Monday, February 22, 2016

The Ultimate Road Movie

The end of the Wim Wenders series shown by the Austin Film Society.

In summary, what I've learned since attending 8 films directed by Wim Wenders is that he is the foremost expert practitioner of the road movie genre and his collaboration with cinematographer Robby Müller leaves several lasting proofs of their fortuitous time spent working together. Alice in den Städten (1974, Wim Wenders), Falsche Bewegung (1975, Wenders), and Im Lauf der Zeit (1976, Wenders) are their road movie trilogy.

The road movie trilogy are examples of the finest in 1970s independent personal filmmaking. They are slow, all revolve around variations of a different central protagonist, with each played by Rüdiger Vogler, and see him embark on a quest of small stakes that end with him alone as he was at the beginning. These 3 films get away with making the most out of the least. Alice in den Städten is about PHILIP WINTER (Vogler) accompanying ALICE (Yella Rottländer) from NYC to Germany and hanging out with her for a couple of days until her mom meets them their. Falsche Bewegung is about WILHELM (Vogler) walking around hoping to find ideas to write a novel about. Im Lauf der Zeit is BRUNO WINTER (Vogler) driving through some small German towns and doing maintenance work on film projectors in some theaters. But it is this foundation that Wenders constructs his artistic identity and style from.

Der amerikanische Freund (1977, Wenders) preserves the aesthetic template and loosely adapts a pulp noir narrative to it. And Paris, Texas (1984, Wenders) surfs the driving force of these 4 films, riding the crest, almost effortlessly enjoying its status as sublime masterpiece.

In Der amerikanische Freund, ZIMMERMAN (Bruno Ganz) is diagnosed with terminal leukemia, which leads him to take some contract work as an assassin. Surprisingly that break from Wenders' trajectory doesn't prevent him from observing sketches of the lives of the film's ensemble. We never feel like we're getting the biographies of Wenders' characters. That is a key to his style.

The difference in Paris, Texas is that we get to find out everything we need to know about TRAVIS (Harry Dean Stanton), JANE (Nastassja Kinski), and HUNTER (Hunter Carson) as the narrative unfolds. That Sam Shepard wrote Paris, Texas as a play that the movie is adapted from may be a contributing factor. Paris, Texas has a purpose. It deals with large stakes and knows it.

I apologize for doing a disservice to you, the reader, by not providing more information about all of the rock 'n' roll found on the soundtracks to all of these movies, or the recurring instances of characters listening to radios in their cars, motels, jukeboxes in diners, live performances, or even that Can recorded Alice in den Städten's original soundtrack.

Another trend I see in these early Wenders/Müller films is the creative character. In Alice in den Städten, Philip Winter is a journalist who rebels against his current assignment, aggravating his editor, by shooting a bunch of photos of a trip he was supposed to write about. Wilhelm's singular pursuit is writing a novel in Falsche Bewegung. Bruno loves cinema, fixes projectors and knows a thing or two about being a projectionist in Im Lauf der Zeit. Zimmerman owns a shop where he makes frames for pictures in Der amerikanische Freund and all of the criminal underworld are battling in the world of counterfeit paintings.

Which leads me to a subtle joke in Paris, Texas. If we know Wenders likes artists as his characters, and we know going into Paris, Texas that it's about America in a lot of ways, what happens when we ask who the artist is in that movie? Well it's Travis' brother WALT (Dean Stockwell) and the first time we see Walt, he's at his job. Taking up the focus of the frame, what else but an enormous black velvet painting-style portrait of Barbra Streisand on a billboard happens to be the day's work at Walt's billboard company. It's like, this bullshit is what Americans have turned art into.

OAR 1.66:1 4K DCP projected Bis ans Ende der Welt (1991, Wenders) screened yesterday in its original 5 hour cut and as theatrical screenings go, felt like it was being shown for the first time.

It wasn't until I was 20 that I saw a subtitled foreign language film. One of the most useful resources I had access to when I moved to Portland, OR when I was 19 was other people's recommendations about what movies to watch next. My cinematic appetite was voracious already. But I'd come from a small town and this was before I used the internet, so I didn't have any idea what I liked or what was out there to watch other than Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino), Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995, Todd Solondz), Lost Highway (1997, David Lynch), Your Friends & Neighbors (1998, Neil LaBute), Celebrity (1998, Woody Allen) and this John Waters VHS box set I had.

