Der Amerikanische Freund: Petit/Wenders/Jarmusch
By Louis Armand.
‘It wouldn’t be bad to ban the American cinema for a while. Three-quarters of the planet considers cinema from the angle and according to the criteria of American cinema… People must become aware that there are other ways to make films than the American way. Moreover this would force filmmakers in the United States to revise their conceptions. It would be a good thing.‘
– Jean-Luc Godard
“A film without a cinema” is how Geoffrey Nowell-Smith described Radio On (1979), the debut feature by British director Chris Petit. Co-produced by Wim Wenders’s Road Movies production company, the film was heavily indebted to The Goalie’s Fear of the Penalty (1972) and Wenders’s “road movie” trilogy, Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten; 1974), The Wrong Move (Falsche Bewegung; 1975) and Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit; 1976), as well as Monte Hellman’s seminal Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Shot on 35mm B/W by Wenders’s assistant cameraman at that time, Martin Schäfer, Radio On has been described as “alien and alienating,” an austerely minimalist “hymn and homage to the dreamed imperatives of the highway” – though in its concerns with durée rather than journeying per se it occupies a position between early French New Wave (and its German analogue) and films like Luc Besson’s Le Dernier Combat (1986) and Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) – combining “drift and boredom, jukeboxes, Alphaville, J.G. Ballard and Kraftwerk” (“boredom, relentlessness and drift,” Petit argued at the time, “were the main impulses of the late twentieth century”). Like Wenders, Petit set about to explore the contemporary road journey as cinemascape, proffering a “transcendence of banality” by way of a mobile soundtrack (Bowie’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” etc.). “Driving,” Petit has since said, “always struck me as the most unreal thing, especially motorway driving with its illusion of stasis and speed, the driver passive and immobile while everything around moves.”
Petit’s philosophy in Radio On (it is possible to regard the film, in fact, as something more akin to a dissertation on the “state of the art”) had more in common with Wenders’s approach than a mere retrospective adoption of influences. Commonalities centred on the question of “action” as an expression not of narrativised drama, but of the cinematic medium itself. At one point in The State of Things (Der Stand der Dinge; 1982), Wenders’s film director character, “Friedrich Munro,” tells his cast “the story should unfold in the spaces between the characters.” Like Wenders, Petit maintained an intensely felt distance from the conventional insistence on action and plot in Hollywood cinema, as well as the cultural artificiality that accompanied Hollywood’s domination of the film industry, and of European cultural consciousness, as a whole – while nevertheless conscious of its own seduction by “America” as a pervasive “dilemma” (evinced in Radio On in one quasi-fetish scene of hugely tail-finned American cars that stick out in Petit’s filmscape like ’50s UFOs). As Dennis Hopper asks in Wedners’s The American Friend (1977), “What’s wrong with a cowboy in Hamburg?” Elsewhere Wenders is more explicit:
‘Hollywood filmmaking has become more and more about power and control. It’s really not about telling stories. That’s just a pretence. But ironically, the fundamental difference between making films in Europe versus America is in how the screenplay is dealt with. From my experiences in Germany and France, the script is something that is constantly scrutinised by the film made from it. Americans are far more practical. For them, the screenplay is a blueprint and it must be adhered to rigidly in fear of the whole house falling down. In a sense, all of the creative energy goes into the screenplay so one could say that the film already exists before the film even begins shooting. You lose spontaneity. But in Germany and France, I think that filmmaking is regarded as an adventure in itself.’
Where Wenders saw a European cinema narcotised by Hollywood, Petit – whose later films included two German productions, Flight to Berlin (1983) and Chinese Boxes (1984) – was disturbed by British cinema’s avoidance of contemporary experience (Radio On was described in the Guardian as “a diagnosis of [cinema’s] pathologies and discontents”), much as New York directors of that late ’70s and early ’80s, from Amos Poe to Jim Jarmusch were motivated by a similar avoidance in American cinema.
In fact, Petit is one of the directors with whom Jarmusch, in his first suite of films, has arguably the most in common – not least because both were ostensibly mentored by Wenders (Jarmusch’s second feature, Stranger than Paradise (1984), was partly shot on B/W stock left over from The State of Things – on whose soundtrack Jarmusch incidentally appears as a member of the New York-based no wave band Del-Byzanteens (keyboard and vocals)). Jarmusch began working on his first feature Permanent Vacation in 1979 using (it’s an often repeated story) scholarship funds provided by the Louis B. Mayer Foundation and encouraged Nicholas Ray – the director best-known for his 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause – with whom Wenders was at that time working on the documentary Lightning Over Water (1980; about the last days of Ray’s own life). Ray had appeared in a minor role in The American Friend and Wenders’s later film Until the End of the World (1991) was named for the last spoken words in Ray’s 1961 Biblical epic, King of Kings. The crew of Lightning Over Water (who appeared extensively onscreen) included Jarmusch, Ray’s personal assistant at the time, sitting at an editing console. Likewise, all three filmmakers have shared an incisive interest in contemporary music: Radio On featured Bowie, Kraftwerk, Ian Drury, Robert Fripp, Wreckless Eric and Devo, while Jarmusch has notably collaborated with Neil Young, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, and Wenders with Talking Heads, Ry Cooder and a slate of others. Along with an appearance by Sting as a rock-obsessed motor mechanic, Radio On also features Wenders’s wife at that time, Lisa Kreuzer (familiar to audiences of Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road).
Petit’s New Wave/New German Cinema “influences” are plainly advertised in Radio On from the film’s opening long-take, in which the camera lingers on a handwritten note that includes the line, “We are the children of Fritz Lang and Wernher von Braun” (echoing Godard’s line, “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” from Masculin Féminin (1966), while referencing the film of Godard’s with which it shares the strongest aesthetic affinities, Alphaville (1965)), while a radio plays through the full recording of Bowie’s “Helden/Heroes” (1977) – just as the New Wave influence on Jarmusch is signposted at the end of Permanent Vacation with Chris Parker on a Manhattan pier about to swap places, in a manner of speaking, with his Parisian/Cinématèque Française doppelganger. And if Radio On “reinvented the road movie for England,” as Wenders once claimed, it’s just as arguable that over the course of the last thirty-five years, Jarmusch has succeeded in reinventing the road movie for America: both by way of an unlikely detour through ’70s Germany and ’60s Paris in the form of a kind of meta-New Wave auto-criticism (so to speak).
Importantly, Petit also shares with Wenders and Jarmusch a particularly writerly sense of construction (as distinct from Godard’s preoccupation with textual adornment). Of his 1997 film The Falconer Petit stated – though it could just as well be taken as a modus operandi for Radio On – “I was interested in seeing if there was a way of producing a film which was constructed more like writing – because when you’re writing you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to end up.” There’s a sense in which Petit’s earlier film consists entirely of what Iain Sinclair calls “present-tense images,” like driving a camera into a vertiginous terrain: a film “made by a man with his eyes shut” to see life from the other side, where every step is a potential misstep yet thereby weighted with the risk of being inside the instant rather than inside a “perspective” – a “shot in the dark,” as Godard says – separated from the kind of postured attitude filmmaking assumes within conventional “realism,” exemplified (for Sinclair) by David Hemmings’s impersonation of fashion photographer David Bailey in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), where we see Hemmings shooting rolls of film with both eyes open, dramatically affecting the idea of an actor wielding a camera for the camera we don’t see.
