Saturday, February 6, 2016

Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders - Film Reference  Joseph Milicia

Of the three young German filmmakers who achieved the greatest international fame in the 1970’s as the vanguard of a German New Wave, Wim Wenders had perhaps a less radical though no less distinctive film style than his compatriots R. W. Fassbinder and Werner Herzog. Though critics typically cite American influences upon Wenders’s “road trilogy” of the mid-1970’s, there is a greater affinity with the modernist tradition of the European “art film” exemplified by the Antonioni of L'avventura and Red Desert —dramas of alienation in which restless, unrooted individuals wander through haunted, sterile, but bleakly beautiful landscapes within a free-floating narrative structure. (It is most appropriate that Wenders has directed the “frame” sections for some short pieces by the aged Italian master.) True, the ennui in these films shades into angst and American Beat gestures, and the alienation has strong roots in the spiritual yearning, the love of loneliness and wandering, of German Romanticism. Romanticism seems too to be at the root of Wenders’s conception of himself (well articulated in numerous interviews) as an artist: one who evolves spiritually with each work, or reaches dead ends (as he has called The State of Things) from which he must break out; and who sees each new work as an adventure, not to be mapped out too much in advance. 

A crucial observation about Wenders’s art is found in cinematographer Ed Lachman’s remark that “light and landscape are actors” in his films. Wenders’s characters are typically revealed against urban or rural landscapes, upon which the camera frequently lingers as the actors pass from the frame. Most of the films take place predominantly out-of-doors (the studio sets of Hammett making that film all the more of an anomaly), or offer striking views from high-rise windows and moving vehicles. The urban views most often suggest sterility but have a certain grandeur, sharing with his views of desert (Paris, Texas) or sea (The State of Things) that vastness the Romantics called “sublime.” The climactic scene in the peep-show booth in Paris, Texas is all the more powerful and inventive in the context of the epic vistas of the rest of the film. And the urban scene finally becomes the central “actor” in Wings of Desire/Himmel über Berlin , indeed a “Symphony of a Great City,” in which the Wall is no barrier to the gliding camera or the angelic inhabitants. 

Wenders’s films are dialectical: they structure contrasts not as simple polarities but as rich ongoing dialogue, and the later films seem to be in dialogue with the earlier ones. Among the central concerns from film to film are American versus European culture, the creation of mood versus tight narrative, a sense of “home” versus rootless “freedom", and even black-and-white versus color photography.

Wenders’s ambivalent fascination with America has been a favorite topic for critics. None of his films is without interest in this regard, but Alice in the Cities is the first to be shot partially in America—a world of boardwalks, motels, neon, and skyscrapers, though still not so different from the urban, industrial Europe of the second half; it is also his first feature to make extensive use of American music, including the Chuck Berry concert in Wuppertal. The American Friend is a dizzying vortex of allusiveness, with its gangsters and cowboys, iconographic presences of Nicholas Ray and Dennis Hopper, miniature Statue of Liberty in Paris, Ripley’s digs in Hamburg, hints of an allegory of the American film industry in Germany (the pornographers seducing the hapless framemaker), and a narrative derived from a novel by an expatriate American and strongly echoing Strangers on a Train. Wenders’s “American period” from Hammett through Paris, Texas is of course of central interest here, with a whimsically mystical and lyrical embracing of humanity and the particulars of physical life that recalls Walt Whitman. Wenders still calls his production company “Road Movies” (in English). 

The mid-1970’s films may owe much to the American “road movie” of a few years earlier (themselves echoing Kerouac’s On the Road ), but the classical Hollywood cinema is defined by its tight narrative structures, and Wenders can be felt to be wrestling with such a structure in The American Friend. He has said of Paris, Texas, in a Film Quarterly interview, “For once I was making a movie that wasn’t meandering all over the place. That’s what Sam [Shepard] brought to this movie of mine as an American writer: forward movement, which is very American in a way.” Still, Paris, Texas is very unlike a classical Hollywood film, though the problematic Hammett, ironically enough, is like one; and the later Wings of Desire is much more a fantasia upon a great city than a classical symphony. (Tokyo-Ga too meanders through a great city rather than being a tight documentary on Yasujiro Ozu.) 

Also explored dialectically are the concepts of home and homelessness, omni-present concerns in Wenders’s films. Alice in the Cities , Kings of the Road , and Until the End of the World could all have as epigraph a Barbara Stanwyck line from Clash by Night quoted by Wenders in a piece on Fritz Lang: “Home is where you get when you run out of places.” The State of Things is perhaps Wenders's most bleak portrayal of homelessness, while Paris, Texas expresses the greatest yearning for home, and Until the End of the World portrays home as a trap (both womblike and filled with scientific gadgetry) of obligations to parents—a place the viewers too are trapped for the second half of a long film. Wings of Desire features an angel wishing he could “come home like Philip Marlowe and feed the cat;” an acrobat who has always felt “alone” and unattached, but now, in love, can feel “loneliness,” which means “I am finally whole;” and a conclusion in which the former angel muses, “I found Home . . . instead of forever hovering above”—like Wenders’s camera in this film. Obviously the issues of home/homelessness shade into the other prominent Wenders theme of aloneness versus tentative human bonds, explored especially in terms of adult-child friendships, unstable male bondings (see Faraway, So Close for its treatments of both of these), and in Wings , the angelic/mortal possibilities of adult heterosexual love.  

