[Originally published in The Weekly, December 19, 1984]
In John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, a film employed to throw a cultural frame around Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities, a character says to Abe, “Never saw a man look at a river the way you do.” No filmmaker has ever looked at a road the way Wim Wenders does. He sees it in all its purity and directness of line, its beauty as a brave and silent sign of man’s efforts to impose coherence and continuity on the awful indifference of landscape; sees above all, perhaps, the beauty of its effective invisibility. We don’t really look at roads, even as we rely upon them absolutely as the arterials of modern life, the reminders that, as sedentary beings who live out most of our lives in place, we never entirely shake free of the atavistic allure of being a nomadic race.
Robert Horton, Richard T. Jameson, and Bruce Reid sat down at the Scarecrow Video screening room on March 11, 2016 to discuss talk Wim Wenders, Terrence Malick, and remember Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016), cinematographer on McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Seattle-shot favorite Cinderella Liberty, and more recently TV’s The Mindy Project, and French filmmaker Jacques Rivette.
The Seattle Channel was there to record the event. It is now showing on cable and streaming via their website. Or you can see it here.
[Throughout the month of March, 2016, SIFF Cinema and NWFF are teaming up to present the retrospective ‘Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road.” [Details here] To celebrate, we revive this piece, an extended version of an essay originally published in the Scarecrow Video “A Tribute to Wim Wenders” program in 1996.]
“A lot of my films start off with road maps instead of scripts.” – Wim Wenders
In Wenders’ student short Alabama (2000 Light Years) we first see what will become a hallmark in feature after feature: the world as viewed through the windshield of a moving car. We’ve seen many variations of this image (through a car side window, through the window of a train or a plane) but it’s this first image that is key to Wenders’ works, which puts us in the drivers seat, so to speak.
Wenders makes films about travelers, people on the move, and he continually returns to the road film: Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, Kings of the Road, Paris Texas, and Until the End of the World. In other films, travel becomes a central element of the narrative: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, The American Friend, The State of Things, Lisbon Story, and of course the journeys from heaven to earth in Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! His world is a landscape of winding country roads through fields and forests, city streets and urban cityscapes, railroad tracks and speeding trains, coffee shops, hotels, jukeboxes, photo booths and other roadside attractions. The road serves as both an escape and a way back, the route for escape from responsibility, the winding path back to self. From the self exiled wanderer to the determined traveler, the road ultimately becomes a pathway to (or the possibility of) grace.
“In 1985, I’m sitting in the casting office of a major studio. The head of casting said, ‘I couldn’t put you in a Shakespeare movie, because they didn’t have black people then.’ He literally said that. I told that casting director: ‘You ever heard of Othello? Shakespeare couldn’t just make up black people. He saw them.’” Melena Ryzik gets quotes from 27 minority and women actors, directors, and producers (including Joan Chen, John Ridley, Justin Lim, and Wendell Pierce, quoted above) about working in a Hollywood where diversity remains mostly lip service. And if you think things aren’t as bad as all that, Lori McCreary relates that even the most obvious casting choice of all time—Morgan Freeman as Deep Impact’s president—got pushback from the white guys in suits (“somebody at the studio said, we’re not making a science-fiction movie; you can’t have Morgan Freeman play the president.”).
Movie Morlocks wins the wide-net award of the week with a pair of fine articles on movies that have just about nothing in common. David Kalat savors the timeless satire that unites period trappings with contemporary concerns in Kawashima’s Bakumatsu Taiyo-den. (“In just seven syllables, Bakumatsu Taiyo-den efficiently signals (in Japanese) what you’re about to get: a mash-up of the “Sun-Tribe” genre of youth problem films… and the sword-and-topknot cycle of Samurai films (do you really need me to tell you what a samurai film is like?), specifically drawing the connection between the dawning of modernism at the end of the Samurai era and the uneasy postwar world of 1950s Japan. Oh, and did I mention it was a sex comedy?”) While R. Emmet Sweeney takes the buzz aroundThe Witch to look back at Dreyer’s Day of Wrath. (“[Rembrandt’s] The Anatomy Lesson comes through in Dreyer’s shots of the sober bearded men putting kindly old crone Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier) on trial, in which they invoke the light of God while threatening to tear Herlofs limb from limb. Dreyer gets closer with his camera than Rembrandt chooses to on his canvas, and every face that Karl Andersson’s camera glides by in these intricately composed sequences is hiding some secret shame.”)
