Tuesday, February 16, 2016

When the Child was a Child

The 7th theatrical screening I went to of a film from the Wim Wenders series shown by AFS.

The 5 films that I discovered while attending this series that show Wenders cultivating his own style and finding the movie he was born to make are all shot by Robby Müller: Alice in den Städten (1974, Wenders), Falsche Bewegung (1975, Wenders), Im Lauf der Zeit (1976, Wenders), Der amerikanische Freund (1977, Wenders), and Paris, Texas (1984, Wenders). I knew beforehand that Müller's cinematography was my main reason for going. And I knew Paris, Texas was the one work from the series that would be the most worthwhile. Becoming thoroughly acquainted with Wenders' films from this period has paid off and far exceeded my modest expectations.

I once took a course in college called "Independent American Cinema." On the first day we were asked, "what do you think of when you hear 'independent' movie?" The whole semester was about learning what that word means in that context. Independent used to mean apart from studio production, financing, and distribution. But in the 90s that changed. There was now a lot of money to be made by targeting that market, so studios entered the business of independent films. Does independent mean small budget? Does it mean that the movie is marketed or aimed at a niche or fringe audience? You get the idea.

I still cringe when I hear the word independent used to classify a movie. Coincidentally last year I went to an Orson Welles series, and saw several theatrical screenings, shown chronologically, from his career. And it was at that time I remembered something I had forgotten along the way: Orson Welles is often called the Godfather of independent film. Welles always developed and shot projects he wanted to make, going through all of the hell of battling studios and investors that goes with that.

These 5 Wenders films including Paris, Texas remind me of another movie we watched in my Independent American Cinema class, Detour (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer). Released by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), Detour is a film noir road movie straight out of poverty row. And from the body of work I consider independent films, it's one of the best examples of a movie transcending its low budget with craftsmanship that gets so much story, performances, tone, fatal, out-of-breath, fever-dream and all around entertainment that it readdresses the question what makes a movie good?

These 5 films are some of the rarest, best examples of independent filmmaking at its best. Their slow pace, the freedom from strictly setting up and executing traditional plots, their location photography of interesting spaces that aren't necessarily crucial to the story or even beautiful, their love of the everyday and ordinary, all work together. And all remind us of the joy of finding a good movie, especially when you've never heard of it before or it looks like it didn't have a very large budget. And for good measure these films also have great rock songs thrown in, and are mostly in black and white.

From the Wim Wenders Stiftung, remastered in 4K DCP and shown theatrically in its OAR 1.66:1, Der Himmel über Berlin (1987, Wenders) played this past weekend and I went to check it out.

Der Himmel über Berlin is a bit of a departure from where we've seen Wenders going up to this point. But a lot of filmmakers get to a similar crossroads, where they seem to find that they can only take the independent style so far. So what is it? A black and white European arthouse film. Maybe it's even the European arthouse film. But Der Himmel über Berlin is also practically high-concept, and even commercially packaged.

The concept is simple: Angels watch over the people in Berlin and hear their thoughts. One day an angel, DAMIEL (Bruno Ganz), decides he wants to become human after falling in love with a human, MARION (Solveig Dommartin). And Der Himmel über Berlin is one of those movies where after it was finished I can't think of one other thing I learned or experienced other than: one day an angel, DAMIEL (Bruno Ganz), decides he wants to become human after falling in love with a human, MARION (Solveig Dommartin).

To its credit, Der Himmel über Berlin preserves Wenders' interests in showing everyday ordinary people, but this time the protags are immortal ghost observers watching over us. After the poem and the opening credits, the introductory shot of long hair pulled-back-in-a-ponytail, trench coat-clad Damiel high up on top of a ledge looking down on the select few children whom are able to see angels is iconic and quickly establishes Der Himmel über Berlin's look. Filmed in beautiful high contrast black and white by Henri Alekan, most of the shots are from subjective POVs done with Steadicam, cranes, or a dolly. And at this point it's safe to say Robbie Müller has proven that he hates Steadicam, which is another reason Der Himmel über Berlin has its own look. Of course Der Himmel über Berlin's camera movement and angles are motivated by seeing this world through the eyes of the angels--a clue to this is also that after a shot of the sky that follows the opening credits, we get a CU of an eyeball. The camera, like the angels, floats. It's always moving. Always observing people. But there's more to it. The axes are balanced with precision.

The sound design also contributes a lot, specifically with this device of Damiel and CASSIEL (Otto Sander) hearing everyone's thoughts, and with some built in subtle brooding cello which will continually serve as a minimal somber contrast to the chaos of all of the human thoughts. Anyone familiar with R.E.M's "Everybody Hurts" music video will be familiar with the shot floating through cars waiting in traffic with subtitles showing what the thoughts of their individual drivers are, but it's the library that establishes how overwhelming this cacophony can get.

Early on in an airplane we are also introduced to an actor named PETER (Peter Faulk) who provides all sorts of laughs. His first thoughts heard are: what am I doing playing this part?

Der Himmel über Berlin is sublime when all of the disparate characteristics of the humans coalesce. Many people are in pain, thinking about suicide. Many of these people are saved by the angels, but not all. Some people think of trivial matters. Some question their own identities. I get the most out of the anxious prostitute wandering in the street, paranoid one second, reminded of the love of a former boyfriend who was good "and that's why he ain't around no more" the next second. Or the young child in the crowded room full of strangers thinking: "I've been sitting here all morning. I'm so cold and bored."

Marion is a trapeze artist in a circus. Inside there are some great choreographed shots motivated by mimicking the movement of a trapeze back and forth, it even made me a little scared of heights for a second. In her bedroom, there's a scene where Damiel watches her and she puts on a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album and we, along with him, hear her sing along in her head. I like these sound design flourishes. Anyway Damiel becomes human and the final act is his search for his object of desire, Marion. There's a Nick Cave concert they go to.

Sure Wings of Desire is a stupid name. And yeah Damiel and Cassiel look dated with their long trench coats and long hair pulled back in ponytails (are those mullets?). And it all feels arty. But like Wenders' best, he finds inspiration from creative characters who perform, dance, act, play music, sculpt, write, and gets us to empathize with those around us. And he makes entertaining and interesting scenes out of the small things in life.


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