Sunday, February 7, 2016

Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten) Road Trilogy Pt. 1

ALICE IN THE CITIES (Alice in den Städten) Road Trilogy Pt. 1        A                    
Germany  (110 mi)  1974  d:  Wim Wenders

Long distance information, give me Memphis Tennessee
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me
She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
‘Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall

Help me, information, get in touch with my Marie
She’s the only one who’d phone me here from Memphis Tennessee
Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge
Just a half a mile from the Mississippi Bridge

Help me, information, more than that I cannot add
Only that I miss her and all the fun we had
But we were pulled apart because her mom did not agree
And tore apart our happy home in Memphis Tennessee

Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me good bye
With hurry home drops on her cheek that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee

—“Memphis, Tennessee” by Chuck Berry, 1959, Memphis, Tennessee by Chuck Berry from movie "Alice in ... YouTube (1:23)

Wim Wenders was born in Düsseldorf in Allied occupied Germany just a few months after the end of WWII, where he studied medicine and philosophy at the local university before quitting his studies and moving to Paris to become a watercolor painter in October 1966.  He applied for art school and film school and was rejected by both, working instead as an apprentice copperplate engraver for Johnny Friedlander.  Describing this as the loneliest period in his life, living in a freezing Parisian apartment, he could be found every day from the time the studios closed until midnight at the Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque Française watching as many as five movies a day and well over 1000 films in his year in Paris.  Returning to Germany the following year, Wenders is the only member (besides Volker Schlöndorff, who’s a tad older) of the 1970’s German film movement to have attended film school, spending three years at the University of Television and Film Munich (which notoriously rejected Rainer Werner Fassbinder), where he met his long-time Dutch cinematographer, Robby Müller, and Peter Przygodda, who edited nearly all his films up until 2008.  Wenders grew quite critical of the German film industry, having spent three months as an apprentice for the United Artists’ office in Düsseldorf, lambasting the industry while working as a film critic for FilmKritik magazine.  As part of the 60’s counterculture, he was active, even arrested once, while protesting against the Vietnam War, but retained an unshakable bond with America, where he continued to devotedly attend screenings of American westerns while becoming an avid collector of rock ‘n’ roll records, having one of the most extensive ever seen, according to Dennis Hopper.  Nonetheless, adapting a painting style to film, even his early shorts reflect a prevailing mood of emptiness, where he started to identify with loners unable to connect to society.     

Just having worked on THE SCARLET LETTER (1973), a made for TV film that was by all accounts a disaster to make, where the director was on the verge of abandoning his quest to become a film director altogether, Wenders notes that the only saving grace was filming a short scene between Rüdiger Vogler and a young 8-year old child actress Yella Rottlӓnder, claiming he loved that scene so much that he vowed to make his next project something that only featured those two individuals, which led to the creation of ALICE IN THE CITIES, which turned out to be the most important film of his career, providing the success that he needed, making one of his most exquisite and elegant films, while also claiming they were both an absolute delight to work with.  Unlike the suffocatingly restrictive script of filming a 19th century novel, this is a much more improvisational, free-form style, traveling on the road for the first time in America from North Carolina to New York City, continuing in Europe from Amsterdam to Germany, where the actors themselves carry the film.  It’s also the first example of Wenders’ own unique style, something we can attribute just to him, though in the process, perhaps unintentionally, he also discovered the road movie genre.  What he envisioned was a very personal film, with an idea developing out of the Chuck Berry song, Chuck Berry - Memphis, Tennessee (1959) - YouTube (2:18), identifying with the lead character, Rüdiger Vogler as Philip Winter, a journalist traveling the Eastern coast by car that wanted to write something about the American landscape, but realized he was unable to do so, taking Polaroid pictures instead.  Missing a deadline to submit his story, he contemplates that perhaps the story will come together in retrospect, after he’s had a chance to digest his experience.  According to Wenders, photography is a solitary occupation, which goes hand in hand with Winter traveling alone, reflecting the desperate state of not knowing what he wants or even who he is, as the adventure appears open ended, filled with promise and empty spaces, yet you inevitably end up in the same motels, gas stations, and roadside stops, where they all begin to look exactly alike.  One noted difference between shooting films in America and Europe is that American landscapes are themselves the focus, each shot more spacious, offering more open light, while everything has to be squeezed and framed into the more claustrophobic European scenes.

