America has so many roads–
On every road, someone lost.
(1971, from Donald Justice’s 1973 collection, Departures)
At about the same time as Wim Wenders was making Alice in the Cities, the photographer Walker Evans, at the age of 70, was revitalized in his work by the purchase of a Polaroid SX-70 and the offer of free film from Kodak. In 14 months he took over 2,500 Polaroids: pictures of signs and deserted buildings, stations and empty store fronts – much the same subjects as those that interest Phil Winter – a disenchanted German writer ostensibly engaged in writing a piece on ‘the American scene’ – in Wenders’ film. In its opening minutes, as we watch Winter taking Polaroids of the places he passes through (and the extent to which this device informs these early scenes meant that a few days after watching it I was convinced that the Polaroids were shown in colour and had to check to make sure that this wasn’t the case), the film itself looks like a series of subjects for Polaroids – a boardwalk, railings, street signs and intersections, a water tower, gas stations and grocery stores – as if Wenders was himself engaged on a similar project to Evans, but with 16mm black and white film. The point is reinforced by scenes fading to black as they come and go, as if behind a slow-motion shutter. At one point Winter pulls up in his car to take a photograph (after driving past a wall crudely scrawled with ‘Save – Discount – Sportswear’ that itself looks like a subject passed by). He stops adjacent to a billboard (Ward Realty Co.), and Wenders presents us with a man taking a Polaroid of an unseen view next to a subject for a Polaroid that he is himself capturing on film.
Winter is no Walker Evans though. Whereas Geoff Dyer described Evans’ Polaroids, with their otherworldly colour saturation, as ‘the dream a room or road might have of itself,’ Winter complains that his Polaroids ‘never really show what it was you saw’, and later that ‘they never caught up with reality’. Maybe he should have taken the advice of Evans, who said that ‘nobody should touch a Polaroid until he’s over sixty’. It’s noticeable too that Winter’s urge for instant photography declines markedly as soon as he returns to his home soil in Europe.
As for dreams, they permeate the film, from Winter’s TV-influenced dream in the Skyway motel in North Carolina, in which Young Mister Lincoln’s playing on his Jew’s harp is transmuted to the squawking of gulls, to Alice’s bad dream that she relates in Amsterdam, about being tied to a chair in front of a television, unable either to loose her bonds or close her eyes. On the plane fom New York, the pair of them play hangman. Appropriately enough, the word that remains uncompleted is ‘Traum’.
An incessant pump of light arrows into the E of motel
Interference on the TV is a windscreen
speckled with the grain of travelling
as we take the straight road across grey water
Through Winter’s disenchantment, the film feeds on Wenders’ own attitude to America. In a piece he wrote a little later after living there for seven years, he reflects on ‘The American Dream’ – both his own and the country’s. He wrote, ‘Nowhere else is vision harnessed like this, to the service of seduction. Nowhere else, therefore, so many longings and needs, because nowhere else has vision become so addicted. Nowhere else, therefore, has vision been so eroded.’ His film is fed by a dismay that the country which produced John Ford is happy to reduce his films to the level of the commercials which interrupt a TV screening of the same with intolerable frequency.
This attitude is personified in the film by Rüdiger Vogler – Wim Wenders’ ‘altes-ego’ – who plays Phil Winter with a mix of sulky, frustrated displacement and distracted amiability. He is no longer in the moment in America and needs to get away so his thoughts can coalesce into something coherent.
Car lights stitch the dusk, closing up the city around me
Across the block from your apartment
a wall ad for Manhattan Storage:
Moving Packing Shipping
He goes to the airport to fly away. In a lovely emblematic moment, he is swung around the revolving doors by a young girl on entering the building. Then he discovers there is a strike in Germany and the nearest he can get is Amsterdam the following day. He meets the woman whose daughter it was that swung him round, who needs to take the same plane. The three of them wait out their time together. The mother has to finish a relationship; she leaves Alice in Winter’s care.
A rip of notepaper on the sideboard
and the warmth of scent on the pillow
in the next room, slats of morning sunlight
angle across the sleeping girl on the couch
She doesn’t show the next day at the time arranged, but leaves a note at the hotel instead: ‘Please take Alice with you or I’ll never get away’, it says. She will meet them in Amsterdam the day after next. And so begins the next stage of the story, with the relationship between the grudging Winter, who feels he has been set up with the girl’s care, and the wilful Alice, who takes on a role as a kind of guardian for him – not that he knows this – shielding him from complete aimlessness.
