Watch: The Face of Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

Watch: The Face of Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

Christopher Lee was the definitive working actor. His career was long, and he appeared in more films than any major performer in the English-speaking world — over 250. What distinguishes him, though, and should make him a role model for anyone seeking a life on stage or screen, is not that he worked so much but that he worked so well. He took that work seriously as both job and art, even in the lightest or most ridiculous roles, and he gave far better, more committed performances than many, if not most, of his films deserved.

Lee said that a successful actor needed “a degree of versatility”, and he embodied that idea. He never quite broke out of his typecasting as a horror villain, but he didn’t need to — he showed the variety and depth possible within such characters, playing each not as a collection of clichés (even when they were written that way), but as something like a human being (even when they weren’t). This is the key to one of the great roles of his later career, that of Saruman in the various Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. He is utterly terrifying but also fascinating, and there are moments where we want to sympathize with him, or perhaps join him, and then we realize the error of our momentary desires. No actor in those films so fully and convincingly portrays the temptations of evil.

Though Lee performed well and even memorably in plenty of bad, unmemorable movies, the one that stands as the apotheosis of his skill is ‘The Man with the Golden Gun.’ It’s neither Lee’s worst movie nor the worst James Bond movie, but it’s pretty bad nonetheless. However, Lee so perfectly embodies Scaramanga that he steals every scene he’s in and is usually listed as one of the great Bond villains.

One of the film’s faults is that it plays too much for laughs, but Lee doesn’t make that mistake. He takes Scaramanga seriously as a character and he doesn’t wink at us to signal that he thinks he’s in a crappy movie. To have an actor commit to a role, even if it’s a terrible role in a terrible movie, pays respect to the audience. The nature of film production is such that an actor can’t always know when they’re in a good or bad film, anyway, as what things feel like on set can be quite different from what ends up making it through postproduction, and so the only way to make sure that you don’t mess up a potentially great (or even just passably good) movie is to treat the job as you would had you been cast in the greatest, most demanding, most prestigious film of all time. 

Again and again, Christopher Lee performed that way. Nobody performed terribly-written lines as adroitly as he — no matter how awkward, stilted, or absurd the line, he would find a way to inhabit it, a way to make it seem like the only thing his character could possibly have said at the moment of utterance. As an actor, he couldn’t necessarily control the writing, the cinematography, the editing, but he could control his own performance, and that he did.

Lee was, for similar reasons, an impressive comedic actor. One key to successful comedic acting is this: the actors shouldn’t do the laughing for the audience. Watch Lee in, for instance, ‘Gremlins 2,’ an at best mediocre film in which he is delightful: his timing is excellent, and he knows when to pull back and allow a simple, stoic glance to do all the work for him.

It’s a shame that Christopher Lee was never nominated for an Academy Award (though of course the list of actors and filmmakers never nominated for that award is not at all a shameful one). He certainly deserved at least an honorary, career-spanning acting award, because he achieved far more than a lot of actors who walked away with Oscar in their hands. It’s one thing to perform well in a beautifully written, sensitively directed, artistically shot, masterfully edited movie. It’s quite another accomplishment to perform so consistently well, year after year, in a wide variety of movies that more often than not are not especially well written, directed, shot, or edited — that, indeed, at times seem to have been written, directed, shot, and edited by a vaguely sentient slime mold. Christopher Lee did so, over and over again, for more than sixty years. If that doesn’t define a great actor, I don’t know what does.

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One StoryWeb ConjunctionsStrange HorizonsFailbetter.comIdeomancerPindeldybozRain TaxiLocusThe Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Siteamong other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.

Watch: A Video Essay on Satan in Film History

Watch: A Video Essay on Satan in Film History

…horror and doubt distract
His troubl’d thoughts, and from the bottom stir

The Hell within him, for within him Hell

He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell

One step no more then from himself can fly

By change of place… 

—John Milton, Paradise
, Book IV 

The character of Satan seems far more appealing to
filmmakers than the character of God. This may be for reasons of propriety: one
should not, perhaps, make too many images of God. But since when has Hollywood
cared about anything other than money and stardom? God isn’t any good for
either. Omnipotence is just too boring.

There are devils in most films, because most films are
melodramas of one sort of another, and no melodrama works very well without
some embodiment of evil. But Satan himself (or herself or theirself or anyself
— Satan, like every angel, fallen or not, is any gender and every gender) is a
less common figure. One of the most powerful Satanic representations in film
history wasn’t even technically of Satan: it was Mephistopheles in Murnau’s Faust, still one of the most visually
interesting portrayals of satanic power. 

The problem with portraying Satan is that it is difficult to
capture the full horror he is supposed to be capable of. Less is more: the
films that go for gothic bombast tend to end up causing laughter more than
horror. Satans with horns and tails are downright goofy, and rarely appear in
anything except broad (and usually unfunny) comedies. 

But the Satans that seem most human — the Satans that
reflect the satanic desires we ourselves carry within us  — those Satans can dig deep into our
nightmares. I’ve never forgotten Robert DeNiro in Angel Heart since I first saw the movie as a teenager. DeNiro was a
truly frightening Satan not just because he’s a great actor, but also because
he’s a great actor who’s played Satanic humans such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. These days, it seems to me,
the most Satanic character on our screens is Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal, who
vividly, frighteningly captures the charisma that still exudes from the pages
of Milton’s Paradise Lost, about
which scholars still argue whether Milton was, as William Blake insisted, “of
the Devil’s party.”

Given the horror available around the world every day,
perhaps we hold no real fear of Hell, and so no real fear of Satan. What could
Satan do that humans don’t already do to each other all the time? Filmmakers
seem to have realized this, and thus the relative rarity of seriously scary
Satans. We are more horrifying than any of our myths or fantasies. Anything
ascribed to Satan is something a person has already imagined.

The devil is a human dream, a dream of the human, and that’s
what makes him frightening.

VIDEO ESSAY: Terry Gilliam: The Triumph of Fantasy

VIDEO ESSAY: Terry Gilliam: The Triumph of Fantasy

In a 1988 interview with David Morgan for Sight and Sound, Terry Gilliam proposed that the most common theme of his movies had been fantasy vs. reality, and that, after the not-entirely-happy endings of Time Bandits and Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen offered the happiness previously denied, a happiness made possible by “the triumph of fantasy”.

triumph is not, though, inherently happy. Gilliam’s occasional happy
endings are not so much triumphs of fantasy as they are triumphs of a
certain tone. They are the endings that fit the style and subject matter
of those particular films. More often than not, his endings are more
ambiguous, but fantasy still triumphs. Even poor Sam Lowry in Brazil
gets to fly away into permanent delusion. Fantasy is sometimes a
torment for Gilliam’s characters, but it is a torment only in that it is
haunted by reality, and reality in Gilliam is a land of pain,
injustice, and, perhaps worst of all, ordinariness.

if there is, generally, an overarching theme to Gilliam’s work, it is
one familiar from fairy tales, comic books, science fiction stories, and
so many other works of popular culture: the yearning of an ordinary
person to be, in truth, extraordinary — a hero, a savior, a king, a
master of the universe. (Time Bandits is Harry Potter
avant la wand, and it’s no surprise that, according to Gilliam, J.K.
Rowling and others hoped he would direct one of the movies.) Gilliam is
especially sensitive to the ins and outs of this power fantasy, and as
much as he wants to maintain the pure, innocent wonder of children’s
experience, he recognizes that in adults such wonder may be far from a
blessing. Notice, for instance, how in many of his films, including his
most recent, The Zero Theorem,
there’s a component of gendered, heterosexual fantasy: an awkward (even
schlubby) male builds up a fantasy of a beautiful (often blonde) woman
who ushers him into his heroism.