The opening, near wordless sequence is an assembled montage of being on the road, with views of airplanes, highways, motels, cars, trains, taxi’s, sidewalks, alleyways, and boats, all conceivable means of travel, with a variety of shots out the windows and through the windshields of moving cars, but as he’s running out of money, it’s time to head back home to Germany.  At the airport, he learns of a strike that is preventing incoming flights, forcing them to fly the next day to Amsterdam instead, where at the counter he helps translate for another German woman (Lisa Kreuzer) traveling with her young nine-year old child Alice (Yella Rottlӓnder), and helps them find a nearby hotel for the night before looking up an old girlfriend, Angela (Edda Köchl, the director’s first wife, divorced in the same year of the film’s release when Wenders marries Alice’s mother, Lisa Kreuzer), who is forced to endure a litany of complaints about what a horrible trip he’s had, listening to that “sickening” radio and “inhuman” TV, claiming he’s lost touch with the world.

The inhuman thing about American TV is not so much that they hack everything up with commercials, though that’s bad enough, but in the end all programs become commercials. Commercials for the status quo. Every image radiates the same disgusting and nauseated message. A kind of boastful contempt. Not one image leaves you in peace, they all want something from you.

Winter reflects the director’s ambivalence about America, as he is a character both fascinated and at the same time revolted, with Wenders, in some of his harshest criticism, claiming America has “betrayed and sold” its own dream.  One of the initial discoveries on one’s first trip to America is the extensive influence of money and commercialization, where films, something Wenders finds holy and sacred, are slaughtered by commercials on TV, cut up into tiny pieces and even shortened to fit into convenient time slots, so that the version shown on TV has nothing to do with the original cinematic concept, where it instead becomes the enemy of artistic pursuits.  Winter discovers this while trying to watch John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939) in a cheap motel, eventually smashing the TV set on the floor in disgust.  One story Wenders often tells is how he used to visit Monument Valley in each of his trips to America, as he felt such an identification with the John Ford westerns that were shot there.  But curiously, they closed the roads into the area and turned it into a theme park, where the only way to see it now is to ride a train packed with tourists, like they have at Disneyland, turning it into a sinister site of exploitation, a commercial advertisement owned by Marlboro requiring paid admission, with speeches on megaphones identifying what used to be fully accessed for free.  It’s this kind of rude awakening that has frustrated Winter and caught him off-guard.  Angela, however, has no sympathy, claiming he was lost long ago, suggesting the ability to see and hear fades away when you lose one’s sense of self.

You don’t have to travel across America for that.  You lose touch when you lose your sense of identity.  And that is long gone.  That’s why you always need proof, proof that you still exist—your stories and your experiences—you treat them like raw eggs.  As if only you experience things.  And that’s why you keep taking those photos.  For further proof that it was really you who saw something. 

Showing him the door, telling him he can’t stay there, he wanders back to the hotel near the airport and joins his newfound friends, spending the night in cramped spaces, only to discover the mother, who had unfinished business with a boyfriend, has left a note to meet her the next day atop the Empire State building, but she’s a no show, leaving a note in the hotel room to go ahead with Alice and she’d meet them in Amsterdam.  What follows afterwards is largely an improvisation along a theme inspired by long-time friend and collaborator, Austrian writer Peter Handke, who was raising a young daughter as a single parent.  Similarly, Winter finds himself toting around a precocious young girl he barely knows, not knowing the first thing about parenting or fatherhood.  It’s an intrguing idea on many levels, as postwar Germany, after the fall of Hitler, was absent a father figure itself, still struggling along similar themes.  One of the more heartbreaking moments occurs when Alice’s mother fails to show up in Amsterdam, as Alice locks herself up in the airport bathroom traumatized and totally disconsolate, Alice In the Cities 1974 - Excerpt - Nein Nein Nein - YouTube (3:28).  It’s here the focus of the film shifts from taking pictures of transitory moments to Alice and her need to be reconnected to her family.  By default, he becomes an unwilling single parent, going through completely recognizable circumstances experienced by others on a daily basis where he has to set aside his own needs in order to care for a child.  The camera adores Alice as she goes through every manner of mood shift, and can’t really get enough of her, as this young actress literally steals the film with an all-embracing personality, something rarely seen in other Wenders films.  She literally takes this man by the hand, assuming the role of the adult, and leads him around the country in search of some unknown that might only exist in her mind, yet he dutifully does his best to help, driving around the streets of Wüppertal in search of her grandmother’s home that Alice assures him she’d recognize, becoming something of a travelogue in images, including wonderfully captured moments, like the windmill designs on the Amsterdam hotel room window shutters, the brief monorail trip traveling underneath the tracks on the Wuppertal Schwebebahn, or exploring the factories of the Ruhr area, which is where Wenders went to high school.  Easily the most poignant scene, perhaps in all of Wenders’ works, comes when they stop for ice-cream and a young boy sits alone by the jukebox playing Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again,” Alice in den Städten - On the road again - YouTube (4:37), and Alice quietly confesses her grandmother doesn’t live in Wüppertal.  The tenderness and aching loneliness of abandoned children just comes rushing through the screen, where everything Wenders has ever been searching for is contained in that marvelously beautiful scene.  Just a decade later, there’s such a huge difference between the evocative sadness of this jukebox scene and the jubilation expressed by the French New Wave as they collectively dance the Madison in Godard’s BAND À PART (1964) Bande à part (1964) - Dance scene [HD] - YouTube (3:57). 

