Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The Northwest Film Forum brings back Wim Wenders’ classic Wings of Desire for a run, beginning next Wednesday, February 5th. It’s a nice chance to see Wenders’ deserved beloved film on a big screen, where it is able to cast its spell in an especially dreamy way. I reviewed the movie for the Everett Herald in 1988; that review’s here.
The director’s prolific career is a sometimes puzzling one, from the early beauties of his wandering West German career to his recent run of middling co-productions and documentaries. (There must be something in how both Wenders and Werner Herzog have done much of their best latter-day work in the documentary field, but I’m not sure what it is, other than an inability to fit into the model of 21st century fiction filmmaking.) Wenders has visited Seattle a few times, and is a thoughtful interview subject. He visited Scarecrow back in the 90s, and signed a poster of Until the End of the World that hangs on the Scarecrow walls.
Scarecrow has a thorough collection of Wenders titles, of course. Check out his early gems Alice in the Cities and The American Friend, and then tackle his masterpiece of wanderlust, Kings of the Road.
From my files, I found a Film.com review of Wenders’ 1994 film Lisbon Story, a movie that contains many of the felicities and frustrations of his work. It also has unbeatable music from the Portuguese band Madredeus (I still listen to the soundtrack album). A hang-out movie of modest proportions.
For admirers of the digressive, road-obsessed movies of director Wim Wenders, the opening reels of Lisbon Story will be a cause for absolute delight. He’s on the road with the radio cranked, and his driver is actor Rudiger Vogler, the broken-faced Everyman from many a Wenders picture. Vogler is driving across Europe toward Portugal, but his car gets fussy and it finally dies of thirst somewhere in the dry Iberian landscape (pouring Coca-Cola into the radiator doesn’t help anything).
These scenes have a sunny, funky humor that summons up the cinematic equivalent of a really good mood. In a way, that’s as much as the movie has to offer us: once Vogler reaches his destination, Lisbon, you realize that Wenders doesn’t have a story to tell. The picture is more of a meditation on the white buildings, narrow streets, and azure sea of the Portuguese capital; somehow, given the laid-back circumstances, that’s quite enough. Lisbon Story is also a postscript to Wenders’ 1980 film The State of Things, but more on that later.
Wenders captures not only the sights of Lisbon, but the sounds. Vogler plays Phillip Winter, a movie sound technician called to Portugal by a postcard from his filmmaker friend Monroe. When he arrives at Monroe’s empty apartment, there’s no trace of the director, so Phillip kills time and hits the streets with his microphone, soaking up the local sounds.
When I interviewed Wenders last year, he said that he had only the wispiest notion of plot when he committed to make the film. Before shooting began, he discovered Madredeus, a Portuguese band whose music is both hauntingly traditional and darkly modern. This, he said, was what finally convinced him he had a movie. The band wrote and recorded new songs for the film, and Wenders put the musicians onscreen. Lead singer Teresa Salgueiro has a key supporting role, as the woman Phillip Winter develops a wonderfully tentative flirtation with. Sometimes Wenders simply stops the film to watch and listen to the band make lovely sounds in a dark-lit apartment.
Elsewhere, there are nagging signs of naïveté in Wenders’ attitudes, which also crops up in The End of Violence. There’s an especially tired scene in which Phillip demonstrates his sound effects tricks to a group of wide-eyed children, and some of the film’s prevailing ideas seem simplistic, almost childlike. Then along comes the elusive Monroe character, played by Patrick Bachau, who also played the filmmaker in The State of Things; all these years later, he’s still working on movies that aren’t going anywhere. When Phillip finally finds him, they carry on a debate about the future of cinema, with the modest sound man arguing cheerfully on behalf of the 100-year-old art form.
Lisbon Story is not a major Wenders film, which may explain why so much time elapsed between its making and its U.S. release. But its ramshackle feel and jolly episodes of slapstick are easy to like, and when Wenders builds an entire sequence out of Phillip’s midnight battle with a persistent mosquito, you know he’s in his old observant groove. When Wenders is at his best, he can make you feel that any stray moment is worth committing to film. As roundabout as this can be, you’re never in a hurry to get to the next scene.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.