Billy Gray

Bad Educations

In Movie Reviews on November 20, 2009 at 3:20 am

Perhaps to atone for the enduring myth of the “casting couch,” Hollywood often returns to the theme of young people being corrupted by conniving elders. From Hitchcock’s damsels in distress to Rosemary’s Baby to Taxi Driver and Mulholland Drive, a long history of movies suggests that youth isn’t wasted on the young, but snatched out from under them.

Raymond Warner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends is an unorthodox entry in the genre by dint of its gay characters and unwavering cynicism. Fassbinder never really graduated from being the enfant terrible of German cinema (he overdosed at 37, having already directed 40 feature length films). So it’s unsurprising that this story of Fox, a working-class circus performer (played by Fassbinder) picked up, taken in and swindled by a group of “prissy, posh” sophisticates is bleak through to the end.

The most intriguing thing about Fox and Friends is its peripheral treatment of homosexuality. It’s a testament to Fassbinder that his 1974 movie outpaces many being made in today’s professedly liberal and liberated Hollywood. It’s a “gay movie” that is neither PSA nor a minstrel show. The film is largely confined to places where its characters could live quietly and without tension—gay bars and boutiques, cruising areas and their own apartments. But even casual acquaintances and family members don’t bat an eye.

Fassbinder was a libertine, but any salaciousness in Fox and Friends is muted by the film’s classical composition. There is no fancy camerawork, jumbled chronology or postmodern trickery to distract from the barebones plot. But the static medium shots frame unusual activities, like naked bathhouse patrons and businessmen tentatively picking up hustlers in public bathrooms. Fassbinder’s measured technique is more effective at establishing this subculture than showy frenetic devices could be. It lets these people and places, and not the cinematographer, expose themselves.

Besides, Fassbinder hasn’t made gay underworld expose, but an indictment of money and its ruinous effects on individuals and their relationships. Eugen tries to cultivate Fox, but it’s a selfish effort. He teaches him how to order off of a French menu, which wine goes with which course and what clothes to wear. But he imparts all of this wisdom to spare himself any embarrassment. The irony is that Fox funds all of Eugen’s sophistication with his rapidly dwindling lotto winnings.

Eventually, Eugen and his family dupe Fox into saving their bankrupt business. It’s a damning critique of the capitalist system—a somewhat dim prole who falls into chance money keeping an industrialist family’s fortune afloat. But the confidence trick has an even more cynical take on the power dynamic that, no matter how buried, is inherent to all relationships: each partner provides something the other needs. It’s refreshing to see the naïve, young buck end up the (accidental) breadwinner and not just a hood ornament. But Fox, needy, clueless and attracted to Eugen’s classy façade, still draws the short end of the stick.

Fox and His Friends is a very German movie. The distrust of capitalism is grounded in the personal. But the movie’s quiet efficiency tempers plot developments (and some fantastically kitschy settings) that would otherwise veer toward melodrama. There’s also a sense of somewhat wearily looking beyond national borders for enlightenment (whether through posh French restaurants, American johns or an ill-fated trip to Marrakech), only to stay bound by the same old personal and cultural handicaps.

Jenny (Carry Mulligan) is another babe in the woods battling social constrictions in An Education. Unlike Fox, Jenny’s got the brains to match her effortless charm. She also benefits from her supportive if overbearing mom and dad (Alfred Molina, ranging from funny to stern without becoming a movie dad cliché) to steer her in the right direction (which in this case leads straight to Oxford). But she still falls for a duplicitous would-be mentor, David (Peter Sarsgaard), whose displays of fleeting glamour nearly derail Jenny’s straight march to self-made success.

Jenny is the most promising student at her starchy girls prep school. She’s one of those students whose middle-class parents did not enroll her in private school for etiquette lessons, but to see her study through the night and unlock the Pandora’s Box of potential that admission to elite universities suggests to this day.

Life hasn’t hardened Jenny yet. Naiveté is the only chink her in her cardigan-heavy armor. (An Education pours her endearing cluelessness on a bit thick.) She dreams of a life in Paris where she’ll “eat in good restaurants, smoke lots of cigarettes and watch great films.” David spots her and her giant cello seeking shelter from a downpour and drives her to her modest two-family home. He drops the names of some jazz greats and smokes a cigarette (she turns one down for fear of her parents smelling the residue). She is smitten.

After charming Jenny’s parents (they’re biggest objection is not his age—a dozen years older than Jenny—but his Jewishness) with wit and cultural references, David takes her out on the town for a…chamber music concert. She meets Danny (Dominick Cooper), a dapper friend of David’s, and his affable ditz of a girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike, who like Cooper is engaging and underused). After nodding off at the recital, the crew heads to a smoky jazz club. Jenny’s downfall is underway.

As the relationship progresses and Jenny’s grades freefall, David grows sinister and Jenny reluctant. Sarsgaard nails David’s seductiveness, but is a bit one-note. That’s due more to the character’s limitations than the actor’s. David is a small-time crook with some shady real estate dealings (he basically moves black people into white neighborhoods, a subplot that mirrors the movie’s commentary on Britain’s stubborn class divisions). But, unlike Eugen fleecing Fox, his motives for wooing Cassie remain vague.

Mulligan nails it, alternating between levelheaded intelligence, vulnerability and suspicion as David’s well-crafted front begins to crumble. In the wake of her suitor’s betrayal and the opportunities it endangers, she avoids the easy histrionics that lesser actors might employ in favor of quietly picking up the pieces.

It’s a good thing that Jenny’s alternative “education” took place before Swinging London kicked into psychedelic full gear. Otherwise she might have been lost for good. The setting in 1964 also mercifully confines Jenny’s struggles to her character (mostly) instead of mooring them to the decade’s burgeoning feminist movement. She is able to handle her problems on her own, without the sort of social pedagogy movies always make shrill or reductive.

As An Education concludes, Jenny grasps the implications of her tumultuous year, saying she “feel[s] old. But not very wise.” Fox and His Friends and An Education are two sturdy entries in a canon of movies that provide that wisdom.


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