To-Do Nihilist

Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents) By Ian Penman. South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e). 200 pages. $17.

The cover of Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)

THE CRITIC Ian Penman’s Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors is a work of biographical criticism with strong views on the genre’s pitfalls and limitations. Right at the outset, he pronounces “the absolute impossibility of summing up” his subject, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and promises that this auteur monograph will not stoop to “plot outline and capsule description.” He questions the very point of “biography or overview or memorial or accounting in this era of Wikipedia and Twitter and all the other just-a-click-away info blocs and image banks.” And he bemoans the “dulling effect of canonization,” citing as a negative model Sartre’s biography of Genet, “a shocking attempt to neutralize or freeze someone when they were still alive.” Fassbinder, who died of a drug overdose at the age of thirty-seven in 1982, left behind an improbably vast corpus of more than forty films and a messy, larger-than-life myth, all of which have, in Penman’s estimation, spared him from “being turned into a monument.” As its title suggests, Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors is a kind of anti-monument in spirit and in form, content to leave the outsize figure at its center elusive, protean, only partially glimpsed.  

The quote from Nabokov’s The Eye that provides Penman’s epigraph and subtitle (“For I do not exist: there exist but thousands of mirrors that reflect me”) well suits an artist who gravitated to self-portraiture, populating his films with stand-ins and alter egos, and who moreover loved mirrors both as set decor and as alienation devices. Like many critics who have sought to do justice to a cherished subject, Penman adopts an essentially mimetic approach. Channeling Fassbinder, who seemed to work at the speed of thought, the author wrote his book in a headlong, three-month burst of industry. Composed of numbered fragments—450 in all, many of them no more than a paragraph—Thousands of Mirrors thrums with a restless, associative energy as Penman jump-cuts among commentary, anecdotes, personal reminiscences, syncopated epigrams, rhetorical questions, blocks of quotations, and rat-a-tat lists, all the while drawing on a polymath array of references.

It becomes clear within a few pages that this is not primarily a book about Fassbinder. Or rather, it is not primarily interesting as a book about Fassbinder. An image of the man emerges, to be sure, and it is a familiar one: a “mythic ogre,” a “monster of productivity” who never missed a deadline, “a plotter in the calculus of dependency.” Penman’s book is at its least convincing when it tries to behave like a typical critical biography. Mining Fassbinder’s childhood, the author links an early fractured family life to an adult inability to maintain functional relationships, attributes his individualist ethos to Steiner schooling, and enlists psychoanalyst Melanie Klein to propose that an absent mother made him “an orphan, adopted by cinema.” Early on, Penman admits it was a mistake to attempt a binge rewatch of Fassbinder’s films—they were too claustrophobic for lockdown viewing—but close readings do not in any case seem germane to the project at hand. While Penman dwells engagingly on several films—including the scathing terrorism drama The Third Generation (1979), which he calls the most prescient of the films, and the Nabokov adaptation Despair (1978), for him a richly fascinating misfire—what counts here are less the movies as texts than the impressions they left on him, the sense memories they still conjure. 

Penman is a generalist par excellence, as well as a writer who thrives on generalities. The broader the brushstroke, the more compelling he tends to be. There is no question that Fassbinder and his films mean a lot to Penman, but where he truly excels is in mapping the overlapping contexts that produced the man and the work: post-war Germany, the economic miracle, the Cold War, ’60s counterculture, post-’68 disillusionment, gay liberation, the Me Decade, the explosion of consumer culture, the dawn of modern-day terrorism, the heydays of classical Hollywood and various European New Waves, experimental theater, punk, post-punk, modernity itself, and even the Weimar era, which Fassbinder depicted in the TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). This flaneurish drift, always connecting and constellating, dense with historical and theoretical allusion yet light in its touch, is a Penman hallmark, recognizable from the music reviews he has been publishing on and off for decades, from his feverish teenage contributions to the NME to his more expansive recent essays in the London Review of Books. Perhaps owing to the methods that produced it, Thousands of Mirrors features a heightened version of Penman’s distinctive prose style—punchy slogans alternating with riffy sentences elongated with multiple ors and ands, rarely settling for one word when three or four are available—and it perfectly fits a brand of criticism that often approaches reverie and thought experiment. 

