Home Video Hovel: Fox and His Friends, by David Bax

2 Aug

Generally, I try not to include much of anything in the way of biographical details about the filmmaker when writing about a film; as a matter of personal philosophy, I try to limit my focus to the content of the movie itself. But, in viewing Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends, it’s difficult not to reflect on the man’s volatile status as a gay man who angered conservatives who found him vulgar as well as many in the gay community who saw him as reinforcing negative stereotypes. By way of response, in his life, just as in his performance as Fox, he fascinated by mixing yearning soulfulness with not giving a shit.

Fox is a circus performer—a working class drinker and dreamer—who wins the lottery and suddenly finds himself with a new group of friends, well-heeled and sophisticated gay men eager to educate him in the ways of taste and class now that he has the money to afford it. It’s a queer take on Pygmalion but with jagged edges. It’s also no mystery why the film was a source of controversy in 1975, when it was released, particularly among gays. Most of the gay men here are predatory, status-obsessed and shockingly heartless. To modern eyes, it reads more as an attack on the upper class than on homosexuals but it’s all too easy to imagine how someone from a group not oft-represented might feel about such a nasty portrayal.

Abhorrent as these men turn out to be, the appeal they hold for Fox is no mystery to the viewer. That’s largely thanks to the contributions of Michael Ballhaus, the German cinematographer who collaborated with Fassbinder on multiple occasions and would go on to work with Scorsese, Coppola and a host of other major American filmmakers. His images here are filled with clean lines and color separations, which sounds rigid but is, in practice, soothing and inviting. You feel—and wish—that you could step right into these spaces. They’re like pictures in a high-end furniture catalogue but with something alluringly threatening lurking just outside the frame.

Fassbinder appeared in many of his own films but Fox may just be his most substantial contribution in front of the camera. His pure, unvarnished masculine energy propels the picture forward. As easy as it is to see why Fox’s new friends are so enticing, it’s just as easy to see why they are so interested in him. Fox and His Friends may be ultimately tragic but the experience of watching it is exuberant and electric. You can hardly believe Fassbinder the director was able to harness the power of Fassbinder the actor.

Criterion’s new transfer is from the original camera negative and, as mentioned above, restores Ballhaus’s warm and deliberate color palette. The audio is mono and more than adequate.

Special features include a new interview with actor Harry Baer, a new interview with the great director Ira Sachs, excerpts from existing interviews with Fassbinder and composer Peer Raben and an essay by Michael Koresky.

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