Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Beware of a Holy Whore

The last 4 years I've worked on sets for production--movies, TV, commercials--and it's the best place I could ever want to work. Of all the movies about movies, the more experience I have the more I get out of watching the ones that depict the process of production itself.

So what do we have? Both The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli) and its sequel Two Weeks in Another Town (1962, Minnelli), Le mépris (1963, Jean-Luc Godard), Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte (1971, Rainer Werner Fassbinder), La nuit américaine (1973, François Truffaut), and Living in Oblivion (1995, Tom DiCillo). I figured there would be more. Of course, there are other movies I'm not including because they only contain some sequences on set.

These films always involve bickering, creative conflict, affairs, and to some degree substance abuse. And my first reaction is hey it's not that bad, but then when I think about it, my only conclusion is oh yeah, that's right, all of that has happened even to me at some point. But it's still a lot of fun.


Initially I deliberated going to see Der Stand der Dinge (1982, Wim Wenders) because Robby Müller didn't shoot it, I had never heard of it, and because the log line I read was a film crew on location in Lisbon runs out of film and waits for funds to resume shooting, which sounded boring.

But having watched Hammett (1982, Wenders) the night before Der Stand der Dinge was to be screened in a theater, I said fuck it, I'm all in now. Restored from its original 35mm negative in 4K by the Wim Wenders Stiftung, the AFS Wim Wenders retrospective screened Der Stand der Dinge last night at the Marchesa theater and I went. And I was punching myself in the face for almost thinking about skipping it.

I don't know what happened with Hammett, but Der Stand der Dinge has the singular quality of the greatness Wim Wenders cultivates in Alice in den Städten (1974), Falsche Bewegung (1975), Im Lauf der Zeit (1976) into Der amerikanische Freund (1977). I've gotta start with the cinematography. Henri Alekan, best known for La belle et la bête (1946, Jean Cocteau), achieves photographic images that made me forget I was watching a movie and feel like I was in an art gallery discovering work that made me stop thinking and just enjoy the spectacle of viewing beauty. Der Stand der Dinge opens with sounds of wind, in a rocky barren landscape, on a post-apocalyptic figure wearing a particle-mask, oversized safety glasses, and a backpack, who carries a small handheld video camera. The black and white cinematography has a grainy, gauzed or greasy diffusion to it that gives the images a soft, classic, otherworldly German silent expressionist that probably never existed feel to it. And this phenomenal imagery doesn't stop until the end of the movie.

Wenders returns to his sparse dialogue, lyrical pacing, bypassing plot, focusing on authentic human nuances, punctuated by irreverent spontaneous humor, and casts an overall fatal, ominous sense of longing and loss in Der Stand der Dinge. The coastal Portugal resort where most of the film takes place provides endlessly gorgeous textures with the ever present beach waves serving as the aesthetically sublime dominion of black and white western European art films.

The opening movie-within-a-movie sci-fi piece uses a sinister Carpenter-like synthesizer score, which after a long gap, creeps into the world the characters inhabit outside the movie they're making.

Sam Fuller is back for his third consecutive Wenders film acting as director of photography JOE CORBY (wordplay on Hammett's DP, Joseph Biroc). Fuller is on-screen quite a bit this time and he's terrific: funny, seemingly ad-libbing, salty, world weary, cynical, and always puffing on his trademark cigar--he brings Joe Corby to life and makes this crew believable. One of Joe's complaints in a bar involves him lamenting the curse of the telephone, as he calls it: "good news, bad news, hypocritical news, news you never hoped for," and this is just one instance of a subtext of the impending fear of technology in the film. There's a later scene when DENNIS the screenwriter shows the director the movie they're shooting's assets on an Apple II computer. It's a prophetic warning: computers are going to devour the process of filmmaking.

The first two-thirds of the narrative show the humanity of the crew in a vacuum, or to be precise, placed on a will notify status--that's what the call sheet says the day before you are to show up for work when they don't officially guarantee what time you'll be starting, if at all. I can relate to the financial anxiety of the crew around this part of the movie. But the final act follows the director FRIEDRICH MUNRO (Patrick Bauchau) to LA where he's going straight to the source for finishing funds. King of the road Wenders again captures the location perfectly both tonally and photographically. Friedrich (or as the American crew call him, "fried rice") rents a large convertible, sun pouring down on him in an empty parking lot, and blasts X's "Los Angeles," cruising with the wind in his hair as Exene belts her furious anthem.

As fried rice passes a marquee what else but John Ford's The Searchers (1956) is being advertised.

Friedrich finally confronts the elusive producer GORDON (Allen Garfield) in an RV. While the mobile home drives all night, the two men discuss aesthetics, old Hollywood road movies, the economics of filmmaking and digress into other general ranting and raving as Gordon lounges with his dachshund while the aim of Der Stand der Dinge coalesces, and reinforces the bleak, hopeless demise of individual filmmaking. But oh so beautifully.

Aside from maybe the best black and white cinematography I've ever seen (as Joe Corby says: "life is in color, but black and white is more realistic"), it's the insightful musings on the process of filmmaking and entertaining glimpses into the restless crew, their hang-ups, and the little reflections and jokes that go far in delivering the most entertaining aspects of the film. Like the funny scene when the script supervisor (played by Viva) comments on the exclusion of females in the framing of the Polaroid shots her adolescent daughter takes on set; or what seems like an awkward scene where that girl and another child hear her mom in bed with another man but she says "do you think they're fucking"; or when the Geoffrey Carey played character has the hilarious moment with the child as he's hanging laundry, remembering his awkward characteristics as a teen in LA, from Clearasil, to braces, to stuttering to "wait, what was the last one, oh yeah, cancer." I hate to spoil these scenes though, the unexpected is part of the essence of why they're funny.

Der Stand der Dinge is way better than I could have imagined. Wenders at his most, eccentric and insightful. Beautiful. Very funny.

--Dregs

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