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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/25/00

1970 (2000) – KirchMedia GmbH & Co. KgaA (Fantoma Films)

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Whity Film Rating: A

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 there’s 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, it’s in reference to it being some blood-soaked slasher flick. For this one, that’s 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 weren’t 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, it’s 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 he’s 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 Romero’s Dead acting in Community Theater. The only other black character in the film is a mammy-type, painted so black at times it’s 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 it’s 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 it’s 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.

Fantoma’s release of Whity on DVD is damn good. I took several things into consideration when judging this film. First, it’s 30 years old. Second, it’s a foreign film. Third, it’s 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 that’s hardly a fault of Fantoma or American Zoetrope (the mastering facility for this disc). That’s 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. There’s 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 - you’ll find yourself forgetting that it’s 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 there’s nothing else. But it’s 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 you’re being lectured at. You feel as though you’re listening in on two friends catching up and it works for a film like this. You’ll have to go out and find out more information about Fassbinder if you want to learn more, because you’re surely not going to become an expert by listening to this track. But what you do learn is a good start. There’s 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 I’m hoping some of you guys are going out and chasing some of them down. I really enjoyed discovering Whity, and I’m hoping you do as well. It’s not for all tastes, that’s for sure. But if you love the many ways in which a camera can tell a story, you’ll be pretty amazed by this film. Consider this another hidden treasure discovered and restored thanks to the power of DVD.

Todd Doogan
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