Penman on Fassbinder

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1977

In the late 1970s, Ian Penman’s reviews and profiles for the New Musical Express took the form of a cultural criticism expansive enough to encompass French theory and a sort of haphazard cinephilia. One night in the mid-1980s, so the story goes, Nicolas Roeg handed Penman a bottle of whiskey, poured himself a gin and tonic, and cut loose. “If everybody loved Penman on Paul Schrader, on James Garner, scraping the formaldehyde off Jack Nicholson, then the Roeg improvisation hit the wall,” wrote Iain Sinclair in his 1998 review of Penman’s collection Vital Signs: Music, Movies and Other Manias for the London Review of Books. “The Roeg text was a demented cut-up of quotation, a dialectically unbalanced construction that refused to deliver comfortable Polaroids of its subject. It was, in itself, an artwork. A portrait in the form of a resignation note.”

Penman disappeared for a while, then reappeared in the pages of the Wire, the Guardian, the Face, and the LRB. “His peers spoke of ‘doing’ Penman, as if his customized prose was the drug of choice,” wrote Sinclair. Here’s a free sample: “A naked man stalks his grungy, low-lit apartment. You get the impression everything is the color of nicotine. A claustrophobic place of thick carpets and bleary mirrors, empty rum and Coke bottles piled high in the kitchen. Rainer Werner Fassbinder is having one of his stand-offs with the world.”

These are the opening lines of the “Overture” that launches Penman’s new book Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors, which will be out in the UK on April 19 from Fitzcarraldo Editions and in the U.S. on May 2 from Semiotext(e). The scene Penman is describing occurs about midway into Fassbinder’s twenty-six-minute contribution to Germany in Autumn (1978), an omnibus film made in response to the then-ongoing standoff between the left-wing terrorist group Red Army Faction and the West German government. “I can still recall the feelings of shock and disbelief and—what else?—something like exultation, seeing Germany in Autumn for the first time,” writes Penman.

Talking to Jeremy Allen at the Quietus, Penman suggests that it “may be stretching it to cast Fassbinder as a lone punk standing against the prog rock ponderousness of Euro art house, but it did feel a bit like that at the time.” Fassbinder “gave us so much to go on, and yet he’s still very hard to sum up or pin down.” The title of Penman’s book echoes the quote at the front, and it’s taken from Vladimir Nabokov’s short fourth novel, The Eye (1930): “For I do not exist: there exist but thousands of mirrors that reflect me. With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms reflecting me increases.”

Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors is not a straight-ahead biography of the director who made more than forty features and wrote nearly two dozen plays before he died in the summer of 1982 at the age of thirty-seven. Nor is the book an orderly critical analysis. “I have no desire to be some kind of amiable, reasonable, encyclopedic curator of the archive,” writes Penman in the first of 450 numbered passages. In Fassbinder’s “outsize catalogue, there are moments of high drama, but also long cool shallows; sublime self-possession but also cartoonish self-parody. Celebrating the extortionate whole or appraising each individual atom: both choices seem wrong somehow.”

Observer critic Anthony Quinn calls the book “a freewheeling, hopscotching study of the Fassbinder allure and an investigation of Penman’s younger self,” and Christine Smallwood has more on that at 4Columns: “Riffs on Benjamin, Derrida, Barthes, Mann, and Genet come together as intellectual autobiography.” Penman “goes down all the alleyways: musings on postwar Germany; on RWF as punk or post-punk; on modernism, shock, sleeping, and dreaming; on Sirk, Nabokov, doubles, television, and a persuasive theory of the cinema as ‘entertainment bunker.’ Thousands of Mirrors has style to burn. It has no angst of big questions and puts itself under no burden to answer them.”

Penman “has a formidable skill for getting the contours of a larger-than-life persona and the feeling of a zeitgeist down on the page, both of which are more closely associated with music writing than with the textual dissection that grounds most film criticism,” writes Erika Balsom in the new Cinema Scope. Balsom finds that “what is most compelling about this book (and it is indeed compelling) are not its precise insights into the director’s oeuvre or persona, many of which are familiar enough—it is the author’s positioning of these within a much wider, unflaggingly personal constellation of obsessions and experiences, all delivered in distinctively styled prose.”

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