Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wim Wenders

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2007)

In the 1980 edition of his Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema, David Thomson said: “Of all the new German directors, none has Wim Wenders; rhapsodic sense of America.” Wenders was 35 at the time, with only a handful of films behind him, but he already seemed likely to be a key figure in the transition to a new global cinema – a European, with a sure sense of himself and a distinct moodiness, with (conflicting) aspirations toward Hollywood and yet what Thomson called “his journey of the soul.” At the time, Wenders was working with Francis Coppola, embarking on what would be a troubled, largely pointless film about Dashiell Hammett, the failure of which was widely foreseen. “No matter,” said Thomson, “his America is an imagined place, and it flowers more freely away from the real thing.”

Career Decline

By the 1994 edition, Thomson had modified that opening line into the past tense, and the subsequent fourteen years of work were swept into a terse single paragraph, from which I extract the following: “na├»ve and pretentious” (The State Of Things), “disastrous” (Hammett), “I walked out” (Wings Of Desire) and “as awful a film as a good director has made” (Until The End Of The World). It would only get worse from there to the next edition. Thomson did salvage Paris, Texas, and that 1984 film probably remains Wenders’ most admired overall. When I was seriously getting into movies in the mid-80’s, Paris, Texas was the acknowledged benchmark of class – authentically both European and American, sexy and mythic, familiar and unprecedented. Yet I must say I’ve never had a desire to watch the film again.

A few years ago I wrote an article on who might have won a Nobel Prize for cinema if one existed, and my biggest blunder by far was imagining that Wenders might have received the award in the early 90’s. Plainly any Swedish committee would have decided back then the kid should wait a while longer, and by the time Wenders finally had enough grey hair, his reputation had fatally sunk. But in a strange way I’ve always liked his failures more than his more achieved works. In recent years I’m one of very few people who gave a general thumbs up to both The Million Dollar Hotel, and to his last film Don’t Come Knocking (a movie by the way for which I was utterly alone in the theater, despite the trailer having played for months). That one was overwritten in some parts, utterly vague in others, but ultimately intriguingly plotted and stumbling toward a giddy affirmation. I did write that “Wenders’ head is buried deep up the ass of his past glories, and nothing here provides optimism for his next step.” But it was still just about the most positive review you could find of Don’t Come Knocking.

Lightning Over Water

Wenders intersperses his fiction films with documentaries, of which the most famous is Buena Vista Social Club (which apart from the inherent worthiness of its service to the long overlooked musicians, didn’t excite me much). A recent DVD boxed set draws together eight of his works (which can be individually rented), drawing equally from both disciplines – three fiction, three docu, and two hybrids. One of these is the semi-legendary Lightning Over Water, Wenders’ 1980 film built around the death of director Nicholas Ray. Ray’s declining state is painful to watch at times, and much of the movie is mainly a deathwatch, something that Wenders agonizes about constantly in voice over. The movie is forged both in collaboration and conflict, with the veteran still believing himself capable of major work; at times Wenders is properly respectful and submissive, but then in the final analysis turns in a movie knowingly weird and deliberately unreadable. He devotes five minutes or more to a long clip from Ray’s The Lusty Men, a tribute touching in its simplicity, but leaves the distinct overall impression that he would only go so far to facilitate Ray’s vision at the cost of his own.

Despite reservations, I like Lightning Over Water because it captures the essence that Thomson was talking about – the thrill of an authentic connection to American mythmaking filtered through a prickly, strenuously contemporary sensibility, The most straightforward triumph in the set, and perhaps Wenders’ most enduring film overall, is the 1977 The American Friend, his version of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game. It’s effective enough as a thriller (although Liliana Caviani’s subsequent version was finer on that particular score) but most memorable as a loose meditation on Americanism – especially as embodied in the business and mythology of movies – and its infiltration into contemporary German life (embodied in the contrast between a naturalistic Bruno Ganz and – as Ripley – a highly stylized Dennis Hopper, in a cowboy hat!).

Trick Of The Light

The set has two other early Wenders fiction films. His version of The Scarlet Letter, apparently not a favourite of the director’s, is oddly perfunctory, authentic-seeming in some ways, at the mercy of glamour and garishness in others (albeit never sinking to the depths of the infamous Demi Moore version). The movie does evidence some confused fascination with the theme of transgression and possibility, perhaps thus vaguely pointing to one of the roots of Wenders’ preoccupation with America. Wrong Move is quite a bit more achieved, although I must admit it defeated me a little at a first viewing. A consciously difficult, highly abstracted journey through Germany, the film just drips alienation and self-doubt, but it has a sure-handed fusion of form and content, in a way the director has subsequently found elusive.

The other hybrid I mentioned is A Trick Of The Light, which I don’t think was ever released over here. This is partly a whimsical evocation of a family of little-known cinematic pioneers, and partly an interview with a surviving daughter. Some of Wenders’ ideas are banal, but the film communicates a rampant love of cinema, particularly in the crazily extended closing credits. Then there are three documentaries. Room 666 is a collection of interviews with directors from 1982, including Godard, Antonioni and a very young Spielberg: it’s too slight to be particularly bracing, but is still an appealing time capsule. Tokyo-Ga is a tribute to Yasujiro Ozu, not very analytical but with some touching glimpses of surviving cast and crew. And then Notebook on Cities and Clothes, about a Japanese designer, struck me as the slightest of all, with Wenders’ musings on the similarities between fashion and cinema seeming particularly strained.

So hardly a wholly satisfying set, and yet just look at that variety. Individual Wenders films of the last twenty years have almost inevitably been disappointing, if not actively off-putting, but he remains restless and probing, pushing at new ground even while he obsessively stalks recurring territory. He seems increasingly captive to his weaknesses, but the possibility of major work from him is not quite dead. If he can discover again that sense of rhapsody.

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