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The Master Framer

A Week with Wim Wenders, March 2015 —

 

MoMA’s recent career retrospective of Wim Wenders—the iconic, modest, humorous, down-to-earth filmmaker with an uncanny knack for bringing magic to the ordinary aspects of life—screened 20 restored films and numerous shorts in sixteen days this March. The retrospective kicked off just weeks after Wenders was given the lifetime achievement award at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival. In New York City for the screenings, speaking before and after each showing, the retrospective gave an eclectic set of followers the chance to see Wim Wenders’ films in their rightful format, as well as hear from the man himself.

I found myself surrounded nightly by a familiar set of faces, and spent the week wondering why each of them, like myself, came consecutively. From older, German attendees with distant ties to Wenders himself, to aspiring young filmmakers who came to meet a hero, the venerable director behaved in a slightly embarrassed manner when confronted by admiring viewers. A captivating speaker, Wenders has the kind of charisma we associate with actors, sweeping in and out of the theater in elegant Yamamoto trench coats sporting boyishly wavy hair. Unfailingly generous with his time, we’d stumble out of the theater hours after the film had ended. Against the backdrop of New York City in March—cold and rainy with streets full of soggy trash as winter’s snow began to melt—my week with Wim Wenders was one of idolatry and inspiration.

 

Written in the West (1983), an unobtrusive collection of everyday images Wenders shot while scouting locations for his now-revered film Paris, Texas, tells us everything we need to know about the director. Though shot with a 5×6 medium format camera with carefully considered composition, the images are snapshot-like and perfectly capture the themes his films explore in detail and with nuance: travel, history, memory, American influence and the act of searching. Shot while driving through California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, he defines the West as a landscape that promises a vastness and a sense of possibility it never quite delivers. Wenders says “dreams are the language of cinema,” and his photographs, much like his films, suggest that while dreams might not die, they never come true either. Documenting small towns, shabby yards, dusty business and dingy restaurants, a sense of American wander, aspiration and delusion is encapsulated in each image.

Moving from his photographs to his films, Wenders’ signature sense of framing remains as omnipresent in his work as the road, rock & roll or romantic metaphor. Confessing to be a “failed painter,” Wenders says he learned everything he knows about filmmaking from painting. Inspired by 20th century American artists who made the canvas look seductively cinematic, from Edward Hopper to Andrew Wyeth, Wenders seems to work in reverse, turning his still images into roaming films. From the library-haunting angels in Wings Of Desire (1987), pursuing books of August Sander portraits, to the journalist and protagonist in Alice In The Cities (1974) discharging Polaroid after Polaroid, the self-imposed limits of a painterly frame is his cinematic constant. In An American Friend (1977), a terminally ill frame maker who lovingly creates handcrafted picture frames, is coerced into becoming an assassin. The literal manifestation of Wenders’ own obsession, the framer’s meticulous creations exist in stark contrast to the world of murderous chaos that descends around him. Order and perfection, Wenders’ film suggests to himself as well as his viewers, is just a well-constructed lie.

 

If his first medium was painting, Wenders first profession was travel. Born in Düsseldorf, the target of strategic RAF bombing during WWII, he grew up in a destroyed city. He described realizing that it was, “just us who were frantically rebuilding and who had no past, only a present and a future. Everything I liked was American,” Wenders recalled, “and all I wanted was to get away. Even as a young boy, traveling was my nature.” While it’s too simplistic to say that his films are road movies, a great many of them are, from Alice in the Cities to Kings of the Road (1976). They are not about the road itself, however, in a Kerouac sense of the word, where the road acts as a place where unexpected adventures are found and experienced. Wenders uses the road as a simple cinematic device, albeit one with political undertones, to keep the camera moving. His sense of travel is documentary—countless nearly abandoned movie theaters are incorporated into Kings of the Road like evidence of a vanishing culture—and his characters wander not for experience but because they are searching for something lost: a pre-war society, a mother, authenticity, morals, the American unconscious.

 

Wenders’ use of metaphor is arguably the single greatest aspect of his films, and what sets him apart from his New German Cinema contemporaries. Declaring himself a “hopeless or hopeful romantic” perfectly describes his sensibility and aesthetic. If Wenders uses the road to create movement, then travel is a metaphor for the endless searching his characters endure. Though Wenders films are unceremoniously full of the ordinary—normal people, affordable cars, boring roads, small towns, simple dialogue, flawed characters with indiscernible motivations—they are also full of powerful metaphor and allusion. Wenders says the best thing about cinema is “its ability to touch upon the sacred,” and as a viewer it’s impossible not to wonder what makes his simple metaphors so profound.

The answer seems to hinge on individual preferences and conceptual leanings, and Wenders asks his audience difficult metaphysical questions. As Peter Handke’s poem Song of Childhood alludes to in Wings of Desire, Wenders asks adults childlike questions. Do we prefer cynicism or romanticism? Do we see existence as beautiful or something tinged with tragedy? Are we living as we should or ignoring the things we once appreciated? His characters, like ourselves, are caught up in their own meandering stories. An aged man in Wings of Desire, looking in vain for his pre-war Berlin, is searching for the intangibles the war stripped away. The pre-adolescent Alice in Alice in the Cities, searching for a grandmother she doesn’t quite remember, is mourning her lost innocence and rapidly disappearing childhood. The protagonists in Kings of the Road, searching for work and a reason to live while traveling the border between East and West Germany, contemplate masculinity, ideology and the consequences of an aimless life. The epic angels in Wings of Desire seem to echo Wenders’ own statement that “life is all there is, and death doesn’t exist.”

 

Sitting alone in the movie theater night after night, kept company by distant friends as the lights dimmed and the credits rolled, I remembered my teenage self who first discovered Wim Wenders. It was that eccentric drawing teacher in art school who introduced a group of yawning freshmen to Wings of Desire, and a photography professor turned mentor who handed me a copy of Written In The West like it was the answer to all my questions. All things being cyclical, my week spent with Wim Wenders brought me right back to a long ago debate in high school on the precarious existence of modern day heroes. I wish I could tell that English teacher—trying desperately to spark the minds of his listless students—that heroes do still exist and they can still inspire.

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