What's Eating Ali? Rassenschande & The Queer Undertow

Please note that this text contains spoilers, discussion of racism,  a photograph of real public shaming, and a screenshot depicting nudity.

 

Rainer Werner Fassbinder was one of the 20th’s Century’s most important queer filmmakers. While much of his work explores expressly queer themes such as the main character of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) who falls deeply in love with another woman, or the highly homoerotic Jean Genet adaptation Querelle (1982), Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats The Soul can be seen to explore queer themes, styles, and messages that lurk more subtly within its frames.

The term “queer” has many different definitions; its meaning has changed over time and continues to evolve. When we think about relationships, desires, or expressions that diverge from the norm, we rightfully tend to think about people who are not heterosexual, those who are transgender, and those who are intersex. The protagonists of Ali do not fall within any of these categories, yet they importantly embody a certain kind of forbidden desire, one regulated by norms of age and race.

The twenty-year age gap between Emmi and Ali is a significant one which serves as a source of much tension throughout the film. Historically, however, the aspect of their relationship that has a greater legacy of persecution is its interracial nature. Emmi is a white German woman and a citizen, Ali is a Moroccan man in the precarious position of Gastarbeiter (the term for migrant workers who came to West Germany in the ‘60s and ‘70s).

Cross-cultural or cross-racial relationships have been forbidden or looked down upon in many different social contexts throughout history. Focusing on German history, it is important to remember that Ali takes place only a few decades after an era of punitive Nazi rule. Within Nazism’s implementation of authoritarianism and genocide, the regime also introduced the concept of Rassenschande - literally, racial shame - into German law. These laws, which came into effect in 1935, forbade relationships between “Aryans” and “non-Aryans”. Discovery of interracial relationships would warrant punishment varying from arrest and public shaming to concentration camp detainment and death.

The German context of Ali is significant in part because of the cultural residue left behind by the country’s Nazi legacy. While Rassenschande was no longer a commonplace term and its laws no longer in effect, societal unease around interracial relationships endured. In Ali, it is the underhand comments of Emmi’s colleagues or the shopkeeper who refuses to understand Ali’s requests that speak to a kind of racism that, while less explicit, is no less pernicious. After Emmi and Ali get married, they travel to Munich’s Osteria Italiana, where Emmi comments, “This is where Hitler used to eat.” We are reminded of the weight of history and reflect upon the sheer audacity of the interracial couple’s presence in a space that once signified leisure for one of the most prominent proponents of a racist ideology.

Yet Fassbinder’s story does not simply depict Ali and Emmi as righteous lovers beset by a racist society. One of Ali’s successes is its representation of the complex minutiae of interracial relationships. When first confronted with the everyday racism Ali faces, Emmi is incredulous. Yet her strident proclamations in the face of discrimination that “this is her husband” are met with a knowing fatigue on the part of Ali. He understands this ground well and is too inured to everyday racism to be surprised.

Emmi’s ignorance of certain aspects of Ali’s racialised lived experience also creates rifts between the two of them. When Emmi’s friends visit, they comment on Ali’s cleanliness and the size of his muscles. Emmi invites them both to touch him and when the three surround Ali and begin to grope him, he walks away. When Emmi’s friend asks, “What’s eating him?”, Emmi responds “He has his moods. It’s his foreign mentality.” Here Emmi’s failure to realise how objectifying these actions are, the way they reduce Ali to a mysterious and exotic foreign body, speaks to her own naïveté. Further, her explanation that his behaviour is rooted in a “foreign mentality” shows the way in which even within the context of an interracial relationship, racist assumptions persist.

Yet white Germans are not the only people for whom this interracial relationship causes concern. The Arab women who work in the bar Ali frequents show a pointed disdain for Emmi and her relationship with Ali. Yet it is important to discuss this differently as these fears come from a different context and locus of power. These women’s fears around interracial relationships are rooted in the perceived threat of whiteness, a threat ossified through generations of European colonial occupation and everyday marginalisation in West Germany.

When Ali cheats on Emmi with one of these bartenders, this not only provides an escape from Emmi’s microaggressions, but also an opportunity to eat couscous, a dish that Emmi refuses to make for him. The couscous serves as an important signifier of Ali’s Moroccan culture, an aspect of his identity that Emmi repudiates. In the apartment of the bartender Ali is reunited with this dish and he proceeds to make love with a woman who is able to empathise with his diaspora experience in a way that Emmi cannot.

