Tag Archives: Wim Wenders

CAPSULE: WINGS OF DESIRE (1987)

Der Himmel über Berlin

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk

PLOT: Angels wander around Berlin, able to read people’s thoughts but unable to intervene in their lives aside from providing vague comfort; one decides he wants to become human.

Still from Wings of Desire (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The film is a masterpiece, but scarcely a weird one. It’s few odd points are firmly anchored to its internally logical art-house ambitions.

COMMENTS: The two melancholy angels listen to people’s thoughts. “There’s nothing good on TV.” “How will I ever get a washer and dryer in here?” They envy them: “I’d like to be able to say ‘now’… No longer ‘forever’ and ‘for eternity. I’d like to take the empty seat at a card game…” They follow a retired academic who muses to himself about storytelling; spy on a college student working as a streetwalker; listen to the last thoughts of a motorcycle accident victim and a suicide. They share notes, compiling a record of what it means to be human without being able to feel, to taste. Until, after an hour and a half of this torment, one of them decides to fall… “First, I’ll take a bath. Then get a shave, from a Turkish barber, if possible.”

It’s more involving than it sounds: challenging, but hypnotic. It succeeds brilliantly in its mission to try to get you to focus attention on the small details of life, the things a child notices that your adult brain has learned to ignore. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades a purgatorial Berlin. The cinematography (mostly misty black and white, with color interludes) was courtesy of Henri Alekan, who was nearing 80 at the time. (The director wanted Alekan because he had shot La Belle et la Bete, which Wenders considered the most beautiful black and white film of all time). The music, by Jürgen Knieper, is downbeat celestial, with a choir, harps, and a moaning viola. The two angels (with ponytails) are appropriately ghostly, but the decision to cast Peter Falk as himself, in town to play a role in a historical WWII drama, was a winning gamble. Falk’s partly comic, avuncular persona supplies a New World warmth the solemn Teutonic angels can’t. Falk’s naturalistic “coffee and cigarettes” monologue is one of the most moving humanist statements ever put on film. As life-affirming films go, Wings of Desire succeeds where lesser attempts fail because it recognizes humanity is overflowing with pain, sorrow, and boredom—and, fully acknowledging the cost, gleefully argues that being alive is worth it anyway.

In a bit of irony so cutting it could have come out of a satire, Hollywood bought the rights and remade Wings of Desire—as a sappy, over-explained romance with a pop-rock soundtrack, starring and 90s sweetheart Meg Ryan, helmed by the director of Casper! Where Wings of Desire is about the joy of being human, the misconceived City of Angels demonstrates the shame of the same condition. Even so, Angels is arguably better than Wenders’ own unnecessary Wings sequel, Faraway So Close!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Wings of Desire’ doesn’t release its tension in a smooth plot payoff. It creates a mood of sadness and isolation, of yearning, of the transience of earthly things. If the human being is the only animal that knows it lives in time, the movie is about that knowledge.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: HARRY DEAN STANTON: PARTLY FICTION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Sophie Huber

FEATURING: , , Kris Kristofferson, Sam Shepard, ,

PLOT: An impressionistic pastiche covering the career of cult character actor Harry Dean Stanton, with terse interviews, conversations with collaborators, film clips, and lots of folksinging from the subject.

Still from Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Stanton is a weird dude. The fact that your subject is weird, however, doesn’t necessarily make your documentary weird. Also, the ratio of insight to folk singing here is unfavorable.

COMMENTS: Partly Fiction is a portrait of a man of few words who refuses to talk about certain topics, including, among other things, his relationship with his mother and father. His answers to the simplest questions can be frustratingly obtuse, and followed by awkward silences. “How would you describe yourself?” “As nothing. There is no self,” Stanton replies. “How would you like to be remembered?” “Doesn’t matter.” Now, while on a very refined and abstract level I have some agreement with Stanton’s philosophical outlook, the fact is his clipped, koan-like answers don’t make for a great interview. He adopts an approach that might be described as “enlightened-aggressive”; although he surely realizes that the audience is looking for insights into Stanton the actor, not Stanton the folksinging guru, the craggy-faced icon is insistent on forcibly edifying viewers and shoving wisdom down their throats. He is far more interested in serenading us than in talking about his career, delivering oddly phrased versions of “Blue Moon,” “Blue Bayou,” and “Everybody’s Talking at Me” in a weak, wavering voice. (He turns out to be a better harmonica player than a crooner). To be fair, he does open up a little bit more as the doc continues, but he seems always guarded, always intent on preserving his enigma—we only rarely sense we are peeking through cracks in his facade, and then only when he chats with old friends.

