlier, Neo-realistic efforts (notably "Katzelmacher" and "Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?") and turn towards the flamboyant, melodramatic form favored by him until his untimely death in 1982.

Melodrama turns out to be the best possible style for the film's story, which chronicles the fall of the seigniorial Nicholson family in the Mexican 19th century. Indeed, this film should be seen for no other reason than the inescapable weirdness one feels in watching German actors play Mexicans in the Old West. It's like seeing Peter Lorre playing John Wayne: ridiculous, if only it weren't so creepy. "Decadent" and "dysfunctional" are words redefined by the Nicholson family: the patriarch, Ben Nicholson, is remote and cruel, the wife a nymphomaniac, the older son a flaming homosexual, and his brother a severely retarded adolescent.

Then there's Whity, the ironically named mulatto slave of the Nicholson family, an inadvertent focus point of each family member's perverse obsessions. It is this mutual obsession with Whity (an obsession shared by the viewer by film's end) which allows Fassbinder to explore the themes which were to comprise his greatest contribution to film's development as a medium, including: dominance and submission, the role of the Other, sexuality, the doppelganger, the economy of familial relationships, and the obstacles fate puts in the way of consummating love.

These issues gain complexity when one considers that the slave Whity is played by Fassbinder's then-lover, Gunther Kaufmann. Given this, what is the viewer to make of such stylistic scenes as when Whity is disciplined by his master, while the other family members garrulously look on--knowing that Fassbinder himself is also watching from his director/dictator's chair? (The complex inter-relationships of Fassbinder and the actors during the filming of "Whity" were later chronicled by Fassbinder in his film "Beware of a Holy Whore," which is based on the real-life melodrama that occurred off the set of "Whity.")

If nothing else, "Whity" deserves to be included in with the other Fassbinder films, such as "Despair," which are so justly celebrated for their psychological depth and complexity. Beyond this, two aspects of Fassbinder's technique in making "Whity" deserve special mention. The first is that in "Whity," one of the first of his films to employ a half-way reputable color process, Fassbinder shows himself to be a great colorist in the tradition of Delacroix, bathing the eyes with the lushest oranges, browns, and reds to be seen this side of a sunset. The palette is one that seems to have existed in film only in the late 60s and early 70s, finding similarly gorgeous expression in Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451," Boorman's "Point Blank," Godard's "La Chinoise," and Nicolas Roeg's early efforts ("A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to The Forum," "Performance," "Walkabout," "Don't Look Now," "The Man Who Fell to Earth").

The second aspect of noteworthy technique is a camera movement that truly has no precedent in film history--a fact which makes the obscurity of "Whity" among film scholars all the more remarkable. The best example of the technique occurs in a scene in which Ben Nicholson reads his last will and testament to the silent family members surrounding him. During an unbroken ten-minute take, the actors remain virtually motionless, as if posed in some Rembrantian tableaux (and in this way recalling Dreyer's "Day of Wrath"). Against this stasis, the camera pans slowly from one family member to another, following their own sight-lines, as if the camera were recording the trace of their attention. For ten minutes the camera repeats this zig-zag path with methodical precision, while Raben's psychedelic, trance-inducing music drones in the background.

The greatest merit of the technique (seen also in an equally static scene between Whity and the retarded son in the horse barn) is that it allows the viewer time enough to meditate on the relationships among the characters involved in the tableaux--in this case most profoundly on the relationships of power among family members. It's as if Fassbinder, using film technique, took a snapshot of the family, and then spent ten minutes tracing out with his finger exactly who is dominated by whom, who resents the domination, who is perceiving whom and how, and so on. The technique, which to my knowledge Fassbinder never used again to such great effect, can only be seen as the great innovation that it is, and as such, a powerful tool for the revelation of psychological truth.

However, let none of these deeper concerns eclipse the enjoyment to be had watching this bizarre, Teutonic "Dallas" unfold. Like the best moments in a Warhol film, the high camp of "Whity" is very, very funny to watch--certainly because it is absurd, which is not to say it is without profound meaning.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2009
It's like a George Romero prequel to "Mandingo". Wretched and lurid, "Whity"'s a movie that could only have been made in the early years of the seventies, when Paul Morrisey's Warhol films were running in art houses alongside whacked-out gems like "Pink Flamingos" and "Eraserhead". Fassbinder had made (or would soon make) "Love is Colder than Death", "Katzelmacher", "Gods of the Plague" and "Beware of a Holy Whore" by this time, all replete with bizarre touches imported from his Antitheater stage productions.

None of these reach -- or even reach for -- the level of bizarrerie in "Whity". Beginning with the choice of American b-actor Ron Randell as patriarch Ben Nicolson, "Whity" feels like a vicious lampoon of American TV western shows like "Gunsmoke" and a stinging satire on the western genre in general, with its patriotic depictions of the Great American Struggle to Tame the West using God, guns, and gumption. The Nicolson family in "Whity" is as depraved as the Maxwell family in "Mandingo" could ever dream of being. Miss Kitty on "Gunsmoke", for all her Wild West pizazz, never pranced around a saloon crooning what are basically demented art songs the way Hanna Schygulla does in "Whity". And for all Ken Norton's Mede puts up with in "Mandingo", he's never given the burden of a simmering self-loathing that undercuts his rage at every turn.

