29 May 2014

On: Location, V

Place and placelessness; conflicting histories and transmuted genre; mythologized frontiers and one notion of “the West” blurring into a socio-historic another, somewhere just beyond the usual reach of cinematic allegory and metaphor...
"The momentous events underscoring these films are not only associated with emptiness and with landscapes in turmoil but also, particularly in Wings of Desire, with the rise of National Socialism, the tumultuous destruction of World War II, and the resulting emptiness of postwar inner-city 'ruin landscapes' (Trümmerlandschaften); an equally important unifying theme is the generational rupture between fathers and sons following such seismic historical events. In this framework, the American West (and the American Western) served a specific and telling purpose for the postwar German West: to envision both traumatic upheaval and utopian projection. This projection was as much of a socio-cultural project as it was a cinematic fantasy. Wenders has commented that his 'first memory of America is of a mythical land where everything was much better.'"
In a recent essay at Design Observer, Nicole Huber and Ralph Stern write about the sense of emptiness, transcience, and marginality in the films of Wim Wenders; focusing particularly on Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit), Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), and Paris, Texas. (It’s an abridged version of a longer essay, the full text to be published in a forthcoming academic volume from MacMillan.)

Admittedly, it’s been years (if not two-and-a-half decades) since I’ve viewed several of the aforementioned films. Still, the thematic tropes – by way of visual impression – lingers in memory. Had never previously read that Wenders described Wings of Desire as a “vertical road movie.” Which would go a long way toward explaining the film’s narrative layers, all of them rippling outward from scattered points – a story about a specific city in the aftermath of a very specific socio-historical trauma; and about the changes besetting that same city and society in the broader context of European/Western history; and – finally – the story of a particular spot on the map in relation to the course of human history as a whole.

The authors similarly discuss Wenders’s use of borderland settings in the three films at hand, the bleak or provisional character of these territories serving as a sort of aporia signifying states of historic ambivalence or abjection. The most obvious border in this instance being the Berlin Wall and the division between East and West Germany. The Berlin Wall figures prominently in Wings of Desire – an ever-present backdrop and obstacle, as inescapable as the sight of the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Like in Kings of the Road as it follows the travels of Bruno and Robert throughout the eastern perimeter of the country, their route frequently bringing them in contact with the inner border.

Also, curiously, the authors quote from an old interview in which Wenders spoke of his own (post-war) generation’s “distrust of images.” This, in close proximity to his film Until the End of the World, in which a character remarks about a modern “disease of images” as endemic to the character of modern life. The first comment might explain the source of the latter, suggesting that somewhere in between lies an idea similar to Walter Benjamin’s oft-cited remark about how twentieth-century fascism involved a devised and comprehensive “aestheticization of politics” for the sake of public appeal.*

* * * *

At one point in the article, the authors reference the work of nineteenth-century Irish-American photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Looking at O’Sullivan’s photos again for the first time in many years, I’m struck by how many of the images remind me of another film that falls in a similar orbit to those of Wenders, and involved a contemporary, ironic port-mortem revisiting of the frontier epic – Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

Jarmsusch’s work shadowed that of Wenders in many respects, both sharing many of the same influences and fascinations. They also often shared the same cinematographer, Robbie Müller, who ended up serving as a sort of common denominator between the two. For Wenders, Müller shot almost everything up to Wings of Desire; for Jarmusch, he was behind the camera on Down By Law, Mystery Train, Dead Man, and several other films. Having spent the whole of his career working on films with modest (if not meager) budgets, Müller was a virtuoso of scouting and framing locations and capturing them in a sense that simultaneously captured their site-specific atmosphere and their concrete reality.

Likewise with Müller's rendering of the peripheries of Los Angeles in Alex Cox’s Repo Man. The space, the architecture, the peculiar flows, caesuras, and ruptures of a built environment – the vagaries of its presences and blanks, the pushes and pulls and voids that result from how things come to be and then soon elapse into nominal-use marginalia – and how these provide “setting.” A setting that figures so prominently in the miser-en-scène, that it almost explains as mach about the actions of the characters as the characters and their actions do.

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*  A theoretic aside on my part, perhaps better phrased as a rhetorical question. Wenders was, most likely, speaking metaphorically. The “distrust” of his generation of post-war Germans wasn’t limited to images, but extended to narrative in general – an impatience with prevailing silence of the preceding generation concerning events of the recent past, and an instinct skepticism toward whatever offered account of those years (usually conveniently partial or selective in nature) occasionally broke that silence.

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