The complex ways in which social and cultural pressures shape a forbidden love like Emmi and Ali’s overlap greatly with the concerns of “queer”. To engage in queer analysis is to ask how and why a society regiments our genders and desires. There is important shared ground between those who find themselves attracted to others of the same gender and those who find themselves attracted to others of a different racial group. Fassbinder occupied both of these spaces.

In Ali, Fassbinder not only told a story of forbidden love but also directed his own partner El Hedi ben Salem in the role of Ali. The two met in a gay bathhouse in Paris three years prior and Salem moved to Berlin with his sons to live with Fassbinder. Their relationship was tumultuous and ended a year after Ali was released. Salem then allegedly stabbed a group of people in Berlin before being extradited to France and committing suicide in prison. The tragic ending to Salem’s life was not known to Fassbinder until five years later, moving Fassbinder to dedicate his last film Querelle to Salem.

What continues to be moving to this day is the way in which Ali captures the love between Fassbinder and Salem as filmmaker and muse. The knowledge of the relationship between the two allows for the forbidden love storyline to take on further meaning, one that can be transposed to the queer relationship outside of the picture. The issues of societal racism are augmented similarly when recognising Salem’s experience as a new arrival to West Germany. Yet further, in the thoughtless prejudices Emmi shows Ali within an intimate setting, one might see Fassbinder himself working through the issues of love across racial lines.

The loving and gentle way in which Fassbinder shoots Salem evinces the humanity in his desire. Within a European artistic tradition that often represented nonwhite men as oversexed, perverse “Other”s, Ali serves as a loving corrective. Unlike Emmi’s friends who fetishise and grab at Ali as the phantasmic object of their desire, Fassbinder takes a step back to admire the man he desired in the expansive beauty and complexity of what makes him human.

by Jacob Engelberg

Kenneth Anger: The Magician of Cinema

Kenneth Anger is an American underground and experimental filmmaker. The artist has been most well known for being amongst a generation that helped define and liberate the experimental underground movements of the 1960s American avant-garde. Through his conceptual and visionary approach to cinema, Anger has now been regarded as one of film’s most influential figures.

Anger’s first experience in filmmaking occurred when he was just ten years old. The young artist started by making short films, but it was not until many years later that he would produce his signature film Fireworks (1947) where he would finally gain recognition as an established filmmaker. In these early years, Anger had begun developing an interest in the interpretation of dreams and the subconscious mind; he developed a technique portraying these themes in his work, calling it “dream logic”. The dream logic is one behind the interpretation of dreams, exploring how our unconscious mind could be read and understood in reality. In Fireworks, one can see the young artist portraying his own subconscious mind during a dream sequence, projecting through the dreamscape an array of violent, and at times homoerotic, desires. The relationships established in the film would be a signature trait that Anger would carry on developing throughout his career. Not only was the artist one of the first openly gay filmmakers, his films were some of the first alongside Gregory Markopoulos’s Christmas U.S.A (1949) and Jean Genet’s Un Chant D'amour (1950) to explicitly address same-sex desire in cinema.

Anger’s films, like many other queer filmmaker’s works, were repeatedly censored and Anger himself was charged with obscenity several times when the works were screened. It was only later in Anger’s career that his accomplishments as a queer artist filmmaker were recognised, and as his relationships grew within the film community, the young filmmaker finally found himself established within the American experimental underground scene. Like many other experimental filmmakers, including Jonas Mekas, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Gregory Markopoulos, joining the underground scene was a way to oppose the dominant aesthetic of Hollywood filmmaking. As a response, groups of artists came together and offered an alternative from mainstream cinema, and with this Anger’s experimentation and creativity developed only further.

Anger continued to explore the unconscious throughout his later works and as his artistic imagination and creative inspiration grew, the filmmaker became greatly interested in the occult. Like the surrealists of the 1940s, filmmakers such as Maya Deren were already creating works that were heavily inspired by occultism through the use of symbolism and esoteric frameworks. Anger’s approach, however, was directed more towards the philosophy of Thelema, founded by English occultist Aleister Crowley. Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) was Anger’s first film that captivated major elements of the artist’s interest in Thelema itself. The film was a surrealist work of art featuring many mythological figures, personifying pagan gods including Isis, Osiris, and Pan. The continuation of these traits, however, would again be found in his later films, specifically Lucifer Rising (1972), a film which lends itself to the world of mythology and mysticism, the very foundations and signature style that would historically become known as Anger’s very own.

 
by Eliott Mussi, Artist/Filmmaker

meeting orlando

“She's lived for 400 years and hardly aged a day; but, because this is England, everyone pretends not to notice.”

