Daily Film Thoughts: Wim Wenders

I saw Land of Plenty last night and Paris, Texas months ago. I wish I would forget the former already; I hope to never forget the latter.

To put it plainly, this film is a mess. There are too many montages played to the tune of disquieted Radiohead, too obvious of points to make and a bonding session that requires the protagonist, Lana (Michelle Williams) to be the most patient and kind person on the planet. Is she? Of course she is. Is her uncle, the paranoid, terrorist-seeking Paul (John Diehl) going to discover that his racial profiling ways are wrong? That’s there’s more to people than the color of their skin — or in his case, the turban on their head? Yep. Is there any reason to watch this film? Not unless you’re a big fan of The Wire and want to further behold the soulfulness of Wendell Pierce in a supporting role, and oh yeah, love Michelle Williams.

For all the  self-conscious self-indulgence of the film, a cinematic stomping ground is made for dedicated performers to shine. As aforementioned, Michelle Williams is as indelible as ever and if not for her unadulterated countenance and loving meditative approach to acting – which in turn earns her our love as the viewer – this film simply would not work at all. The same can be said for John Diehl who plays her erratic and prejudice uncle. If he doesn’t look like the archetypal theorist nut, the film doesn’t function as well as it does which isn’t much. Herein lies a great irony of the film, though, that everything had to have been assembled for a superficial acceptance of these characters to occur; this in a film which possesses a “Don’t judge a book by its cover” axiom at its core. Because of this and many other plot points which completely favor Paul’s change — when girl and uncle go to find out more about a dead middle-eastern man they discover how pure he and his step-brother are — it’s hard to take at all seriously. The accuracy of the performances, however, do make this two hour trek easier to endure – I won’t go as far as to say completely so – and while that alone doesn’t warrant a recommendation, I guess if you love Wim Wenders and want to see how he slings Radiohead tracks into a film about post-9/11 hysteria with a completely dedicated Michelle Williams performance pulling it along I can mildly suggest it. In all seriousness though, this is only worth watching to see how Michelle Williams works; how she creates full characters with the slightest of nuances and how flawlessly she can do it. Certainly a footnote in her career as the most insightful prelude to her Oscar nominated turn in Brokeback Mountain. So my final word on Land Of Plenty: see it for her or don’t see it at all.

Just as Michelle Williams’ performance as Lana was in Land Of Plenty, Wim Wenders’ approach to Paris, Texas is meditative. If nothing else, and as this film demonstrates beautifully, Wim Wenders is nothing if not a patient filmmaker. Though this 1984 feature is a bit taxing at two and a half hours, in the end it is a fully rewarding experience replete with fascinating text (the joys of family) and even more inciting subtext (how Western living, in lieu of its luxuries, devalues the human experience). This, not to mention mesmerizing cinematography which expresses loneliness more forlornly than any Shakespearean soliloquy and illustrates the beauty of togetherness equal to that of a painting by Joseph Turner.

Simple in concept, Paris, Texas is about fifty-something year old man named Travis who walks out of the Texas desert to be then diagnosed with amnesia. His brother Walt, who Travis clearly knows not of, comes to pick him up and restore his life in any way he can. It’s a tug and pull at first, Walt not knowing what to do and Travis being incidentally wayward make the opening act a little bit worse for ware, but it does set the main idea up and present the aforementioned idea that Western living is destructive and “easy to lose yourself in” as the allegorical shots of vast, vacant plains illustrate.

Though there’s little to discuss at surface level, there is plenty of appetizing discussion to be had about the story’s implications. We learn Travis has a young son, the son is situated quite comfortably with his brother and sister-in-law, but wants to reincorporate himself back into the child’s life. Later, when we meet Travis’ ex-wife Jane (Natassaja Kinski) she’s remarkably young (early 20s) and four years divorced from Travis. Coupled with the bits of dialogue implying Travis’ obsession with her and his mad love for her, we can surmise a few different scenarios and laboriously try to figure out the man who is trying to figure himself out. Was he obsessed with her youth and beauty and occupied himself with her because he wanted to possess her or was he honestly enamored with her and had the purest of romantic intentions? Though it is one of the film’s few notes of ambiguity it is one that lingers long past the end credits and adds a mysterious element to this already intriguing existential enigma.