By virtue of the absence of conventional drama, by virtue of an anti-realist “realism,” it is as if Petit, like Wenders and later Jarmusch, is determined to make us aware of what it is we otherwise don’t see: to give our blindness back to us in the form of an awareness of seeing non-dramatically, in the present, an act of seeing. It is as if, in fact, this experience – dispensing with that of the conventional “cinema” – participates in a cinematography. Our eyes, too, can be metaphorically closed, because the film is no longer a trompe-l’oeil: it isn’t directed to fool the eye, but to bend the camera to it – aware – detached – drifting. As Jarmusch has said: “The beauty of life is in small details, not in big events… I am interested in the non-dramatic moments in life. I’m not at all attracted to making films that are about drama.” This in part stems from a shared interest in an almost Cagean aesthetics of process: “auteurs,” in a sense, of passive alienation that is yet – rooted in the attitude of the objet trouvé – neither wholly passivity nor strictly alienating, while nevertheless at a distinct remove from the heroic rhapsodising of Kerouac’s On the Road. Echoing that other great auteur of process, William Burroughs, Jarmusch advocates an open-handed approach:
‘Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.’
Key to this is a collaborative approach between filmmaker and cameraman, to produce a kind of decoupage in process. Martin Schäfer and Robby Müller are of course exemplary in this respect. Müller – known for his high-contrast B/W images, fast stocks, his fondness for natural light and his very simple technical palette (he used Arriflex cameras and Cooke and Zeiss lenses for most of his career) began his collaboration with Wenders on the 1969 short “Alabama: 2000 Light Years From Home” and continued with Wenders’s 1970 feature debut Summer in the City, going on to shoot such films as The Scarlet Letter, Kings of the Road, The American Friend, Paris, Texas and Until the End of the World. Jarmusch began working with Müller while Wenders was mired at Zoetrope in the early ’80s working on Hammet, shooting Down by Law, Mystery Train, Dead Man, and Coffee and Cigarettes. (In between, Müller also worked on Repo Man for Alex Cox, Breaking the Waves for Lars von Trier, To Live and Die in LA for William Friedkin, as well as Beyond The Clouds, Antonioni’s last credited movie.) During a discussion at the Lincoln Center, in April 2014, Jarmusch acknowledged that
‘I learned so much from this man about filmmaking, about a lot of things, about life in general and about light and about recording things and about capturing things in-the-moment and about trusting instincts. Robby and I had a really wonderful way of working: No storyboard, a shot list only if really necessary for ourselves. I still don’t like making a shot list each day when I’m working. Robby’s idea is about instincts, trusting your instinct and your intuition and Robby would always say things like: “Of course we can plan everything in advance and when we go to that location it’s a different time of day, the light is different, the clouds are different, so why would we cling to the idea we had previously? We must always be on our feet. Think on your feet.’
Confronted by an industry in which the present is constantly being lost or erased, like a collective valium, the “task” of cinema is given to recuperate the molecular lattice of experience in its myriad contingencies, its evolutionary immanence. “It is,” Wenders says, “the fate of all culture to be forgotten and to disappear. Sometimes it needs an archaeological effort to bring it back to light. I think it’s an exciting time to be making movies, to record these changes and sometimes to evoke things that are about to disappear, evoke things we might want to hold on to.”
1. Alice in the Cities marked the beginning of Wenders’s long-term collaboration with Rüdiger Vogler (“Philip Winter”; a screen identity reprised with variations in Kings of the Road (as “Bruno Winter”); Faraway, So Close (1993); Until the End of the World (1991) and Lisbon Story (1995)). In Alice in the Cities, Vogler plays the role of a foreign correspondent for a German magazine who has just completed a road trip through the US, documented on Polaroid. In New York he encounters 9-year-old “Alice” (Yella Rottländer) who is subsequently “abandoned” by her mother and who Vogler accompanies across Germany in search for her grandmother’s home, guided solely by a photograph of the grandmother’s house. Vogler, as in all of his appearances in Wenders’s films, plays an outsider character – the Wilhelm Meister type, for example, in The Wrong Move – who here nevertheless plays his unexpected role as Alice’s guardian with a submissive reluctance (“do you think I’m crazy about driving little girls around?”) and seems as much a foreigner in his home country as he experiences being in the US.
This has frequently been interpreted both in terms of the social dislocations of post-War West Germany in early ’70s – as a “psychological” as well as “geographical” terrain – and as a reflection on the Americanisation of Europe: “The Americans have colonised our subconscious,” says Vogler’s character in Kings of the Road. In constituting the dominant IMAGE of contemporary life, “America” here represents both what is pervasive and all-encompassing, but also what is most alienating: Vogler’s sensitivity to this state of affairs signals what, for Wenders, must be the conscience of any artist (writer/filmmaker) seeking to come to terms with the paradoxical character of one’s resistance to or scepticism towards e.g. mass commodification, while at the same time acknowledging its seductive power. Not only has America colonised the European subconscious by way of the image factory which is Hollywood, but in doing so has colonised our desires.
This paradox is nowhere more starkly examined than in Wenders’s approach to film form, which is almost stubbornly anti-American in its refusal of conventional notions of action, yet which is constantly fascinated by precisely that which it rejects. Vogler’s character, while avowing an intensely experienced alienation from American culture, nonetheless remains fixated by its image, to the extent that throughout the film he reflexively seeks the affirmations of the camera in the face of experiences that seem somehow beyond his grasp, vacant, or non-existent. Where the Polaroid serves as a barrier against America’s self-advertised inauthenticity, on his return to Germany it serves as a substitute for the absence of any countervailing authentic experience. These are not the same thing, as Wenders’s Germany still avowed the myth of its own authenticity, even in the face of Hitlerism and its legacies (the discrediting of the romantic “blood and soil” rhetoric of the Nazis etc.) and despite the visible (audible) prevalence of fast food, country music and Coca-Cola machines.
All of this however is simply an ideological façade: “home” is a type of indeterminate, vague, ineffable and evasive concept that only seems to be situatable through the intervention of what almost amounts to a deus ex machina, and explains the way in which Alice in the Cities ends in an almost fairytale register of the “happy ever after” type. It is, after all, a kind of Alice in Wonderland, where the “wonder” corresponds to Vogler’s enlarging rootlessness: it’s all just snapshots; the world, a type of Potemkin Village that only makes sense through the viewfinder of his Polaroid, even if the images themselves “never show what it is you saw” – since there is no way for the camera to convey the fact that the image is always, if not “merely,” an image-of-an-image.
2. Permanent Vacation, released in 1980, follows the apparently aimless wanderings of “Allie” (Aloysius Christopher Parker), from a shared apartment on East Third Street on New York’s Lower East Side (where, during shooting, a homeless Jean-Michel Basquiat reportedly slept under the camera) to the abandoned smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island, and ending in Battery Park with a final long shot aboard a departing boat looking back towards the city. During the course of these wanderings, Allie encounters several “characters,” including saxophonist John Lurie (of The Lounge Lizards). Lurie’s appearance, busking on a street corner at night, echoes his almost simultaneous role in Amos Poe’s Subway Riders, in which Lurie played the lead – a role described by Poe as “a serial killer saxophone player who… has to go on the street and he plays his saxophone at night in all these very strange places in New York. His saxophone sounds so eerie and strange that people come to listen to him. When they’re listening to him he pulls a gun out of his saxophone case and shoots them. So it’s about a musician who kills his audience.”
Laurie’s cameo in Permanent Vacation also bears striking resemblances to Debbie Harry’s cameo in Poe’s landmark 1977 film The Foreigner, a film often credited as ushering in the New York “No Wave” style. In that film, actor Eric Mitchell wanders the city in a white suit (as a European secret agent/terrorist named “Max Menace”; Mitchell also appeared in Permanent Vacation as the fence Allie sells a stolen car to). This is a salient fact when you consider Allie’s line at the end of the “dance scene” in Permanent Vacation when he says to his girlfriend, “Leila,” “Sometimes I think I should just live fast and die young… and go in a three-piece white suit like Charlie Parker. Not bad, eh?” Parker, it transpires, is in fact Allie’s namesake, and is referenced elsewhere in the film in the “Doppler Effect” joke, told to Allie by Frankie Faison in the entrance way to a cinema in which Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents (1960) is being screened. By way of further quotation, Parker provided the original soundtrack for one of Jarmusch’s other major influences, John Cassavetes’s 1959 film Shadows, whose minimal, loose, open-ended structure and improvisational cinéma vérité style were to be the hallmarks of No Wave – an anti-plot quality which is, in the words of critic Michael Wojtas, “that most ineffable yet vital aspect of Jarmusch’s cinema: A slowness that suggests a constantly wandering consciousness, one untouched by anything but the need to just keep moving in search of something unnameable.”