“No Fear, No Die, named after Jocelyn’s prized rooster, replaces the post-war setting of classic noir with a post-colonial one, swapping desperation for dislocation, and money troubles for racial tension. (After all, “noir” means “black.”) Maybe it speaks to the state of this generally screwed-up planet that the movie is just as current today as it was in 1990, when it first hit French theaters.” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky revisits Claire Denis’s “first dive into pulp and genre,” finding it as inimitably hers as ever.
“After Noroît, Rivette’s cinema will never again be so experimental, daring or rule-breaking. Did something more than the director’s health crack in that moment of crisis in 1975? Did his artistic resolve also take a battering? And did that particular crack trigger, or come to associate itself, with other cracks in the life and times, even less accessible to us?” In an updating of a 2010 essay, Adrian Martin fruitfully wrestles with auteurism and its consequences to perceive what exactly changed in Rivette’s output after the abandonment of his Les Filles du feu project, and how—even whether—The Story of Marie and Julien can be considered a completion of a trilogy having been picked up nearly three decades after the fact. Via Mubi.
“The ability to figure out a puzzle on the fly is crucial for both gumshoes and directors, certainly one as peripatetic as Huston. By the time he took on The Maltese Falcon in 1941, Huston was ready for the challenge. Under his direction, everyone in front of and behind the camera (in particular, cinematographer Arthur Edeson) performs on en pointe. No word or motion is wasted—even the crawl stating that pirates “seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day” adds a note that reverberates after the climax.” Michael Sragow investigates Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, proving that the first time being faithful to the novel is why in this case the third time was the charm.
“Lang, perhaps tellingly, seemed most interested in the script after Siegfried was out of it: that is, only when the story turns completely toward emotional chaos, toward division, toward the themes that consumed his later work. After he left Germany in 1934, his films inhabited fully the terrain that Harbou had only skated around: paranoia, cults of personality, distrust of authority figures. The genius of his own work, as well as his work with Von Harbou, is its total subjectivity. By creating a new, visual language of paranoia, he’d also hit upon a way to capture abstraction visually: to film ambiguity.” However absolute the eventual separation between Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, Die Nibelungenlied, their remarkable fusing of nationalist epic and intimate portrayal of betrayal and revenge, depended upon both partners for its unique power, as Henry Giardina shows.
After catching de Oliveira’s “tetralogy of frustrated love” at Lincoln Center, Vadim Rizov finds himself completely enraptured by 1978’s Benilde or the Virgin Mother (“Outside [the film’s sole set], there’s howling wind and rain that’s no less convincing for the early exposure of its non-existence; we’re able to better perceive how technical tools create a successfully sustained illusion we might otherwise take for granted.”), rather less taken by its three companions (of 1978’s Doomed Love: “It’s clear that the film can’t end until everyone is dead, which made me eventually root for their sooner-rather-than-later extinction.”)
Nikki Finke’s Hollywood Dementia, which publishes industry-related fiction, let a group of movie critics take a crack this week. None of the stories are any great shakes as literature—pretty flat characters, obvious conflicts, and a curious tendency among all participants to explain their jokes. But as Sam Adams, who spotted the series, notes, there’s a certain fun to be had identifying the à clefs behind these romans. And collectively the stories—Bernard Weinraub’s tale of a disastrous new hire when an older film critic is shuffled offstage; Thelma Adams’s account of searching for a sisterly bond during the “Gotham Film Critics Awards”; Nat Segaloff’s story of a critic picking a bone-headed fight with a film exhibitor; and Daniel M. Kimmel’s story of one critic’s revenge on a vicious internet commentator—capture the unique mix of pride and futility in many critics, born of a job that mixes great responsibility with utter powerlessness. And yes, as just about each story gets around to mentioning, we’re really not morning people at all.
