Sunday, December 13, 2015

Of Until the End of the World

Until the End of the World was sort of the breaking point, for me, with the cinema of Wim Wenders.

Wings of Desire, made only a few years previous (1987, compared to 1991) was a huge influence on me. I caught it almost by chance at the old Royal Centre cinemas on Burrard, which, for awhile, was my favourite place to see movies. (The cinema landscape has changed a lot in Vancouver since those days, when you could also catch indy-arthouse double bills at the Van East or the Ridge, or see movies in a few theatres on Granville Street, all of which are now closed; the Cinematheque was around, but far more important to me was the Royal Centre, which served sort of like International Village did for awhile, as a Cineplex that chose more-interesting than average film fare). Wings of Desire was, really, my first foreign film, unless you count badly dubbed Godzilla movies that I caught on TV; I was aware that there were films from other countries, obviously, and I may have seen one or two, but I hadn't plunged into watching them, hadn't caught the bug yet, until Wings. I was 19 years old at the time - an arty weirdo with a passion for punk rock and an irreconcilable interest in Ayn Rand; it embarrasses me a little now, but her extremity and passion were very inspiring to me as a teenager (though I would soon replace her with Nietzsche; in fact, after I gave up calling myself a Randian, I spent a couple years of my youth calling myself a Nietzschean, which is also kind of embarrassing). I was hungry for unusual artistic experiences. I don't remember why I elected to see Wings of Desire, but I was overwhelmed, unprepared, very very impressed.

So I plunged: in the years that followed, I wanted to see every foreign film I could, after that, wanted to catch up. This meant busing around the lower mainland - often making trips to Videomatica, but also to every other store that rented VHS tapes, looking for films that maybe Videomatica didn't have (!). There was a Save on Foods in Metrotown back then, for example, and like most big grocery stores, it rented VHS, and I remember seeing Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage on the shelf there (tho' I'm not sure I ever rented it). A Safeway in Coquitlam netted me Werner Herzog's Where the Green Ants Dream. I bought second hand copies of Wenders' back catalogue - everything I could find, in those oversized clamshell cases - from a video rental store in Bellingham, when my parents took me down there on shopping trips; I still have Kings of the Road from one such voyage, remember I paid fifteen bucks for it. (As I recall I would later find others of his films at Sam the Record Man on Seymour, also long gone). Part of me was driven by a kind of defective ego, a deep sense of inadquacy: I figured that I could compensate for my bungled, botched, embarrassingly imperfect humanity, elevate my status, or something, by consuming as much arthouse cinema as I could. Acquiring films was more important even than watching them, but even back then, I did a LOT of movie viewing. On weekends when I would do Videomatica runs I would typically rent four or five videos, bring them back, make dubbed copies from VHS to VHS, and usually - since dubbing took place in real time - watch three or four of them that night, seeing as many of the great filmmakers as I could (with Wenders, Bergman, Antonioni, Kurosawa and Tarkovsky being at the top of my list) and a few oddball gems besides (Monika Treut, say, or - for something non-foreign, but definitely unusual and ambitious, the early films of Atom Egoyan). Then I'd take the bus back to Videomatica, all the way from Maple Ridge...

By 1991, by such means, I had seen almost all of Wenders' works, excepting a few of his shorts, which were pretty much impossible to get on home video. I'd devoured a pamphlet-like interview with him that I bought at Granville Book Company (also now gone). I'd read a book of his criticism, Emotion Pictures. I had seen Kings of the Road onscreen at the Cinematheque, had promulgated his cinema to my few geeky friends, had a nice little section on my video shelf for his movies. They were, in more than one way, my education: I used his cinema and writing as a way of branching out into other movies, as a sort of map for my explorations. It was through Wenders that I came to Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller, for example, because both were cast in his movies. It was because of Tokyo Ga (screening soon at the Cinematheque) that I tried Ozu, though I could never really develop a taste for it. It was probably through Wenders that I felt the need to see John Ford's The Searchers, because he praised the film in his writing, but also because he quoted from Alan LeMay's source novel in The State of Things. I also got very, very interested, for a time, in what gets described as self-reflexive or self-reflecting cinema - films that fold back on themselves, that encode into themselves questions about the making of images, their meaning, their morality; Wenders was the starting point, but soon enough I discovered films like Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch, or even older gems like David Holzmann's Diary or Shirley Clarke's The Connection. Wenders' own cinema was only a part of what he did for me; he became a sort of guide, a cinematic conscience. I took him very seriously. When he described One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as a "fascist" film, I tried to understand it as such, even if it was kind of, um, difficult to do...