To fill up the time when Stanton isn’t talking or singing, director Sophie Huber provides numerous films clips, including many classics from his iconic role as a wounded amnesiac who wanders out of the desert in Paris, Texas and as an amped-up speed-snorting repossesser in Repo Man, along with smaller parts in bigger movies like Cool Hand Luke and Alien. Huber also follows Stanton as he cruises the night, smoking cigarettes in the back seat as the crew ferries him about L.A., tailing him to Dan Tana’s for cocktails (tequila and cranberry juice) and a smoke break with the bartender (whom Stanton obviously knows well). Tributes from Wim Winders, Sam Shephard (who recommended Stanton for his breakthrough role in Paris, Texas), and most importantly David Lynch, who visits for a cup of coffee and with whom Stanton lets down his guard, add some additional meat, but the documentary still has trouble filling out its meager 75-minute running time. The impressionistic pastiche survives solely on Stanton’s (not inconsiderable) charisma. There’s not much insight to be had here, but Harry Dean does magnify his image as a grizzled, mystical outsider, and fans of that persona should eat it up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You still leave impressed at the way Stanton fiercely protects the aura of mystery that makes him such an indelible onscreen presence.”–Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PINA (2011)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Wim Wenders

FEATURING: Pina Bausch

PLOT: A selection of modern dances from avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch, interspersed

Still from Pina (2011)

with tributes from the dancers who worked with her and presented in 3D.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Pina Bausch invented weird dances, but filming them (even in 3D) doesn’t make a weird movie, just a movie about people performing weird dances.

COMMENTS: German choreographer Pina Bausch died unexpectedly just before Wim Wenders began principal photography on Pina; whatever profile of the working artist he might originally have planned, the film became instead a eulogy. Because Bausch believed that movement was itself a language that could express emotional truths impossible to say with language, it’s fitting that almost none of her words remain in the film but that her life is instead told through her abstract dances. (What quotes we do have are mostly platitudes for the comfort and inspiration of her dancers: “dance, dance, otherwise we are lost”). It begins with a semi-conventional staging of Stravinsky’s still-shocking “The Rites of Spring,” with pagan maidens anxiously swaying in nude-colored nightgowns until the high priest selects the unlucky gal destined to dance herself to death to ensure a good harvest. That’s as comfortably classical and representational as things get. When we move into Bauch’s own imagination, we encounter a dreamlike café where blind women crash into the walls, a ballet performed in the pouring onstage rain beside a giant craggy rock, and a woman who walks onto a train cradling a pillow and silently connects with a passenger wearing donkey ears. Next to a muddy lake, a hunched woman bears a sleeping man on her back, while further in the background another lady marches along with a tree growing out of her spine. Limp dancers manipulated like puppets by others are a repeating theme; for example, there’s one sequence where a man carefully positions two comatose lovers, placing the woman’s arm around the man’s neck and then hoisting her into his arms, but she always slips off and he repeats his manipulations over and over, performing the futile ritual faster and faster each time until he’s almost a blur on the screen. Dances from four of Bausch’s major works are recreated; Wenders sometimes pours the action out of the theater and into the streets of Wuppertal. A few shorter pieces were created for the film by her disciples in Pina’s surreal style. The stagings and costumes are minimalist but always evocative and interesting; color schemes are intense and dramatic. The musical accompaniment is tasteful, eclectic and melodic, ranging from the expected classical chestnuts (Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky) through jazz (Louis Armstrong) and Portuguese fado to moody modern avant-rock and electronica. I didn’t go into Pina as a fan of modern dance, and I didn’t come out one; but, even though the non-narrative feature did become a bit repetitive at 100 minutes, I’m glad I spent the time getting to know the woman and her craft. I don’t think Pina will spark the same interest in its esoteric subject as Wenders’ The Buena Vista Social Club did in Cuban music, but it’s impossible to come away unimpressed by the grace, dedication and creativity of the dancers, or by the love and respect that went into composing this tribute to Pina’s life work.

Though sometimes promoted as the first 3D documentary, fellow German  beat Wenders to the punch (at least by release date) with his equally weighty Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). When I watched Cave on a flat screen, I was convinced that, by not having seen it in 3D as intended, I was missing out on crucial visual textures. But (although I know I’ll be in the minority here), having caught Pina in a theater in all three of its intended dimensions, now I’m not convinced that 3D technology can ever add anything to a film’s visuals but a touch of novelty. The human brain automatically adds depth to a flat image, making 3D effects superfluous. Pina‘s dancers didn’t seem richer or more real to me simply because they were superficially curvier and stood out a bit from the background. In fact, they looked artificial and unnatural, in that peculiar way only modern computer-generated effects produce. The ersatz hyperreality of 3D may perform a weirdening function by enhancing the oddness of Pina’s otherworldly compositions, however.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Pina’s power comes from the way Wenders uses that illusion of living, flexing proximity to immerse you in Bausch’s dreamlike, emotionally vertiginous world. Watching Pina is like being inside one of Bausch’s surreal pieces.”–Jordan Levin, The Miami Herald (contemporaneous)