“That´s how it works. I never wanted to be a vampire. In my last film in Antwerp, I was Adolf Hitler riding on dinosaurs. I never wanted to be that but it is what it is—a film. Film is shadow and light and film is fantasy. And I already played Adolf Hitler several times but always in comedies. There you have it. It´s not me who wants to play that.” In an amusingly temperamental interview (he always seems to infer a nastier subtext to Martin Kudlac’s questions than is intended) Udo Kier recalls collaborating with Fassbinder, von Trier, Maddin, Morrisey, and more. Via David Hudson.
Interview Magazine has apparently decided that its latest pairing of famous interlocutor and subject merits two articles, since Saoirse Ronan interviewing Jodie Foster (“I didn’t grow up really wanting to be an actor. I don’t remember ever not being an actor. I don’t really think I have the personality. I am not very external. I don’t want to dance on the table and do impressions. So I think that the way I approach it is really loving story. That’s my first love—the words.”) is followed immediately by Foster interviewing Ronan (“I remember very vividly how it felt to be a child on a film set, and that is actually really important to hold on to for as long as you continue to make films. You need to be childlike, don’t you?”); though of course there’s more give and take than that schematic implies, with the two sharing delight in their professions, anxieties about striking out on their own, and gratitude for a pair of mothers who instilled in them such conviction and confidence.
“You’re disappointed when you can’t raise money for something, even if it’s not especially expensive. Especially when you feel like, “There really is an audience for this.” Most of the films that we’re talking about that are going to be in this retrospective were released by companies that no longer exist. In fact, most of them were out of business by the mid-’90s, and that’s because it got so competitive. The few movies that they thought would be commercial, released by the Weinsteins and a couple other companies, the big studios have classics divisions competing with them. They said, “We’ve gotta put up money up front and make our own movies,” and boy, if they’re not successful two or three movies later, you’re out of business.” John Sayles, who’s picked up paychecks for genre work and struggled to gather funds for self-financed indies, talks the fun and frustrations of both with Eric Kohn.
Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, an Oscar nominee for Travels With My Aunt (1973), Julia (1978), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982), began his career shooting war footage during World War II. The versatile London-born photographer went on to shoot the British classics Dead of Night (1945) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), a handful of Ealing comedies including Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Man in the White Suit (1951), John Huston’s Freud (1962), Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), for which he won his first of three BAFTAs, the World War I fighter pilot drama The Blue Max (1966), Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), the original The Italian Job (1969), The Great Gatsby (1974), for which he won another BAFTA, and Rollerball (1975), among his many credits. He shot the first two Indiana Jones sequels and retired after The Last Crusade (1989). He passed away this week at the age of 103. Sheila Whitaker at The Guardian.
Less well known but almost as busy, cinematographer Jean Rabier shot most of Claude Chabrol’s movies from Chabrol’s feature debut Le Beau Serge (1958), where he served as camera operator to Henri Dacaë, through Madame Bovary (1991). Before he graduated to director of photographer, he apprenticed under the great Henri Dacaë as assistant cameraman and camera operate on Elevator to the Gallows (1958), The 400 Blows (1959), and Purple Noon (1960), among others. In addition to shooting over 40 Chabrol features and shorts, he shot Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) for Agnes Varda, Bay of Angels (1963) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) for Jacques Demy, and the English-language TV movie Night of the Fox (1990). He died at age 88. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for A.V. Club.
