by Bob Cant and Andrew Britton
Cut, no. 16, 1977, pp. 22-23
— Bob Cant
Fassbinder's FOX is a film about the corruptive nature of capitalism. The fact that the main characters are gay men does of course make it interesting for gay men but it is not primarily a film which attempts to Deal With The Problem of Homosexuality.
The story is about a gay fairground worker, Fox, who wins a lottery and comes into contact with a group of rich fashionable gay men. He begins an affair with one of them, Eugen, whose father is the owner of a long established print works. Eugen and his family proceed to exploit Fox until all his money is finished and then they reject him. The last shot is of the dead Fox lying in a railway station with an empty Valium bottle beside him as two youths go through his clothes. The major theme of the film is the way in which money corrupts all relationships. Eugen exploits Fox's feelings for him because Fox's money can get him and his family out of their financial difficulties. Eugen also debases his relationship with Philip by rejecting him till his financial problems are solved. In the final scene, too, there is the mysterious conversation between Fox's previous lover and his antique dealer friend about some financial transaction — this is never fully explained but simply reinforces Fassbinder's point that in a bourgeois society all relationships have economic overtones. In many ways one has to see the film as a fable with Fox as the innocent abroad in an evil world in the tradition of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Voltaire's Candide, and Dostoyevsky's Prince Mishkin.
However to treat the film as though it were just a fable is to underestimate its complexity. There are many scenes in the film which acknowledge Fassbinder's debt to Hollywood — such as the scene by the French windows with the lace curtains (with all its implications of property and exclusion) and the conversations in the car (creating an atmosphere of growing intimacy between two characters). These scenes are significant not only in a cinematic sense but also in a sense that they indicate the dependence of postwar West Germany on the USA. This can be further seen in the bar scene when Fox talks to the two GIs who are only interested in having drinks bought for them and fucks supplied for them. We are reminded that West Germany — like most of Western Europe — is a neo-colony of American imperialism. The lack of choice that Fox has in most of his relationships is as limited as the choice that most Western Europeans have over the economic destiny of the countries they live in. Lest this be seen as crude European nationalism, the point is further developed in the scenes in Morocco. Fox, the innocent, and Eugen, the symbol of a European bourgeoisie dying in the face of American domination, are only too ready to become the exploiters in relation to a man from a less developed country. Relationships are more than just a matter of good individuals and bad individuals — they are a clear reflection of the economic structure of a society and are no doubt intended here to be seen as an allegory of such.
Many gay people have seen this film as a putdown of gays. It is quite true that people who know nothing of gay life are unlikely to be attracted by the scenes of the gay ghetto as it is portrayed in the film. But then one must recognize that the gay ghetto is not a pleasant place, and those who succeed in its jungle-like atmosphere are likely to be either young and beautiful or just plain rich. The rather nasty group of people who are Eugen's friends seem to me to be a fairly accurate picture of one part of the gay world, claustrophobic and bitchy. Philip's boutique (where there is no natural light and lots of mirrors) and the antique shop (encouraging buyers to imitate living in another age just as the ghetto encourages gays to imitate others' life styles) portray a world which is self-conscious and yet desperate not to face up to its own reality. As gay people we have nothing to gain by pretending our lives are heroic and free from group-imposed destructiveness.
Fassbinder does offer some little hope in the bar scenes where Fox meets his friends from the time before his lottery win. Theirs too is an unreal world with the flower sellers, the drag and the woman consciously trying to look like Marlene Dietrich and singing of Shanghai (a city which no longer exists as it was in the song). But there is some comradeship — the people in that bar are not free from the pressures of capitalism but they do not forget the need to help each other, and they are even prepared to help Fox when he moves away from them.
This is an excellent film — as damning as Buñuel or Chabrol with its comments on bourgeois society. But if anyone wants to see a gay chauvinist film which papers over the cracks then they should go elsewhere. This is a film that must be seen with a socialist perspective.
— Andrew Britton
It was very illuminating — if disconcerting-to see Bob Cant's review of FOX appearing in the same issue of Gay Left (JC 12) as Richard Dyer's admirable analysis of "Gays in Films." On page ten, in discussing, amongst other works, THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT — also by Fassbinder — Dyer seems to me to have said very pointedly what also needs to be said about FOX: The film tries to suggest that gay relationships can be taken as a valid metaphor for the exploitiveness of bourgeois-capitalist society as a whole. I found the film offensive in the extreme. And since it is possible, apparently, for a popular audience — let alone a gay socialist — to read it as a damning indictment of the bourgeoisie, I feel it is important to raise one or two points in reply.