One day I went into a chain video rentals store and based on browsing the covers in the foreign section for what must have been an hour at least, I decided on Nóz w wodzie (1962, Roman Polanski) and Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) as my first foreign movies to watch. Within the next year or so, Fat would lend me his copy of Yojimbo (1961, Akira Kurosawa), which first established my respect for his taste in movies. Anyway at this same time I was lent a couple of VHS tapes to watch, highly recommended. The tapes were of The Conversation (1974, Francis Ford Coppola) and Bis ans Ende der Welt.

The guy who lent me the tapes was named Matt. He had a girlfriend named Erin who helped open the all-ages club 17 Nautical Miles. Nice guy. I remember he was very enthusiastic about Bis ans Ende der Welt. He said something like dude it was a 5 hour movie about these people going all over the world looking for a camera that records dreams, directed by Wim Wenders, you gotta see it. It sucked. Bad. I hated it. But only now do I realize how much I missed back then watching a version that was missing 3 hours from it, panned & scanned, on a small tube TV.

I haven't seen Matt in 16 years. But he was right. To this day I keep an inventory of movies that are recommended to me personally by all sorts of different people.

Bins ans Ende der Welt is a big movie. It's a road movie, shot by Robby Müller, spans the globe, and explodes with a soundtrack of contemporary 90s rock. Released in 1991, it also boasts the reputation of being the earliest movie to deal with the millennium bug. And its prophecies are spot on while more often than not being alarmingly accurate--CLAIRE TORNEUR (Solveig Dommartin) and SAM FARBER (William Hurt), the pair the film centers on, eventually find handheld digital video viewing devices that they get addictively sucked into, lose all ties with reality, and become nearly catatonic. Take that smartphones.

The first two-thirds or so of Bins ans Ende der Welt is a frenetic cloak and dagger chase where Claire hunts Sam. But the final third is set in Australia, and takes its time closing the story of this sci-fi romance with the care it deserves. And even though Bins ans Ende der Welt is magnificent with its grand scale and huge sci-fi questions, it remains a small character sketch about a couple of romantic types merely chasing their dreams.

PHILIP WINTER (Rüdiger Vogler) returns as a Hammett-type, fedora-sporting private dick who Claire hires in Berlin to help her find Sam. Yes, Rüdiger Vogler's back! Vogler gets a lot of screen time, he's a fundamental part of the group. The whole tale is told in VO by Sam Neil who plays GENE FITZPATRICK, an ex of Claire's who's remained friends with her and is writing a book about the events as they're occurring.

Robby Müller delivers strong work, with his customary blue skies, vast deserts & green countrysides, urban neon jungles, open roads, and all manner of transportation. It all happens so quick though. Another thing I've learned is that say, with Müller's photography for example, it was always there but I had to learn how to see it. Sam is on a mission travelling around the world taking pictures on a special camera that possesses the technology to record an image and play it back to a blind person using brain waves, because he wants to show them to his blind mother in Australia (Jeanne Moreau). The photo Sam takes of his sister is right up there with my favorite frames Müller's ever attained.

The MLS, inspired by Vermeer and his window facing the northern light, falling on the subject's right side, is a poignant reference. It's an acknowledgement of the history of the art of light and its translation to the filmed image in a movie. But it's also a striking counterpoint to most of Müller's best shots, filmed outdoors, without manipulating the lighting, void of life.

The world of high tech gadgetry at play in Bins ans Ende der Welt also includes Winter's GPS software that he uses to track people for his work. But maybe the funniest gag in the movie is the "Bounty Bear." The GPS program shows an animated bear with a Russian hat on-screen while the search is being performed walking around, continuously speaking to the user: I'm searching, searching, still searching, wait a minute, okay, almost there; and again holy crap I can't believe this was made in 1991.

I am so thankful I saw this in a theater finally. There's so much in Bins ans Ende der Welt that makes me want to see it again, but I'll likely never again have the chance to on a theater screen. But I can't complain. Sometimes once is enough.


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1 Comments + Unabashed Criticism:

Blogger Unknown said...

I had the privilege of seeing "Until The End Of The World" on a VERY large screen in an auditorium in college. I've also owned the VHS, the LaserDisc, and the Region 1 (import) "director’s cut" DVD box set that came out a few years ago. I've often come back to the Bounty Bear, and it's surprising how many people are in on the joke! Five hours is a LONG time to sit through a film, but, "UTEOTW" can almost be seen/viewed as two separate movies... I found your review as a result of looking for references to the Bounty Bear, so thanks for offering your perspective!

Cheers from Chicago.

Lance A Schart

8:20 AM  

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