Whity is the mulatto butler of the dysfunctional Nicholson family in the south-west U.S. in 1878. The father, Ben Nicholson, has an attractive young wife, Katherine, and two sons by a ... See full summary »
Whity is the mulatto butler of the dysfunctional Nicholson family in the south-west U.S. in 1878. The father, Ben Nicholson, has an attractive young wife, Katherine, and two sons by a previous marriage; the homosexual Frank and the disabled Davy. Whity tries to carry out all their orders, however demeaning, until various of the family members ask him to kill some of the others. Written by
Rarely screened, but must be seen by all lovers of the German New Wave, Fassbinder in particular, and high camp.
Rarely screened, forgotten by even the most devoted admirers of Fassbinder, _Whity_ is nonetheless a crucial film in Fassbinder's own development as a film-artist. For one, the style of the film marks Fassbinder's turn away from his earlier, Neo-realistic efforts (notably _Katzelmacher_ and _Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?_) and turn towards the flamboyant, melodramatic form favored by him until his untimely death in 1982. Melodrama turns out to be the best possible style for the film's story, which chronicles the fall of the seigniorial Nicholson family in the Mexican 19th century. Indeed, this film should be seen for no other reason than the inescapable weirdness one feels in watching German actors play Mexicans in the Old West. It's like seeing Peter Lorre playing John Wayne: ridiculous, if only it weren't so creepy. "Decadent" and "dysfunctional" are words redefined by the Nicholson family: the patriarch, Ben Nicholson, is remote and cruel, the wife a nymphomaniac, the older son a flaming homosexual, and his brother a severely retarded adolescent. Then there's Whity, the ironically named mulatto slave of the Nicholson family, an inadvertent focus point of each family member's perverse obsessions. It is this mutual obsession with Whity (an obsession shared by the viewer by film's end) which allows Fassbinder to explore the themes which were to comprise his greatest contribution to film's development as a medium, including: dominance and submission, the role of the Other, sexuality, the doppelganger, the economy of familial relationships, and the obstacles fate puts in the way of consumating love. These issues gain complexity when one considers that the slave Whity is played by Fassbinder's then-lover, Gunther Kaufmann. Given this, what is the viewer to make of such stylistic scenes as when Whity is disciplined by his master, while the other family members garrulously look on--knowing that Fassbinder himself is also watching from his director/dictator's chair? (The complex inter-relationships of Fassbinder and the actors during the filming of _Whity_ were later chronicled by Fassbinder in his film _Beware of a Holy Whore_, which is based on the real-life melodrama that occurred _off_ the set of _Whity_.) If nothing else, _Whity_ deserves to be included in with the other Fassbinder films, such as _Despair_, which are so justly celebrated for their psychological depth and complexity. Beyond this, two aspects of Fassbinder's technique in making _Whity_ deserve special mention. The first is that in _Whity_, one of the first of his films to employ a half-way reputable color process, Fassbinder shows himself to be a great colorist in the tradition of Delacroix, bathing the eyes with the lushest oranges, browns, and reds to be seen this side of a sunset. The palette is one that seems to have existed in film only in the late 60s and early 70s, finding similarly gorgeous expression in Truffaut's _Fahrenheit 451_, Boorman's _Point Blank_, Godard's _La Chinoise_, and Nicolas Roeg's early efforts (_A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to The Forum_ , _Performance_, _Walkabout_, _Don't Look Now_, _The Man Who Fell to Earth_). The second aspect of noteworthy technique is a camera movement that truly has no precedent in film history--a fact which makes the obscurity of _Whity_ among film scholars all the more remarkable. The best example of the technique occurs in a scene in which Ben Nicholson reads his last will and testament to the silent family members surrounding him. During an unbroken ten-minute take, the actors remain virtually motionless, as if posed in some Rembrantian tableaux (and in this way recalling Dreyer's _Day of Wrath_). Against this stasis, the camera pans slowly from one family member to another, following their own sight-lines, as if the camera were recording the trace of their attention. For ten minutes the camera repeats this zig-zag path with methodical precision, while psychedelic, trance-inducing music drones in the background. The greatest merit of the technique (seen also in an equally static scene between Whity and the retarded son in the horse barn) is that it allows the viewer time enough to meditate on the relationships among the characters involved in the tableaux--in this case most profoundly on the relationships of power among family members. It's as if Fassbinder, using film technique, took a snapshot of the family, and then spent ten minutes tracing out with his finger exactly who is dominated by whom, who resents the domination, who is perceiving whom and how, and so on. The technique, which to my knowledge Fassbinder never used again to such great effect, can only be seen as the great innovation that it is, and as such, a powerful tool for the revelation of psychological truth. However, let none of these deeper concerns eclipse the enjoyment to be had watching this bizarre, Teutonic _Dallas_ unfold. Like the best moments in a Warhol film, the high camp of _Whity_ is very, very funny to watch--certainly because it is absurd, which is not to say it is without profound meaning.
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