1. There is no mention in the article of the reception of the film in the bourgeois press. David Robinsons remarked in the Times to the effect that the chronicle of exploitation is all the more convincing for being set in a homosexual milieu, and that it represents an honest and realistic picture of gay relationships. Such comments are typical of what has been the general emphasis. This would seem to suggest both that a Concern With The Problem of Homosexuality, as Cant puts it, is rather more central to the film — and to its reception by the audience — than he tries to imply; and that its supposed subversion of bourgeois assumptions is rather less so.
2. The films German title, FAUSTRECHT DER FREIHEIT (literally, FISTRIGHT OF FREEDOM), carries connotations of the survival of the fittest, which, indeed, is the English title provided by Peter Cowie in his International Film Guide for 1976. Clearly, Social Darwinism has been crucial for capitalist ideology, and a film concerned with its ramifications within institutions and personal relationships might be interesting and valuable. What is objectionable in FOX is that the notion is introduced not as an ideological category, but as the inevitable order of the reality depicted. In other words, the ideology is reinforced. A Fate motif is introduced in the opening scenes in the fairground (consider the obtrusive emphasis on the deserted Big Wheel, revolving inexorably like the Wheel of Fortune), in the dialogue ("That's Fate!"), and in the device of the lottery, on which the plot turns. One can, perhaps, attribute part of the film's critical success to this carefully contrived impression of "tragic" necessity. Insofar as FOX portrays "the homosexual predicament" and reinforces deep-rooted preconceptions about it, the film allows the spectator to sit back and think, "God! What awful lives they lead!" Insofar as it permits identification with the dumb loser, and enforces the generalization, "This is how things are in this world," it encourages acquiescence in the movement of the narrative and, ultimately, in the status quo. The spectator can leave the cinema filled with an ennobling compassion for a despised and rather pathetic minority group, and a complacent conviction of his own, and everybody else's, helplessness. FOX is, in fact, the least ideologically subversive of films.
Cant talks about Fox's "lack of choice," in a context which implies that there is a direct analogy between choice in immediate personal relationships and our lack of control "over the economic destiny of the countries" we live in. This is a fatuous equation; it is difficult to see how any individual movement towards self-determination, or any radical political action could begin, or even be conceived, if it were true. It is deeply significant that there is not the slightest mention of Gay Liberation in the film, not a glimpse of a character, gay or straight, who either wants or knows how to break out of the repressive environment. The only characters who are permitted any degree of distance from the central action either observe it in a spirit compounded of self-interest and resignation (Uncle Max, Eugen's father) or are provided with sterile, bitter tirades of disgust and self-disgust (Fox's sister). The film concludes that one is "inside the whale," in Orwell's phrase, and one can't do anything about it. The "lack of choice," the "downhill-all-the way" structure, in which everything goes wrong with somewhat facile regularity, depends upon the deliberate choice of an ineffectual protagonist, whose defeat is inscribed from the start. THE MERCHANT OF FOUR SEASONS, another Fassbinder film, works in the same way. In both cases there is an attempt to immerse the spectator in the process of disintegration.
3. Bob Cant suggests that FOX is "about the corruptive nature of capitalism," and that the film is seriously concerned with the economic determination of human relationships. This formula seems to me objectionable on several counts. Unless one is willing to accept that "filthy lucre" is a subversive concept, and that people with money tend to be unpleasant" is a significant judgment on "the pressures of capitalism," it is difficult to point to any coherent, serious awareness of the "economic structure of a society." Bourgeois audiences find no difficulty in accepting the proposition that "money corrupts all relationships." And the victimization of the loser by rapacious hangers-on has become a staple narrative-structure precisely because it so emphatically confirms complacency, allowing us to feel outraged by a collection of vultures who are very definitely not us.
If the film were really concerned with the perversion of human relationships under capitalism as that is reflected in the lives of a particular group of people (in this case, homosexuals — and if that is not the concern, then the use of gayness is superfluous) one would require the following:
(a) An exploration of what it means to be gay in a working class environment, and how this differs from what it means to be gay in an upper middle class environment. As it is, Fox-as-proletarian does not exist in the film beyond such qualities as bad table manners and bourgeois myths, which see the proletarian hero as slightly (or, as here, exceptionally) stupid, gullibly generous, emotionally sincere (as opposed to the affectation and superficiality of the bourgeoisie-consider Eugen's "We're not starry-eyed lovers anymore") and sexually potent, in a modern variation on the "close-to-the-earth" syndrome. The class theme is, in fact, only trivially present, and the film's central conflict would remain if Fox were an aristocratic gay visitor from Mars. Cant does seem aware of this at some level, since he can talk at one point about relationships being "more than just a matter of good individuals and bad individuals," and at another about the fable of "the innocent abroad in an evil world," without any acknowledgement that there might be some contradiction between the two.