As viewers, we cannot help but notice her. Orlando has milky skin, flame-red hair and almost alien-like features. And then there’s that gaze – direct, playful, two beams of light from another century. Tilda Swinton has the look of someone dropping in from another world, appropriate for a character who switches seamlessly between genders, inhabiting both with ease.

The film is based on Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name, originally published in 1928. Married to Leonard Woolf for almost thirty years (until her death in 1942), Virginia Woolf was a key figure in the Bloomsbury Group, known for their liberal views on sexuality. At the time of writing Orlando, Virginia was in the midst of a decade-long relationship with fellow Bloomsbury-ite Vita Sackville-West.

 

virginia-vita1933.jpg

The ‘effect of Vita on Virginia’ according to Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson, ‘is all contained in Orlando, the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her’. Vita and Virginia remained close friends long after their sexual relationship had ended. What we are gifted with is a wild and fantastical novel, and its corresponding film, updated and remixed for the end of the 20th century.

What makes Orlando a queer film? Of course, Orlando enjoys romantic and sexual relationships with both men and women, and the character transitions gender midway through the film. Yet we can’t honestly call Orlando a bisexual or trans narrative. Rather, it is queer in its exploration of form, its chronological playfulness,  its bold flirtation with its viewers.

Of course, there are also the queer cameos. The iconic Quentin Crisp drags up admirably to play an elderly Queen Elizabeth I, who commands Orlando, a young noble, to stay forever young – leading our protagonist to move as seamlessly between centuries and genders as they do lovers. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, gay pop icon Jimmy Somerville hovers above our Orlando as a skinhead angel. Replete with tacky golden wreath, wings and toga, he looks like he’s been outfitted from a costume shop, injecting the film with a knowing campy silliness.

Camp, androgynous, garish and proud – we hope you love meeting Orlando.

- Kate Wood & Catherine O’Sullivan

"You're livin' in your own Private Idaho, Idaho"

Please note that this text contains spoilers.

Here is River Phoenix; stranded, shuffling, sleepy-eyed. Take note of his smooth, high forehead and his sweet boyish chin. Watch as he hollers and swaggers. This show of unfazed machismo cannot hide the fact that he’s as defenceless and vulnerable as the rabbit who lopes away from the road in fright. This boy is named Mike and he doesn’t know where he is or why he’s there. Clouds roil overhead in the purpling sky. The highway stretches onwards. This American landscape is blank and hostile.

Remember this location. We’ll be back.  

Now watch as Mike is suddenly betrayed by his own body. Convulsing and twitching, he slowly drops to the ground. He is a narcoleptic, a character trait which informs the rhythm of his surrounding film. Mike’s attacks come upon him suddenly and he regularly wakes up in a new and disorientating place. This lends an unusual structure to the movie, which smash cuts it way through different locations, time periods, tones.

But first, the opening credits.

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Most people now automatically associate the words My Own Private Idaho with the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s. Yet what does that title really mean? The phrase is never once said within the movie.

The colourful title cards slotted throughout the film tell us that that stretch of highway we encounter at the beginning of the film, the one as familiar as a ‘fucked-up face’, is located in Idaho. The phrase itself has its origin in a song by the B-52s, a band, let’s not forget, in which four of the five founding members identified as gay or bisexual.

If you don’t pay any attention to the lyrics, one’s “own private Idaho” sounds like it could mean an idealised space, a self-made mental sanctuary. Pay attention to the lyrics though, and the song reveals something much more insidious.

You're livin' in your own Private Idaho, Idaho
You're out of control, the rivers that roll
You fell into the water and down to Idaho
Get out of that state
Get out of the state you're in

Your own private Idaho is an unhealthy mental state. It’s a paranoiac frame of mind. It’s one we shouldn’t linger in for too long.

Poor Mike is returned to that stretch of highway again and again.

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“I've been on this road before.”

We’re back on that same road. It’s halfway through the film and this time Mike is not alone. Scott (Keanu Reeves) is with him, attempting to kickstart his motorcycle and only half listening as Mike continues:

“This is my road. Looks like a fucked-up face.Like it's saying, 'Have a nice day" or something. See what I mean, Scott?”