Thus, the theme song for The Zero Theorem,
Karen Souza’s sultry cover of Radiohead’s “Creep”, is deeply
appropriate not only for that film but for so much of Gilliam’s work
overall. The point of view is that of a person who sees someone as “just
like an angel” and feels not merely inadequate but repulsive: “I’m a
creep. I’m a weirdo.” Some of Gilliam’s protagonists become heroes in
the world of the film, and get to trade in their status as weirdo and
experience the life of the lauded; others have their ideas of heroism
challenged and subverted, their dreams transformed so that they can
better live in everyday life, but still: the desire to transcend
ordinary existence is common to most of them.

all his love of fantasy, Gilliam is enough of a realist to know that
most creeps and weirdos don’t get the girl of their dreams, or the girl
of their dreams turns out to be more human than they’d bargained for,
and so what they are left with is the pure, perfect bliss of the dream —
the triumph of fantasy. Whether, in the end, we see such a triumph as
pitiful and escapist or heartwarming and nourishing — or somewhere in
between — is up to us. The greatest triumph may be the sort we see at
the end of The Fisher King,
where after all the delusions and madness and quests and tears and
dreams we are encouraged to seek not girls to fantasize about or dragons
to slay, but ordinary moments to infuse with wonder.

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons,, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.



In its narrative, Snowpiercer is not a
subtle film. Its characters are broadly drawn, like figures in a myth,
or maybe an allegory. Its themes are repeated and reiterated through the
plot, dialogue, and mise en scène. This is all to its benefit, because
the complexities of Snowpiercer enrich its margins, silences, and

On one hand, Snowpiercer is an engrossing sci-fi action movie, a
great addition to the blockbuster season. Take it for that and nothing
but that, and you will enjoy most of it. But even if you manage to
ignore the various signs that there is more going on than what’s on the
surface, the film’s resolution won’t leave you thinking this is just a
bunch of summer fun. The last section of the film is provocative, and
the final scene is among the most audacious of any recent movie I know.
(I won’t tell you anything about it here, since the film is new and in
relatively limited release, but it is certainly an ending that deserves
discussion.) This is typical of director Bong Joon-Ho—when I first saw
them, the endings of Memories of Murder and Mother both sent me quickly
back to re-watch the entire movie, as the conclusions made those movies
into something more than I’d known them to be during the initial
viewing. Bong loves telling stories from within familiar genres because
genres encourage certain expectations, and those expectations can then
be exploited. Much of the power of Snowpiercer comes from the desires
our expectations command: we think we know where the story is going,
because we think we know what kind of story it is, and we want it to go
in certain directions—to stay on the track of its genre, as it were—and it seems to be going there, but then … no … and no … and no…
The effect is almost that of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt: we are
alienated from our desires, distanced into reflection, to wondering why
we wanted the journey to follow a particular path in the first place.

The distancing doesn’t wait till the end, though. From early on,
Bong uses multiple techniques to keep us from ever settling down into
knowing exactly what the film is up to. Serious scenes of violence
suddenly shift to broad humor, and vice versa. The mix of tones in
Snowpiercer is jarring at first, because it’s hard to get our bearings.
Is this an earnest political parable? Is it satire? Is it a comment on
human nature, or revolution, or maybe race or nationality? The only
answer is: Yes.

Its multitude of tones and apparent purposes are equalled by the
multitude of references to other movies (passionate cinephiles could
spend at least one viewing just looking for allusions), some obvious and
some not, as well as its own occasional meta moments, for instance a
character referring to the uprising among the people at the back of the
train as "a blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable

It’s a slumgullion stew, this movie, but it’s all held together by
the clear, simple movement of the plot, the quest of the characters to
get to the front of the train. It’s a focused quest, a narrow one, and
it structures the characters’ actions and the viewers’ hopes and fears.
It’s like tunnel vision—and, indeed, tunnel vision is an important
element of one of the most impressive sequences in the film. The ending
recontextualizes it all, however, and offers a new vision, one that
opens the film to ambiguous and perilous meanings, and sends us back to
wonder about our own world, the one we return to when the movie ends.
What is the engine that powers the train that keeps us on our own
tracks? What structures our own actions, hopes, fears? What lenses let
us see in tunnels but hide the possibilities beyond, the invisible
dreams in our periphery?

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons,, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.

H.R. Giger: Against the Gigeresque

H.R. Giger: Against the Gigeresque

nullWith any metaphor, we must read it and ourselves
closely and minutely in order to reach its radical potential.

—Samuel R. Delany, “Reading at Work”

In the land of esque, the one-trick pony is king, and the king is made into a
one-trick pony. Art and artists get reduced to their broadest strokes, their
most easily perceived gestures, their monotypes. Esque means “resemblance”, but it also means a set of expectations,
because resemblance requires types than can be quickly, easily recognized (the
rich paradoxes and disturbing ambiguities of Franz Kafka get corralled into the
kafkaesque). The esque is a side-effect of commodification hardly limited to the
highest of high arts, as the marioesque attests. The danger of the esque is that the resemblance may
overtake the original.


H.R. Giger’s imagery so deeply influenced the
imaginations of film production designers, tattoo artists, fashionistas,
magazine illustrators, skateboard designers, and just about everyone other than
My Little Pony animators that at this point it’s difficult to separate
Giger from the gigeresque. What was once outré, repulsive, and disturbing
became the Thomas Kincaid style for the cyber/goth set, a quick kitsch to
perform a certain idea of taste. You hang Christmas
in your living room to display your pleasant, unthreatening
Christianity; I put a poster of Giger’s Li
on my bedroom wall to show how transgressive I am in my deep, dark soul.
Each is a sign that communicates immediately, without any need to look for more
than a second, because each communicates not through itself but through all the
associations is has accumulated.

Of course, this is not fair to Giger the artist,
who was much more than his most popular tropes. But that’s about as useful as
saying van Gogh is much more than a sunflower, a starry sky, and a bandaged
ear: obvious, yes, but also beside the point. Giger is mourned and remembered
because of the gigeresque.

The rise of the gigeresque occurred soon after
the release of Alien in 1979, for which Giger designed the titular
creature. He didn’t work on any of the other Alien movies, and was
especially annoyed not to have been able to help with Aliens, but it
didn’t matter: Hollywood just wanted a whiff of Giger, something for the
technicians to replicate and make acceptable to the studio execs.