(b) An exploration of why and how the bourgeois gays depicted have come to acquiesce in the institutions of the society which oppresses them. As it is, there is no sense whatever in the film that gayness and bourgeois ideology are in any way incompatible. Indeed, as the action progresses, and the bourgeois gays whom Fox has met at the beginning appear one by one in positions of exploitative power, any distinction between victimization by predatory homosexuals and victimization by a predatory bourgeoisie becomes so blurred that we are left with, at least, the impression of an alliance for mutual benefit. It clearly needs to be said that although gay relationships may become exploitative under capitalism, as any relationships may, the attempt to elide the two is pernicious.
(c) A sense of gay oppression. There is nothing in FOX to show that gayness is subject to ideological, social or legal constraints. Why no awareness of the economic and ideological factors which determine the existence of, say, the gay bar? Why no mention of the social stereotyping which associates gayness with interior decorating and sultry boutiques? Why is gayness taken as paradigmatic of "a world which is self-conscious and yet desperate not to face up to its own reality"? I quite agree with Cant about the symbolism of boutique and antique-shop, but that symbolism has nothing essentially to do with gayness at all. Instead of exploring gay life-styles in terms of their various, complex determinants, Fassbinder presents them as a kind of existential metaphor, an image (deprived of any ideological context) of "exploitiveness" which perpetuates every received idea about homosexuality — its squalor, its ephemerality ("one affair after another"), its triviality, its decadence (the scene with the singer, an imitation-Dietrich backed by an enormous photograph of a naked muscleman), its inhumanity.
Unlike Cant, I feel that the inhabitants of the bar are consistently portrayed as callous, petty and malicious, and I found the use of the plump flower-seller's attempted seduction of Fox to arouse an automatic response of revulsion from the grotesque quite intolerable. Once all the stereotypes and the finality of "the predicament" have been affirmed, the spectator can be invited to feel pity. One can point to a comparable procedure in THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES (which Fassbinder produced), where, after all the fuss and bother about the activities of the murder reflecting the viciousness of capitalist society (a theme which, again, is not significantly there in the film, but which has earned it considerable praise — including that of Gay News), we come back, through the use of Bach's "Have mercy, Lord, on me" for the opening and closing titles, to the real business of "grief for sin" and the pitiable pervert. Fassbinder seems to me, in fact, the archetypal watered-down radical, whose extraordinary current popularity with bourgeois critics can be associated with the opportunity his films provide for becoming aware of, and condemning, some of the more obvious unpleasantness of the middle class without having too many basic assumptions disturbed in the process. The recurrent tone of rather frigid irony, shading at times into the misanthropic, is admirably suited to this purpose, as to the enrollment of the spectator in a stable position from which the inevitability of the action can be observed.
4. Many of the film's targets are reassuringly non-controversial, and curiously anachronistic. Elegant table manners, a familiarity with French cuisine, cultural philistinism and the "family tradition" of Chateauneuf du Pape are easy, comfortable foes, from which we can dissociate ourselves without difficulty. To gauge the thinness of Fassbinder's conception, one has only to place these scenes beside, say, the Christmas scenes in ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, a film made in Hollywood in 1955 by Douglas Sirk, for whom Fassbinder is always declaring his admiration, but who is completely without Fassbinder's rather glib fatalism (consider, as an example of it, the way in which Fox and Eugen come across their Arab pick-up in "The Meeting Place of the Dead"). In Sirk's film the insidiousness of the oppression of bourgeois good manners is felt and conveyed with a subtlety and insight besides which the meal scenes in FOX seem dismally obvious and crude.
5. Bob Cant implies that there is no alternative to "gay chauvinism" on the one hand and the "fairly accurate picture of one part of the gay world" which he claims FOX to be on the other. One can readily agree that "the gay ghetto is not a pleasant place," that it is inadvisable to pretend that our lives are "heroic" (do we pretend that?) and that we, like everyone else, are subject to social and ideological determination in various ways, some of which are beyond our immediate control. This is not the same thing as saying that we should countenance a film such as FOX, whose unawareness of ideology is quite staggering, and which attempts, in a most simplistic and destructive way, to appropriate what it calls "the gay world" as an all-purpose metaphor for a rotten civilization. There seems to be a widely held belief — attributable, presumably, to fear of a charge of "gay chauvinism" — that we should commend and applaud every "exposure" of the "jungle-like atmosphere" (Cant's fine phrase), which we, more than any other class of people, are thought to breathe. "Chauvinism" is now, of course, a loaded word, and probably, in the present context, an inappropriate one, if all that is meant is a degree of enthusiasm for Gay Liberation which various bourgeois/liberal observers feel to be "excessive." I think that "proper pride" is admirable and sorely needed, especially at the present time. On the other hand, a clear, honest, coherent portrayal of the ways in which gay relationships are repressed, perverted, curtailed in bourgeois capitalist society might be equally admirable. This is not what FOX is. Its version of homosexuality degrades us all, and should be roundly denounced.
This exchange of views on FOX is reprinted with permission of Gay Left.