Monday, January 11, 2016

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Oh, the problem of labels in film viewing. There have been certain directors that I've found where I have tried to find and watch as many of their movies as I could. Rainer Werner Fassbinder is a case of one of those directors. And it was worth it. And when I heard that he was around and working with contemporaries of his time in Germany who are called the New German Cinema, that didn't do much for me. I didn't respond to any of the other filmmakers sharing that label like I did to Fassbinder. But this is because I had not made sufficiently diligent efforts to explore the films themselves.

I've never been a big Herzog guy, but it's to my embarrassment. Especially because his name is thrown around so often. Movies either click with me or they don't, that is the mystery of the public's taste. I'd held even less of a regard for Wenders' reputation as I had Herzog's, but I've also spent less time viewing his films.

The Austin Film Society has programmed a Wim Wenders retrospective and I chose to check out some of his movies. Of particular interest for me were the early ones, which I'd never seen before.


Last night I went to a screening of a gorgeous DCP restored  Alice in den Städten (1974, Wim Wenders) not expecting a lot and found immediately that it had far exceeded any expectations for it I could have imagined. I don't know what the formal criteria are for minimalism, or if there's even a strict way of defining it as a aesthetic movement, but all I kept thinking about during Alice In the Cities is that compared to most other films it doesn't seem to be trying to do a lot, but does. And I can't think of a better way to describe that as minimalist.

Alice in den Städten starts with a young German Bohemian type with longish messy hair on a beach taking Polaroids of the landscape, as he sings "Under the Boardwalk" to himself. Then he drives, takes more pictures, checks into motels, watches TV, eats, sleeps, and listens to the radio. And the style of Alice in den Städten that's established early on will remain evident throughout its runtime: Robbie Müller's 16mm black and white cinematography, the locations, the stillness and silence.

Robby Müller is a cult hero of mine because of his diverse array of collaborators and work, which includes:

  • Saint Jack (1979, Peter Bogdanovich)
  • They All Laughed (1981, Bogdanovich)
  • Repo Man (1984, Alex Cox)
  • Paris, Texas (1984, Wenders)
  • Down by Law (1986, Jim Jarmusch)
  • Dead Man (1995, Jarmusch)
  • Breaking the Waves (1996, Lars von Trier)
  • Dancer In the Dark (2000, von Trier)
And these are only a few.Alice in den Städten is composed of so many subjective shots from driving in cars, flying on airplanes, trains, and even a ferry. And there are obviously those with the opinion of what does and doesn't belong in a movie who do not value empty shots of landscapes, but in this case it's done with such an eye for interesting images that it becomes one of the best parts of Alice in den Städten. Müller also exposes the negative in just the right light to where there's always a lot of detail and deep focus. After what I'm guessing are Florida beaches, the loner drives to NYC and in several instances the Empire State Building is in the background, like a postcard. There's also an in-camera technique used often where the lens closes as opposed to an optical fade out.

Then there're the shots that don't function solely to enhance the plot, like when Alice is on the roof of a building looking through binoculars, and a POV starts on the World Trade Center then tilts down and across other buildings and finds a seagull then tracks it. That stuff isn't planned. That stuff is creative filmmaking.

Turns out the loner is a journalist whose deadline has approached for completion of an article written about the American landscape, to be published by his bosses based out of Germany. But, the loner has only taken pictures and not written a single word. Just one quote culled from his esoteric ramblings is "when you drive through America something happens to you, the images you see change you." And that's profound for me without going into anything deeper.

Okay so if any of this sounds boring, maybe it would be, except ALICE is some little kid whose mom abandons her in the care of the loner whom she trusts to take her daughter back to Germany and meet up with in a day or two.

The kid who plays Alice delivers an amazing performance. She's precocious, critical of the loner, bright, eccentric, and always eating. The chemistry between the loner and the kid turns into this humble, honest, simple just plain old tender bond that occurs as the trip progresses. Lots of the scenes find that rare slightly off European prosaic dry humour that's what gives Alice in den Städten its quality and will pop up later in the best work of Aki Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch.

For being so young, it's hilarious how over everything Alice is. So the story is a little sentimental, but I'm tired of associating that word with a negative connotation. For me one of the best moments is in a photo booth, when Alice and the loner are looking into the booth's lens and Alice starts to smile, but the loner doesn't. She looks at him and sees this, then changes her facial expression to deadpan to match his. She wants to be like him. And yeah even though the movie never says who her real dad is I feel like she needs this guy, even if it's only for a few days.

Alice in den Städten is also so impressive because it doesn't portray high stakes drama, it's just a few days this dude and this kid cross paths and it's not about them teaching each other anything groundbreaking about life or anything. It's just a couple of people who don't hate each other and form a little attachment and the realization that that's pretty important in a way.

There are so many little moments that find relevance beyond logic. Like the kid slouched next to the jukebox in the German diner who hums and mumbles along to Canned Heat's "On the Road Again," for the duration of the song it seems, as the conversation between Alice and the loner continually returns to him lost in his sesh. There's a Chuck Berry concert for, I don't know, just because. But the score is so sparse, it's just a few strums of an electric guitar and can convey so much, slightly spooky, a little empty, maybe just as casual and unassuming in its charm as the rest of the movie.

--Dregs

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