From the June 1, 1991 Chicago Reader. — J.R.
For his filmmaking debut, writer, actor, and stage director Simon Callow has taken on the celebrated novella of Carson McCullers, making some use of Edward Albee’s stage adaptation but paring away much of its dialogue, including the use of an onstage narrator. The grotesque plot, set in a southern mill town during the Depression, concerns a circle of unrequited love: an eccentric bootlegger and folk doctor (Vanessa Redgrave) dotes on a hunchbacked dwarf (Cork Hubbert) who in turn loves an embittered convict (Keith Carradine), once the bootlegger’s husband. The pain of all this builds to an excruciating and violent fist fight between the bootlegger and the convict, witnessed by the entire town. The three leads are superb, and Rod Steiger and Austin Pendleton are fine in small roles. If Callow accords his stars a few too many close-ups, he still does a creditable job of trying to get us to believe in a tale that is difficult to imagine without the fragile weave of McCullers’s prose (Callow evidently sees it as a fairy tale with elements of magical realism). His stage background helps as well as hinders: one never believes in the town as anything but a set populated by actors, but the concentration of his direction certainly solicits the utmost from his cast.… Read more »
Like my essay on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, this article was previously published by Madman in Australia to accompany their DVD release of this later Fassbinder film. Prior to that, it was commissioned by the Fantoma DVD label in the U.S. for their own release of Martha. —J.R.
MARGIT CARSTENSEN: You really are a wretched person.
RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER: That’s what I’ve been saying all along.
MARGIT CARSTENSEN: How am I supposed to pull myself together after this?
The following exchange, appearing at the end of a dialogue that took place between the writer-director and his lead actress after the completion of their film Martha in 1973 (1), helps to pinpoint what continues to make that film politically lethal. Fassbinder’s sarcasm, which becomes oddly comforting in most of its on-screen as well as offscreen manifestations, offers a particular kind of challenge to the viewer in Martha that becomes inextricably tied to how one regards its title heroine. Accepting the self-rationalizations and denials of a woman trapped in a monstrous marriage to a sadist is made to seem intolerable, a cause for squirming, and the fact that Fassbinder plays this game as poker-faced high comedy only makes the challenge more formidable.… Read more »
My favorite Fassbinder feature (1973; not shown in the U.S. for years because of problems involving the rights to the Cornell Woolrich source novel) is a horrific black comedy — a devastating view of bourgeois marriage rendered in a delirious baroque style. Vacationing in Rome, a virgin librarian in her 30s (Margit Carstensen) meets a macho architect (Peeping Tom‘s Karlheinz Bohm) and winds up marrying him. It’s a match made in heaven between a masochist and a sadist, with the husband’s contempt and absurdly escalating demands received by the fragile heroine as her proper due. Suspenseful and scary, excruciating and indigestible, this is provocation with genuine bite — though the manner often suggests a parody of a 50s Douglas Sirk melodrama. (JR)
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