Actor George Gaynes was a veteran journeyman when he appeared as a lascivious soap opera actor in Tootsie (1982) and was subsequently cast in Police Academy (1984) and its scads of sequels as the lovable buffoon of a commander. He began his stage career on TV in the 1950s, appeared in the films The Group (1966), The Way We Were (1973), and Nickelodeon (1976), and in the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man – Book II (1976) and Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977), among his many credits. After establishing his comedy credentials, he appeared in Mel Brooks’s remake To Be or Not to Be (1983), was cast in the sitcoms Punky Brewster (1984-1988), The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (1989-1991), and Hearts Afire (1992-1993), and was memorable in Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994). He retired from acting after Just Married in 2003 and passed away at age 98. Ryan Gibney for The Guardian.
Umberto Eco, the Italian scholar and semiotician, found popular success when he applied his interest in signs and symbols to seven novels beginning with “The Name of the Rose,” a medieval murder mystery that draws upon religion, history, symbolism and iconography, and a Sherlock Holmes-like monk. It was turned into a movie in 1986 by filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud with Sean Connery, F. Murray Abraham, and Christian Slater. He died at age 84. Jonathan Kandell for The New York Times.
SIFF Cinema and NWFF unite to co-present “Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road,” a retrospective featuring twelve films spanning his career, from The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) to Pina (2012), his 3D celebration of the dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch. Highlights include his “Road Trilogy” (Alice in the Cities, 1974, Wrong Move, 1975, Kings of the Road, 1975), his Zen filmmaking thriller The State of Things (1982), and his full 5 ½ hour version of Until the End of the World (1991), which was never shown theatrically in the U.S. (the last time it played in Seattle was twenty years ago at the last Wim Wenders retrospective in 1996). These five films are not yet on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S.
Films at SIFF Film Center:
March 2: The American Friend
March 9: Alice in the Cities
March 16: Wrong Move
March 23: Kings of the Road
March 30: Buena Vista Social Club
At SIFF Film Center:
March 30: Pina Details, showtimes, and ticket information here.
Films at NWFF:
March 3: Paris, Texas
March 10: The State of Things & The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick
March 17: Wings of Desire
March 24: Notebook on Cities and Clothes
March 31: Until the End of the World: The Trilogy (Director’s Cut) Details, showtimes, and ticket information here.
The final film in the winter “Silent Movie Monday” series at The Paramount is the original Ben-Hur: A Story of the Christ (1925), or rather a version of the original cut down by an hour by percussionist and composer Stewart Copeland. He performs his original score live with the Seattle Rock Orchestra on Monday, February 29 at 7pm. More details and ticket information here.
Actor and storyteller Stephen Tobolowsky comes to Seattle to present his concert film The Primary Instinct, which was shot in front of a live audience at Seattle’s Moore Theater and made its world premiere as SIFF 2015, and the great comedy of rebirth Groundhog Day (1993) in a double feature at the Uptown on Monday, February 29. The event begins at 7pm. Details here.
Only Yesterday, an animated feature from Japan’s Studio Ghibli and filmmaker Isao Takahata, makes it American theatrical debut at the Uptown in two versions: one in English featuring the voices of Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel, and the original Japanese language version with English subtitles. Schedule and ticket information here.
Academy Award nominee Mustang from Turkish director Deniz Gamze Erguven comes back for a return engagement, this time at the Uptown. More here.
The American Friend (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley is nothing like the character that Patricia Highsmith created and explored in five novels, and while Wim Wenders’s adaptation of Ripley’s Game, the sequel to The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains more or less faithful to the plot (with additional elements appropriated from Ripley Underground), the personality and sensibility belong to Wenders.
The cool, cunning sociopath of Highsmith’s novel becomes a restless international hustler, selling art forgeries and brokering deals (some of which may actually be legal) while travelling back and forth through Germany, France, and the United States. His target, renamed Jonathan Zimmerman here (a Dylan reference? Wenders loves his American music, you know) and played with an easy (if at times arrogant) integrity by Bruno Ganz, is a German art restorer who now runs a frame shop due to the effects of a fatal blood disease. In true Highsmith fashion, the motivation is purely psychological and emotional—a small but purposeful social slight—and the reverberations are immense. Ripley concocts a medical con to convince Zimmerman he’s dying so a French associate (played by Gerard Blain) can tempt him to be his assassin, and then comes to his rescue as the French criminal extends the cruel little act of revenge to pull Zimmerman into additional murders.