Until the End of the World , Wenders’s most ambitious project to date, indeed a would-be magnum opus, is quintessentially Wenders in its fascination with home and the road, memory and dream, the mundane and the sublime; yet it disappoints, despite its fine moments. Its early scenes splendidly evoke a future world through decor, a few striking process shots, and multiple uses of video and computer screens; yet the film is flawed in its vague and inconsistent notions of science in the second half, the amateurish handling of the few action scenes, the implausibility of some of the heroine’s motives, and above all in the lack of enough meaningful connections between the “dance around the world” of the first half and the Australian home-as-science-lab second half. The Australian landscapes, and the European ones of the very beginning, are hauntingly resonant, like so many in other Wenders films, though the hopscotch around the continents in the first half seems to turn the beauties of Lisbon and rural Japan into mere postcards, an effect seemingly unintended. Perhaps the film succeeds best in its use of various video or computer-generated images to suggest the working—and inseparability—of dreams, memories, and desires. Faraway, So Close , the sequel to Wings of Desire in which Damiel’s angel partner Cassiel too becomes a mortal but finds it much harder to adjust to a world of time, suffers artistically from an attempt to include too many plot strands, to work farcical gangsters and daring rescue attempts into an otherwise private, meditative film. Wenders seems at his best when his stories are starkly simple, with complexity coming from the textures of the films’ environments. 

Wenders once claimed, with some relish of paradox, or perhaps recollection of The Wizard of Oz, that black-and-white was suited to realism, color to fantasy. Hence those stylized tales of murder The Goalie’s Anxiety and The American Friend, as well as the science-fiction Until the End of the World, were in color, and the “road trilogy” not, with Kings of the Road immediately declaring itself “a Wim Wenders film in black/white.” He further claimed himself to be incapable of making a documentary in color—though he was soon to make more than one. Once again Wings of Desire seems a synthesis of previous concerns, if not a downright reversal, with the angels seeing the spiritual essence of things in black-and-white but humans perceiving the particularities of mortal life in color. Such inconsistency—or rather, willingness to change perspective—may be taken as representative of the exploratory nature of Wenders’s film work as a whole. 

Arts: Chris Petit on Wim Wenders | Film | The Guardian  King of the Road, by Chris Petit from The Guardian, January 5, 2008  (excerpts)

Of all film directors of his generation, Wenders and Scorsese were most alert to rock’n’roll and incorporated it into film, which had been slow to catch on: the Ronettes blasting out at the start of Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) as Harvey Keitel’s head hit the pillow; Wenders dedicating his first feature, Summer in the City (1970), to the Kinks. There had been a tradition of pop stars using films as promotional vehicles, but until Easy Rider (1969) little effort was made to use rock music in film. It didn’t even feature much as a reference. Wenders, on the other hand, was always full of quotes and asides: a line from “Under the Boardwalk” (sung under an American boardwalk) in Alice in the Cities (1974); Dennis Hopper ending The American Friend (1977) with a Bob Dylan quote, echoing Easy Rider. In The American Friend, Hopper played the man who was going to bring the Beatles back to Hamburg when the Beatles were still there to bring back. Today the film looks a lot more modern than the reference, and younger than Lennon’s death in 1980.

Wenders once remarked that rock’n’roll saved his life. He also said that the Americans had colonised the German subconscious. For years he made a point of being at home nowhere, which was easy enough to understand after being raised in postwar West Germany, under military occupation, stuck between the silence of German guilt and an American popular culture dedicated to surface and lack of interiority. He grew up on American Forces Network, Stars of Jazz, Radio Luxembourg and Hollywood movies.

With Fassbinder and Herzog, he became a luminary of the New German Cinema of the 1970’s, a privileged affair heavily subsidised by state television and a phenomenon of foreign film festivals rather than the domestic box office. Their films shared a transparency of intent, and a wariness of authority and overt manipulation in a common reaction against what had gone on under the Nazis. It was noticeable how rock music - which the modish French new wave had ignored - was incorporated by them, even by Herzog, whose films were neither conventional nor contemporary. He used Cream in Fata Morgana (1971), a crazed desert epic of empty tracking shots, and music by Popol Vuh in his historical Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). Both Wenders and Fassbinder liked showing music from source. In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), the latter used the Walker Brothers’ “In My Room” on the equivalent of a crappy Dansette, with an actor in the background hammering on a typewriter in counterpoint to the music, while the foreground actor’s speech was blocked to avoid masking the best bits of the record. In Alice in the Cities, Wenders memorably paused the action to put Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” on the jukebox; in Kings of the Road, it was Heinz singing “Just Like Eddie” on a portable record player, with the song sung along to, as was the Kinks’ “Too Much on My Mind” in The American Friend by Bruno Ganz.

