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From the Vaults of Streaming Hell: Jimmy Orpheus

From the Vaults of Streaming Hell: Jimmy Orpheus

Represents an outlier in the oeuvre of an outlier, not canonical, standard art film fare.

At first glance, MUBI hardly seems to constitute any sort of hell. The streaming service, funded in part by the European Union, takes a 30-films-at-a-time approach to proffer a sophisticated buffet of international art cinema, cult films and documentaries. Every day, one film exits the site and another one enters stage right.

It ranks up there with Criterion Channel and Fandor as one of the most prestigious subscription sites but features far fewer films among which to get lost. Curation, which adds an additional element of reputability, is the name of MUBI’s game. Even within its purposely-limited repertoire, there are a number of “specially programmed smaller curations”: its 30 films break down into even more manageable series. In other words, the service is intended to represent a sort of virtual arthouse theater.

Jimmy Orpheus (1966) appeared on MUBI as part of its series on underappreciated German director and writer Roland Klick (“The Captive Man: Roland Klick’s Neo-Genre Cinema”). An early, black-and-white project of Klick’s, it takes place during just a handful of late night (or is it early morning?) hours in the Hamburg streets as protagonist Kristoff (Klaus Schichan, gorgeously unkempt) searches for love. Perhaps he finds it when he stumbles upon a woman (Ortrud Beginnen, playfully aloof) who will remain unnamed for the film’s duration.

To MUBI’s credit, the movie represents an outlier in the oeuvre of an outlier, not canonical, standard art film fare. As the title of the series hints, Klick was mostly a genre filmmaker whose work was too arty to find mainstream success and too entertaining to find a home amidst the more obviously “serious” New German Cinema of directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge or Werner Herzog. But Jimmy Orpheus isn’t really a genre film (unless “brooding exploits in the city at night” counts as a genre) or entertaining in any expected way. It briefly veers towards crime (à la Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde [1967], whose antics it predicts) but veers right back to something more formless, unpredictable.

Appropriately, it excels as a believably bleak portrayal of an outlier. The promotional materials describe Kristoff as a dockworker, but he’s really the kind of person so desperate for money that he would do any old dance for a job. We see him on the docks at the beginning of the film, but we also find him washing a car and constantly hustling for an extra buck. He may have recently immigrated to Hamburg—there’s no sign or feeling of family or home. In fact, one shot at the beginning of the film shows the interior of a cell-sized, 8-bed dorm: presumably, this is where Kristoff lives.

Klick’s shadowy, handheld images highlight Kristoff’s inglorious position on the margins of society, and this urges us to wish him the best when we see him making the most of it. His fun—besides pursuing women, he plays pinball, tests his bicep strength, dances wildly and drinks heavily—seems irresponsible and even a little disruptive yet necessary as a distraction from the mundane details of his rugged day-to-day existence. He has no desire to call it a night, because this would mean that morning’s nigh. When the surroundings finally brighten, near the end of the night, it’s no hopeful sign.

This makes Kristoff’s meddlesome entrance into the nameless woman’s life all the more upsetting. Because we like him, we’d prefer he not be a prick. But he’s too realistically drawn to not be a prick. The woman works the streets, but he wishes she would pay attention to him and wonders if she’d fuck him for free—preferably somewhere warm and just a little spacious. He becomes a nuisance to her, an unnecessary hindrance to her nightly routine. In his piece about Klick for MUBI’s Notebook, Olaf Möller writes, “[Klick’s] films consider human beings as very special and precious as such.” If this is the case, then a key component of being a human is being flawed and needy, almost to the point of distaste.

Nonetheless, the woman is just a little won over by Kristoff’s desperation-driven effusiveness and, after a number of departures and reunions (a heavy traffic pas de deux), agrees to take him home with her, with one catch: home isn’t available for another couple of hours, not until 8:00am. Klick makes us wait with the not-really-a-couple on uncomfortable chairs inside a bakery’s interior corner. We can’t help but examine their expressions for evidence of feeling. Does she really want to bang this guy? How worried are they about the people (pimps? husbands? children?) preventing them from returning to her apartment now?

As in all worthwhile art films, it turns out that it doesn’t matter much: the woman enters her building and never comes back. She leaves Kristoff waiting in the cold, playing with schoolchildren to pass the time. After a while—could be minutes, could be hours—he departs. This would be ultra-deflating if it didn’t come across as commonplace. Klick uses rapid-fire cutting in various parts of the film to imply that Kristoff’s process of getting drunk and lonely and then falling in love repeats itself regularly. Another night, another solo adventure.

Yet that loneliness persists. Möller tells the story of Klick’s surprise invitation to participate in the 1970 Cannes Film Festival’s main competition. Soon after, the festival rescinded the invitation because the German film establishment felt that Klick’s current project, Deadlock (1970), wasn’t indicative of contemporary German trends. This pattern would repeat when Klick’s producer kicked him off a film following that same producer’s excessive interference in the production. Jimmy Orpheus predicts all of this—the cycle of hope, trust, rejection and desolation that would keep Klick from getting the same recognition as his peers. All these glimpses of Klick’s career history suggest that prestige can represent its own kind of hell (take that, MUBI!), both for the characters it creates and the artists whose opportunities to make films depend on it.

Jimmy Orpheus shows that the way out of this quagmire is transgressive play: both Klick and Kristoff are most at ease when totally goofing off. The film is full of rascally jump cuts. When the nameless woman first appears, she appears again and again and again. When the two seem most in love, their positions skip like a record as they bounce along a wooden barrier. Such formal play was common in the nouvelle 1960s, but it still feels invigorating against an otherwise dreary landscape.

Another memorably playful element of the film is the music. Klick both composed the film’s incidental music and played guitar in the band, Richie Satan and the Devils, that appears in the film. The band’s punkish presence—“Ecstasy!” its singer growls—confirms Kristoff’s position as a product of his equally hardnosed environment, while the ballad-like opening song offers commentary on the titular character. “This is Jimmy Orpheus, he’s got no course to run/ Working just for whiskey, living just for fun,” it begins.

In these otherwise eerily silent surroundings, what other reasons are there to try and scrape by?

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