My arrival by car to the high altitude, low attitude Telluride Film Festival is understandably, even fittingly, late, given the fest’s relative proximity to the expansive, vermillion grandeur of Monument Valley, otherwise known as John Ford country. Loiter there, however, and you’re liable to miss the festival’s opening night rollout of Werner Herzog’s latest doc Into The Abyss or the Dardenne brothers’ Cannes honoree The Kid With a Bike, which proved to be the weekend’s hardest ticket, by virtue of popularity or having been slotted into the town’s notoriously intimate venues. One kiosk board went so far to anoint it “the new 400 Blows”.
On Main Street I witnessed a risible exchange – one not even the cine-literate Telluride is exempt from – in which a young man effusively intended to praise Herzog, only to mistakenly address Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who was calmly nonplussed. Telluride invites such confusion, playing the popular and the obscure, pitting a George Clooney tribute adjacent the magisterially bleak The Turin Horse (begging the question: how would you like to spend the next two and a half hours of your life?). Like its guest director Caetano Veloso – a totally welcome appointment in my opinion – the festival is decidedly august while resistant to claims that it isn’t edgy anymore. It’s fruitless to take sides or imply an Auteur-versus-Hollywood polarity, considering that the festival has historically been witness to much of the former’s transformation into the latter. But it does make sense to set an agenda that eschews the soon-to-be-released for the never-to-be-seen again, even if the modest Chilean Bonsai, with its punk Proustian attitude, never seems exactly antithetical to Alexander Payne’s project of familial folly (The Descendants).
It may be somewhat ironic that I’m competing with Colorado housewives for seats at the Dardennes’ film – where, oh where I wonder are these people when the film goes into theatrical release?! – but bless the Belgians’ expanding audience nonetheless. So I’m fated to watch Wim Wender’s Pina, in 3-damn-D no less, and fearing what may become of Café Muller’s sense of subversion in the hands of someone who’s lost his own anxiety at the prospect of a penalty kick. Some clever framing devices immerse us in Bausch’s production while affording some context from her resident dancers, and the 3-D elasticizes dance’s spatial dynamic, welcome or not, but there is little insight into the genesis of Bausch’s feverishly abstract, melancholic, and playfully choreographed theatre. An instructive aspect is cleaved open by the dance/film division: of how dance is powerfully suggestive and preempts the necessity of so much (film) acting, and how dancers are so often susceptible to bad acting. Bausch devotees may wonder just what this Wenders guy is contributing to a legendary artist’s aesthetic legacy, beyond exposure. Wenders fans, those of you who stuck it out into the ‘90s, may be chagrined by too many leaps into the unknown that aren’t padded with proper context (even if Bausch’s own elusive style would eventually solidify into an homage of itself).
[Originally published in the Oregon Daily Emerald on December 1, 1977]
After a striking opening shot—partially reversed at the end of the film—Alice In The Cities (1974) introduces a solitary figure, forlornly sitting on sand, his back against a post, self-descriptively singing, “under the boardwalk, down by the sea, on a blanket with my baby, that’s where I wanna be.” The upbeat lyrics ironically counterpoint the grim image, and the German-speaking character has slightly garbled the great Drifters’ song line, which actually ends “on a blanket with my baby, is where I’ll be.”
This sequence is one of many, here and throughout Wenders, that use the artifacts of popular culture in the films as atmospheric details and comments—often wry—on the action. Thus, the mournful character in Alice listens to a radio play the song lyrics “I feel depressed I feel so bad,” and sees a German newspaper reporting the death of John Ford. Even the television ad line, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” becomes both a piece of cultural garbage and an ironic call to action that the character answers by breaking the television screen. (In The American Friend (1977) a character played by Dennis Hopper introduces the cultural artifact, simultaneously evoking his character’s dislocation and the actor’s iconic significance and erratic career trajectory by shuffling across a grey Hamburg balcony, singing, from the Ballad of Easy Rider: “The river flows, it flows to the sea, and wherever that river flows God knows that’s where I wanna be.”)
