The Ascension of James Pate

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Review of James Pate’s The Fassbinder Diaries (CCM, 2013) by Lina ramona Vitkauskas

To view a Fassbinder film:

  1. You must possess simultaneous restlessness and patience (as in life)
  2. You must be prepared to watch characters continue on paths they seemed doomed to repeat, self-destruct once they break free (as in life, perhaps helplessly watching a drug addict or alcoholic friend; Fassbinder died too young due to drugs, age 37)
  3. You must understand that the film you are watching is a life, a poem-life, and there are no rules, no confined spaces
  4. You must adopt the German eye, seeing everything via what Roger Ebert called Fassbinder’s “tight, observant visual style”
  5. You must be able to see the film grain while you watch it to appreciate its contribution to the haunting, dark-desolate feeling it produces within you

It’s fair to say that these rules also apply when reading James Pate’s The Fassbinder Diaries. I am particularly intrigued by Pate’s work—he boldly merges his own reality, various films, and poetry without being overtly self-referential. Pate calculatingly blends all three components above and then pours them smoothly upon the page—each experience, however, still retaining its visceral essence—what amounts to a “word-Pollack.”

Like a keen filmmaker, Pate understands colors and textures—they permeate this book. The cover image offers up repetitious, dream-like images and gradients; grainy black & white and deep, blood reds. The opening pieces in the first section of the book complement the cover, offering resonant language slivers such as:

“the world / through a storm of broken glass”;

“warm dark”   and    “cold dark”;

“streaming rivulets”;

“white, black / and acid“;

Pate also clearly appreciates the perspective of poet as director—he is not passive within his world, though he is ultimately still the observer. He projects. He offers us shadows, light, temperature, taste, consistencies, sounds, and plenty of hot sex.

In addition to the feast of stunning cinematic images extracted from both Fassbinder’s work and Pate’s fantasy/reality, the reader is also introduced to another layer, or dimension, of ekphrasis in this book: the original response (the book itself) questions the reader for her response via a series of multiple Q&A sections that follow each segment of the book. Each group of queries asks: were we (the reader) paying attention to our (implicit) scenes? To our own characters? To the moments in time in which we experienced these poems? To our sexuality? What is known about Fassbinder or Pate? Most importantly, do the two become one-in-the-same in this book?

As I read Pate’s book, I consider the question above, and I particularly think of Fassbinder’s film, Veronika Voss, which, like most all of Fassbinder’s work, contemplates post-war German trauma and the German psyche. Most importantly, however, in this context, it explores two themes: dichotomous people and the idea of life imitating art.

In Veronika Voss, an aging film star (a Monroe-equivalent in her heyday) represents Germany itself. She is struggling to come out from under a horrific regime, unable to face reality. She is fed a constant stream of morphine by a lover/doctor/puppet-master, Dr. Marianne Katz, keeping Voss in a state/haze of delusion. So the internal conflict: old Germany and the new—there is a “war” within our anti-heroine, exemplified by the ongoing pendulum of behavior we witness: her dependence upon past propaganda/self-image (delusions of grandeur) to shape her current reality, and the reality: uncertain and drug-blurred. Also, the characters in Voss all desire commonality/simplicity to set them free, yet find no solace in being the controlled nor the controllers.

In Pate’s book, three exceptional things are happening that mirror the structure of Voss:

1. We are watching life imitate art
As mentioned earlier, Pate’s book is based upon reality mixing with what’s happening on-screen (the poet is watching the film, and notates this for the reader—when he watched X film, he was here, doing X, when he watching Y film, he noticed his surroundings here, etc.). And like the character of Voss, the reader satisfyingly succumbs to not knowing what is real anymore.

In the poem, “One Summer Continuous Hot and Glaring #1”:
“My life a film nobody including myself wanted to cast.”In the poem, “3:04”:
“Franz said bite me here, and Mieze bit him there, and Mieze said bite me here, and Franz bit her there. The curtains were closed. They were the color of gray snakeskin. Outside a war developed in Berlin. A gun fired at Dillinger on a movie screen in Chicago. They were someplace else.”

We are being simultaneously controlled while controlling
The reader is hypnotized by existential moments in this book, becoming possibly submissive to the power of the work, while also maintaining dominant position as the reader: surveying the text (omniscient POV). In other words, the reader is seduced and voyeur—watching the poet watching films, watching the poet experience life, watching the poet react.

In the poem, “Chekhov’s Firearm”:
“The woman who played my torso and the man who played my tongue and the flayed rabbit that played my brain…and the million tongues of grass licking at nothing that played my hair and the scorched dollhouse…and the suicidal movie star that played my lungs and the electrical outlet that played my mouth waited in the field for me to fire my gun.

3. Stark narrative fuels power
Propaganda in Germany codified its strength over the people. Pate uses a precise narrative style, fused with raw imagery, to create the same effect.

In the poem, “Extraction #1”:
“The wolves made volcano noises. The owls made bone noises. The snakes made June noises. The vultures made scarlet noises.  The panthers made soundtrack noises. The bears made lunar noises. The butterflies made gunfire noises.”


That the opening segment of the book is subtitled, “The Ascension of Veronika Voss,” in my opinion, reinforces my extreme attraction to it as the nucleus of this book. Not only is Voss referenced (cleverly connecting the reader to the above-mentioned forces of the book) but also, Pate shows us provocative film energy via white-hot projective language. The Fassbinder Diaries is a mesmerizing response to the director’s work—a hungry film in of itself that demands multiple views.

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