Tuesday, December 11, 2007

12/11: Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs; Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven

One of the best outcomes of the recent Short Film blog-a-thon is that it's reawakened my interest in classic Warner Brothers animation, so I'll be watching a lot more of it from now on. These cartoons work especially well the way they were originally intended to be seen, as bonuses preceding a feature. In that regard, the 1943 Robert Clampett-directed Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs may not be the most logical choice for a light pre-feature diversion, but it's still a blast to watch. That is, if (and it's an admittedly big "if") one can get past the short's baldly racist caricatures and the consequent dated feeling of the humor. As the title implies, this is a parody of competitor Disney's Snow White, with all black clichés (they're hardly fully-formed characters) in the usual roles. The lead herself has morphed into So White, with her "coal black hair," short skirt showing off her endless legs, and wide eyes, a hyper-sexualized Dorothy Dandridge type (and why not, after all, since Dandridge's mother and sister provide the voice acting). The rest of the characters are even broader black stereotypes of the time: gigantic lips, even bigger feet, and a mouth full of gold teeth for Prince Chawmin' (capped off, hilariously, with dice for his two front teeth).

The stereotyping is outrageous, but I'll admit it barely distracted from my pure enjoyment of the cartoon, which in any case at least isn't mean-spirited in its caricaturing. Clampett intended to glorify black culture, not denigrate it, and even if his iconography is inextricably tied to the racist imagery of his day, there's no denying the sheer pleasure this film provides in its music and sense of rhythm and motion. There's just so much energy here that it's almost impossible to resist, and no amount of racial guilt can dull the impact of Clampett's frenetic pacing and rubbery character designs. The whole thing is set to a vibrant, jazzy score, and the characters half-sing, half-speak their words in rhyming couplets, while the action moves along at a breakneck pace that makes even the wildest of other Looney Tunes shorts seem turtle-like in comparison. And why not? After all, Clampett was essentially compressing the hour and a half of Snow White into less than 8 minutes, so it's natural that things get a bit frantic. The cartoon jumps, shimmies, and jives with such intensity and speed that the characters can barely sit still even to deliver their lines or get through the necessary scenes. When the evil witch comes to give So White the famous poison apple (riding up on a bicycle-propelled fruit cart), neither character can stop bouncing and dancing in place as they exchange dialogue, and they bring all their surroundings into harmony with their groove. The whole frame seems to be jittering in rhythm with the motion of their bodies, and even the sun can't help but dance in time to the music as it rises in the morning. No plot necessities are going to slow these characters down.

And they never do slow down, even for the obligatory kiss scene at the end, which instead of romance becomes downright kinky — people always have wondered about Snow White and those dwarfs. Clampett signals the film's overt sexuality almost right away, when the queen's first lines are not the familiar "who's the fairest one of all?" but: "Magic mirror, on the wall, send me a prince 'bout six feet tall." I dare you not to laugh. There are plenty more great lines here, and an overall mood of exuberance that propels the film through its ridiculous and sexualized parody of Disney's squeaky-clean masterpiece. Its blatant racism is hard to ignore, at least in the abstract, but at the same time it's so much fun — and such a brilliant example of Clampett's skill for high-energy animation — that it should be seen far and wide anyway. For now, you can only watch it at places like here, in a lousy n-th generation VHS dub, until Warner finally gets the guts to release it on DVD — and this mouth-watering blog post shows just how good this film could look.

Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven pretty much picks right up from where Rainer Werner Fassbinder's earlier Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? left off. The earlier film ends with the titular office worker, slowly ground down by work and domestic life, casually killing his wife and neighbor before killing himself. This film starts from a similar place, as the factory worker Hermann kills his boss and then himself before the film starts. Hermann's rampage happens off-screen, and his family hears about it on the radio, with no name attached, before a man arrives at their door to inform them about what happened. What ensues is a darkly comic chronicle of the titular Emma Küsters (Brigitte Mira), who is surrounded on all sides by cruelty, manipulation, and abandonment in the wake of her husband's death.