The rug has been pulled out from underneath us when he takes Alice to the police station, as it’s clear that’s the last thing she needs, but poor Winter is running out of options and doesn’t know what else to do.  Fassbinder, for instance, spent his entire career searching for the historical role the Nazi’s played in constructing the German identity, examining the role each German played in the process, not so Wenders, who instead examined all the missing pieces and empty spaces left behind after the defeat of National Socialism, staring straight into the void of a country still struggling to define their own identity, leaning towards America to help fill that void, and to that end, who better than Chuck Berry defines that uninhibited joy of rock music, as Winter attends a live concert in Wüppertal, Memphis, Tennessee by Chuck Berry from movie "Alice in ... YouTube (1:23), which is actually color footage obtained from documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker with the color washed out.  By the time he gets back to his hotel, who should be waiting for him, but Alice, who slipped away from the police, as they go on yet another run at her grandmother’s house, where the police questioning helped restore some missing memories, providing a photograph, much like Travis provides of the vacant lot he purchased in Paris, Texas (1984).  They seem to have more space to breathe now, where they’ve actually grown fond of each other, where the transitional shots are memorable, much like they are in Ozu films, where we see a young boy on a bicycle chasing after the car on the sidewalk, rows of old houses scheduled for demolition, or we see them perform synchronous exercising before having a needed swim.  The entire film is a series of vignettes shot in black and white on 16mm by Robby Müller, with a shooting crew of only six people, where each sequence fades to black, providing a sad and melancholy experience of never really getting to a particular destination, but experiencing each other’s company along the way.  The film accumulates a certain density over time, as we realize the temporary nature of the actual time they will spend together before moving on to new aspects of their lives.  However small it may seem over the course of one’s lifetime, the time capsule preserved here in cinematic form becomes a diary-like, intercontinental photo-essay on travel and time, revealing the significance of the transitory nature of things, none more remarkable than a newspaper article read in one of the final sequences where Winter reads about the passing of film legend John Ford, who died during the shooting.  What’s unique about this film is that it generates true feelings, however brief, from well-developed, sympathetic characters, where there is a humaneness and sense of gentle compassion about this film, expanding upon the usual existential emptiness and angst, as these emotions seem to last a lifetime.   

Rüdiger Vogler is Bruno Winter in Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit) Road Trilogy Pt. 3 (1976), while revising his role as Phillip Winter, at least name-wise, in Wenders later film Until the End of the World (Bis ans Ende der Welt)  (1991). 

Guest review by Evan Wang

Alice in the Cities        A-

It opens with a shot of an empty sky except that a plane flies by and finally disappears. The camera pans down to a road sign, and then to the sea. We hear the sound of the tide, and then in the next shot see the 31 year-old Philip Winter sitting underneath a boardwalk taking a picture with his Polaroid.

That sequence of images starts Alice in the Cities, the fourth feature film from Wim Wenders, or rather the first one entirely of his own after he realized that the previous three were either too heavily influenced by other filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Alfred Hitchcock or simply an adaptation from literature. It was also the first time for Rüdiger Vogler, one of Wenders’ regular casting choices, to play the character Philip Winter, who would continue to appear in many of Wenders’ later films with the same name, only in different occupations. Here, he is a German writer commissioned to write about what he sees in the United States but is apparently having trouble coming up with the story and has already missed the deadline. His alternative seems to be constantly taking pictures wherever he goes, hoping to find inspiration, which, of course, does not appeal to his editor, or even to himself. “They never really show what it was you saw,” mutters Philip, but he takes them anyway.