Scott doesn’t see, or he doesn’t want to see. He continues this refusal into the next scene, perhaps the most pivotal in the film. It is the scene where the two boys sit in front of a crackling fire, the location where Mike admits he’s in love with Scott.

It almost hurts to watch Mike squirm this confession of love out of himself, to see the physical effort it takes. He begins by circling around the issue, hinting and feinting and then backing off, willing his companion to take the lead. It isn’t until Scott’s quiet, assured statement that he only has sex with men for money and that “two guys can't love each other” that Mike’s reserve cracks and he lets his honest feelings out, halting yet definite.

“Well, I - I don't know. I mean -I mean, for me… I could love someone even if I... you know, wasn't paid for it. I love you and…. you don't pay me.”

Throughout this exchange, Scott is looking directly at Mike, while Mike stares down into the fire. Watch River Phoenix’s body as he twists it in on himself, wrapping hand around knee, drawing himself up close and small. It’s worth remembering that this exquisite scene was improvised almost entirely by Phoenix. On the page, his character was initially written as straight. Phoenix wanted to complicate it. How queer.

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At the film’s close, we are, of course, back on that same stretch of road. It isn’t a scene of redemption or of reunion. For many queer people, our lives cannot be conceived of as linear. Many of the usual milestones of normal society are meaningless, or mislabelled, or simply fall out of chronology. After all he has been through, Mike has ended up right back where he started from.

Before we are truly finished, however, a final title-card: Have a nice day.

The phrase rings obviously hollow. The world can be brutal to beautiful boys with smooth, high foreheads, especially those with queer confessions to make. But watch River Phoenix, one final time. He is beautiful. And this, more than perhaps any other factor, is why we return, helplessly, to My Own Private Idaho.

- by Catherine O'Sullivan

Adolescence, Bisexual Desire, and Gregg Araki

I perhaps came across the cinema of Gregg Araki a little too late. As a child and young adolescent, the worlds that teenagers inhabited fascinated me. In the ‘90s to 2000s era in popular culture, I looked to the reflections of teenagers on-screen aspirationally. These appeared to me like worlds of sex, drug-taking, and frivolity. In American teen cinema including the movies Thirteen, I Know What You Did Last Summer, the Scary Movie, and American Pie franchises, there lay something that captivated me. Teenagers seemed to be living on a plane of freedom and continual journeys of experimentation into the unknown. As a sheltered child who longed to already be experiencing this dangerous independence, these films appeared to me as a conduit to ephemerally live out such a life through fantasy.

Similarly, through popular music, and particularly the medium of the music video, I could try out a range of different teenage personas that I would maybe one day inhabit. I practised my 'Like I Love You' Justin Timberlake in front of the mirror, with his teasing eyes and grey hoodie. Or perhaps I would be more like Nelly and find myself in a dilemma with my very own Kelly Rowland, our mutual adoration taking us out dancing into the streets. Or perhaps I would find myself in Christina Aguilera’s dirrty club. Would I be a well-oiled man in the background? Would I burst through the hallways with the dominance of Redman? Or would I be Christina herself, writhing on the floor with my red thong at the forefront of everyone’s mind?

Unsurprisingly, my actual teenage years were much less exciting than any of these fantasies. Where I’d hoped to find a space of romance, sex and abandon, I instead found myself to be a closeted bisexual who was engrossed in school work, who maybe kissed a girl at a party but never got beneath anyone’s clothes, and whose only real engagement with drugs was smoking weed in my friend’s shed every Friday night while listening to Laura Marling songs.

It wasn’t until my early 20s that I discovered the cinema of Gregg Araki - a brand of predominantly “teen” cinema that was like nothing I’d ever seen before. His films featured aliens, the apocalypse, and Los Angeles. Soundtracks reverberating with the exclamatory brashness of postpunk and the sensual pulse of shoegaze. Brutal violence, cults, and surprise attacks. Valley girls and stoners. Made-up Californian teenage vernacular peppered with creative vulgarities. Boredom, apathy, and recklessness. Chain-smoking and drinking. Teen suicide. Young cinephiles who make films. And finally – importantly – characters who desire people of more than one gender.