In interview, Jarmusch has explicitly stated his attraction to non-dramatic cinema: “I’m not at all attracted to making films that are about drama. A few years back, I saw a biopic about a famous American abstract expressionist artist. And you know what? It really horrified me. All they did was reduce his life to the big dramatic moments you could pick out of any biography. If that’s supposed to be a portrait of somebody, I just don’t get it. It’s so reductive. It just seems all wrong to me.” Marc Ribot, guitarist with The Lounge Lizards, who also recorded with Tom Waits and appeared on the soundtrack of several Jarmusch films, has described Jarmusch’s non-dramatic approach in terms not simply of “content” but of the “rhythm” of Jarmusch’s editing, as “a certain kind of flatness, a lack of an arc, or a very subtle arc…” Ribot compares the overall effect as being like an instrumental solo that’s “just a bunch of events,” without the conventional preoccupation with building towards a climax. “The point,” he suggests, “is pointlessness.” Jarmusch, who has himself performed with bands throughout his career, from The Del-Byzanteens (who provided soundtrack on Wenders’s 1982 film The State of Things) to his current band, Sqürl (composing the soundtrack for Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)), has worked with musicians in almost all of his films: Lurie, who took lead roles in both Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law, and also appeared in Mystery Train; Waits, also in Down by Law and Coffee and Cigarettes; Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in Mystery Train, whose classic “I Put a Spell on You” is heard no fewer than four times in Stranger than Paradise; Iggy Pop in Coffee and Cigarettes, Dead Man and the documentary Gimme Danger (2016), and name-checked in Paterson (2016); etc.
Additionally, Jarmusch has frequently chosen to work with non-professional actors, again in the vein of Cassavetes and Poe, and Allie’s seemingly ad-libbed persona in Permanent Vacation recalls the kind of situational improvisations characteristic of films by Warhol, like Nude Restaurant, My Hustler and Chelsea Girls, in which – like in Permanent Vacation – an often static camera is used, capturing whatever “action” happens to take place within the frame, where each “scene” is constituted by a single lateral tracking shot, or a single continuous static take, such as Allie’s reading of long sections from Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror. This style of “affectless realism” belies the extent to which the film is in fact constructed from a dense fabric of quotation, emphasising – we might say – its very “filmic” quality, while at the same time eschewing any suggestion of studied “art” (all the more emphasised in its low-budget production qualities). In this sense, the work is as much a collage as a spontaneous working of real-time “documentary” (of a type reminiscent of Poe’s collaboration with Ivan Král on Blank Generation, with its dubbed out-of-sync soundtrack). Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin is perhaps, however, the clearest reference point in all of this, marking the direction in which Jarmusch’s approach would evolve in his next film, Stranger than Paradise. Like Poe, Jarmusch’s interest in Godard marked the filmmaker as one of the least “American” of contemporary directors, and perhaps reflects Godard’s own prior interest in the under-recognised work of Jarmusch’s own mentor, Nicholas Ray, among others. It seems to be no accident that Permanent Vacation ends on a Manhattan pier, with Allie planning to head to Paris (as Jarmusch himself had done two years previously, on a pilgrimage to the Cinématèque Française).
3. The original title of what remains Wenders’s most highly-regarded film, Im Lauf der Zeit (“in the course of time”), derives from a scene in the previous instalment of Wenders’s “road movie” trilogy, Wrong Move (an adaptation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister co-written with Peter Handke) in which Rüdiger Vogler’s character enigmatically mutters the phrase in his sleep. While Alice in the Cities and Wrong Move both represent a kind of quest for a narrative in which the protagonists can recognise themselves at home, so to speak, in the present, rather than in some “elsewhere” (a mythical America, or an equally mythical Zugspitze), Im Lauf der Zeit a.k.a. Kings of the Road arguably represents the “revelation” that the protagonist’s narratives exist outside the conventional depiction of contemporary life (in advertising, in Hollywood films) in the experienced “passage of time” itself. As Vogler’s “Bruno Winter” says at one point: “For the first time I have the feeling that I’ve passed through a certain time and that this time is my story.”
The sense of an authentically-experienced “story” occurs for the film’s protagonists precisely because of their awareness of being, in a sense, outside time, even as their journey is described by a schedule of film screenings at various small town cinemas along the East-West German border between Luneburg and Passau (which, in a way, is also outside space, in a kind of margin of the national consciousness, where everything seems to exist in a kind of limbo) – just as Bruno’s accidental companion, “Robert Lander” (Hanns Zischler), a paediatrician who is first seen in the film driving his VW “Beetle” into the Elbe in a half-hearted suicide attempt, seems consequently to have been “redeemed” from time, as if the entire film and his shared journey through it (its complete detachment from his former life) represents something of an afterlife: a time after or outside of time.
We might think of the film’s title referring, then, not simply to the passing of time (though the ambiguity of “passing” in English has interesting implications, here) but also to a passage “of” time: both a path and also a narrative moment. And, just as in Alice in the Cities, Vogler’s experience of alienation mediated by the invasiveness of American culture is equally here the catalyst for his character’s transcendence of alienation – by relinquishing himself, so to speak, to the course of time – in what is less a fatalism than an affirmation of his own being, so to speak. Wenders’s own comments about the film focus this experience of dis-alienation around the absence of a female protagonist (the catalyst in Alice in the Cities, counterbalanced by the several female characters Vogler encounters in Wrong Move – none of whom provide him with the authenticity of “self” he seeks). In Kings of the Road this absence is simply a state of affairs, but for Wenders it assumes characteristically allegorical significance. Soon after the film’s release he wrote:
This film is the story of two men, but it doesn’t take a Hollywood approach to the subject. American films about men – especially recent ones – are exercises in suppression: the men’s true relationships with women, or with each other, are displaced by story, action and the need to entertain. They leave out the real nub: why the men prefer to be together, why they get on with each other, why they don’t get on with women, or, if they do, then only as a pastime. My film is about precisely that: two men getting on together, each preferring the other’s company to that of a woman. You get to see the shortcomings of both of them, their emotional insecurity; you see them trying to be mutually supportive and to hide their faults. But with the passage of time they’re no longer bothered by these faults, and when they know each other well enough they begin discussing them. As a consequence of that, they split up. They split up because, on their journey across Germany, they’ve suddenly grown too close. It’s a story that you’re not often told in films about men. The story of the absence of women, which is at the same time the story of the longing for their presence!
Wenders’s examination of conventionalised masculinity here reflects the extent to which American film culture itself represents the major “unseen” protagonist of Kings of the Road, since the journey itself is also a process of discovery of a possible other identity, or existence, or experience of cinema (there is one scene in which Vogler’s “Bruno” splices together out-cuts from a soft-core porno in a projection booth, to produce his own minimalist American “action movie” on a 4-second loop, which he screens to an empty cinema, an ad-voice repeating the words “Brutality! Action! Sex!”). The fact that, following the opening (scripted) scenes, the entire film was more or less improvised in collaboration between actors, cameraman (Robby Müller) and director, Kings of the Road represents quite literally a kind of filmmaking in search of itself, through a stepping-away from “its own” fatal seduction by Hollywood (the quintessential “Siren”): a theme to which Wenders’s subsequent work appears at times almost single-mindedly addressed.