Giger’s life in film did not begin with Alien.
He made two shorts with Fredi M. Murer in the late ’60s, “High” and
“Heimkiller”, as well as the 45-minute science fiction movie Swiss
Made 2069
, for which he designed his first monster costume. In the
mid-’70s, he created various set designs for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s planned
film of Dune (about which a new documentary has recently been released),
but it wasn’t until Alien that his work became generally and
internationally famous. Before Alien, he was avant-garde and shocking.
After Alien, he was trapped in a gigeresque nightmare.

My favorite Giger moment comes from 1987, when
Jello Biafra and Michael Bonanno of Alternative Tentacles Records were put on
trial in Los Angeles for distributing harmful matter to children because the
Dead Kennedys album Frankenchrist included a pull-out poster of Giger’s
1973 Penis Landscape (Landscape XX). Biafra later explained to that he’d been interested in using the art for the album because when he first
saw it “I thought: ‘Wow! That is the Reagan era on parade. Right there!
That shows how Americans treat each other now.'”

The biological and mechanical are mixed in what
Giger depicts, but they are also reproduced, reiterated: not just cyborgs, but
clones. The Penis Landscape reduces the human to the genital over and
over and over again. It attracted the attention of the anti-pornsters not
because it was obscene, but because it so perfectly depicted their stereotype
of pornography, the ideal form obsessing them: organs without bodies.


Putting a poster of Penis Landscape into
the LP of Frankenchrist was an effective use of Giger to prod the
sensibilities of the status quo, to distribute Giger outside the gigeresque,
perhaps the first (and maybe last) time after the release of Alien to do

It’s too bad Giger never got to work with David
Cronenberg and David Lynch. In a 2012 interview with Bizarre magazine,
Giger said of Lynch’s Eraserhead, “No other film has affected me
quite like it.” Lynch, though, moved toward a kind of all-American
surrealism that wasn’t really what Giger was up to. Cronenberg is the one
director whose career seems to me to return now and again to ideas and images
that Giger was also drawn to, and whose work often manages to be gigeresque,
but not banal. The biomechanical metamorphoses and horrors come from
Cronenberg’s own obsessions — obsessions very much in tune with Giger’s, almost
in conversation with them. It’s unfortunate that Giger and Cronenberg never
worked together.

Giger participated in his own commodification,
though for him it seems to have been an attempt to at least partly control the
image being spread. By sanctioning Giger Bars and opening a Giger Museum, he
could say what was and wasn’t appropriate to associate with his name. Once a
trope enters the popular consciousness, though, it’s impossible to regulate its
transmission and mutation. When only a few qualities become associated with an
artist’s name, the artist’s own work can become unrecognizable as the work of
that artist. The esque becomes the echt. Commercialization takes
over, mining the predictable for profit. Art ends where expectation rules.

We can see this process in a revealing one-star review at for H.R. Giger’s Retrospective: 1964-1984, where a reader
says, “I didn’t like this book at all. I expected paintings of aliens and
supernatural creatures. Instead I got art that’s nonsense, from my point of view.
The paintings look nice, but they’re meaningless to me.” The gigeresque is
familiar, reproduced, and thus meaningful; the Giger that is not gigeresque
cannot be known, cannot even be evaluated or analyzed — it is nearly invisible,
just nonsense.


What we should celebrate and recover is the Giger
beyond the gigeresque. The gigeresque is too familiar now, too rote, too
replicated. Whatever meanings it still possesses are meanings comfortably
assimilated into the status quo, easily packaged and transmitted, emptied of
all but the least interesting, least challenging values. In 1979, a Giger alien
was shocking, terrifying, repulsive — but even as early as Aliens in
1986, the effect was dissipating (Giger’s own absence from Aliens
represents the triumph of the gigeresque: the artist himself was no longer
necessary). All these years later, slimy biomechanical monsters have no power
to surprise, no power to awaken awe. To rediscover the alien, we must reject
the gigeresque, for though it may still possess the basic ability to gross us
out, even that gross-out has dispersed into pure familiarity.

would be the equivalent today of packaging a poster of Penis Landscape
in a record album? What would lead to trials and hoopla and revolutionary
fervor? How could these images once again be made harmful for children? What do
we need that has not yet been leached out of the art? How might we honor Giger
and subvert the gigeresque?

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons,, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.

A Video Essay On Jim Jarmusch: Dead Men & Ghosts, Limited

A Video Essay On Jim Jarmusch: Dead Men & Ghosts, Limited

The secret of poetry lies in treading the middle path between the reality and the vacuity of the world.
trans. by Robert Hass

Of the various Jim Jarmusch films I’ve seen, three have nagged
at me, haunted me, teased me until I came back to them again and again. I
was a student in New York City when Dead Man was released, and I saw it
in the theatre, having read a review, having heard Jarmusch’s name
whispered or echoed somewhere, and I wanted to see what the fuss was. I
didn’t know what to make of it then, but if I knew anything at all about
the film, I knew it was beautiful. Ghost Dog was easier to apprehend on
a first viewing (in Boston, if I remember correctly), a film that is,
for Jarmusch at least, relatively conventional in its narrative
progress, its episodes clearly linked together through cause, effect,
motivation. The Limits of Control is the most abstract of the three, a
film to dream to. Indeed, when I first watched it (late one night at
home in New Hampshire), I drifted in and out of sleep. This seems
appropriate, perhaps the perfect first encounter with such an enigmatic,
oneiric movie.

I began to think of the three films together. They appealed to me
significantly more than Jarmusch’s other works, significantly more than
most movies. The reasons could, of course, be personal and
idiosyncratic, but perhaps there was something there, some line of
thought, some mix of imagery and style. Certainly, they share concerns
and motifs: questions of wisdom and wandering, art and death, repetition
and revision. They let genres become ghosts. They propose that white
men are the scourge of reality. I knew the only way to begin an
exploration would be with a movie of my own, made from pilfered pieces,
because while I could analyze with text, it held no appeal: too dry, too
awkward, too much like a manual on taxidermy. I knew I couldn’t script
it, either; I just needed to dig into the sounds and images, to see what
stuck, to trust a certain intuition in juxtaposition.

“Dead Men & Ghosts, Limited” is the result. Its great flaw is that I was awake when I made it.

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons,, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.

VIDEO ESSAY: Dragons in Movies

VIDEO ESSAY: Dragons in Movies

by Matthew Cheney

In Siegfried’s Death, the first part of Fritz Lang’s 1924 epic Die Nibelungen, Siegfried slays a dragon and bathes in its blood, making himself invincible (except for a spot of skin that was covered by a leaf). The dragon is a lizard-like creature, more dinosaur than mythic god. Siegfried’s triumph is the triumph of a human over the ancient, bestial powers of Nature; it is a short-lived triumph, though, for as the title of the episode states, Lang’s film is a story of death.