"Whity" isn't always helped by the way it heaps on grotesqueries, from the ghoulish pancake makeup of the white folks -- sometimes rather greenish, actually -- or the coal-black masque of Elaine Baker as Whity's housemaid mother, Marpessa, a caricature who sings a garbled version of the Battle Hymn of the Republic while fixing dinner. Even Whity himself, though largely spared the clownish makeup of the others, is given white lips. Gunther Kaufmann -- at his most gorgeous here, apart from the lips -- is, like Mede, a kind of a noble savage and the object of both desire and revulsion. The relentless camp qualities of the film turn everyone involved into caricatures of the archetypes of the Western film and TV genre, resulting in an often annoying and seriously flawed film that's acceptable only when viewed in the context of Fassbinder's career to that point. Viewed by any standards other than the stagy, subversive meta-situation that Fassbinder gives it, "Whity" sucks. But it's exactly the strange uniqueness that Fassbinder's vision presents that makes it worth watching.
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5 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 2008
In 1970 the German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote and directed a German language American Western film that, unlike the Spaghetti Westerns of that era- also filmed in Almería, Andalucía, Spain, was not played straight, but more like a silent era Expressionistic film, replete with melodramatic music, cartoonish face makeup, and over the top acting, especially in the physical movements of the actors' bodies. It's one of those films that is so highly stylized, so earnestly trying to be deep and/or profound that it is instead really, really bad; but in the best possible sense of the word bad. It's so bad a film that it is often hysterically funny. This starts from the very notion of Old American West gunslingers sprechen in Deutsch, as well as having them speak German even though all of the signs and Wanted Posters are in English. It's absurd, but wonderfully so.
To say that it is absurd or bizarre is, however, an understatement, yet the film is obviously a satire; unlike, say, Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small or Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. In a sense, this film also reminded me, in terms of lighting and stillnesses, of Kubrick's 1975 costume epic Barry Lyndon, crossed with some of the manifestly fake Western sets in American television shows of that era, especially those that were not Western based shows, but those that had Western themed special episodes, like Star Trek or The Prisoner. Then, added to that, there is mental retardation, transvestism, homosexuality, prostitution, racism, Ku Klux Klan hoods- wholly displaced in the Old West (something a German likely did not know, thinking it merely the American equivalent of the swastika), incest, bestiality, bleached eyebrows, green-white cake makeup, and sadomasochism. Yet, what makes this film so uproariously funny is that Fassbinder's camera and style seem to be oblivious to how truly and uniquely bad and funny the film is. One might even believe that he was a German version of Ed Wood, if this film is any indication of his talents, for true camp comes unwittingly, when an artist is being serious and is oblivious to the worst aspects of his work.
Whity was filmed in garish color, in Cinemascope, where the palette leaps out at you, and this is in keeping with the rest of the over the top nature of the film, and suggest Fassbinder must have known he was making a Carnivalesque romp, if not an outright burlesque. This gaudiness includes the art direction of Kurt Raab, which also won a German Academy Award. While a bit too much, there is no denying that the color palette used by Fassbinder sears into the viewer's head, on an emotional level, and the film seems almost like an Impressionist painting- especially a Monet watercolor, come to life, with its rich reds, ripe oranges, sensuous yellows, burnt browns, and other lesser colors that texture the film like some narcotic fantasy. Also, Ballhaus provides some interesting camera movement that makes the ill written and acted scenes at least interesting to watch, if nothing else; and since film is a visual medium, this is worth noting, even if there's no intellectual reason behind it. For example, in the scene where Ben Nicholson reads his last will and testament, the rest of the actors are standing still, as if composed out of something from one of Ingmar Bergman's hyper-composed 1960s filmic experiments. The camera slowly sweeps over all of them for minutes at a time, while weird music by Peer Raben, who scored the film, and remanent of the just passed psychedelic era, drones on. Some critics contend that this is meant to allow the viewer to ponder the psychological bonds between all the family members, but really it's a funeral dirge for any remaining health the clan might have had, and the filmmaker taking stock of the coming body count.
Thankfully, Whity does not push its tenuous humorous likeability by being too long. It's only 95 minutes, and its manifest flaws lead one to believe that part of the problem was that Fassbinder probably did not spend enough time crafting the film, which was shot in only thirty days. Before he overdosed in 1982, at the age of thirty-seven, he would make forty-three films, direct fourteen plays, write four radio plays, and direct twenty-four television projects. It is interesting to note these flaws and compare them to the flaws that followed him across the films of his career. As for Whity, it's simply a bad, bad film, but more in line with Robot Monster or Plan 9 From Outer Space good bad than with The Hours or Brokeback Mountain or Crash bad bad. As for whether Fassbinder realized he'd made a camp classic, a film that is funny enough to give Blazing Saddles a run for its money? I don't know. Nor do I care, just as I so not care how one labels this film- satire, camp classic, Neo-Expressionist masterpiece, black comedy, melodrama; for funny is funny, and the hour and a half of laughs I got from this dreadful little film was worth something. Perhaps even what little I paid for it.
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0 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 18, 2011
I was first introduced to Fassbinder back in college, circa 1988. The Merchant of Four Seasons, was a masterpiece. The Ali: fear eats the Soul and a few others I don't remember. I finally got the chance to see another Fassbinder movie after all of these years.Fassbinder seems to be saying in this movie, that if your life is so uneventful, if you're so depressed, or pretentious, that you can actually sit through this movie without leaving, you should simply kill yourself.That said, there is a good shot of Hanna's tatas. I only made it though about 35 minutes. No reason in the world to watch this one, drugs or no drugs.
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