A particularly noteworthy feature of the film, in addition to its having been shot in wide-angle B/W (which Wenders has described as “more realistic than colour”), is Müller’s use of extremely sharp focus Zeiss lenses, anticipating his work on Jarmusch’s Down by Law, producing an effect of high-contrast and deep-focus reminiscent of Welles’s Citizen Kane and Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Consequently, the production used extensive lighting, even in exterior shots, as well as frequently employing tracks and cranes, contrary to Wenders’s previous cinéma vérité approach, with the intention of not looking like a documentary, even as (in a certain sense) it was. Here we see that, while Wenders explicitly marks out his distance from a conventional Hollywood approach to action, drama and form, he nevertheless saturates the film, so to speak, in its own technics: the “action” of the film is thus never separate from the “action” of film-making.
4. Stranger than Paradise (1984) began life as a short, first screened in 1983 at the Rotterdam Film Fest, comprising the first 3rd of the final feature-length film, for which Jarmusch employed leftover film stock from Wenders’s The State of Things. This represented both a pragmatic approach to securing funding for the remaining production, as well as a structural approach that would recur in Jarmusch’s films, based around episodic, loosely repeating narratives. In Stranger than Paradise, this structure is developed within the framework of the “comedy of errors,” as a series of missed encounters, loops and bifurcations, concluding with a kind of dialectic reversal: at the start “Eva” (Eszter Balint) arrives from Budapest to stay with a reluctant “Willie”/“Béla” (as in Bartók; John Lurie) in New York; at the end, Béla leaves Florida for Budapest thinking he is on the same flight as Eva, who he wants to convince to remain in the US, which in fact she has.
The confusions and crossed lines of communication trace a reversal of fortunes on several levels, reflected in the (rather classical) three-act structure – 1. THE NEW WORLD, 2. ONE YEAR LATER, 3. PARADISE – moving from Béla’s Lower East Side room, to Aunt Lotte’s house in Cleveland (where Eva works at a hot-dog stand), to a motel room outside Florida. Each location is defined by a sense of detachment from any actual place, linked together by freeways (an effect heightened by the interpolation of black film by way of section dividers, from stock given to Jarmusch by Jean-Marie Straub; an impression reinforced by the use of black-and-white and the austere camera work – as Jarmusch later noted, “Even though these locations each have a very different feeling, we accentuated the sameness through lighting, filtration, and composition of shots.)
In Stranger than Paradise, everywhere is a kind of “nowhere,” both familiar (in its placelessness) and foreign (in its detachment and the prevailing sense of alienation, or rather dislocation). At one point Béla’s friend “Eddie” (Richard Edson, ex-Sonic Youth) asks: “Is Cleveland like Budapest?” This sense of familiarised detachment or strangeness is enlarged in the characters themselves: Eva has escaped communist Hungary to end up selling hot-dogs in Ohio; Béla and Eddie are losers going nowhere – their “migration” across Europe and across America might resemble life-journeys (the immigrant story of the pursuit of a new beginning in “Paradise” on which the US was built; the Westward pioneer route and the allegory of self-realisation depicted by it, etc., etc.) except that even the faintest “awakening” of their individual consciousnesses is marred by missteps.
In a series of notes on the film’s production (1984), Jarmusch (half-jokingly) described Stranger than Paradise as a “semi-realistic black-and-white comedy in the style of an imaginary Eastern-European film director obsessed with Ozu and familiar with the 1950s American TV show ‘The Honeymooners.’” He went on to add:
‘I wanted the film to be very realistic in its style of acting and the details of its locations, without drawing much attention to the fact that the story takes place in the present. The form is very simple: a story told in fragments, with each scene contained within a single shot, and each separated by a short period of black screen. (This form was originally “inspired” by financial limitations, and limitations in our shooting schedule – but these were known before the script was written, and we wanted to turn these limitations into strengths.) Carl Dreyer, in one of his essays, wrote about the effect of simplification, saying that if you remove all superfluous objects from a room, the few remaining objects can somehow become “psychological evidence of the occupant’s personality.” Instead of applying this idea just to physical objects in STRANGER THAN PARADISE, it is applied to the formal way the story is told. Simple scenes are presented, in chronological order, but often independent from one another. Only selected moments are presented, eliminating, for the most part, points of “dramatic action.’
Concerning the cinematography, Jarmusch stated that: “Once again, because of the style of this film, each shot had to be choreographed, in terms of the action and the camera. Many shots are static, while others follow the characters, changing compositions and perspective within a given shot. Tom DiCillo and I tried to make each shot as simple and as strong as possible, while reinforcing the central ‘feeling’ of each scene. It was also important to us to create a kind of uniform atmosphere throughout the film. […] Of course, filming in black and white enabled us to eliminate information (colour) that was not necessary to our story. In the end, the effect of the cinematography and the form of the film, suggests a photo-album, where individual photos are surrounded by black spaces, each one on a different page.”
The theme of integration that runs through Stranger than Paradise can also be taken as a reference to Jarmusch’s engagement with both the medium and institution of film-making in the United States, where his work will end up being regarded as intrinsic to the renaissance of independent cinema in the ’80s, yet also resolutely foreign to the “normality” projected by Hollywood. There is a sense in which Jarmusch’s work actively promotes the sense of being a kind of translation between European and American cinema, but perhaps in the sense of Borges, where the translation is always evoked in the timbre of the film’s language (of the language it speaks and of the language it avowedly does not speak), so that it itself is always, in a manner of speaking, strange, not because it is “foreign” as such, but precisely because it is “American.” There is, accordingly, a kind of locational myopia at work throughout the film: the Lower East Side could be anywhere, we see no defining landmarks, nothing beyond a few intersections; likewise Cleveland. The interiors are predominantly white walls and chiaroscuro. Landscapes are night or day. Lake Eerie vanishes into a wall of white, just as the Florida beach vanishes into a white salt haze. Even the flight to Budapest vanishes into white haze at the end of the film. The general approach, to mirror the use of black inter-frames, might be called “fade to white.”
5. The State of Things (1982) was shot largely in Portugal (at Praia Grande, Sintra, and in Lisbon) during an eight-month break in the protracted editing of Wenders’s first “American” film, Hammett, produced at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco, and followed his work with Nicholas Ray on Lightning Over Water in New York (1980; a film ostensibly about the death of the director while working on the film – a trope Wenders returns to in The State of Things). Wenders’s difficulties with the Hammet production have become legendary, stretching over a four year period from 1978 to the film’s “completion” in 1982 (a version subsequently “lost”), and involving an entire re-shoot on a sound stage, with three editors working simultaneously in three separate cutting suits and two almost entirely different casts – rendering a difficult process for Wenders increasingly vexed and depersonalised. “This impersonal way of working,” he said, in his response to the film’s critics, “is totally unlike my own experience of cutting. I get the feeling neither the story nor the pictures belong to me. They are the property of the studio and the producer.”
Nevertheless, Wenders’s experience with Zoetrope and his ongoing critical engagement with “American Cinema” in general provide the immediate framework for The State of Things, a film about the making of a film, sabotaged by a breakdown in communications with an elusive producer in hock to the mafia. It has much of the self-reflexivity of Lightning over Water, with the addition that the “death of the director” (Patrick Bauchau) along with the “death of the independent producer” (Allen Garfield, reprising his role from Brian De Palma’s Hi Mom!, where he plays a cheap Times Square porn producer) – literally, they are both gunned down on Sunset Boulevard after a night spent driving up and down the strip in a Winnebago – here echoes Wenders’s own witnessing at Zoetrope of the “death” of New Hollywood and the “return” of the Hollywood mafia (there’s even a cameo towards the end by “genre” guru Roger Corman, as Garfield’s lawyer). Bauchau’s Felliniesque “director” is likewise clearly at odds with his task as a hired hand, as opposed to being the film’s so-to-speak “auteur” – a point brought home by the casting of Sam Fuller (best-known for his series of war films, such as The Big Red One starring Lee Marvin) as Bauchau’s cinematographer (it’s no accident that Fuller, like Nicholas Ray, was one of the American directors on whom Jean-Luc Godard and other Cahiers critics based their auteur theory, and this critical arc is clearly present in Wenders’s filmography up till this time and is continued in that of Jim Jarmusch, who likewise collaborated with Fuller shortly before his death on the 1994 documentary Tigero: A Film that was Never Made, directed by Mika Kaurismäki (and was, incidentally, a founder of the spoof secret society The Sons of Lee Marvin)). In The State of Things, Fuller markedly calls Bauchau “Fritz,” and at one point towards the end of the film we see Bauchau standing on Fritz Lang’s “star” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – echoing an earlier Fritz Lang “cameo” in Kings of the Road (where a still from Godard’s Le Mépris featuring the exiled German auteur turns up on a magazine cover).