In confronting dragons, humans confront an ancient, alien Nature. Unlike the other popular fantasy figures these days—vampires and zombies—dragons are not transmuted humans, but rather something beyond us, other than us. Often, they are represented as deeply greedy, and this is their fatal flaw (e.g. Smaug in The Hobbit). They guard, hoard, and covet. Within most fantasy stories, they’re part of a medieval environment and their greed stands in contrast to the commons. The triumph of the little human against the dragon is a heroic reappropriation of resources and a signal of the human ability to triumph over the hoard of Nature—the dragon must die for civilization to advance. Sometimes, as with Die Nibelungen, that triumph and advancement is questioned, but most stories of good little warriors triumphing over inherently unknowable, evil dragons are stories of hard-won triumph, with nary a glance to the dark satanic mills ahead. The unspoken truth is that such dragons never die, but instead finds their revenge in human progress, their fire diffused through factory furnaces, their smoke blotting out the sky, as the smog of Smaug chokes and cancers the descendants of the triumphant hero.

And yet there is beauty and wonder in the figure of the dragon, particularly when the dragon flies. This is another dragon story, the story of the improbably lithe creature casting off gravity. Cinema loves to soar, and it is no surprise to see so many cinematic dragons shooting through the sky. In flight, the dragon gains a kind of freedom from the greed that holds it to a single place or particular hoard. Often, humans then can become not the enemies of dragons, but their riders—not equals, perhaps, but partners, a new force greater than either individual. As common as the story of the hero who defeats the dragon is the story of the rider who either tames it or is chosen. The elemental, alien forces of Nature can be turned into a tool and even, perhaps, a friend. The dragon’s power can be harnessed.

Power, indeed. There’s a certain industrial-warriorness to most dragons—flying, armor-scaled, fire-breathing dragons suggest the terror of early aerial warfare. (What is the Blitz but an attack of dragons?) In the sky, dragons move from being Nature to being Gods: the loving, helpful, or at least vaguely friendly God that is the dragon and its rider; the inscrutable, punishing God that is the fire-breather descending from the night. Unless tamed, this power must be destroyed. Controlled, it can be wielded.

As terrifying, elemental, and alien as they are, dragons are not always represented as nightmares. There are countless dragons for children, whether Puff or Pete’s. We seem to have a roughly equal number of scary/archetypal dragons as cute/cuddly dragons. There’s more than one way to tame, and train, your dragon. Taming nature, after all, sometimes just requires a kid to wield a lawn mower.

Because the dragon is so obviously Not Human, it can easily be misunderstood as evil, but sometimes dragons are, as Hagrid tells Harry Potter, just misunderstood. Sometimes, as Disney offered in 1941, they’re a Reluctant Dragon. And then there’s 1996’s Dragonheart, in which a dragonslayer and the last remaining dragon join forces. These are parables of tolerance, of overcoming animosities, of looking beyond the myths. We can learn to love and cherish dragons. We can come to see them as human. But the relationship is never equal. Taming them into our humanity, we dominate them, and, once again, win. (We must trick the scary dragons and tame the cute dragons. If we join forces, it is the dragon that must die, not the human hero.)

In cinema, the dragon must be an effect, its otherness unavoidable because it is a machine or an animation or a computer program rather than a person in a costume. Fritz Lang’s dragon was a giant puppet requiring a dozen operators to push and pull and twist and turn its mechanisms. The result only adds to the alien effect. The same is true of the stop-motion dragons of the mid-20th century films—no matter how careful and accomplished the motion, it is still clearly somehow off, and thus the dragon of ancient Nature is rendered unnatural, odd, scary, funny, wrong. The cute dragons get created in drawn animation so that their colors can be bright, their movement fluid. Their absolute otherness is made obvious, though, when, as in Pete’s Dragon, the dragon is drawn and the humans are live.

Regardless of the level of technical achievement—whether the primitive puppet-machine of Die Nibelungen or the advanced CGI of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire—the dragon is always clearly not a human actor. The alien must stay alien. Even today, when the dragons have achieved unprecedented realism on the screen, their only human quality is their voice. Whatever the result of our encounter with the dragon, what we know is that it will not, it cannot, ever be us. No matter how close, the dragon will always be at a distance. No matter the here, the dragon must always be there.

Leigh Singer is a freelance film journalist, filmmaker and screenwriter.
Leigh studied Film and Literature at Warwick University, where he
directed and adapted the world stage premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s
‘sex, lies and videotape’. He has written or made video essays on fllm for The Guardian, The Independent, BBCi,
Dazed & Confused, Total Film,
and others, has appeared on TV and radio as a film critic and is a
programmer with the London Film Festival. You can reach him on Twitter

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons,, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.

12 YEARS A SLAVE: Glory Without Redemption

12 YEARS A SLAVE: Glory Without Redemption


12 Years a Slave has arrived in
theatres already barnacled with expectations. In its festival appearances, it
met with critical acclaim, and Oscar odds-makers had already slated it for various
awards. Viewers buy their tickets, sit down in their seats, wait for the lights
to dim, and expect great things. But viewers also have other, deeper
expectations. The dominant cinematic story of slavery has been the story of
white redemption and white heroism against an unfortunate institution
perpetuated only by the most sadistic of bad white men. Even today, it is
exceedingly rare to find a story about slavery that doesn’t emphasize how
good-hearted white people can be and how inherently just, good, and equal
America is. In American movies, black suffering redeems white characters and
affirms white nobility. 

12 Years
a Slave

tells a different story, but because the familiar narrative has conditioned us
to view “slave movies” as a genre, we — especially white viewers — may find our
expectations unsettled. This unsettling is one of the great virtues of the

This is a movie about slavery in the United
States from 1841 to 1853. We watch such a movie anticipating not entertainment
but enrichment, enlightenment even, though only after emotional hardship. We
expect to see terrible deeds committed by white men with Southern accents and
whips, we expect to see downtrodden, suffering black people. We expect
feelings. This affective and narrative pattern dates back at least to Uncle
Tom’s Cabin
, published a year before Solomon Northup, the movie’s
protagonist, was returned to freedom. The pattern was reiterated through
various slave narratives, where it usually served the specific and necessary
purposes of abolitionist propaganda: to educate white people, to help them see
and feel the horror of slavery, to teach them that slaves and escaped slaves
have emotions and thoughts, that such people can and should be empathized with,
that laws should be changed and slavery ended.

Solomon Northup contributed to this literature
with his own memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, one which was especially
detailed and forthright because, unlike many other ex-slaves (relatively few of
whom were able to escape from the deep south, as he did), Northup’s status as a
free man was well-established in court, so he had little to fear from his
former owners.

