THE AMERICAN FRIEND becomes more interesting as time passes because we now have some extremely different interpretations of author Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, and in fact a second film entirely based on RIPLEY’S GAME, this one staring John Malkovich and directed by NIGHT PORTER’S Liliana Cavani. Outside of reading Highsmith or interviews with Wenders about his intentions, some things are obvious in contrast to the various films that have been made from Ms. Highsmith’s novels and the preoccupations they share, namely the charming sociopath. Wenders’ AMERICAN FRIEND owes at least as much to Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN based on Highsmith’s original text, perhaps more so, since Wenders seems to want a reinterpret Hitchcock specifically and his notions of guilt transference. In Wenders’ hands they become increasingly post-modern, existential and political. The Ripley character, which can be seen in prototype in Robert Walker’s psychopathic Bruno, is completely abandoned for a decidedly American and unrefined cowboy played by a pre-sober and decidedly cokey Dennis Hopper. Hopper’s Ripley was hardly anything Highsmith imagined (who was closer to Matt Damon’s THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY at least physically), but is perhaps a more convincingly authentic sociopath in the sense of the scamming criminal. A further reflexive element is added when fellow scammer Nick Ray (who directed Hopper in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) remarks on him looking older since last seen. The fact that AMERICAN FRIENDis Wenders’ title even in German indicates its importance. This American Friend is always offering assistance with a very big catch attached. As the saying needs not be completed, “with friends like this…” Still, he is the lesser evil among various characters (a good handful played by directors including (as mentioned) Nick Ray, Sam Fuller and Wenders himself) and develops an affection for his mark (the Belmondo of the German New Wave, actor Bruno Ganz), which is true of the original text to at least some degree of recognition from Ripley if not warmth. In light of President Reagan and Bush, the psycho cowboy American prototype becomes a particular embarrassment, however entertaining. The sexual ambiguity (if not overt homosexuality) of the other on-screen Highsmith psychos is nowhere to be seen, probably because it didn’t interest Wenders, although the Hopper figure seems to have no sexual aspect at all. There is a train sequence that may have originally drawn Wenders since it is similar to the one in Strangers on a Train, repeated in the Cavani version as well. Hopper in disguise with clear-framed glasses looks so Burroughsian it is no surprise he began negotiating his own NAKED LUNCH around the same time, and James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ secretary cum everything, remarked directly on the resemblance.
LIGHTNING OVER WATER is a particularly remarkable documentary that captures the cancered end of Wenders’ guru hero, Nicholas Ray. I don’t know how accessible this film is if you’re not familiar with Ray’s work, although seeing it will probably send you investigating. Godard began with a tickertape news crawl on a building in Made in U.S.A.: “dedicated to Nick and Samuel who taught me how to see” – Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, who in the interdependence of things, are heroes of Wenders and Hopper as well. Both Ray and Fuller were primary imagists of the 50’s, raising the language from what had already been done by the previous generation of auteurs like Hitchcock, Welles, Ford, Hawks, and Renoir, to name only a few, not to say that these previous masters did not also continue to blaze semiotic trails. Ray and Fuller both took some of Welles’ expressionist conclusions and continued their direction in the same American comic panel direction that Welles began in LADY FROM SHANGHAI, a pop art concern that was again furthered by Godard, obviously in ALPHAVILLE and more abstractly in PIERROT LE FOU or TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER. (Film scholar Richard Modiano suggests you catch Fuller’s “own American trilogy of UNDERWORLD U.S.A. (corporate America = organized crime), SHOCK CORRIDOR (America is a mad house of racism, Viet Nam and a-bombs), andTHE NAKED KISS (small town USA harbors pedophiles and hookers)”]. What is particularly interesting aboutLIGHTNING OVER WATER, which takes its title from the I Ching, is that the relationship of teacher/student has never been captured so authentically and unabashedly, besides the heartbreaking loss of an elder friend or father. This is also Wenders’ first brushing with mysticism, which does not deny some sort of metaphysical afterworld or non-material present, but takes a sort of sympathetic rationalist-agnostic view that is seen again in his great and as-yet-unavailable-on-DVD Tokyo-ga where Ozu is given a somewhat similar treatment though in absentia, (perhaps just as appropriate for that director of empty rooms and abandoned objects, and who has the Japanese non-word Mu on his tombstone). Death has a habit of making one wonder about such things. In this DVD, it’s the tactfully cut version; Nick’s widow Susan asked Wenders to trim a scene or two showing Ray in extreme agony and he did. By the way, Ray’s KING OF KINGS is a Jesus movie that made me cry, not cringe like Gibson’s leather-fantasy-gone-biblically wrong Passion.