The tension in The State of Things is, as in Wenders’s earlier “road movie trilogy,” centred in a drama in which the major protagonist is primarily absent. That protagonist being “America,” represented here by the invisible economy of Hollywood film production which pulls the strings of the somewhat puppet-like existence of Bauchau’s cast and crew on location in Europe, just as in Kings of the Road America is said to have “colonised” Europe’s subconscious. The film is inevitably seen as addressing Wenders’s ongoing preoccupation with “the difference between European and American cinema,” yet also represents a critical transition between his American-inflected German films of the 1970s and his European-inflected American “road movies” of the mid-’80s: those beginning with Paris, Texas and concluding with Don’t Come Knocking (2005; both scripted by Sam Sheppard). And, as in the opening sequences of Alice in the Cities, The State of Things ends with Bauchau aiming a camera at this ultimately unseen antagonist, this somewhat paranoiac, omniscient “America” that shoots him dead, just as it has, so to speak, shot the film dead. As Wenders stated afterwards, “you can’t always rely on pictures; they’re not always there when you want them.”
The State of Things is itself reprised in Wenders’s 1995 film, Lisbon Story, in which Bauchau returns as a “missing person” (director “Freidrich Monroe”) who Rüdiger Vogler’s itinerant sound engineer (“Philip Winter”) – invited from Germany to work on Bauchau’s latest project, sets out through Lisbon to find. In certain respects a kind of “afterlife” of The State of Things (and an address to the “state” of Wenders’s idea of a European cinema roughly fifteen years on), explores the anachronistic tensions at the heart of the Euro-American dialect and the question of cinematic “authenticity” (so prevalent in the later work of Godard). Where The State of Things turns around the doomed production of an existentialist sci-fi, Lisbon Story centres on the “dramatic suspense” of Vogler’s search for Bauchau, who – after inviting him to Lisbon to produce the soundtrack for a “return to cinematic origins” type of film production (using an array of antique equipment) – has mysteriously disappeared. The familiar questing form of Wenders’s film incorporates a series of dialectical movements, with the “film within the film” mirrored in Vogler’s “acoustical searching” through Lisbon, and finally his discovery of Bauchau living in an abandoned car, having traced him from a hidden video camera “drop-point” – part of Bauchau’s “expanded cinema” (to borrow Gene Youngblood’s term), whose archives are kept in an abandoned movie house: essaying a diffusion of the cinematic into the “real.”
Both of these films exploit the trope of the “film within a film,” posing (deadpan yet frequently ironic) questions about cinema’s relationship to “reality” and the future desolation of a world abandoned by images (Baudrillard’s “desert of the real,” for Wenders becoming “the desert of realism”). In The State of Things, the “film within a film” takes the form of a low-budget sepia-toned post-apocalyptic sci-fi, shot in a highly mannered, “existentialist” style, clearly at odds with the dramatic conventions of Hollywood. In Lisbon Story we get two interior films: one is a kind of documentary of the “real,” composed of footage from hidden cameras situated around the city, and in which the figure of the director is effectively erased, or reduced to the status of a collector, archivist, or merely witness (Bauchau’s crisis of faith in cinematic truth – the cause of his disappearance – here becomes subsumed in a video simulacrum of the world recorded autonomously of directorial intent: a kind of “pure” surveillance aesthetic); the other is Bauchau’s original footage for which Vogler is supposed to be producing the soundtrack using radio-era sound effects – a sepia-toned hand-cranked cinematograph “documentary” of Old Lisbon (including an interview with Manoel de Oliveira on the spiritual nature of cinema) which segues, after the two protagonists re-unite and agree to complete it, into a Chaplinesque slapstick routine (echoes of Bauchau’s and Garfield’s sing-along in the back of the Winnebago) – the deflationary effect counterbalancing the portentousness that otherwise threatens to overwhelm, not least because Lisbon Story could easily scan as a kind of tourist brochure. Which can easily be said of any number of “story”-driven Hollywood films, too, which frequently appear to be nothing more than product placement brochures padded-out with improbable plot-lines. But as Bauchau says in The State of Things, “stories only exist in stories.”
6. In a 1987 interview Jarmusch described Down by Law (1986) as a “neo-Beat noir comedy,” with Roger Ebert elaborating on this idea, suggesting the whole thing could be read as “an anthology of pulp images drawn from the world of film noir” – a compendium of “grim and relentless” clichés that establish an underlying satire on a range of B-genres: gothic, exploitation, gangster, prison-break, fugitive, survivalist, etc. In large part this effect is accomplished by a network of juxtapositions, built around the personae of his three principle actors (Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni) and the shooting location: New Orleans and the Louisiana bayou, coupled to Robby Müller’s lush B/W cinematography.
The entire film, and not just its narrative impetus, is thus in a certain sense a “frame-up.” Genre is simply the patsy, the means to get all these elements into the frame, so to speak. Like Stranger than Paradise, the underlying dynamic is of a “comedy of errors,” but in this case the “error” stems from the fact that this ensemble of elements doesn’t conventionally belong within any of the generic frames that the film invites the viewer to construct. Nor is it ever simply a comedy, since what is at odds in the film is, in fact, beings already at odds in an environment at odds in a medium at odds. The film can easily be read as a reply to Wenders’s argument about the relative status of American and European cinema at the end of The State of Things, with Robby Müller’s black and white cinematography and deep-focus Zeiss lenses, Jarmusch’s slow-paced direction, and Waits, Lurie and Benigni’s wry, straight-faced self-parodies, all staged in an alien, exotic, yet somehow also monotonous, deadpan, generically fugitive “non-place” (Jarmusch somehow succeeds in making New Orleans and the bayous as anonymous at the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Cleveland and Florida) all working to frame a cinema that is “authentically” cinema because it is openly at odds with itself.
In this, Jarmusch assiduously avoids acceding, not only to conventions of genre, or of Hollywood in general, but also to the conventions of “new wave” critique, replete with its own clichés of anti-realism and so on. Like Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965), which represents a sometimes similar deconstruction of “genre,” Down by Law in many respects refuses to satisfy: where Godard’s film concludes in savage irony, Jarmusch saturates his ending with an almost whimsical, soapy, anticlimax of the “feel good” type carried-off with baldly absurd, high-aesthetic camera work. “Absurd” because, in fact, what it paints is really nothing more or less than precisely that unachieved humanity of sentiment – that overweening sentimentality – towards which the entirety of such a “monumental” film like Citizen Kane built, and which gets tossed out at the end in a kind of “Rosebud” moment of underwhelmingness.
Where Welles drew upon the pathos of an “American” tragedy – a pseudo-Shakespearean grandeur of character-study – Jarmusch constantly undercuts by emphasising the film’s foreignness to itself and to any such emotional affect. While its technics enlarge a certain mundaneity of life, even under conditions of absurdity (but when is the mundane not absurd?), its internal juxtapositions sabotage everything that is generally taken for granted as “American.” Benigni’s presence is merely the catalyst for this, exposing the inherent contradictions of genre that surround the other two protagonists from the outset and thereby exposing the generic character of America itself: America as genre. This is a large claim, but it can be argued that the further Jarmusch pushes into the “generic,” into the bland, the trivial, the silly, the incidental, etc., the more he is in fact framing the “big picture.” This harks back to Wenders who, though by different means, presents this “big picture” as both “American cinema” and America as cinema: each equally a myth. Not accidental, then, that much of Down by Law reads like a retelling of the Odyssey, in which the inflated mythified wanderings of a few hapless protagonists are already being dressed up by the camera for that inevitable bar-stool recitation, in the full grandeur of the tall tale told through the pellucid lens of a whiskey glass.