The average contemporary American viewer — and
particularly, like me, a white viewer — likely has a head full of ideas and
images of slavery not so much from primary sources, but elsewhere: various
novels, educational documentaries, television movies. Even Northup’s story,
which waned in popularity after the Civil War, was adapted for PBS’s American
in 1984 by director Gordon Parks as Solomon Northup’s Odyssey,
a staid, conventional, lugubrious adaptation. (Parks might have made a great
movie from the material, having directed not just Shaft but also an occasionally powerful biopic of Leadbelly. He was
not, though, able to break out of the standard formula for TV movies about
historical characters, and the performances often seem forced and amateur.)

Despite the images in our heads, though, there
have been few feature films that have sought to depict the everyday realities
and brutalities of slave life in any extended way, and most have been, at best,
problematic. The most viscerally affecting slavery films have both in some
manner been based in a tradition of gothicism and spectacle: Mandingo
(1975) and Django Unchained (2012). These films dig deep into the
sordidness and violence of the milieu, highlighting the sadistic psychopathy
bred by the system and, in the case of Mandingo especially, the flows of
psychosexual power. More than representations of any actual history, both are
in dialogue with the history of slavery’s representation on screen, and they
draw their effect not only from what they show but how they evoke, parody,
critique, and enact the cinematic past.

Too often, Hollywood has been unable to escape
the patterns established with The Birth of a Nation (the first movie to
be shown in the White House) and Gone with the Wind, those two great
gravitational forces that warped the depiction of race and slavery in cinema
for decades. “For many years,” Robin Wood wrote in Sexual Politics
and Narrative Cinema
, “Gone with the Wind, with its
overwhelming prestige and popularity (reinforced and perpetuated by its various
revivals), had offered general audiences a sentimental travesty of white/black
relations and the ‘realities’ of slavery in the Deep South: the proposition
that some Southern families were kind to ‘their’ blacks (the truth of which one
doesn’t have to doubt) not only distracted attention from the many that weren’t
but obliterated the fundamental humiliation, the fact of slavery itself.”


Wood points to a key fault with many of even the
most liberal and best-intentioned films depicting slavery: they distract
attention from fundamental evils by focusing on the sympathies and
sensitivities of white audiences. This tradition of appeasing white audiences
was central to the success, for instance, of the phenomenally popular 1984 TV
mini-series Roots. In that case, the producers were careful to highlight
white actors in promotional materials and to not only deliberately increase the
presence of white characters in the story, but also to provide more positive
and sympathetic white characters than Alex Haley’s book had. The head writer of
the TV series, William Blinn, said, “It was … unwise, we thought, to do
four hours of television without showing a white person with whom we could
identify.” Roots also deliberately emphasized the inherent goodness
of the United States and the exoticism of Africa in a way that Haley had not. Africa
became, in the words of scholars Lauren R. Tucker and Hemant Shah, more like
“an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute than the living, breathing,
thriving community Haley describes.”

The precedent of these patterns and proclivities may
condition many viewers’ expectations for what is acceptable and appropriate in
a movie that depicts slavery. Our idea of what a “slave movie” is or
should be gets coupled with our idea of what a “great movie” should
be, and that’s further coupled with our expectations for what makes a movie
Oscar-worthy. These assumptions shape the lenses we wear when we sit down to
watch 12 Years a Slave.

Steve McQueen is aware of these assumptions, and
part of the power of his film derives from his careful acknowledgment and then
undermining of those assumptions. The wonder of 12 Years a Slave is that
it is, indeed, fully a movie about slavery, a great movie, and an Oscar-worthy

It is a movie about slavery in a way that almost
all movies concerned with slavery have not been. It pays attention to details
of slave life with rare patience and precision, vividly conveying not only the
horrors and humiliations of that life, but the basic details of the labor
itself: what it is to pick cotton, what it is to cut sugar cane. Further,
because this is a film for an adult audience, a film not seeking to be shown as
an after-school special, it does not flinch from the violence inherent in the
slave system. As he did in his first film, Hunger, McQueen allows the
camera to linger on bodies in pain. This is not violence as spectacle — the
actual representation of blood and gore is no worse than the average episode of
Criminal Minds or Bones. But the violence feels more graphic than
anything in a splatter movie, never mind network TV, because McQueen is willing
to let pain linger.

Further, our identification is consistently with
the victims, which keeps the pain meaningful. In the book Twelve Years a
, Northup speaks of the power of the slave system to make callousness
contagious, and especially of the power that witnessing daily atrocities has to
numb even the best souls and turn otherwise peaceful people into brutes.
“The influence” he writes, “of the iniquitous system necessarily
fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit, even in the bosoms of those who, among
their equals, are regarded as humane and generous.” We similarly worry
about the effects of representations of violence on audiences — could watching
even the most honorably and realistically-presented acts of violence have the
effect of inuring us to its horror? Could a well-intentioned film about
slavery, one that tries to represent its viciousness without blinking, instead
dull viewers’ concern?

It’s a problem that 12 Years a Slave
confronts through the time it spends on particular people and images, and thus the
manner in which it asks us to think and feel our way through the narrative.

In an early scene, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a
man born into freedom in the north, has just woken to discover he has been
kidnapped and bound in chains. He denies that he is a slave to his jailer, who
takes a paddle and beats him. We see the board smash into Solomon’s back again
and again, but from a side angle, not one that shows us the damage being done.
We see some bits of blood here and there. We hear Solomon’s screams, see the
agony on his face, the torture through his muscles. We see the paddle splinter
and break. The scene goes on longer than most directors and editors would let
it, but it needs to: to cut too soon would be to allow it to be less painful,
more entertaining, more a spectacle. We may think: “Okay, I get it, he’s
being beaten. Okay, can’t we move on? Isn’t there a story to get to?”
Finally, it stops, and we are relieved. 

But McQueen is not done with this. We might relax
as the next scene begins, as we are ready for our emotions to be given some
moment of respite, but this is, in fact, masterful misdirection. As Solomon
talks with a slaver, the man tells Solomon to take off his ruined shirt. We see
Solomon from the front. The shirt is, indeed, torn and soiled. Reluctantly, he
removes it. Finally, we see the shirt’s back: fabric soaked with blood. The
audience I was with gasped at this moment. We had let our guard down. We knew,
of course, what the paddle would have done to his back. We knew,
intellectually, the pain inflicted. Here, though, we felt it in a deeper way
than if we had simply seen Solomon’s back as he is beaten, or immediately

12 Years a Slave is distinct because,
again and again, McQueen chooses to make his film more about experience than
information. Many incidents from Northup’s narrative are either barely glanced
at or skipped altogether. The challenge for any adaptation of this story is to
fit the experience of twelve years into two hours.

And this is where 12 Years a Slave reveals
its greatness. First, there is the triumph of its structure (how much of which
is the responsibility of screenwriter John Ridley, I don’t know, as I haven’t
seen the script). The film begins with Solomon having been a slave for at least
a few years, learning to cut sugar cane and trying desperately to figure some
way to write a letter to someone, anyone who might be able to help him. This
information is mostly established visually. At night, as Solomon is approached
by one of the female slaves (we don’t yet know anything about her) for sex, the
experience is unfulfilling for both, and then the film moves us back into the
past as he remembers a much more satisfying moment with his wife when he was

Why start here? Why not just tell the story in


There are many possible answers to these
questions, but I tend to think that opening segment forecasts the film’s
primary patterns. The story is similar enough to other tales of American
slavery that we don’t need any training in understanding it, but the style and
conventions of the film are not as familiar, and we do need to get accustomed
to those.

