Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Book Returns + Fassbinder's Birthday + Bancroft RIP

If you've ever had a book published in sizable numbers (say above 2,500-5,000 copies) by someone other than yourself or a vanity press, which is to say from one of the small independent presses to one of the conglomerates, and if your book made its way into one of the bookstore chains and it wasn't a bestseller--which would characterize the vast majority of books printed and published since Gutenberg--then you probably have dealt with "returns." For the author, returns usually mean a negative number on the royalty statement; after the press has earned back its monetary advance (which might be anywhere from $1,000 to $1 million or more, depending upon the book and author), if there is one (and there usually is one, however modest, for works of fiction and non-fiction of all kinds), the author often will get royalties, even small ones.

However, according to the strange economics of the book business, booksellers can return unsold books to the publisher. Authors get no royalties on these returned books, which publishers often will then sell at heavily discountered prices to "remainder" houses, if they don't pulp them outright. Remaindered books, like used and resold books, provide authors with no royalties, so if the books don't sell and are returned, and if the publishers don't keep the returned books in a warehouse to sell at full price down the road, an increasingly unlikely prospect given the huge volume of books published each year, the author's chance of earning any royalties diminishes to zero. The return system as it stands disincentivizes the chain book stores from keeping books for the extended periods they once did; they simply bring in the new books, ship out the old, and the consumer has to either order the book when she walks in or go the online ordering route.

Overall, the system is a mess, and is getting worse. The consolidation of publishers, bookstores and distributors--which has led to a rise in book prices; a narrowing of content, including a dumbing down of books in general; and the disappearance of independent first-sale bookstores in many cities--along with the overall national decline in reading, draws a grim portrait of the future of book publishing as we've known it. Other options, including just-in-time electronic publishing and books-on-demand, appear to offer some promise, but until they mature, publishing will continue careening towards its demise.

That's my potted discussion of the topic. Here's another, by the Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey Trachtenberg, in the current edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Quest for best seller means lots of returned books." It's not just a grim portrait, but a grave one, but necessary reading for anyone interested in the current business of books.

Doug Ireland's recently blog pointed out something I'd missed completely: the just passed birthday of the late German playwright, filmmaker-auteur and force of nature, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982). It's hard to capture nowadays the esteem and excitement with which many cinephiles held Fassbinder's movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he became one of the leading representatives of a new wave of European, and in particular German, cinema. As late as the early 1990s Fassbinder, whose films represent a particular vein of post-modernism, was also being taught in many film and semiotic studies programs. His idiosyncratic and ironic revival of Sirkian melodrama is especially significant, and is visible in the work of US filmmaker Todd Haines.

Some of Fassbinder's early and mid-period films, like Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970) and Whity (1971), while still fascinating, don't hold up so well in retrospect, but other early films, like his existential drama Katzelmacher (1969), the race-age-class-tinged tragedy Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974, shown above), and the stunningly overwrought The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), as well as his late masterpieces that deal with the Nazi period and its aftermath--The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Lilli Marlene (1980), Lola (1981), and Veronika Voss (1982), and the magisterial TV version of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz(1980)--remain significant moments in cinematic art. Unlike most of today's mainstream movies, Fassbinder's films often deal with publicly and privately conflicted (and constrained) characters, usually political, economic, and social (sexual) outsiders and outlaws. They rarely offer the now-expected neat and usually sentimental resolutions (cf. Crash). Frequently the outcome of the plot is tragedy, with elements of dark humor mixed in, so that the movies complicate two common spectator responses, identification and recognition. The low production values of some of the films, their cultural transgressiveness, campy outrageousness and satire, and their warped quotations of prior works have always repelled some viewers, but at their best, as in Maria Braun, which was an international success, Fassbinder's achievement is obvious and lasting.

My introduction to Fassbinder was Querelle (1983), the final film he directed, before he committed suicide, though he had he given himself a little more time, a massive heart attack brought on by years of drug and alcohol abuse and a frenzied pace that would have slain most mortals (he made over 50 films in 20 years) probably was around the corner. Querelle is his highly stylized (and failed) adaptation of Jean Genet's lyrical and perverse inverted-Billy Budd novel. I was still in high school when it briefly appeared in US theaters, and snuck out to the sole moviehouse in my city that showed foreign films to catch it. Although I hadn't read the Genet source novel, I knew he was a homosexual and that the film itself dealt with homosexuality, sailors and murder, a magnetic combination. (I didn't yet know that Fassbinder also was gay and had cast several of his lovers, including the Arab actor El Hedi ben Salem, who later killed himself in prison, and the Afro-German Günther Kaufmann, who frequently played an American soldier, in many of his films). I can't even say I remember anything of that first viewing beyond being awed by the fantastically phallic architecture of Fassbinder's imagined French port of Brest and the incomprehensible storyline, but I saw it several years later on VHS, and became hooked on his work.

The Criterion Collection has issued beautiful versions of Maria Braun, Lola and Veronika Voss, which I recommend, and just a few weeks ago I bought a Criterion supplementary disk featuring an interview with Fassbinder, as well as with his surviving collaborators. Also, in 2000 as a form of homage, French enfant terrible François Ozon (Eight Women, Under the Sand, Criminal Lovers) made a worthwhile film of Fassbinder's stage play Water Drops On Burning Rocks.


Finally, a very brief note of tribute to Bronx native Anne Bancroft (1931-2005), a superb film and stage actor who also produced and directed films. Although her most memorable performance was as the drunken seductress Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967) ("Do you want me to seduce you?"), she set a high standard in a number of other roles over the years, including in her Academy Award-winning turn as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker (1962), as the conflicted ballerina in The Turning Point (1977), as the knowing Mother Superior in Agnes of God (1985), and as Harvey Fierstein's loving but meshugah mother in Torch Song Trilogy (1988).

One film role of hers I always enjoyed that I haven't (yet) seen mentioned in many of the tributes is 84 Charing Cross Road(1987), in which she plays (and slightly overplays, as she sometimes did) American book lover Helen Hanff, who initiates a romance via letters with a character played Anthony Hopkins. It's a charming film, if not a great one, and Bancroft makes it worth watching. (It even got me to visit some the used bookstores on Charing Cross Road, as C. will attest.)


  1. fassbinder and bancroft are fierce, if you ask me...both in their own ways, really forged their own paths in hollywood and were successful.

    i haven't watched a fassbinder film in years, john (i was first turned on to him by a british junior i met when i was a freshman at oberlin...he actually got off on playing a fassbinder movie while we were doing it...unfortunately, he was doing this for THREE other guys he was seeing while we were together...ugh)

    i need to find his work and start watching it again...

    and yes, 84 charing cross road was anne's best, imho....

  2. Ryan, that's wild, someone playing Fassbinder as a sexual aid! It's also cool you like Anne in 84 Charing Cross Road. It's probably a clunkier movie than I recall, but I especially enjoyed her role in it.

  3. Enjoyed reading your blog on Fassbinder. It brought back memories of the man and his work. When I lived in Baltimore (1979-1991), I was a "regular" at the local arthouse theater--The Charles. It was there that I discovered the New German Cinema of the '70s and early 80s, and Fassbinder and his contemporary Werner Herzog were HIGH on my moviegoing list at The Charles. I relished the contradictory and sometimes bizarre images (mind you, I was fresh-up from Birmingham, Alabama) of Fox and His Friends, Ali, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, Veronika Voss, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Woyzeck, the delightful Even Dwarfs Started Small, and Nosferatu. I was also fascinated by how Fassbinder played with images of race and gender in his films. I was sooooo "torn-up" when I learned of his death.

    Thanks for the reminder and the memories.