WINGS OF DESIRE, again starring Bruno Ganz, continues this mystical trend in some virtually Buddhist reinterpretations of angels as bodhisattvas continually working to end the suffering of humanity. Ironically, Wenders further defines this with an almost Greek myth storyline – that such divine beings must yearn for the flesh and blood intensities of the earthbound. Wenders winds this into another post-modern take of the traditional American Film. The angel of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE suffers existential angst. Instead of earning his wings, he gives them back. Maybe it’s better to be Goth rocker Nick Cave, the film’s Greek Chorus, than a celibate angel. Hardly meant to be taken seriously as a religious parable, it is more about Wenders’ interest in taking a great film like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (or STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) even further. Tarantino’s preoccupation with junk film shares the “what-if” interest of Wenders and his co-patriot in German New Wave, Fassbinder, in having modern and complicated responses in traditional film milieus. WINGS OF DESIRE uses Cocteau’s former cinematographer to astounding ends. A flickering of images erupts as the film begins, some as wigged Vertov’s KINO -EYE or Bergman’s non-narrative bridges in PERSONA, suggesting we are really entering into a realm of film poem formerly the territory of underground filmmakers like Kenneth Anger or Bruce Bailee, let alone Cocteau himself. The black and white images were shot through a filter made from a stocking that belonged to cinematographer Henri Alekan’s grandmother. If you want to discover more, you can always contact twilight-distribution.com.
This picture is probably Wenders’ greatest, and immediately follows the soon-available-on-DVD PARIS, TEXAS, his other arguably great work. Godard, when asked if all films needed a beginning, middle and ending, replied, “yes, but not necessarily in that order.” Wenders sometimes chooses to begin in the middle and abandon a first act altogether, or have the first act ramble for the entire picture like a Candide-like wandering. This is particularly obvious in another of my favorites, the (yes-again) unreleased on DVD STATE OF THINGS, one of the best Film-on-Film entries in that sub-genre.
All of these films, as with the following NOTEBOOK ON CITIES AND CLOTHES, boast excellent DVD transfers that we’ve gratefully come to expect from Achor Bay and MGM/UA.
With NOTEBOOK ON CITIES AND CLOTHES, however, something goes very seriously wrong with Wenders’ own vision. The man who so brilliantly shows how a documentary can be made and already shows he visually knows his way around Japan suddenly becomes ponderously boring. Departing from 35mm for digital video, Wenders follows the workings of designer genius Yamamoto in Japan’s fashion industry. But there is something distinctly cold about this medium, a sort of reversal of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that video brings us in because of its mosaic texture demanding completion by the eye. Yes, McLuhan was talking about looking at a tube that projected out on us. Regardless, this is still the beginning of Wenders’ dreariness that doesn’t seem to lift. What the fuck happened? Bi-polar Coppolla probably wound up on Lithium, Bertolucci seemed to lose passion with the loss of Maoism (partially regained in masturbatory reverie of THE DREAMERS), and Wenders, well, the more American he became, the drearier he solidified. NOTEBOOK got a very limited release for obvious reasons. It was followed by UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (yes, also unavailable on DVD), which saw an American release with an hour cut from its already 5-hour version. Filled with wonderful ideas both textual and visual, there was also something seriously wrong with it, and by the time of THE ENDO FO VIOLENCE Wenders appears to be copying himself like a walk-in alien trying to masquerade as himself. The same lack of documentary inventiveness would be seen in (shockingly) one of Wenders’ most popular films, THE BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, which, music aside, was quite ordinary in its exposition with only a few flashes of what we’d come to know as Wenders’ brilliance. I would never have known this was a Wenders film if I’d seen it without his credit. Were the very seeds of his corruption revealed in his choice of Sodenbergh’s SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE over Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING for the 1989 Palm d’Or at Cannes? Lee called him an “asshole” for that. Perhaps Wenders wants to be Sodenbergh, or rather wants his recognition. A horrible thought, like wishing to be Stanley Kramer. A younger Wenders’ interesting-if-sleepy HAMMETT was taken away and re-shot (by Coppola!) precisely for being so European. The American Friend always comes to collect.
Such morbid turns make me yearn to close the bunker door of AstroHell yet again. Wenders may yet come back to his own gasoline-soaked Germanic bunker of imagination. Deutschland sometimes seems interchangeable with America, but until the Umbrella Corporation really does take over everything, let’s celebrate the difference.