7. In Paris, Texas (1984) – the story of a man “who turns up somewhere in the desert out of nowhere and returns to civilisation” – Wenders’s typical “road movie” / “quest” narrative assumes something like a definitive form, drawing together the various threads of the oedipal family drama that has, by facets, characterised all of his previous independent films, from Alice in the Cities, to Lightning over Water and The State of Things: the rites of passage of the “father” – the seeking after the father, the absences of the father, the becoming-father – which is also a rootless seeking after “belonging,” of the self, of time and place, of history, or in other words of cinema. Wenders wrote of the making of the film: “Actually, I was going to make a far more complex film, because I’d originally intended to drive all over America. I had it in mind to go to Alaska and then the Midwest and across to California and then down to Texas. I’d planned a real zigzag route all over America. But my scriptwriter Sam Shepard persuaded me not to. He said: ‘Don’t bother with all that zigzagging. You can find the whole of America in the one state of Texas.’” In many respects, Paris, Texas represents the culmination of Wenders’s early preoccupation with America: the seeking of the self through the other, the self in the other, and the other in the self – and is, in effect, an almost dialectical transposition of Wenders’s “European” cinematic consciousness, onto what we might call an American “ontology” (a transposition echoed in the very title of the film).
It’s this dialectic that we see in process in the film’s opening sequences, as Harry Dean Stanton wanders out of the desert, out of a lost history, out of a state of amnesia, to become the film’s instrumental presence, an agent of rectification, and in a sense of “redemption.” Where The State of Things began with a post-apocalyptic wondering through a kind of semi-desert wasteland into oblivion and ends with a groping act of futility to capture and represent the moment of what, essentially, is a dialectical negation, in Paris, Texas we have, so to speak, passed through the mirror. Unlike its predecessors, this film has a specific determination, it is a quest driven by a “secret knowledge,” a “knowledge” gained, as it were, by passing through the desert, its urgency is palpable, it is, in a manner of speaking, a quest that recognises itself as what it is: the self-consciousness of the quest itself resolved into action; whereas, in Wenders’s earlier films, the quest is rather of a self-consciousness enacting the drama of its own seeking. As Wenders wrote in May 1984, after the film’s completion:
“From the outset, Paris, Texas had a much straighter trajectory and a much more precise destination. And from the beginning, too, it had more of a story than my earlier films, and I wanted to tell that story till I dropped.”
In Paris, Texas what most presents itself is the protagonist’s selflessness – as if to say, “here is that absent father you have been seeking in order to accuse, this is what his absence amounts to.” What we have in Harry Dean Stanton’s character “Travis” is therefore something like the other of the rootless, questing “son” who centres the action in Wenders’s previous films. It is, so to speak, a portrait of “responsibility” – of a “care” – that doesn’t need or seek to represent itself, but simply desires to enact itself: not perform, but enact (Stanton’s “Travis” is notably unconcerned with images in the way so many of Wenders’s “sons” are – what we’re given instead is a Polaroid of a sandlot in Paris, Texas, that “Travis” once bought in the belief the town was where he was conceived, counterpointed by his brother “Walt”’s home movies and by a two-way mirror in a Houston strip-joint). It’s as if Wenders is giving us an essay on the meaning of cinematic action as, ostensibly, ethical action: not in any depicted or declarative sense, but as a kind of deontology of cinematic form. Because ultimately Paris, Texas is a cinematic rite of passage, not of its characters, but of its director, and of a certain idea of cinema itself.
Wenders’s collaboration with playwright Sam Sheppard on the script for Paris, Texas (reprised in 2005’s Don’t Come Knocking) harks back to his earlier collaboration with Peter Handke on the second instalment of his “road movie” trilogy, Wrong Move in 1975. In Don’t Come Knocking, the theme of absent fathers and abandoned children is revisited in composite, completing the itinerary Wenders initially envisaged for Paris, Texas and on which he first embarked in the opening sequences of Alice in the Cities. Where in the earlier film we’re introduced to Wenders’s vision of America through the windscreen of Rüdiger Vogler’s rent-a-car and the viewfinder of his Polaroid camera, Don’t Come Knocking with the camera gazing out over the Utah desert through a rock formation that resembles two eyeholeholes opening onto the sky like a Dalí mask. Roger Ebert described the film as “a curious film about a movie cowboy who walks off the set, goes seeking his past, and finds something that looks a lot more like a movie than the one he was making.” Echoes here of Wenders’s The State of Things, of the film- not so much within-a-film, as the film-conspiring-behind-the-film.
Like Paris,Texas, the principle motif in Don’t Come Knocking is of the questing father, played here by Sheppard in the role of the truant movie cowboy, Howard Spence. And though the cinematography is the work of Franz Lustig (who also worked with Wenders on the 2004 film, Land of Plenty) rather than Robby Müller, the saturated colour and visual referencing to Paris, Texas is so prevalent that the result is far more a tribute to Müller’s accomplishment in the earlier film than to the kind of Edward Hopper pastiche the camera’s palette has on occasion (and at Wenders’s own prompting) been regarded to be. Set mostly in Butte, Montana – a former mining town which at the end of the nineteenth century had been one of the largest towns in the Rocky Mountains, with a widely infamous red-light district – Wenders’s rendering of the American “frontier” in modern decline is, like Jarmusch’s Nashville, done to the point of producing a sort of pastiched cinematic “ghost town,” evocative of a studio back-lot. The effect is to present the action of Spence’s somewhat laconic (even inert) quest for his unknown son, his re-encounter with the son’s mother (played by Jessica Lang), and his accidental encounter with an unknown daughter, as a kind of Big Screen melodrama, where everything else fades into a background of incidental extras and “scenery.”
In a sense, Wenders is restating his thesis that America is cinema – that there’s no “riding off the set,” that even these narratives of escape into the “real,” of “self-discovery,” and of “redemption” are all just so many set-pieces played already (and in exactly that way) in that movie we call the collective consciousness. As ever, Wenders isn’t concerned with the way the cinematic image depicts, or fails to depict, so called reality, but how reality “itself” is projected by the image. Like the town of Butte, everything comes across as a kind of ruin: a ruin, so to speak, of the visible, of some concrete image of itself. What remains is this supersaturated entropic vision, of detours and deferrals, of “quests” that lead nowhere other than to the convenient necessity of themselves – a form played-out one more time, for old times’ sake, where we discover that none of those “old times” ever really existed, they’re just the back-story every script comes burdened with.
8. As Roger Ebert wrote in the first of two reviews he published of Mystery Train (this one immediately after its release in 1989), Jarmusch’s film isn’t about Elvis, Memphis or “dusty Amtrak coaches”: “The movie is about legends, and people who believe in them, and in fact it is the movie that believes most of all.” There is a certain kind of evangelism not so much in the film’s subject matter, or even its structure, but in what comes through the lens, through its way of seeing the world in a minimal palette of saturated colour, like decor from that other American Dream: the outsider’s vision of America as The Dream, and its icons as more than simply icons, but as ghosts who speak. Real ghosts. That speak through the radio, through train windows, through billboards, through museumised recording studios and derelict hotels that look like old film sets. The ghosts of genre: neo-Noir, rock-n-roll, the “New Wave” 1960s translated into period Americana, etc. The genre of place: of Memphis as a synecdoche of all these things. In an article by Scott Cohen in Spin, Jarmusch (who – as with Down by Law – hadn’t visited the film’s location before scouting a couple of months before shooting began) was described as driving around downtown Memphis in a blizzard with no particular direction in mind and coming upon “the intersection of a dilapidated hotel, the Arcade Diner and the train station. ‘Man,’ Jim thought, ‘this crossroads is filled with so many ghosts. You know Robert Johnson walked down that street, you know Muddy Waters was in that train station.’”
