Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: In a Year With 13 Moons

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I have a feeling that this movie may not be the best introduction to the work of the insanely prolific German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who made more then 40 feature films over the course of a 13-year career before dying of a drug overdose at age 37. He's best known for adding a personal, artistic touch to the melodrama genre, including unofficially remaking Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in 1974. I've seen a few Sirk movies, but I'd never seen any Fassbinder until this 1978 film, inspired by the suicide of Fassbinder's partner the same year. In a Year With 13 Moons (sometimes translated as In a Year of 13 Moons) is a meditation on suicide and sexual identity, with Volker Spengler as Elvira, an unhappy transsexual who had a sex-change operation impulsively when a man she (then a he) was in love with said he could only love a woman.

Elvira has drastically changed her life without getting the only thing she wanted, and as the movie opens her latest boyfriend is walking out on her. She's depressed and confused, and the movie is mostly about her wandering through her life, confronting friends and lovers (including the man who set her on the whole downward spiral to begin with) before ending up in a very dark place. Fassbinder structures the film around numerous long monologues, many of which seem sort of tangentially related to the story, and he favors long takes shot from odd vantage points (many scenes are shot through doorways or windows). The monologues are sometimes touching and revealing, although I found a few of them completely inscrutable. It's also jarring how Fassbinder switches abruptly from a tone of haunting despair to a sort of surrealist whimsy, as when Elvira finally tracks down her unrequited love and finds him doing a dance routine to the Martin & Lewis film You're Never Too Young, or when the director uses incredibly graphic footage of an actual cattle slaughterhouse as the imagery for a monologue by Elvira quoting a play she used to practice with her lover.

Those intricate levels of reference were partially lost on me, I think, and it might have been better for me to start with a more accessible or well-known Fassbinder film. Still, while I can't say I entirely enjoyed 13 Moons, I was impressed enough with Fassbinder's talent (his framing is especially striking and evocative) that I'm curious to check out more of his work.

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