[This post is part of my Blind Spot Series, in which I watch, for the first time, famous movies I should have seen long ago. And seeing as the movies in this series are generally well known and regarded, I don't necessarily discuss their plots or thoroughly critique them. These movies have already been analyzed to death; so anything I could bring to the table would be superfluous at best. What follows is merely my reaction to watching Ali: Fear Eats the Soul for the first time.]
The decision to include Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in my Blind Spot Series was arrived at rather circuitously. Yes, Fassbinder’s film is generally well regarded (among cineastes, at least), so it would seem rather well-suited to the theme of this series, but still, I can’t say ever felt terribly ashamed at having never seen this specific film. No, my shame was more general—that is to say, I really could have included any Fassbinder film in this series, because, The Marriage of Maria Braun excepted, I’m a newb when it comes to this giant of the New German Cinema.
So, with Ali, it was more that I was trying to plug a gaping director hole, a hole that needed some desperate filling. And seeing as this is the picture that broke Fassbinder, brought him international acclaim, I figured, fuck why not start here.
I should say that despite my previous ignorance of the man’s work, I’ve always found Fassbinder rather fascinating. For a director whose career was cut short by an early death, this artist nevertheless managed to pump out a staggering number of films: in fifteen years he helmed forty films, two TV series, twenty-four plays, and various other minor works.
Given his reputation among those in the film community, I knew his appeal had to stem from more than just the pace of his work. Plenty of hacks in Hollywood’s golden age, after all, churned out three or four films a year, and none of their names are remembered. No, without the quality no one’s gonna give a shit about the quantity.
So, Ali... I truly don’t know what to make of Ali. I’m pretty sure I liked it. What can I say, though? Well, first of all, superficially this film is a reimagining of the melodramas made famous by Douglas Sirk. But that doesn’t even begin to convey the unique filmmaking on display here. With the rise of fanboy culture in recent years, modern movie-goers have become accustomed to the sort of homage works typified by The Man Who Wasn’t There, Black Dynamite, and Far From Heaven—faithfully, lovingly crafted pieces of imitation art: movies that are so slavishly faithful to their inspirations as to all but choke out any elements of originality.
And it should be said that both Ali and Todd Haynes' aforementioned Far From Heaven pay tribute to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk—specifically All That Heaven Allows. But there is where the similarities end. For, though Haynes’ film could be placed seamlessly into the oeuvre of Sirk, Fassbinder uses the form as a springboard for his own idiosyncrasies, creating something genuinely original. Seriously, Ali is almost a melodrama by way of David Lynch...except Fassbinder came before Lynch...and, of course, Lynch also toyed with the conventions of melodrama...and noir...and...[ed. Note: stop it with the fucking ellipsis.]
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Ali. To give you a better understanding of the peculiarities on display, a plot summary is in order. Sixty-something cleaning woman Emmi meets muscle-bound Moroccan immigrant Ali. They get married. Neighbors, friends, and family display their true racist feelings. The two grow closer as everyone in their lives becomes more hostile. Then, everyone is suddenly nice for some reason. Ali gets bored and fucks a bartender. He non-chalantly ridicules Emmi. There is a poker game at the bar where the bartender works. Emmi shows up; she and Ali are all hugs and kisses. He collapses. Hospital: he has a stress ulcer. Ending.
One could argue that the ambiguity here was a result of Fassbinder’s frenetic work pace: continually pumping out material, he couldn’t help but let such trivialities as logic and coherency fall by the wayside. But such an argument is belied by Fassbinder’s beautifully composed shots, elegant camera moves, technical proficiency, and all-around artistry. The man knew what the fuck he was doing. Nay, Ali is purposefully obtuse. This film is an attempt to offer snapshots into the harried emotionally charged lives of folks dealing with harassment because of their unconventional affair. Fassbinder is giving us a voyeuristic view into their lives. Thus, we only get part of the story.
And Fassbinder emphasizes this with the photography. With damn near every scene, he opts for the voyeuristic approach—long shots, shots through door-frames, shots obstructed by looming foreground objects. For a better understanding, check out this sequence of images from the opening scene:
In the first shot, Emmi walks into a strange bar, a place where she is clearly not welcome. In this long shot Emmi is relegated to a tiny boxed-off portion of the frame. The doorway looms over her.
Cut to: the spectators. Perturbed bar folk watch suspiciously as the unwelcome woman enters. Because of its proximity to the previous image, the audience is placed with these bar people in the position of voyeur, watching from afar. And yet, we also feel as if Emmi has imposed upon a sacred place. All eyes are on her.
Cut to: A new angle on Emmi, closer this time; we have gained a more intimate view of our heroine. And yet she’s still boxed in, not only by the doorframe, but the prominent foreground object of the table.
Cut: the spectators again. And it’s the same exact shot, emphasizing the show aspect of it all.
But this time, the bartender moves from behind the bar and walks toward Emmi, momentarily obscuring Ali.
And then she leaves the frame entirely as the camera pulls into Ali. And now we are given a new source of identification. We are watching as Ali watches.
Bringing us back to a new angle on Emmi, who is being loomed over by the bartender and apologizing for entering the place.
Note the various shots of Emmi. As she is the person being watched, the spectators in the bar all get their angles on her. The reverse shots, on the other hand, are mostly uniform. She is just one person watching her watchers. But that’s just a small taste of some of the cinema goodness on display in this film.
Ordinarily, I like to make these Blind Spot Series reviews about me—explore the ways that I connected with the movie personally. But I can’t say I could do that with this movie. Such a strange and singular film, Ali had damn near naught that I connected with on a personal level, but I was intrigued as hell. I guess, the closest I can come to getting personal on this post is to profess my love once again for weird cinema—a love that was reciprocated by Fassbinder’s picture. All I know is I want more Fassbinder.