Jarmusch’s film, in a sense, becomes a medium for those ghosts to speak, and yet at the same time to communicate their invisibility within a myth cycle that, for example, has enshrined Elvis Presley above the likes of Rufus Thomas “the real King of Memphis.” According to the Mississippi Blues Commission, “Rufus Thomas embodied the spirit of Memphis music perhaps more than any other artist.” Thomas himself appears during the opening scenes of Mystery Train, when the two Japanese tourists – one of them a virtual Elvis mystic, the other a devotee of Carl Perkins, author of “Blue Suede Shoes” – arrive at the train station in Memphis. “An old black guy in the station asks them for a light,” but neither of the tourists realise who he is. Like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s appearance as the Arcade Hotel desk-clerk: it’s as if Jarmusch is intent on showing how The Dream gets carried around by that whole parade of forgotten or marginalised history – just as the film itself really is an ensemble production, not only written for but carried by seemingly “minor” roles: Cinquée Lee, Joe Strummer, Tom Waits’s unseen radio DJ “Lee Baby Sims,” John Lurie’s unobtrusive soundtrack.
This is all part of the “dream behind The Dream,” the outsider as America – a dialectical examination of a theme played out in three parts (“Far from Yokohama,” “A Ghost,” “Lost in Space”), whose “action” hinges on the cult, ghostly manifestation and “embodiment” of Elvis (Hegel’s profane “God” in Vegas drag), an early morning gunshot, and the reception desk at the Arcade Hotel. It’s a dialectic played out between Robby Müller’s lens and a landscape which (as in all of Jarmusch’s films to date) appears strangely empty: like a dream that has become conscious of what it is and, like the characters at the end of the film, is seeking a “way out.” But just as the script for Mystery Train was written without Jarmusch ever having been to Memphis, so too the dream is not a place (it’s instead a kind of epicentre of cultural impacts: Carl Perkins, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding, Martin Luther King), and the only way to get there is on the “mystery train,” but who knows how you leave. As with Wenders, it’s not just that a certain idea of America has colonised our subconscious, but that America is our subconscious: the “real America” is nothing but a myth.
9. Appearing in Wenders’s filmography between Wings of Desire [Der Himmel über Berlin] and Faraway, So Close, the 1991 “ultimate road movie” Until the End of the World (1991) – shot by Robby Müller in Cinemascope – maps the director’s protracted agonistic search for the lost cinematic dream onto a global stage, in which the materialism of the commodity-saturated West at the end of the 20th century is extruded via a fugitive/quest narrative projected across China, Japan and the recently defunct Soviet Union, into a remote tribal aboriginal community in central Australia, after an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) high in the atmosphere (brought on by the US downing of an Indian “nuclear satellite”) has knocked out all electronic-based communications (and transport): providing the double-entendre of the film’s title, “the end of the world.” The film follows William Hurt (“Sam Farber” alias “Trevor McPhee”) on a “secret personal mission” to record video images of his extended family on a prototype VR camera – invented for the US government (echoes of Douglas Trumball’s Brainstorm (1983)) by Sam’s semi-estranged father, “Henry Farber” (Max von Sydow) – that will allow his blind mother, “Edith” (Jeanne Moreau; in hiding from US agents at a secret underground lab at the Mbantua Cultural Centre between Coober Pedy and Alice Springs), to “see” (once said images have been re-converted to brainwaves, etc., etc.). “All I want,” Sam says at one point, “is for my mother to see and for my father to know that I love him.” In the process, Sam – who has a $500,000 reward on his head and is being pursued by a bounty hunter (Ernie Dingo) – encounters “Claire Tourneur” (Solveig Dommartin), an accomplice in a bank robbery and the bored ex-girlfriend of writer “Eugene Fitzpatrick” (Sam Niell), who he in turn steals money from while hitchhiking in France and who, after a second chance encounter in Paris, immediately becomes infatuated with him, hiring private detective “Philip Winter” (Rüdiger Vogler) to track Sam down, first to Berlin, then Lisbon, Moscow, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Tokyo, San Francisco and finally the opal-mining town of Coober Pedy in the South Australian desert.
Like Faraway, So Close and Million Dollar Hotel (2000; on which Bono has a co-writing credit), Until the End of the World features a U2 title track along with “futuristic” work by artists including Talking Heads, Julee Cruise, Crime & the City Solution, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Depeche Mode, kd lang, among others. Wenders reportedly approached each of the musicians with a request for tracks that they felt reflected where their own work would be in the year 1999. At a Q&A at MoMA in March 2015, Wenders claimed that the length of the film – 158 minutes at its original theatrical release, nearly five hours in the 2015 director’s cut – reflected his desire to give the soundtrack full prominence, with the film’s episodic structure throughout the first two-thirds mirroring that of contemporary music video in a kind of genre mash from postmodern espionage/detective drama and sci-fi thriller, to “visionary fantasy”; from Old World to New World to what Ebert (aptly mixing his metaphors) called “that Mecca of metaphysical motherlodes, the Australian outback.”
The crux of the film comes when Sam’s father re-invents his camera after his wife’s death, from a device that allows the blind to see, to one that records and makes visible our dreams: a conversion Wenders presents as a form of heresy, played out against the trope of the Aboriginal “Dreaming” (the creation cycle), and the white Henry Farber’s refusal to observe the customs of mourning: his scientific vision becomes an obsession to which this ultimate father figure is prepared to sacrifice everything and he is eventually abandoned by his adoptive tribal members as well as his own son, and finally taken into custody by the CIA (or whoever). The “spiritual reconciliation” between Farber and his lost son, symbolically enlarged here in the theme of estrangement from the world and the profanation of “dreams,” occurs only by a kind of proxy, with Sam visiting his dead father’s grave back in America towards the end of the film. Meanwhile Claire’s infatuation with Sam is transformed – thanks to her pliability as a test subject for Farber’s experiments – into a narcissistic junk-sickness once she becomes addicted to the low-grain recordings of her own dream-life produced by Farber’s magic camera. After Gene kidnaps her from the lab, she’s left staring fixedly into a handheld video monitor until the batteries run out and withdrawal kicks in: a parable for the VR addiction of a pornotopic space-age “society of the spectacle.”
Eventually Claire, released from her own dream-machine addiction via the agency of Gene’s prose fiction account of their adventures (this account, overlapping with the screenplay itself, is co-author and novelist Peter Carey’s bid for the “redemption of the word” here), winds up spending her 30th birthday on a low-orbit Greenpeace satellite gazing at the Earth instead. All this as if to say that the proverbial end of the world arrives not with the bang of nuclear Armageddon, but with a whimper, rather, of image-anaesthetised solipsism – the vertiginous spiral of the open-ended “end” of the pornotopically deferred fantasy of laying eyes on the “impossible,” so to speak, the revelation of the unpresentable, of desire itself, and in the process apprehending that very process, seeing oneself seeing (oneself), etc. The eternal theme of “blindness and insight” is played out here in the form of a capricious subjectivity elided with the mirror of consumption. The question as always is to what extent “cinema” – as a seeking after disillusionment – intervenes in this seductive “slumber of reason” (slumber in the form of reason), even if only as the (anachronistic) figure of a (critical) reflection.