It should be no surprise that Fassbinder is here, as always, concerned with manipulation and people taking advantage of the misfortunes of others, but this may just be his darkest and most unflinching portrayal of these kinds of behavior. The film is exaggerated to the point of caricature, especially in the beginning sequences where reporters immediately descend upon the Küsters home, haranguing the family and asking leading questions that are clearly meant to bolster the inevitable sensationalist stories. There's also a photo session where the reporter Niemeyer (Gottfried John) photographs the weeping widow just days after her husband's death, asking her to pose with the dead man's photograph, and directing her on how to pose through her tears. Fassbinder keeps accumulating details in this way, not afraid to go well over the top to satirize the ways in which people trivialize and take advantage of tragedy. Later, Frau Küsters falls in with a group of Communists who tell her that her husband's deed was a "revolutionary" act, that he was unconsciously tapping into the workers' righteous anger at the capitalist system. The widow, desperate for company as her selfish children abandon her, joins the Party and makes speeches for them, but is disappointed that they seem to have no solutions for her or her husband's posthumous reputation — they're just using her for their own political aims.

This is a remarkably bitter satire, even for the always astringent Fassbinder, although flashes of dark wit and absurdist humor (like the drag ballerina dancing in the background of one scene) lighten the mood occasionally. The film again and again holds out hope to the widow that her life will improve, and then methodically, one by one, reveals the ways in which all these hopes will fail her: business, the journalists with their pretensions to "objective" truth, political movements, family. None of these outlets provide any real hope for this woman. Interestingly, there is a glimmer of hope in at least one of the film's endings, since the film had entirely opposite final scenes for the European and American markets. In the European version, the film ends when Emma becomes involved with an anarchist group who take over a newspaper office and threaten to kill hostages if their demands are not met. It's a masterfully executed scene, with Emma lurking silently in the background, realizing that she has once again been used by people who have no real interest in her. As the anarchist leader enumerates his demands to the police over the phone, the camera pans past his shoulder to reveal Emma's shocked and drained face, and the shot freezes as a lengthy on-screen text explains the violent bloodbath that follows, in which Mother Küsters fulfills the title's prediction. In the American release, though, the title is given a somewhat different and more hopeful meaning, as after a peaceful but unsuccessful sit-in at the newspaper, Emma meets an old and equally lonely janitor who offers to bring her back to his house for a dish he calls "heaven and earth."

These two endings provide two possible alternate realities for Frau Küsters' tortured life. Obviously, the European version is more in keeping with the rest of the film, and its objective textual recounting of the bloody final events reflects back on the journalistic satire earlier in the film. This resolution brings the film full circle, from one journalistic account of violent action (the radio report of Hermann's murder/suicide) to another. The American version, in holding out a genuine sliver of hope to Emma, breaks the film's cycle of negativity and cynicism, but it's somehow unbelievable, so totally out of keeping with the rest of the film (and the rest of Fassbinder's oeuvre) that one wonders why Fassbinder ever filmed it at all. The European version of the film is a minor masterpiece of manipulation and the isolation of the individual, harrowing in its single-minded devotion to a cycle of hope and disappointment that ends only in death. Thus, death for Mother Küsters is heaven not because of any Judeo-Christian religious underpinnings in the film, but because it represents a final end to the cruelty of worldly existence.


Lights in the Dusk said...

I first saw this film in 2005 and it has since remained one of my favourites from Fassbinder. As you rightly point out, it seems like a direct continuation of the theme initially suggested in Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, only with the emphasis placed on those who experience a tragedy of that magnitude, as opposed to committing it.

I'm not sure if you're familiar with Fassbinder's later film, The Third Generation, but it can almost be seen as a direct continuation of the ideas expressed in the second half of Mother Küsters. In fact, many see it as Fassbinder's answer to La Chinoise - with the presentation of arm-chair terrorists plotting revolution from a suburban apartment building - but even then, the themes of exploitation, manipulation and industry, combined with the depiction of characters reduced to exaggerated caricature, is all in keeping with the rest of Fassbinder's work from this particular era.

Ed Howard said...

The Third Generation is one of my favorite Fassbinders, as well as being one of the films where his influence from Godard is most obvious (the far less successful Niklashausen Journey is another). It's a great, savagely funny film, very much in keeping with Fassbinder's usual aesthetics and themes, while adding a more stridently political overlay than usual. The Godard influence is present, not only in the politics, but in the wonderful multi-layered soundtrack, which uses TV and radio chatter as atonal counterpoints to the dialogue. I hadn't thought of this film in relation to Mother Kusters, but that's a good connection.