Until the End of the World changed all that. It was supposed to have been Wenders' grand-scale, heroic stepping out onto the stage of commercial cinema: a nearly three-hour epic adventure that was to be a writing-large of his previous cinema - with his past most visibly present in the form of his usual alter-ego, Rudiger Vogler, as a noirish gumshoe, and in the film's self-consciousness and querying of image making, with Max von Sydow as a scientist who has created an addictive, image-oriented technology that stands in for our relationship with cinema. It had a world class soundtrack (Talking Heads, U2, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Can, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello... and more, mostly original songs commissioned by Wenders) and international locations - including a trip to Japan to pay homage to Ozu by casting one of his usual actors in a role, Chishu Ryu, but also locations in Australia, Portugal, France, Russia, Italy, and even China, to say nothing of the USA and Germany. It offered lush colours, gorgeous cinematography (Robby Muller), and a world-class cast (including William Hurt, Jeanne Moreau, Soveig Dommartin, and even Sam Neill). It LOOKED like it was going to be an enormous, ambitious, larger-than-life validation of one of the great artists of the cinema, coming out from the foreign-film ghetto, so to speak, and making movies on a global scale. It would turn a cult hero of world cinema into a major Hollywood player - the artist Steven Spielberg wasn't even as yet aspiring to be, at that time.

It was painful to watch, back in 1991. The film was a mess. It was, at times, effective - there were flickers of its potential throughout - but it was undeniably also confusing and boring and inelegant, and overall, it just did not work. I don't really remember the full effect, the frustration, even the anger - because I only saw it one time, in the theatre first run, and never went back - but I remember being totally excited on going into the cinema - rushing out to see it on opening week - and being totally disappointed on coming out. It hadn't even been merely okay. I don't think I ever even owned it on VHS tape, when it came out, thought I never wanted to see the film again. Its failure seemed to have kinship with what a lot of bands were doing around the same time - like X, with their intended commercial debut, Ain't Love Grand, or the Replacements, with their increasingly less lovable Pleased to Meet Me and Don't Tell a Soul, or Husker Du, with Warehouse. These were all supposed to be points at which our heroes - the punks, cinephiles, misfits - became everyone's heroes. But they weren't, and neither was the film: as with those albums, it served only to damage the reputation of the artist responsible with their fan base. I guess he's not a master of cinema after all... so what's Herzog doing?

We gather, now, that what we all saw back then was NOT the film that Wenders intended - that it was meddled with, that a much, much shorter version was imposed upon him. It was, when all is said and done, not his fault. Everyone, including Wenders, says that his five hour director's cut of the film is the vastly superior version of the film.  THAT is the version that is screening, tonight and tomorrow at the Cinematheque, making its theatrical premiere in Vancouver. And really, all things considered, I guess I have no choice: I MUST see it, must see what could have been, should have been - must, out of respect for how much I used to love him, give Wenders his due, and maybe undo some of the damage done by that 1991 bad experience in the cinema... if such a thing is possible.

Wenders made a couple of other films I liked after Until the End of the World - including his underrated sequel to The State of Things, Lisbon Story. But Until the End of the World was the film that marked the loss of a hero, for me, that gave birth to the filmmaker we have now, who I have never really felt I understood, never really been able to engage with (The End of Violence, The Million Dollar Hotel, Land of Plenty: I have tried all of them, even tried to like them, and have in no case really succeeded. Hell, I don't think I managed to even finish Don't Come Knocking). Maybe the damage done to Until the End of the World when it screened in a shortened cut didn't just damage my appreciation for Wenders, but damaged him, too? His fictional features have never really been on a level with his early work, since (tho' of course he's made some good documentaries. It doesn't really count).

Anyhow, cinema lovers kinda owe it to Wenders to see the film he intended Until the End of the World to be, back in 1991. I've been reluctant to commit, but here, I'm doing it. I'll be at the Cinematheque today, at 6:30. Come join me...!

1 comment:

Allan MacInnis said...

Nope, nope, nope. I left after one hour of winking genre nods and impossibly corny, unconvincing dialogue ("you're a poet... and you know it!"). Beautifully photographed, nice locations, but it was more or less the same movie I remembered, only much more leisurely paced... I managed to stay awake, but not to stay interested. NOT recommended. I gather Criterion will be releasing a video version of it, but... I think I'm going to stay well away.

However, Scream Factory's Blu of THE CAR is out this week! Yaaaah!