True to his form, Wenders’ Paris, Texas is full up with a drearily hypnotic scope, unpredictable structure and an exceptionally cast each with the virtue of being completely honest to their characters and not manipulating their audience in anyway – each are flawed and we know it. It’s one of the more honest films I’ve ever seen and I imagine it will play out similarly to anyone who views it because even if they’re deterred by the Wenders’ distended approach they will agree that Paris, Texas is very much a film of this world.

Like Rainer Werner Fassbender, Werner Herzog and Volker Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders was instrumental in the German New Wave movement of the 70s. A year ago I checked out some of the early work of the aforementioned – never got around to Schlöndorff, though The Tin Drum is still kicking around here – and because I’m not of the school that thinks one should check out a director’s biggest or most acclaimed title first I flipped through his filmography and pulled out the one with the most intriguing synopsis. The film is 1972’s The Goalie’s Anxiety At A Penalty Kick and it’s about a man’s disconnection from an unremittingly progressive environment.

Now you must not negate my opinion because my first and only screening of this film was a year ago because that is in fact the point I am trying to make with this feature. When I was watching it, it was, to say the least, a very enduring and tireless viewing; at 100 minutes it feels longer than Paris, Texas. Wim Wenders is perhaps most denigrated for how distended his features feel. And I, too, was of the opinion that this film doesn’t work for that particular quality, and in retrospect (albeit a twelve-month retrospection) that reason is precisely why it works. In this film about Joseph Bloch (played by Arthur Brauss), a goaltender (convenient name), Wenders examines isolation in a micro and a macro way. The micro is, as the goaltender sublimely expresses, the alienating paradox of protecting the net at a penalty kick; the macro is, as the film indulgently expresses, the death and great emotional loss at hand when the world is inhabited with those who feel it must revolve around them and them alone. In this instance the micro sets off the macro and our protagonist makes love with and thereafter murders a woman enchanted with his minor celebrity.

After murdering this woman Joseph hops on a bus and stows away in a pocket of a city. For the most part his adventures in the town involve him halfheartedly trying to get laid and find some sort of excitement in this weak-pulsed town. The high point is an incidentally overheard conversation between two of the town’s longstanding patrons conversing about a mute child who drown. Of course this further articulates the quiet tragedy that the inability to communicate affords, but it also works in context with the disjointed plot as a harrowing little portrait of common loss.

Not much else happens during his stay; the visit is essentially him riding buses to bars and checking out the little scenery to the intermittent tune of Jürgen Knieper’s very ominous, but ill-fitting original score. In fact it is this very score that makes being of the viewing such a task. It contradicts the simplicity of this neo-realistic mystery with a booming and esoteric soundtrack that would feel right at home in a psychedelic thriller made in the 80s… and at times a semi-professional pornography from the same era. It is, sometimes at the same time, a very transitive and a very annoying feature. It’s extremely difficult to digest and it certainly isn’t much like any of the acclaimed Wenders in that it is compact, esoteric, yet blunt.

However, as I said, it is for these qualities that it is worth watching. After I first saw it I appreciated what it tried to convey, considered it in a favorable light and moved on. A month later I changed my score from a 6 or 7 to a 7 or 8 (I’m not really staunch when it comes to superfluous epithets) because it and its theme – most importantly the final scene and how perfectly it was elocuted – had completely stuck with me. Eleven months later when doing a brief writeup on two films I’d recently seen by Wim Wenders I decided to review it. It’s all still intact in my memory bank and really, how many “okay” films can you say that about one year and four-hundred films later? Not many. In its own particular and obtrusive way it works and if it doesn’t work for you, well, wait a year, see how it still resonates with you, and watch yourself be surprised at how willingly you’ll march to its tune in retrospect.

Coincidentally, I caught Wings of Desire last night. Loving the concept, knowing the director can be brilliant and being susceptible of a great cinematographer’s charm, I figured I would love this. And you know what? I wasn’t wrong.

A lot like Paris, Texas in construct, Wings of Desire takes its sweet time establishing a plot. Rather than jostling you and snapping through myriad plot points with which to earn your interest, Wenders instead opts for the lyrical repetition. For the first fifteen minutes or so, we experience life as an angel. It’s not so much a boring or meandering routine for Damiel (Bruno Gatz) who moves around Berlin finding the most hapless of souls and comforting them, but rather one that, when juxtaposed to the beauty of human existence, lacks fulfillment. Later we learn that many angels develop an ego that pushes them from their sacred position and transforms them into becoming human; most circumstances, we’re led to believe, are because of love.