A room next to the Schwebebahn
In the space that follows the squeals of a train
I talk a child into her dreams
through a forest, across a bridge, as far as the sea
As well as taking the lead in their relationship – offering to show Winter round the city of Amsterdam while they wait for her mother, translating for him at the hairdresser’s, needling him about his incessant scribbling to little apparent end, taking a Polaroid of him so at least he’ll know what he looks like – Alice also keeps the story rolling through timely hints and gifts as to where they need to go to search out her grandmother. When they arrive in Wuppertal to look for her house, they journey on the suspended monorail, and for a short moment as it takes off from a station, it is as if they, and we, have escaped gravity for a while on their return to Europe. It is, temporarily, an exhilarating moment of liberation.
At breakfast you find the Skyway’s errant motel key
its edge notched into a city skyline
Drop In Any Mail Box it says
We Guarantee Postage
In an Eis-Café, Alice finally confesses that her grandmother never lived in Wuppertal; she does so with a look of pity for a little boy as lost as she is, before it shades into regret for her deceit.
Café window sunshine is warm on the cheek
glints on the coffee spoon warm in the mouth
as icecream drips from your spoon
a boy burbles along to the jukebox
As Winter wonders what to do, a young boy in a crocheted waistcoat sings and hums along with Canned Heat’s ‘On the Road Again’. It is a scene that recalls Wenders’ own memories of discovering rock ‘n’ roll. He says, ‘the first time I put money in a juke box was for ‘Tutti Frutti’ by Little Richard. I didn’t speak any English, but I hummed along and mouthed the craziest variants on the lyrics.’ Early on in the film, Wenders himself had foreshadowed this scene, appearing in the background of a bar and sticking a coin in a jukebox as Winter lays out his Polaroids on the window ledge. In fact, the film was partly birthed in music, specifically ‘Memphis, Tennessee’, Chuck Berry’s song to an estranged 6 year-old girl, and sounds are dabbed throughout with the lightest of touches: Winter half-singing a couple of lines from ‘Under the Boardwalk’ in the only place it really can be sung, flicking through the stations on a car radio and finding snippets of surf guitar and ‘Smoke on the Water’, Chuck Berry seen on a poster for a concert and then in the concert itself, Sibylle Baier singing ‘Softly’ on a ferry across the Rhine, Alice with portable radio held to her ear, and Can's mesmerising, melancholy eight-note guitar and synthesizer hook, which appears every time you have just forgotten about it to reinforce the mood of the film.
Alice in the Cities was made at a crux in Wenders’ career when he was wondering what form his artistic expression should take. Should he remain a filmmaker? And if he did, could he make a film in his own handwriting? With a tiny budget and a four-week shoot, he and his six man crew made the film on the road and on the fly, which accounts for its lightness of feel in spite of its subject matter of a jaded journalist falling out of love with an adopted land. As Wenders has written of his own still photography, in Written in the West (1987), ‘photography enables you to grasp a place first time round. In fact, photography often tends to become impossible in a place you’re already familiar with. Going back somewhere seldom accompanies a desire to take photos … photography is a means of exploration, it’s a vital part of travel, almost as essential as a car or a plane. The photo camera makes arrival in a place possible.’ In Alice in the Cities, Wenders, cameraman Robby Müller and their Arriflex BL explore places with the freshness of arrival.
The two of us on a train to München
to meet a woman in a photograph
For now, we simply open the window
and let the wind tousle our hair.
After I watched the film, I could speak to no-one until a night of sleep and dreams had sifted my thoughts. I was inhabited by a profound sense of loss in various forms. There was the subject matter and the innocence of the central relationship, between a 31 year-old male journalist and a 9 year-old girl, a stranger whose mother he has just met but who nevertheless turns her over to him for temporary custody. Its tone would be impossible today in a society haunted by fears of abduction. That was one form of loss. Another was the loss of the pleasure and freedom to be had from travel; in an interview about the film, Wenders talks about how hard it is not to be a tourist these days, when everywhere is set up to cater to this (non)-experience. Stronger than these though was the feeling that the film depicted a past, my own, now lost. An idealised past of the imagination for sure, but a past in which I was neither held nor claimed, a past when I was free to be drawn to places and people, and had the time to follow my nose and take things as they came. And if this past was characterised by a vague feeling of the melancholy of unsettlement, it was also tempered by the expectation of as yet unknown people and possibilities just around the corner. I don’t recognise the themes of alienation and angst that have characterised some responses to the film. Instead, I see more a beautiful drift of melancholy in a time where belonging was not such a stark choice.