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Venice Film Festival, Venice, Italy, 1980. Photo: Gorup de Besanez/Wikicommons.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Venice Film Festival, Venice, Italy, 1980. Photo: Gorup de Besanez/Wikicommons.

“How to register both the tang of personal memory and the real underlying grain of an era?” Penman asks, in effect articulating a statement of purpose. Reading its subject as a sign of the times, Thousands of Mirrors strives to discern the shapes and meanings of epochs. Penman notes that Fassbinder was born on May 31, 1945, “about as close to the dividing line between the ceasefire and the beginning of reconstruction as it’s possible to be.” He obsesses over the idea of Fassbinder as a cusp figure, a link between periods and generations. Which is another way of saying that he stands for something irretrievably lost: “the turbulent, seeds-sown, messy era just before everything changed.” Dead four decades, Fassbinder is of course a talismanic figure from Penman’s youth, someone who had a “huge and axis-shifting effect” on the impressionable lad whose nomadic childhood was spent on Royal Air Force bases and who moved to London in 1978, on his nineteenth birthday, greedy for experience. For all the sinuous forward motion of its chain-of-thought meanderings, Thousands of Mirrors is, at heart, a prolonged backward glance. Not least because he tries to “retain traces of the book [he] might (should?) have written at the time, just after [Fassbinder’s] death,” Penman spends a lot of time straddling then and now, measuring distances that can seem impossibly vast. In some ways, the main ghost haunting the book is not Fassbinder but the Penman of forty years ago.

For the film historian Thomas Elsaesser, the challenge of Fassbinder criticism was that he represented a case of “work upstaged by life.” “If the life explains the films, and the films explain the life,” Elsaesser wrote, “then not only is each the foil for the other, but each makes the other transparent: to the point of tautology.” Penman doesn’t exactly solve this conundrum; instead, he complicates it, adding even more reflections to this hall of mirrors by bringing his own biography to bear. “I have to wonder now, why was I so drawn to the RWF mythos?” he asks early on. Nearing the book’s conclusion, he poses the question again, sharpening its thrust: “Why was I so drawn to Fassbinder? What lack or sympathy or punishment was sheltering behind my response?” He looks for commonalities: both autodidacts who are prone to self-destructive excess (and yet good with deadlines). Penman goes so far as to posit a grim cosmic kinship, revealing that the first time he took heroin, it was the night Fassbinder died.

There are moments of discomfiting disclosure, as when Penman wonders if having Fassbinder as a role model simply meant “a threshold or excuse or ticket for all kinds of lazy and reprehensible and long-term harmful behavior.” Thousands of Mirrors is in the end a cautionary tale about the perils of overidentification. Fassbinder carried out his live-fast die-young motto. “But what if you find yourself still alive, in late middle age?” Penman writes, in perhaps the book’s most piercing line. Not unlike Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden, Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors blurs the boundaries among criticism, biography, and memoir. When Penman writes, “There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with such lingering on the past,” he’s speaking of Fassbinder’s attraction to certain eras, but as he surely knows, the sentiment applies to so much else. An occasional devastating question—“How to work with the backwash of failed dreams?” “How to survive an extended mourning and/or melancholy”?—sweeps everything into its maw: Fassbinder, the larger culture, Penman himself. Even if Thousands of Mirrors reveals more about the author than the filmmaker, it is—like Léger’s book—a reminder of how insular and impoverished much film criticism is and has been, how tied to hidebound conventions of description and evaluation. Penman is by no means Fassbinder’s most insightful exegete: he tells us little that we don’t already know about these much-discussed movies. But he says a great deal about what it means to live with them. 

Dennis Lim is the artistic director of the New York Film Festival. His most recent book is Tale of Cinema (Fireflies Press, 2022).