Consider, for instance, how the opening segment
helps us understand a potentially perplexing shot at the end of the movie.
Solomon has finally managed to get someone to take a letter from him to the
post office, but he does not know whether he can trust the person. Solomon looks
out at the landscape. The camera stays on his face for an extraordinary amount
of time. From the very beginning of the film, Solomon has been trying to get
word out to his family or anyone else who might be able to help him. In this film,
the relationship between shots can be associational rather than strictly linear
or expository, especially concerning Solomon’s attempts to communicate to the
free world. His desire, his yearning for freedom, shifts the representation of
time. Like Solomon, we, too, are bewildered: what is happening, what is going
on in the world beyond? Time freezes. We stare.

The next shots show us that the gazebo Solomon
had begun working on at the time he wrote his letter is now completed. Time
speeds forward.

Similarly, a refusal to cut a shot at the point
anyone conditioned by mainstream films would expect provides one of the most
powerful moments in the movie — indeed, it is among the most remarkable scenes
of any film I know. After Solomon attacks one of the white men who has been
tormenting him, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), Tibeats returns with a friend and
tries to lynch the impertinent slave. He is halted by the general overseer of
the plantation, Chapin (J.D. Evermore), but Chapin does not then cut Solomon
down. Instead, he says they’ll have to wait for the plantation owner, William
Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), to return that night. And so Solomon remains, his
hands tied behind his back, his toes barely touching the ground, his throat
roped to a tree branch. The shot goes on and on. Solomon gasps and straining to
keep himself from strangling to death. Once, a slave sneaks to him with a small
cup of water.

The extraordinary, excruciating length of the
scene forces us to confront the physical reality of slavery to an extent
unparalleled by any other film. The audience becomes a body of witnesses. Here,
no soaring John Williams-style music plays our heartstrings, no character later
offers moral exposition. A man swings from a rope and tries to stay alive. We
watch. It is all the film allows us to do.

Yet, if the film’s power and importance come from
its careful construction of the audience as witness, what sort of witnesses are
we, and of what use is our witnessing?

These questions are hardly unique to 12 Years
a Slave
— they apply to some extent, at least, to any film with serious
intentions of recreating and representing historical atrocities. Toward an
answer, all I can offer is a hypothesis: what matters is not the recreation,
but the quality of witness, and the quality of humanity, it requires of us.

There is already a tremendous amount of Oscar
buzz around 12 Years a Slave, which more than one critic has dubbed
“the Schindler’s List of slavery movies”. In the sense of
carefully recreating a particular life from one of the great horrors of
history, and generating strong emotions in audiences, this is true. But the
Oscar talk gives a false impression of what McQueen’s film is up to.

Even in his most serious and self-consciously
“artistic” films, Steven Spielberg is a Hollywood director to the
core, a genius of audience manipulation. McQueen is no more Spielberg than Spielberg
is Michael Haneke. The kind of historical dramas and social justice dramas that
win Oscars flatter their more privileged and powerful audiences, allowing —
even encouraging — such audiences to feel good about themselves. The same choices
that propelled Roots to extraordinary popularity are the sorts of
choices approved and awarded by the Oscarati. They are also the choices that
Steve McQueen and his collaborators carefully and determinedly renounce.

And yet I would not be at all surprised to see 12
Years a Slave
sweep the Oscars–mostly because McQueen brilliantly chose to
apply his particular aesthetic to material that is deeply appealing to Oscar
voters. Northup’s original book, edited and perhaps ghostwritten for him by the
white lawyer and writer David Wilson, had to be aimed at a primarily white
audience, for, like any other slave narrative popularized through abolitionist
circles, it had a particular propagandistic purpose. An advertisement
for the book in the
abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator included
numerous quotations from reviews that testified to the book’s ability to
confirm the horror of slavery for an audience that previously might have
dismissed Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other novels as fictional exaggerations.
One reviewer, for the Cayuga Chief, highlighted the qualities of the
book which McQueen’s film emulates: “It is well told, and bears internal
evidence of being a clear statement of facts. There is no attempt at display,
but the events are so graphically portrayed, that the interest in the perusal
is deep and unabated to the last. The sunshine of kind treatment sheds a few
bright beams athwart the dark canvass of twelve years of bondage: but, in the
main, the darker cruelty and wickedness of oppression is still more revolting
by the contrast.”

There we have, too, the key to why characters
like William Ford and Bass (the man who ultimately delivered the letter that
would begin the process toward Northup’s freedom, here played by Brad Pitt) are
important to the story. They are not there to appease white sensibilities, but
rather are placed in the film in proportion to their presence in Northup’s
actual life, and they highlight the oppressiveness and irredeemability of any
system where people are considered property.

Further, audiences have very little chance to sympathize
with good white characters, because they simply have too little screen time.
This is as it should be. Our sympathies and identification should be with the

If the work of traditional, white-audience slave
movies is to encourage us to look for good white people to identify with, and
to make us witnesses to narratives in which there are good white people in even
the most hellish circumstances, then 12 Years a Slave works to undo
that. 12 Years a Slave deprives us of the familiar pathways to
identification with white saviors, and instead requires us to identify with the
people we should have been identifying with in the first place.

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons,, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.

VIDEO ESSAY: Rob Zombie and the Cinema of Cruelty

VIDEO ESSAY: Rob Zombie and the Cinema of Cruelty


feature films that Rob Zombie has made between 2000 and 2013 create new
styles of emotional and perceptual disturbance from the corpses of
cultural products past. True to his name, Zombie reanimates dead tropes,
turns, and troubles into powerful attacks on our expectations and

summoning the spirit of previous movies, particularly, Zombie
encourages us to think we are watching a familiar pattern of story and
character. We think we know how and where to be shocked or repulsed,
whom to put our faith, trust, and hope in. We let down our guard.

Into the gap between our expectations and the reality of the film in front of us, Zombie sets traps to shred our desires.

was sort of like Ken Russell films or like Polanski or some Argento
films or Kubrick. There’s only certain filmmakers who really do this –
and David Lynch does it—where just the vibe of the movie is odd all
the way through. A David Lynch movie is just odd even when people are
doing normal things. You’re like, “Why does this feel so weird? What’s
happening here?”