As I began to explore Araki’s cinema further, I found that bisexuality emerged again and again, from his first 1987 low-budget feature Three Bewildered People In The Night to his high-budget and star-studded 2014 film White Bird In A Blizzard. What continued to interest me about Araki’s cinema was the way in which he repeatedly articulated bisexuality within a cultural context in which bisexuality is usually erased. Normally when characters are depicted as having relationships with people of more than one gender, this is presented as a journey towards their true identity. The teenage girl who kisses another girl but then later in a film has a relationship with a man is read as a “straight girl experimenting”. The married man whose affair with another man is discovered, is revealed to have been gay and closeted all along. In Araki’s cinema however, potentials beyond the heterosexual-homosexual binary are opened up, in ways that challenge the dominant assertion that individuals must be either straight or gay.

Araki himself has hinted towards this aspect of his cinema saying in 1999 ‘polymorphous sexuality is interesting to me’, in 2005 ‘my movies are always about outsiders and amorphous sexuality’ and in 2011, ‘my earlier movies are sort of about that idea of sexuality [being] flexible and not black and white.’ Araki also described his 1995 film The Doom Generation as having ‘a bisexual edge’ and his tagline for his 2010 feature Kaboom was ‘a bisexual Twin Peaks in college’.

Araki is someone who has described his sexuality in many different ways over the last twenty years, sometimes identifying as gay and sometimes eschewing labels of sexual identity altogether. Despite being one of the key figures of the New Queer Cinema movement, Araki’s relationship to queer communities has been a fraught one. In the early ‘90s the director faced accusations of presenting negative images of queerness and in the mid-’90s, Araki had his legitimacy questioned over his relationships with women. In reaction to Araki attending the Sundance Film Festival with then-girlfriend Kathleen Robertson, the actor who plays Lucifer in the film we’re about to watch, one journalist accused him of ‘straining the GLBT community’s acceptance of the auteur as a ‘serious filmmaker’ of gay-themed films.’ This journalist obviously doesn’t see the irony of using an acronym that contains the letter B to make his point.

However I would posit that rather than straining relationships with queer communities, Araki’s cinema does something quite different. Instead, I believe that his films open up possibilities of what queer can mean, who is considered queer, and what queer cinema can be. Too often is the term queer cinema synonymous with cinema about young, gay, white, cis men. In Araki’s foregrounding of bisexuality, an important representational shift is made that destabilises normative homosexuality’s dominance in queer culture.

Studies in the UK and US have found that bisexual people make up the largest sexual demographic group in queer communities, yet their lives, desires, and particularities of experience are so often elided in both queer and mainstream culture. In Stonewall’s 2010 report on television representation, they found that LGB characters accounted for only 4.5% of all programming, with bisexuals making up just 1% of that 4.5%. That's bisexual characters making up just 0.045% of all television programming.

This is important because the images we see on screen have a profound effect on real lives. In a world in which bisexuals are regularly told that their sexualities do not exist, that they are going through a phase, or cannot be part of queer communities, isolation is commonplace. In research conducted by London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine earlier this year, it was found that bisexual men experience the highest prevalence of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide attempts in British LGB communities. Similarly, a 2010 study in the US found that bisexual women face the highest prevalence of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in LGB communities. A 2011 report by Stonewall found that bisexual asylum seekers are the sexual demographic least likely to obtain asylum on the grounds of sexual persecution in their home country. These are just a handful of data that pertain to the lived and structural realities that bisexual people face.

Here cinema may feel like a superficial area to return to, but I believe cinema’s immense cultural influence is something with considerate ramifications, especially for marginalised groups. Cultural theorist bell hooks reminds us that ‘whether we like it or not, cinema assumes a pedagogical role in the lives of many people...no matter how sophisticated our strategies of critique and intervention [might be], [viewers are] usually seduced, at least for a time, by the images we see on the screen.’ 

Araki’s feat in repeatedly bringing bisexual lives to film in ways that are cool, awkward, sexy, lonely, confused, assured, reckless, and cautious, is something to be marked. Nowhere is the film that I wish I had discovered as a teenager. While teeming with the same mythologised conceptions of adolescence that I never managed to personally realise, it is a loud, fast-paced, visceral, and, if you’re attentive to it, profoundly touching film. It’s the world of Dark, Mel, and Lucifer. Kriss, Kozy, Cowboy, and Egg. Shad, Lilith, Zero and Zoe. This world is pleasurable and violent, funny and upsetting, profound and superficial, but, importantly, it is a world in which bisexual desire is permitted to unfurl. 

 

by Jacob Engelberg