Wednesday, 4 March 2015

So Many Roads: Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities (1974)

(written in 2008 and previously unpublished, this is one of twelve texts that recently, under my ‘Colva Books’ guise, I put into a ‘cine-series’ of booklets on films which have touched me deeply in some way)

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.

Family Portraits: Two Films From the 1951 Festival of Britain

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

A number of films were made specifically for the 1951 Festival of Britain, notably John Boulting’s The Magic Box, a biopic about the pioneering filmmaker William Friese-Greene, Basil Wright’s Waters of Time, about the Port of London, and some experimental films in 3-D from Norman McLaren. The two I’m going to look at here – Humphrey Jennings’ Family Portrait and Paul Dickson’s David – reflect on nationhood.

Before the films though, a few words about the Festival itself. A centenary commemoration of The Great Exhibition of 1851, the 1951 event also looked to the future in sciences, arts and architecture, technology and industrial design. Its guiding principles can be summed up by the introduction that the Archbishop of Canterbury gave in the official book of the Festival, in which he wrote: ‘The chief and governing purpose of the Festival is to declare our belief and trust in the British way of life, not with any boastful self-confidence nor with any aggressive self-advertisement, but with sober and humble trust that by holding fast to that which is good and rejecting from our midst that which is evil we may continue to be a nation at unity in itself and of service to the world. It is good at a time like the present so to strengthen, and in part to recover, our hold on the abiding principles of all that is best in our national life.’

The words are worth quoting at length because they so precisely capture the tone of Family Portrait, Humphrey Jennings’ last completed film, made for the Festival in 1951. It’s one of his best late works in which he recaptures in part some of the confident collage of words and image that reached such profound levels in his wartime films. Of course, this is propaganda for a different purpose here, namely for the celebration of Britain’s past and future, instead of the initially urgent but increasingly subtle affirmations of the human qualities of stoicism, resolve and dignity whose loss simply could not be countenanced, and which informed Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started and Diary for Timothy. As such, reaction to the film is bound to be different. There was something almost subversive about making wartime propaganda films that were subtle and poetic rather than strident. Family Portrait, accomplished as it is, plays by the officially sanctioned rules. In fact, Jennings’ great early proponent Lindsay Anderson said in 1981 that it was a ‘sentimental fiction’ which played on the ‘fantasy of the Empire’.
Watching it now, I like to imagine that Jennings, in time, would have found new subjects in which to become subtle and subversive all over again.

That is not what Family Portrait is for however. A film ‘on the theme of the Festival of Britain’, it is propaganda for the nation that urges the nourishment of tolerance, courage, faith, discipline and mutual freedom. Jennings’ central conceit is that the fabric of the nation takes its texture a mixture of poetry and prose, the poetry of imagination combining with the prose of industry and engineering, with its culmination coming in an invention such as a ship’s radar, which perfectly matches the two. Jennings took his cue for the theme from one of the Festival displays, that of the Lion and the Unicorn symbolising the two main qualities of the national character, ‘on the one hand, realism and strength, on the other, fantasy, independence and imagination.’

Jennings’ characteristic eye for a good picture is present; this is a film of beautiful silhouettes and shadows. Also characteristic is his wry humour in matching image to words. When the narrator talks of the astronomer at the Greenwich observatory studying the phases of the moon, the astronomer is shown with his own face in three-quarters shadow.

The films ends by stating the necessity of the free exchange of knowledge and the tradition of free enquiry for the good of the nation. Interestingly, it also talks of the need for the country to overcome its pride and ‘come inside the family of Europe’.

The theme of family on different levels is also central to Paul Dickson’s film David, made by the Welsh Committee for the Festival of Britain, and which is a poignant and touching portrait of a man’s life and his community. Filmed in and around the Welsh town of Ammanford and featuring the townspeople as actors, it is an unaffected piece of work that celebrates community and friendship as the bedrock from which individual talent, if the luck is with it, can rise, and if not, then no matter; the community is what survives and is enriched.

It is based on the life-story of the collier-poet DR Griffiths, who plays himself under his character’s name of Dafydd Rhys. He plays a school caretaker reflecting on his life to a schoolboy, and the film builds a portrait of a nation through one man’s experiences – as a child leaving school at 12 to go down the pit, surviving a gas explosion on the same day as his son is born, printing a book of poetry, O Lwch y Lofa (From the Dust of the Pit), to raise money so a fellow miner can afford to take up a scholarship that he has been offered.

The little glimpses of mid-century life are fascinating – the cobbler’s blackboard announcing ‘we save your soles’, the baker’s cart and whistle, the circus coming to town with its elephant, zebra and llamas processed through the streets, scenes from the Aberavon Eisteddfod, and pit life with miners with books in their pockets (the older men were great readers, ‘they could have been teachers, engineers, writers,’ says Dafydd). However, what really endures are its abiding spirits of humanism and dignity, qualities that were immediately recognised on it successful release in 1951, when it was named as one of Sight and Sound’s ‘Films of the Month’.

Perhaps most surprising for a fim that was made as the portrait of a nation is its ending, in which Dafydd, having come second at the Eisteddfod with his poem, pronounces himself, without the slightest hint of self-pity, a failure when he returns home. He says to Ivor, the boy who has taken an interest in his life and who has just passed his exams, ‘I failed. We can’t all be successful. I failed, you passed.’ Nowadays, when a word such as ‘failure’ is anathema, and has been all but ousted from anyone’s official record of achievements, or lack of them, it’s a sentiment that stands out in its realistic, harsh assessment. It’s also presented as nothing to be ashamed of. Dafydd always knew he wouldn’t win. It’s a rare film that proposes fatalism as a national characteristic. It also shows that being proud and being broken, being haunted and being still defiant, all characteristics that make up the character of Dafydd Rhys, need not necessarily be mutually exclusive.

I’d like to mention two more films about the Festival itself. Festival in London is a bright and bold introduction to the events and displays at the South Bank, accompanied by William Alwyn’s Festival March, while Brief City, made for The Observer newspaper, was filmed two weeks before the exhibition closed. In it, the reporter Patrick O’Donovan tours the South Bank site (described as ‘a gigantic toyshop for adults’) in the company of the director of architecture, Hugh Casson, who introduces and explains the layout and structures and the concepts behind them. He has a nice answer when asked about the purpose of  the  ‘Skylon’, the distinctive structure in aluminium, steel and wire that was emblematic of the Exhibition. It’s there merely ‘to hang upright in the air and astonish,’ he says. The film is firmly set in its time, which is alluded to by O’Donovan at the end of the film. ‘There were no resounding proud messages here – no-one was taught to hate anything. At a time when nations were becoming more assertive, here was a national exhibition that avoided these emotions and tried to stay rational.’