10. Conceived by Jarmusch as a “psychedelic western,” Dead Man (1995) represents a mash-up of William Blake, Homer, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Sergio Leone shot in hardboiled B/W by long-time collaborator Robby Müller. On its release the film was virtually buried by Miramax on the art house circuit, where it nevertheless achieved cult status and was compared by Jonathan Rosenbaum (who hailed it as a “masterpiece”) to the writings of William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon. In his review for the Chicago Reader, Rosenbaum adopted Pauline Kael’s term “acid western” (coined to describe Jodorowsky’s El Topo in 1971) to convey the hallucinatory and hallucinogenic character of the film’s journey through “America as a primitive, anarchic world,” similarly evoking Burroughs’s line that “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil.”
Staking a claim for Dead Man’s otherwise neglected seriousness (on its release, it was mostly disparaged or ignored in the mainstream press), Rosenbaum further emphasised the film’s literariness (in addition to Blake, who Jarmusch described as a “visionary” and ‘revolutionary” who “was imprisoned for his ideas”), opening the review with a quote from Pynchon’s 1984 short story collection, Slow Learner – “When we speak of ‘seriousness’ in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude towards death” – in turn drawing attention to Jarmusch’s own decision to begin the film with a quote from Henri Michaux’s “La Nuit des Bulgares” (1938), to the effect that “It is preferable not to travel with a dead man.”
The film – without dialogue for the first five minutes – follows Johnny Depp’s accountant character, the eponymous dead man “William Blake,” across central-north America, from Cleveland to a depraved frontier town called Machine (“a nightmarishly squalid settlement of meanness” ), where he’s wounded in a parodic crime passionel shootout with the son of local steel magnate “Dickinson” (Robert Mitchum, in his last film role), who duly posts a frontier-wide bounty on Blake’s head. The remainder of the film is part fugitive drama, part quest, as Blake is led by an ostracised Plains Indian he encounters, called – in a direct allusion to Il mio nome è Nessuno (1973) – “Nobody” (a.k.a. “Xebeche: He who talks loud, saying nothing”; played by Gary Farmer), across the American Northwest to a Kwakiutl settlement on the Pacific coast.
The purpose of this increasingly allegorical journey is to “return” Blake (the “stupid white man”) to the “foreign” world from which he has come (by implication, the Land of the Dead, or of “death” simply, since this appears everywhere in the film to be the white man’s principle characteristic): a symbolic journey to undo history – a journey, as Nobody says, through the mirror. (Significantly, Nobody’s ostracism stems from his having been abducted as a child and taken across the ocean to England – where he encounters the poetry of the other William Blake, whose Marriage of Heaven and Hell he regularly quotes throughout the film: after managing to return to his tribe, his accounts of the Old World are regarded as tall tales, the inventions or visions – like Blake – of an idiot, and so – also like his white counterpart – he becomes a kind of unwitting fugitive: he is given the name “Xebeche” by his people, but he “prefers” Nobody, a name with ambivalent echoes of Blake’s “Noboddady.”)
The central trope of Dead Man – that “William Blake” is already dead, so to speak (1. because the bullet lodged near his heart can’t be removed, and 2. because he shares his identity with the long-deceased English poet) – echoes the generic fatalism of film noir, but – like Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (Dead on Arrival) (1950) – with its fatalism spectacularly literalised. This literal fatalism is augured at the film’s outset by the enigmatic appearance of the train fireman (Crispin Glover) during the long opening sequence – who asks Blake, “And doesn’t this remind you of when you were in the boat?” – and is otherwise adverted to throughout the film in what Rosenbaum describes as “a horrified view of industrialised America comparable with the apocalyptic visions of both Blake (the poet and Depp’s character’s namesake) and Burroughs, superimposed over an image of the American west haunted by the massive slaughter of Native Americans.”
The exposed ideological ugliness in Jarmusch’s film nevertheless also adverts to another “haunting,” by those regimes of representation in which the act of America’s dispossession is itself dispossessed. Like Burroughs’s 1987 novel The Western Lands, the westward journey towards death in Dead Man discloses a journey into America’s dark heart of genocide and atavistic nihilism, of frontier capitalism and cannibalism, otherwise re-dressed and paraded through a century and a half of “realist” literary and film propaganda under the guise of the great white Frontier Myth, a kind of American Arthuriad. Robby Müller’s hypnotic black and white cinematography and Neil Young’s slow detuned guitar convey the sense that Jarmusch’s film, too, is a kind of journey – into the counter-realism of a collective unconscious, conjuring or dredging-up “a crazed version of autodestructive white America at its most solipsistic, hankering after its own lost origins.”
Jason Wood, 100 Road Movies (London: British Film Institute, 2007).
“Wim Wenders (The End of Violence): An Interview with Wim Wenders by Jayne Margretts,” The Director’s Chair Interviews, Industry Central (1997): www.industrycentral.net/director…interviews/WIWEO1.HTM
John Patterson, “A Film without a Cinema,” Guardian (2 October 2004).
Jarmusch famously showed Nicholas Ray a script while he was a students at NYU: “Ray disapproved of its lack of action, to which Jarmusch responded after meditating on the critique by reworking the script to be even less eventful. On Jarmusch’s return with the revised script, Ray reacted favourably to his student’s dissent, citing approvingly the young student’s obstinate independence.”
Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory (London: Penguin, 1997) 321.
Jim Jarmusch, “The Golden Rules of Filming,” MovieMaker Magazine (22 January, 2004).
Cf David Heslin, ”The End is a Transition: Wim Wenders’s Alice in den Städten,” Senses of Cinema (5 October 2014): http://sensesofcinema.com/2014/cteq/the-end-is-a-transition-wim-wenders-alice-in-den-stadten/
Sara Piazza, Jim Jarmusch: Music, Words and Noise (London: Reaktion Books, 2015) 30
Michael Wojtas, “Blank Generation: Jim Jarmusch’s Permanent Vacation,” The Quietus (12 September 2014): thequietus.com/articles/16201-jarmusch-permanent-vacation-article
Wim Wenders, The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations, trans. Michael Hofmann (London: Faber, 1991)
Jim Jarmusch, “Some Notes On Stranger Than Paradise,” New York, March 1984, transcribed by Ludvig Hertzberg, www.jimjarmusch.tripod.com/notes.html
Garfield also appears in Wenders’s Until the End of the World (1991) as a San Francisco used car salesman who rips off the two main protagonists as gunpoint.
Wenders, “Reverse angle: New York City, March 1982,” The Logic of Images
Wenders’s anthology of film historical apparatuses in Lisbon Story – along with notable set-piece cameos by Teresa Salgueiro and Portuguese folk-ensemble Madredeus – in turn anticipates Jarmusch’s elegy to Detroit and vintage guitars – with a matching cameo by Lebanese singer Yasmine van Wissem – in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).
Wenders, “Like Flying Blind Without Instruments: On the Turning Point in Paris, Texas,” The Logic of Images, 67.
A loose adaptation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister featuring performances, among others, by a young Nastassja (daughter of Klaus) Kinski in her first screen role). In Paris, Texas, Kinski plays Travis’s missing wife (“Jane,” mother of their son seven-year-old son, “Hunter”), who Travis eventually tracks down working in a strip-joint (managed by none other than John Lurie). 1n 1993 she appeared in Wenders’s Faraway, So Close, along with Rüdiger Vogler.
Roger Ebert, “Don’t Come Knocking” (2006): www.rogerebert.com/reviews/dont-come-knocking-2006
Roger Ebert, “Mystery Train,” www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-mystery-train-1989
Scott Cohen, “Strangers in Paradise,” Spin (March 1990): jimjarmusch.tripod.com/spin90.html.
Roger Ebert, “Until the End of the World” (1992): www.rogerebert.com/reviews/until-the-end-of-the-world-1992
Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Acid Western,” Chicago Reader (27 June, 1996).
Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner (New York: Little, Brown, 1984)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Louis Armand is director of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory. His books include Videology (2015), The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey (2013), Cairo (shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s Not-the-Booker Prize, 2014) and The Combinations (2016).
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 18th, 2017.