Philip has already spent most of his money, and can barely afford a plane ticket back to Munich after selling his ride for 300 bucks. His bad luck does not end here, however, and he arrives at the airport only to find that all the flights to Germany have been cancelled because of a strike. He decides to take the offer of a flight the next day to Amsterdam, and sharing the same fate with him is Alice, a nine year-old girl who is also going back to Germany with her mother, Lisa, who is eager to run away from the breakup with her boyfriend. It turns out that Lisa is not as ready to leave as she thinks, where Philip ends up being the one taking Alice with him, while Lisa has gone back to straighten things out with the boyfriend, promising to meet them in Amsterdam, although she will not be able to keep that promise.

As the first installment of Wenders so-called Road Movie Trilogy, the “story” part pretty much ends here. The rest of the film is no more than Philip and Alice wandering around different cities in Germany trying to locate the house of her grandma’s that Alice believes she can recognize when they drive by, even though she cannot remember at all where it is. But before we dive into that, let us go back a little bit to a scene where Philip drops in at his ex-girlfriend’s, looking for a place to spend the night before his flight, since the conversation between the two is probably the most sophisticated one in the entire film. He complains about his trip, claiming that “Soon as you leave New York, nothing changes anymore” and that he is being consumed by what he hears from the radio and sees on the TV. “I lost touch with the world,” says Philip. “You did that long ago,” she responds, “You don’t have to travel across America for that.” She goes on saying “You treat your stories and your experiences like raw eggs, as if only you experience things, and that’s why you keep taking those photos, for further proof that it was really you who saw something. That’s why you came here. So someone would listen to you and the stories that you’re really telling yourself.”

“The pictures never caught up with reality,” says Philip, again, before she tells him that he cannot stay.

We have good reasons to believe that it is Wenders who is speaking here in Philip’s voice as an alter-ego character that is re-created throughout their collaborations, and we know that later he would revisit the same subject in one of his “diary” shorts: Reverse Angle: Ein Brief aus New York, as well his documentary on Yasujirō Ozu, Tokyo-Ga. How do you present what you see in the form of images? A question he has been asking himself ever since his start as a filmmaker, it seems, wondering how to make images distinctly your own unique vision without diluting the reality of the image.

It is rare to see a filmmaker as persistently concerned about his relationship with medium and art-form as Wim Wenders. He has so much faith in what a story can do, while always cautious about the role image plays when telling them, so nearly 20 years after Alice in the Cities, he seems to be even more straightforward about it in his epic piece Until the End of the World; “I didn’t know the cure for the disease of images. All I knew was how to write. But I believed in the magic and healing power of words, and of stories,” says Eugene Fitzpatrick who, in the film, is determined in rescuing his lover with his writing from an addiction to a device that can record dreams. One can assume, then, by witnessing an era of rapidly developing technological progress, especially in the communications age, that Wenders’ resentment has only grown, since it was already apparent in Alice in the Cities, to a degree that you automatically know, when you see the “inhuman” TV thrown on the floor by Philip Winter, that there will be more. Also because of this fascination, Wenders’ made his recent documentary, The Salt of the Earth, almost like a fan letter to a master of telling stories through image, the photographer Sebastião Salgado. “He cares about people,” comments Wenders, in voiceover.

People who have not been worn out by the dullness and hardship of life, or people with still a little bit of innocence in them, is what Wenders really cares about, likely as much as Salgado does. People are what stories are about, and whom stories are written for. One of my favorite parts of Alice in the Cities is all the kids, mostly seen through Alice’s eyes in her POV shots, listening to a radio on the train, licking an ice-cream next to a jukebox or trying to keep up with the car on a bicycle, travelling, seeing, listening and thinking with our two protagonists, one of whom is trying to get rid of the other by locating her mother, or where her grandma lives, although he never admits it, but they seem to have found much more, and are enjoying the process. It only ceases being fun when everything we do becomes a mission forced upon us, taking on an entirely different purpose. It is not that things no longer change, it is just that we are blinded to see it. What a tragedy for the world of adults.

Before he realizes it, Philip has stopped taking pictures, and ironically, in the film, the only picture that matches with reality is an old one found in Alice’s wallet of her grandma’s house, which actually leads them to the correct place. Eventually they stop looking for her mother or grandma, but isn’t it the essence of a “road-movie” that you find something that means much more to you than what you are looking for, even before you reach the destination? It is said that Until the End of the World was conceived as the “ultimate road-movie” by Wenders, however, he might have already made it 20 years earlier with considerably less travelling.

We see Philip and Alice on a train in the last shot of the film, and then it starts zooming out until you realize that it is taken from a plane, towards where?

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