The visual diaries of Wim Wenders concludes “Portraits Along the Road.”
Concluding Northwest Film Center’s Wim Wenders retrospective are some of the German director’s far lesser-known works, many of which are documentaries. I was surprised to find out that in Wenders’ four decades in the film industry, he’s actually been most prolific in this arena. Often two or three will follow one of his major films, which gives you the feeling that this guy has trouble turning off the camera.
In Reverse Angle (1982), for example, you get the feeling he’s really just filming to relieve the stress associated with another film, the notoriously tumultuous production of Hammett, Wenders’ early-80s collaboration with Francis Ford Coppola. The short documentary begins with meditations on life as a foreigner in New York City, but we soon follow Wenders into the editing studio, where in the celluloid age, man and machine morph into one fluid film-spitting apparatus — and finally to a post-production meeting with none other than Coppola himself.
The meeting is pleasant enough, though by the end everyone seems rather exhausted. Coppola is the last to get up and seemingly out of the blue, he says to Wenders, “I keep trying to have a wonderful life, but there’s never any room for it.” [Legend has it that Coppola later reshot everything but the exteriors on a Hollywood sound stage without Wenders.]
Wenders followed Reverse Angle, the first of what he considers his series of “diary” films — rough, meandering documentaries, usually accompanied by the director’s voiceover — with two trips to Tokyo in Tokyo-GA (1985) and Notebooks on Cities and Clothes (1989).
In Tokyo-GA, Wenders chases the ghost of his filmmaking idol Yasujiro Ozu, interviewing the cast and crews of his films and inhabiting, for a while, Ozu’s home city, which is very much a world onto itself. Even from the vantage point 2016, 1980’s Tokyo seems like a far vision of the future. Wenders spends a good section of the film solely in Pachinko parlors — narrow, smoky rooms where men sit back-to-back — hypnotized by the moving parts, auditory sensations, and cascading ball bearings, as much as the players.
There seems no real necessity to stay on topic, and somewhat expectedly, Wenders has an ulterior motive. In the voiceover narration, there is a constant anxiety surrounding images and his ability to capture or keep them, and furthermore, whether this impulse helps or hinders this process. “I can’t help thinking if I hadn’t had the camera with me,” he asks, lamentably, “I would remember better.”
This anxiety is multiplied to almost comically-esoteric proportions when Wenders meets another equally legendary — and equally stoic — German director, Werner Herzog, atop the Tokyo Tower. As other tourists look across the cityscape with seeming gleeful amazement, Wenders’ camera captures an impromptu Herzogian diatribe about the futility of finding new images in this modern world:
“It’s simply true: there aren’t many images left. When I look out here I see nothing but buildings. Here, images have become almost impossible. It’s as though you have to dig like a spade like an archaeologist…. You have to try, in this violated landscape, to still find something.”
It’s simultaneously the most illuminating section of the film, and somewhat tragic evidence that it may be impossible for these two to ever really take a true “vacation.” It is clear they are burdened by their art in a way that is beautiful, but bitter. While the rest of us are lucky the camera is rolling during these moments, you can’t help but wonder if these two giants of cinema wouldn’t have been better off leaving the camera behind and just getting an ice cream cone.
It is clear they are burdened by their art in a way that is beautiful, but bitter.
Perhaps Tokyo’s inability to produce the new and organic images as a result of its ultra-modernism is why Wender’s chose to return four years later to shoot the third in his series of “diary” films, Notebooks on Cities and Clothes.
Though the subject-matter is far different (revolutionary fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto) the basis for Wenders’ examination is extremely familiar. Thankfully there seem to be more moments of spiritual redemption over the surreal neon streetscapes in his religious-like dedication to the image. “All of the sudden, on the turbulent streets of Tokyo, I realized that a valid image of this city might very well be an electronic one and not only my sacred celluloid images.”
He is referring to the differences between film and video, a sentiment which can’t help but seem quaint today. This is, after all, still a Tokyo likely without cellphone towers on every building or wifi bouncing through every room. Wenders’ diary films achieve a kind of out-of-time experience that his images, despite his many concerns, ultimately have the desired effect: to preserve a singular moment in time more perfectly and precisely than any other art form can.
Tokyo-GA screens tonight at 7pm, and the 14-film retrospective wraps up Sunday, April 3rd with Wim Wenders’ Short Films. More information by checking out the links below.