Site created 12/15/97.
review added: 4/25/00
KirchMedia GmbH & Co. KgaA (Fantoma Films)
review by Todd Doogan of
The Digital Bits
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/B-
Specs and Features
95 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced,
single-sided, dual-layered (layer switch at 55.26, in chapter 7),
Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary (with cinematographer
Michael Ballhaus and producer/star Ulli Lommel), film-themed menu
screens with animation and sound, scene access (12 chapters),
languages: German (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles: English
"Whity, do I
appeal to you?"
If theres anyone out there looking for a movie that very few
have seen, or even have the stomach for, then I think
Whity may be what you're
after. Usually when I say you may not have the stomach for a flick,
its in reference to it being some blood-soaked slasher flick.
For this one, thats not the case. Whity
is more of a revisionary spaghetti western (I know - as if spaghetti
westerns weren't revisionary enough). Just take everything you know
about the westerns of Leone and his comrades and turn that upside
down. Whity is about a family
in the American 19th Century Southwest - that much is plain and
simple. But let's just say that it's a very twisted, grotesque and
rotten to the core family. That's where the stomach churning begins.
Whity is the product of an
incredibly talented German filmmaker by the name of Rainer Werner
Fassbinder. Fassbinder lived fast, died young and left behind a
beautiful body of work that's still, to this day, not very well
discovered. Whity is only one
of over 40 films he wrote and directed, each and every one spanning
a different genre and style of filmmaking. Fassbinder was a rare
talent in the world of cinema. His talents werent pigeon holed
and his abilities were as limitless as his imagination. But such
genius had a cost, and that cost was a frightening temper and
totalitarian attitude on the set. In fact, the story of how
Whity came to be is almost as
twisted as the story on the screen. For more on the filming of
Whity, search out Fassbinder's
chronicle of the making of: Beware of a
Holy Whore (Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte) (1971).
As beautiful and technically achieved as Whity
is, its pretty much been one of the most obscure films in
cinema's history. I'm not exactly clear as to why, especially
considering the fact that it won Berlin's Golden Bear in 1971 (the
equivalent of the Academy Award). Fantoma Films is making an
interesting business out of searching out and releasing movies that
played for maybe one showing and went the way of the dodo. Look at
their last (and only other) release Fando
y Lis - a movie that played once and raised the tempers
of the viewing audience so much that they almost had the filmmaker
killed. So now it matters little as to why Whity
was obscure - it's back out and, thanks to Fantoma, it's a
powerhouse on DVD.
Whity follows the exploits of
the Nicholson family: Ben (the father), Katherine (the young wife),
Frank (the gay, spoiled son) and Davy (the retarded younger
brother). Their servant in life is Whity, the family's mulatto
butler sired by Ben himself (a fact hardly acknowledged throughout
the film). As we explore this family, we see that they have a
perverse sense of kinship. Ben is a ruthless, domineering man, who
seems to be testing everyone constantly (especially his wife).
Katherine is a nymphomaniac gold digger, who wants her husband dead
(and if the threat of cancer won't take him, she wouldn't mind a
bullet doing the job). Frank doesn't seem to like his new mother
(the feeling is mutual) and can't wait for his father to die as
well, so he can control the family. Davy is just there - floating in
an out of the Nicholson's eyeline. Whity himself is the only one
who's even remotely well adjusted. He knows he's related to the
family, but hes also reminded of, and understands, his place
(it's 1878 in the Mexico/Texas territory). He does his duties and
takes small stash of money to the local bar, where openly crushes
upon a chanteuse named Hanna. This, of course, gets him into a heap
of trouble by the local bully (played by Fassbinder himself).
The film has a slow pace, many uncomfortable moments of sexual and
emotional perversity and a very odd art direction. The white family
members are painted in a rancid clown white - like Romeros
Dead acting in Community Theater. The only other black character in
the film is a mammy-type, painted so black at times its hard
to see her face. Out of the art direction also comes the acting,
which is very stylized and slow pitched, with lots of staring and
uncomfortable pauses or equally uncomfortable laughter. The whole
thing gets to be quite offsetting... but its so engaging. This
is helped by Michael Ballhaus cinematography. Man - is this an
interesting film to watch. Two scenes stand out in my mind as I
write this. In one, Ben reads from his will and the camera moves
from family member to family member reading each of their faces.
There are no cuts - it's just the camera moving in out, over and
under, around and back. It takes about 8 minutes and it makes its
point effectively. The other scene is when Whity offers Hanna some
money for her services. In a long pause, the camera pans around
Whity as he sits there totally still. The music is going and
everything is still until the camera completes its journey. His hand
falls and he is dismissed from the room. Call it the first "bullet-time"
shot ever filmed. It just goes to show Fassbinder's vision.
Fantomas release of Whity
on DVD is damn good. I took several things into consideration when
judging this film. First, its 30 years old. Second, its
a foreign film. Third, its basically an independent film. So
with all those things considered, I have to say that it looks pretty
gorgeous on DVD. The picture does exhibit some very heavy grain at
times, but thats hardly a fault of Fantoma or American
Zoetrope (the mastering facility for this disc). Thats where
the age of the film comes in and how it was shot. I looked at the
film three times and never once found it distracting. Theres
not a bit of digital artifacting to be found. The colors are rich,
especially the red and white outfits worn by Whity throughout the
film. The blacks too are as solid as you could ask for. This is an
anamorphic transfer you could eat off of. Yeah, I said anamorphic.
The Fantoma folks went all out preserving the original vision of
Fassbinder (it was shot 35mm anamorphic). This is a very solid and
beautiful video presentation, and Fantoma should take a bow. On the
sound side, what we have here is a very solid Dolby Digital mono.
But it's also very good - youll find yourself forgetting that
its a mono track.
Depending how you look at it, this film either has one of the
greatest extras ever, or nothing at all. The only thing on the disc
is a commentary track. I say "only" because theres
nothing else. But its a hell of a track. It features Ballhaus
and producer/star Ulli Lommel (who played Frank) discussing
Fassbinder and the film. But instead of handing out factoids, they
truly just discuss things. Little things pop out, but you never feel
like youre being lectured at. You feel as though youre
listening in on two friends catching up and it works for a film like
this. Youll have to go out and find out more information about
Fassbinder if you want to learn more, because youre surely not
going to become an expert by listening to this track. But what you
do learn is a good start. Theres also a liner note booklet and
some pretty nice menu screens thrown in for your optical pleasure.
I seem to be looking at a lot of hidden gems on DVD lately, and Im
hoping some of you guys are going out and chasing some of them down.
I really enjoyed discovering Whity,
and Im hoping you do as well. Its not for all tastes,
thats for sure. But if you love the many ways in which a
camera can tell a story, youll be pretty amazed by this film.
Consider this another hidden treasure discovered and restored thanks
to the power of DVD.