—Rob Zombie, The Playlist interview with Drew Taylor, 29 April 2013

movies are explicitly, extravagantly, and defiantly products of low
culture. The only sort of filmmaking less reputable than gory horror
movies is porn. Both traffic in sensation and exploitation. This is why
we need them. They’re all that’s left to break through the cool surface
of protective irony and oh-so-earnest, respectable emotionalism that so
many of us perform and parade and reward every day — to break through
into some part of our selves that few of us want to share with the rest
of the world. Such movies are the antidote to mumblecore and emo and
Oscar bait. We should watch these movies in seedy theatres where the
floors are covered with entire archaeologies of dirt, grime, rot, and
petrified bodily fluids. We should stare down at those floors and look
for our reflection, for it is there that we will find ourselves best

is why I thought of Antonin Artaud when I was putting together this
video essay. I want us to reclaim Artaud from the high cult of goodness,
where so many academics and critics have made excuses for him, tried to
tame him, tried to make him fit the higher cults. Those of us with some
academic persuasions need more shit in our systems.

I go to the library and grab a book off the shelf: Antonin Artaud: A Critical Reader, edited by Edward Scheer, where, in an essay titled “Cinemas of Cruelty?”, Francis Vanoye writes:

we want to stay close to Artaud while betraying him, as we must, since
we are trying to promote a cinema of cruelty, we must exclude all pure
and simple representations of cruelty (Sergio Leone?), all reductions of
cruelty to violence, crude sadism and blood, we must therefore exclude a
good part of the cinematic production of the past and especially the
present. Quentin Tarantino, for example, and his emulators, French or
American, who make of cruelty an object of representation and of
spectatorial pleasure.

such a betrayal of Artaud is necessary in France, but it sure isn’t
necessary for me, an American, someone whose tax dollars have funded
atrocities throughout the world, whose political system is nothing if
not cruel, whose economic system is designed to strengthen the powerful
and marginalize the weak. No no no, we need a cinema of cruelty that
matches the cruelty of our hearts and citizenship. We need
representations that show us ourselves. We need images that make us want
to look away at the same time they make us want to watch. The Devil’s Rejects
shows us, for instance, sadists we at first fear and detest, and then
it shows us that these are our heroes, and it gives us just enough of
the necessary tropes to make us want them to suceed in what we know is
sadistic. These, the film says to us, THESE are your heroes. They could be tour guides at Abu Ghraib.

What Zombie recognized in his Halloween movies is that our slasher films are character studies in disguise. The 2007 remake of Halloween
tempts us to learn to love Michael Myers, tempts us to recognize him
within the realm of child psychology, tempts us to recognize him as our
child or ourselves. He is no mere cypher, no flat archetype, but rather a
black hole of desire to attract our matter. Halloween II
is another world altogether, the beginning of a new (more explicitly
Lynchian) direction in Zombie’s work, an oneiric trap. Real and unreal
don’t exist in such a world: they are each other. We seek realities, but
Halloween II and The Lords of Salem refuse to give in to that desire, and instead show us that our need for the real is a need for comfort.

want our movies to be respectable, we want the feelings they give us to
be ones we don’t mind exalting to our families and friends. Those are
the movies we’ll give Oscars to, those are the movies we’ll assign our
students to watch, those are the movies we will proudly display in our
living rooms, those are the movies we’ll invite our friends to. Movies
that confirm our respectability. Movies that help us feel good about who
we are.

the practice of cruelty there is a kind of higher determinism, to which
the executioner-tormenter himself is subjected and which he must be determined
to endure when the time comes. Cruelty is above all lucid, a kind of
rigid control and submission to necessity. There is no cruelty without
consciousness and without the application of consciousness. It is
consciousness that gives to the exercise of every act of life its
blood-red color, its cruel nuance, since it is understood that life is
always someone’s death.

—Antonin Artaud, “First Letter on Cruelty”, trans. Mary Caroline Richards

If Rob Zombie’s movies understand nothing else, they understand that life is always someone’s death.

does this feel so weird? What’s happening here? Our perspective is
being readjusted, our shame exposed. We have not earned the comfort we
desire. For a moment, we must recognize what perhaps we have
unconsciously known, the horrid truth we have repressed: that we are not
the innocent victims, but rather the executioner-tormenters. And deep
down, that’s what we’d rather be.

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons,, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.

VIDEO ESSAY: First Fassbinder

VIDEO ESSAY: First Fassbinder


The German actor and filmmaker Frank Ripploh interviewed Rainer Werner Fassbinder in March 1982, only a few months before Fassbinder’s death at age 37.

Ripploh’s last question was: “How do you describe yourself?”

“I’m a romantic anarchist,” Fassbinder said.

And so he had been from the beginning. It can be difficult to know what to make of Fassbinder, how to enter his extraordinary body of work, how to assess and appreciate his achievement. Romantic anarchists don’t sum up well.

First, there is the simple problem of scale. Though his career was relatively short, he sometimes directed in one year more movies than other people made in entire lifetimes. Even quantifying the exact number of items is a challenge, because they span so many formats — over 40 feature-length films (both for television and theatrical release), a handful of shorts, some radio plays, numerous stage plays, and a few television mini-series (including the 15-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, his magnum opus). That Fassbinder is generally known for a small set of major works (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fear Eats the Soul, The Marriage of Maria Braun) is partly due to how well those films were originally received at international film festivals, but also because limiting the idea of “Fassbinder” to a small number of titles allows the casual viewer a few touchstones.

It is impossible, though, to get a sense of what makes Fassbinder’s work uniquely powerful and uniquely necessary without knowing at least some of his lesser-known movies. The Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation has done excellent work preserving and restoring many of Fassbinder’s films, and the majority have found their way onto home video in one form or another over the years — most recently, the revelatory restoration of Fassbinder’s 4-hour TV mini-series World on a Wire, a captivating, reality-bending science fiction story that had only rarely been seen anywhere since its original airing in 1973. Even some of Fassbinder’s most obscure films are currently available on DVD in Europe, and while that is not the case in the United States, the Criterion Collection has done a fine job of bringing a few of the major works into print in typically excellent packages, and providing others via their Hulu Plus channel. Their most recent release is a selection of five of Fassbinder’s earliest films as part of their Eclipse series of DVDs.

The selection of works for Early Fassbinder is excellent, giving viewers access to the most satisfying films Fassbinder made before his stylistic breakthrough into melodrama with The Merchant of Four Seasons, shot in August 1971. The pleasure of the early films is the pleasure of watching a breathtakingly talented artist discover his art. While completists must certainly lament the exclusion from the Eclipse set of Fassbinder’s first two shorts (as well as, perhaps, Whitey, the production of which at least partly inspired Beware of a Holy Whore), the core of Fassbinder before his deliberate turn to melodrama is represented here.

Various scholars have attempted to categorize and periodize Fassbinder’s output and make the vast sprawl of it more manageable. Fassbinder himself hinted at one way to do this with his early films, saying that they break into two types: cinema films and bourgeois films. The cinema films were primarily in conversation with other films and the world of filmmaking, while the bourgeois films were critiques of middle class values and lifestyles.