However, the transformation doesn’t come until an hour and a half into this 130 minute film, so for the first ninety minutes we view humanity through the eyes of an angel and watch as he forms a bond with the people he watches over. Even the most misanthropic of viewers will understand Damiel’s desire to be human because Wim Wenders paints such a perfect picture of human life. The best part is that he convinces us that life is beautiful even while showing us the great tragedies we experience on a daily basis. From having your heart broken or dreams momentarily dashed to corpse-filled streets of yore to committing suicide in front of concerned onlookers, this is as grim a depiction of life as it is positive. But even if financial worries may befall Damiel and his life may bring nothing but pain, he plunges into it because there’s nothing more exhilarating than the human experience – the draw of spontaneity being a particular draw to this omniscient being.

Now it isn’t all wonderful. There are a few conceits throughout. One being that a fellow angel-turned-man is able to help him out financially late in the film so that he can exist as carefree as possible until the closing credits because if that wasn’t the case, it’d be fascinating to see an angel work for pay and live the pedestrian existence he once stated as wonderful. Another is more bothersome in concept than it is in execution – this is how fascinating the people Damiel watches over are. Of course we see him spiritually assist destitute train riders and school-stressed teenagers, but for the most part we focus on three people: an old poet nearing his death (Curt Bois), a fairly complex movie star (Peter Falk as himself) and the reason for Damiel’s desire to be human, a tragic circus performer named Marion (Solveig Dommartin). The ponderings of these three people are, of course, drizzling with appeal; the first two for their philosophical ruminations (the first more poetic than the second) and the third for her emotional and very sympathetic queries on life. These segments play out beautifully, are acted in wonderfully, and are the film’s essence, but one can’t help but feel that if these people were more ordinary that the story wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as it was.

In addition Wenders overshoots his scope and truncates his feature with ambition by trying to discuss the entire evolution of humanity in one scene. Two angels – Damiel and his partner Cassiel (Otto Sander) – discuss this the way two low-IQ’d buddies would when reflecting upon a party they once attended together. “Do you remember that?” “Yeah” “Wasn’t it fascinating? “Yes”. It just doesn’t feel right to throw that in the middle of everything and messes up the simplicity of the story. Another slight flaw was the use of sepia tone vs. color scenes; color is shown when we perceive life from a human perspective which too easily implies that life is far better than being habitually altruistic and helping humanity reach happiness.

Then of course there’s the rest of the film which is pretty much flawless. Simple ideas like the two angels discussing their detection of spirit (when they look at someone who has had an epiphany or whose reaction encompasses living) are executed germane to the concept and not at all blown out of proportion the way filmmakers do sometimes when they know they’ve got a great scene on their hands. Then there’s the visual wonder of Henri Alekan’s camera which is not only beautiful to bare eyes to, but crucial to the inner workings of the film and Damiel’s desire. If cinematography was ever more important to the success of a film, I’ve yet to see it, or perhaps I have but it certainly didn’t work out the way it did here.

The film closes on a fifteen minute scene where Damiel finally finds the courage to be around Marion after wandering for a day not knowing what to do. He could help her as an angel by literally touching her soul, but as a person he is vulnerable to saying the wrong thing and scarring her or just misspeaking and making a bad first impression. When they speak together at last it isn’t the result you’d imagine and at first it’s simply too esoteric to understand and verbalized too acrimoniously to make any point besides the obvious ones that had be made previously anyhow. After sleeping on it for a day – just like how my opinion of The Goalie’s Anxiety At A Penalty Kick grew – I grew into this scene. It is a rigorous little diatribe which does nothing to conclude the film, and while it does contradict the axiom that “life is beautiful” it does close on the perfect note: “To be continued”. It is a thoroughly beautiful and wise film and quite handily the best Wim Wenders I’ve seen (the four reviewed here). Like each of his films, this is a meditative look at life, but unlike each of his films, this is wholly consuming and certainly heartbreaking – if not for the ending, then for Damiel’s distressed “Nein!” when the young man kills himself.

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