Of the three, Wenders came closest to the everyday, and was the most detached. His films were about the road and restlessness; they were cool pilgrimages featuring the way-stations of modern life: diners, hotels and motels, fast-food stalls, gas stations, trains, planes, trucks, cars. His characters were adrift, misplaced, often lonely and liable to make the wrong move.

His cultural ticket was first written by that gloomy Austrian precisionist and definer of postwar German angst, Peter Handke, whose novella The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty was a smart rework of Camus's L’Étranger. Adapted in 1971 by Wenders as an essay in distraction, its minimalist journey through urban and rural landscapes was marked less by any ostensible investigation into a pointless murder than by what was left unsaid, and the professional dilemma of guessing and double-guessing the right way to jump. The dilemma would later be shared by Wenders, caught between Europe and the US.

Wenders’s ambition was never in doubt, nor was his confidence, except at the start of Goalkeeper. Kept afloat at first by sly, leftfield observations that are clearly Handke’s, the film discovers its direction only after leaving Vienna on an extended bus journey, during which Wenders’s signature becomes evident: stacked records on a jukebox, twilight turning to dark, and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” heard on a crappy transistor radio with variable reception, cutting in and out of a plangent themed film score, and a train running alongside the bus in one of those moments of parallel movement of which Wenders became so fond. The faltering strands of a film, which were hanging in the balance, come together, capturing what Wenders does best — the banality of life on the road and a magic that comes from granting space and time to those extended moments other films pass over…

Rock’n’roll has indeed turned into the new conservatism, and it has been amusing to note in recent weeks the appearance of a white-haired, goateed, avuncular figure dishing out the Turner prize: that former rockin’ rebel Dennis Hopper, deep into the establishment. Ditto Wenders, as president of the European Film Academy, presenting an honorary prize to Jean-Luc Godard, who spoiled the party with a no-show, saying afterwards that his absence was in protest against a prize “imposed” on his entire career. Godard’s snub (at Wenders’s expense) was done as a point of principle, but it generated far more publicity than if he had accepted. Godard and Wenders are both expert manipulators, super-smart curators of their own legends — one outsider, one insider — having worked out, ahead of the game, that as much work needs to go into franchising and branding the image as the films, maybe more. In a very modern sense, the film has become a by-product, almost irrelevant, except as a promotional tool. Providing for acolytes of academia has become a major industry, as have the doctorates handed out in return, both laying the ground for the posthumous reputation. In the later stages, there is only the inconvenience of maintaining the career to keep the franchise going (knowing that one’s best work was done a long time ago) before posterity’s call.

Wenders's change of direction in the 1980’s produced his most commercially successful work, but the hits Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire came at the price of diluting his talent. The line between what worked with Wenders and what didn’t was always thin. He started to hanker after comedy; one ending shot for Wings of Desire featured a pie fight. Material got treated more as though he were a singer-songwriter than a film-maker: Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire play like concept albums. Paris, Texas looks more photographic than cinematic, more Eggleston than John Ford, and laid the foundation for Wenders’s second career as a photographer.

Wings of Desire is a triumph of location (Berlin) over content: an angel (Bruno Ganz) has a midlife crisis and opts for incarnation, resulting in a Nick Cave concert and hot sex with a circus trapeze artist (the late Solveig Dommartin). With this film, Wenders forsook his customary detachment and embraced engagement, while the Handke-isms turned to parody: “There is no greater story than ours, that of man and woman. It will be a story of giants. No mortal child was begot, only an immortal image.” The inherent vanity was realised in the film it begat, Until the End of the World, realised from an idea by Wenders and Dommartin, a worldwide caper starring Dommartin, whose relationship with Wenders did not survive. The shooting was a nightmare of squabbles and logistics (15 cities in seven countries), but this folie d’amour, hugely cut on release, retains a daft intensity. If Rossellini’s films with Ingrid Bergman and Godard’s with Karina were an obvious impulse of auteur cinema (director loves actress, director casts actress), Until the End of the World marks its epitaph.

Yet, on the evidence of websites, many are willing to subscribe to Paris, Texas as a profound statement on emptiness (rather than an empty film), just as enough will testify to the transcendent experience of Wings of Desire — as opposed to a cynical friend of mine who said that Wenders never would have dared “pull that stunt with the angels had Fassbinder been alive.

Films reviewed: 

Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten) Road Trilogy Pt. 1  (1974)

Paris, Texas (1984)

Tokyo-Ga (1985)

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