Categories hide as much as they show, however, and we should only use the cinema films/bourgeois films taxonomy as a quick way to get oriented with the works up through Beware of a Holy Whore. Other categorizations also work as well or better, for instance Thomas Elsaesser’s two categories for the first quarter of Fassbinder’s career: gangster films and more general tales of violence, self-aggression, and in-groups. No taxonomy is entirely satisfactory, though, because what’s most apparent in the early work is how much Fassbinder is trying out different genres and styles. These are exploratory works, and sometimes almost hermetic works—occasionally, Fassbinder scoffed at his first ten movies, insisting they were made just to amuse his friends and nothing more. At other times, he felt differently; for instance, in 1981 he made a list of “The Top Ten of My Own Films” and placed Gods of the Plague fourth and Beware of a Holy Whore first.

Love Is Colder than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The American Soldier form a loose trilogy, overlapping in both content and style, but each is also unique in ways that may not be apparent immediately. While none is as fast-paced as a film from Hollywood, Gods of the Plague is notably less narrative than the others and distinctly more laconic. The American Soldier brings Fassbinder’s interest in manipulating (or hollowing out) the icons of genre films to the fore. Love Is Colder than Death, for all its long takes and shallow conversations, offers a journeyman’s go-for-broke energy that Fassbinder would rarely replicate (such blind brio would reach its apex with The Third Generation in 1979).

Katzelmacher challenges audiences with its determinedly static camera, empty conversations, and miserable characters. Fassbinder was fascinated, especially early in his career, with stretching the audience’s experience of cinematic time by removing any elements that would contribute to a sense of suspense or even rising/falling dramatic action: the characters speak with as little affect as possible, and the editing allows shots and scenes to last longer than seems at all justified. (Even later, when he wanted to make movies that would attract a larger audience, Fassbinder couldn’t resist letting scenes go on for just a little bit longer than most other directors and editors would.) Our discomfort and impatience become a valuable response—boredom and frustration are important to the experience of what films like Katzelmacher are attempting to communicate. We feel, viscerally and almost unbearably, the ennui of the lives of Elisabeth, Paul, Erich, Franz, etc., and so gain an emotional connection to their relationships with and behavior toward Jorgos that we would not have were the film more conventionally entertaining. With Katzelmacher, the young Fassbinder took this approach as far as he could, and farther than he ever would again. The experiment is fascinating and sometimes powerful and evocative, but the characters are all either so detestable or dull that it may be difficult for viewers to locate a space for themselves within its suffocating world. Whatever we end up thinking of Katzelmacher, though, it was vital to Fassbinder’s development, for without it, it’s unlikely he could have achieved, for instance, the extraordinary (and painful!) perfection of pacing in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a similarly challenging film, but one where compassion for the characters has more opportunity to grow.

The final film in the Early Fassbinder set, Beware of a Holy Whore, marks a clear end to the first phase of Fassbinder’s career, no matter what taxonomy we choose. From his earliest days in the theatre, he and many of his colleagues had tried to live by communal, even utopian, principles, effectively creating a repertory company that lived and worked together constantly. The arrangement is part of the reason that Fassbinder was able to be so consistently productive, but it led to many tensions and tempests. Beware of a Holy Whore is, among other things, an epitaph for the most communal time of Fassbinder’s life. He was too talented, ambitious, and relentless to live and, especially, work in even a superficially nonhierarchical structure. For all his love of anarchy and romance, he needed to be able to channel order. He needed to be The Director.

Order can arrive in seemingly anarchic forms. The best of Fassbinder’s films are full of juxtapositions and contradictions. For all the sharp shocks and even despair in Beware of a Holy Whore, one thing we mustn’t forget about the film is that it is often deliberately absurd, exaggerated, and sometimes very funny. Many of the participants later noted that they had a great time making it (though Fassbinder’s more sardonic and acid caricatures wounded some of his friends). Fassbinder was often drawn to the exploration of characters as types rather than fully rounded human beings, and that interest is especially apparent here. The effect is, for the first time in his oeuvre, haunting: perceptive, sympathic viewers learn to see the roundedness within the types, the unique humanity within the common words, gestures, behaviors. It’s an effect he would soon master and repeat, an effect that would give his later, emotionally complex films extraordinary resonance.

Beware of a Holy Whore is an epitaph to a certain way of living, but it is an also an exorcism. Fassbinder seemed to recognize that he had come to the end of all of his paths — of living, working, being. He now knew the proclivities of the demons that drove him through his first ten movies. His favorite topics and obsessions would recur throughout his career, from his first shorts in the late 1960s until the final shot of his final film, Querelle, in 1982, but his tactics and templates would change. His discovery in 1971 of the American movies directed by Douglas Sirk offered him a new model, one that fit his sensibilities and showed him ways to bring feeling into form without sacrificing his interest in politics, representation, and identity. No longer was he stuck with the nihilism of noir or the angry disaffection and incipient fascism of the young bourgeoisie. Instead of having a character tell the story of an elderly woman who falls in love with a guestworker, as he did in The American Soldier, now he could bring that story itself to life in Fear Eats the Soul (his most explicitly Sirkean melodrama), meanwhile incorporating many of the insights about German society that he explored in Katzelmacher—and doing so in a way that not only infuriated and discomfited the audience but also engaged them in a more richly complex emotional journey.

We might become so enamored of the complexities and richness of the later films that we misinterpret the early films as shallow. They are not. They are experimental and deliberately artificial, certainly. They hold the viewer at a distance. But at their best their effects are purposeful and controlled. The films are, each of them, enjoyable on their own terms, and meaningful in their own ways. More importantly, they fit into the great tapestry that is the Fassbinder canon. The great joy of exploring beyond the most familiar and famous of Fassbinder’s works is the joy of seeing variations and iterations, the joy of possibilities and potentials. Character names and types appear and re-appear, sometimes in the body of the same actor as before, sometimes not. Situations arise in one way and then another, ideas flow toward a particular conclusion and then away from it, images expand and echo, and all the while our feelings shift, stretch, drift. Fassbinder’s work was often highly, even ostentatiously, artificial, but it was also rooted in a desire to address the world: both the specific world of his (and Germany’s) immediate circumstances and the world more generally, the world of history and literature and philosophy and humanity.

One of Fassbinder’s favorite books was Antonin Artaud’s Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society. It’s partly a prose poem, partly a statement of desires dreams, partly a denunciation of humanity, partly an artistic manifesto, and mostly a celebration of outsiders and unholy fools against the forces and institutions of conformist society. Fassbinder surely read some of himself into it. We could, too. Consider, for instance: “Under the guise of representation he welded an air and enclosed within it a nerve, things which do not exist in nature, which are of a nature and an air more real than the air and nerve of real nature” (trans. by Helen Weaver).

From the right distance, chaos reveals its order. Anarchy needs governing forces to resist. The romantic anarchist is always resisting, always seeking another order and thus imbuing every present order with chaos. Fassbinder was sometimes a lord of chaos, but now, thirty years after his death, we have the distance to perceive the order, to feel our way through artificiality to reality, to learn to see again.

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons,, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He teaches English, Women’s Studies, and Communications & Media Studies at Plymouth State University.