Winner of the Palme D’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Paris, Texas (Criterion) was not Wim Wenders’ first American film—that would be Hammett (1982), which proved to be a dispiriting experience when producer Francis Ford Coppola decided to step in and re-edit Wenders’ vision to something more commercial (so much for the creative freedom he promised filmmakers)—but it is the first American film where Wenders carved his own vision into the American landscape (both physical and cinematic). Just two years after the Hammett debacle, he returned to the U.S. on his own terms, with a story he developed with Sam Shepard and financial backing from Europe that gave him the freedom to make his own film. Paris, Texas (a name that evokes the collision of and contrast between Europe and America) is a road movie, a drama of reconciliation and redemption, a modern western and an emotional odyssey of epic simplicity and emotional integrity set against an America both mythic (the stunning vistas of the Texas border desert are as primal as John Ford’s Monument Valley landscapes) and modern (from the lonely roadside motels and neon totems to the view down on Los Angeles from the hilltop family home).
Harry Dean Stanton (in his first and, to the best of my knowledge, only leading role to date) is Travis, a man who walks out of the desert and into civilization, parched and weak and mute but driven by purpose, even if it’s beyond his understanding at that point. Dean Stockwell is his brother Walt, who flies from Los Angeles to Southern Texas and drives him back, bringing Travis out of his almost catatonic, pre-verbal state as the journey brings him out of the wilderness and back to family, notably the son (Hunter Carson) he left behind four years before. Wenders and Shepard prefer spare dialogue that suggests more than it explains, letting the performances fill in the blanks and the images frame the drama. Longtime Wenders collaborator Robby Muller films the deserts and highways of the American southwest with a reverence for the primal beauty and the spare, expansive, seemingly unending landscape. Stanton looks carved from the same wind-scoured stone and sand when he emerges from the desert and Muller and Wenders slowly soften and humanize him as he tentatively but sincerely interacts with his family and returns to society, only to leave on a quest with the son he has just reconnected with. Nastassja Kinski is Jane, the young wife and mother first seen in the home movies that Walt shows one night, and it’s like that image of the happy family captured in warm, blurry super8 footage becomes his grail: he has to repair the broken family that, we are to learn, he himself destroyed.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
September 30, 1976
Could you tell me what Kings of the Roadis about and how you came to make it?
It’s a film about two men and they’re making a journey across, along the border of East Germany from the North to the South, which is about a thousand miles, in an old truck, and they are repairing the projection equipment in the small villages.
How did you choose the subject?
Well, that’s not an easy answer. There are different subjects in the film. It’s not only the journey of the two men, but it’s also the situation of cinema, small cinemas in Germany that are dying out. It’s a little bit about the end of cinema altogether. It’s about the situation of men who are 30 now, born after the war like me. It’s about Germany nowadays. It’s about a lot of things. It’s about music and it’s about rock’n’roll just as well as about cinema.
There’s quite a lot of rock’n’roll on the soundtrack. How did you pick what you used?
I picked some favorite things.
There’s a profound feeling of alienation in the film, emphasized by Bruno’s scream at the end. Are you trying to make any larger statement about men as a group being alienated, or do you limit this sense of alienation to these two men? .
It’s more or less Tarzan’s scream. Well, it’s not only the alienation of these two because in the film … As soon as you pick somebody as the hero of a film, it turns out to be statement, not only about him but about mankind. So it is, rather, a film about men than about these two men. In a way, it’s a film about men totally in an American tradition—the road movie tradition—but on the other hand, it’s just the opposite of all these films because it’s not dealing with men the way all these films used to deal. It’s not reassuring them. On the contrary.