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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Friday
Sep032010

« In Which Alice In The Cities Develops Promptly And Rather Eerily »

Not One Picture Leaves You In Peace

by DURGA CHEW-BOSE

Alice in the Cities

dir. Wim Wenders

110 minutes

Philip Winter is stricken with writer's block. Having missed his magazine deadline, he sells his car to a garage in Queens, bringing to a close his failed American road trip. Nearby an organ ushers us through a pan of Shea Stadium on a clear day and eventually settles on the organist, an elderly woman with cat-eye glasses and a sedate smile.

This scene near the start of Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities, isn’t extraordinary. In fact there is something remarkably untouched about it, as if it were cut from a reel of lost documentary footage. The camera's surveying sweep and soft focus appears infinite yet arbitrary, as though the movie might turn on itself entirely and follow a trail of summer vestiges instead: colossal cranes at a downtown construction site; teenagers on the boardwalk; an overcrowded public pool and the patter of kids racing to the diving board, oblivious to the lifeguard's warning whistles.

In road movies these tangents acknowledge the necessary — stops for food, sleep, an empty gas tank — but also salute those fugitive, sometimes beguiling pockets of prosaic realism; a young boy bicycling alongside a stranger's car, peddling fast to keep up, or another child, in another city, leaning against a café jukebox and humming along tunelessly to "Psychotic Reaction." As long as there is road ahead, digressions like these last two, collect, and the push to keep moving abides.

But momentum isn't pure motion; it's also the power that inhabits a moving object. Meet Alice (Yella Rottländer), a nine-year-old girl who Philip (Rüdiger Vogler) is forced to care for while her mother, Lisa (Lisa Kreuzer), disappears for a few days. With nothing more than a photograph of her grandmother's home in Germany, Alice and Philip return to Europe and set out to find the house. In this odyssey, the capricious and improbable nature of their relationship--largely buoyed by Alice's intuitive silence and gamine stomp — outdoes the possibility of threat. Instead, their shared withdrawal and homelessness induces a sense of fantasy.

In one scene Phillip concedes and deposits Alice at the local police station in Wuppertal. In vintage Wenders design — serendipitous Americana souvenir — he attends a Chuck Berry concert in the same German city. The event is surreal. The departure is loud and electric, and resembles a dream. But once the show is over, as if waking from this dream, Alice reappears at Winter's car door. Though their reunion is expected, the way in which it materializes is almost divine. Like the Polaroids that Winter compulsively takes, she too 'develops' promptly and somewhat eerily.

There are two types of precocious girls that exist in film. The first being more patent, cherubic and dovelike, who parades her show business smile and displays a homespun sense of superiority towards adults. Her accessories? Germane. A balloon, a hula hoop, a gold fish, a letter from a dead father, a loose ribbon in her hair that she might later tie around a boy's wrist. This girl asks questions about morals, her mother's first time, and local, unsolved murder mysteries. We won't wonder about her once the movie is over.

And then there are girls like Alice. Agile around adults yet slightly departed. Breathless. She sort of knows what's going on in the next room; she is suspicious of sex. She is clever but not cheeky and her affections might be confused as indifference. We envy her retroactively, hope to win her approval, and wonder about her adolescence: in love for the first time, she'll appear disenchanted; corruptible and sometimes curt, she'll still wear the same ALASKA varsity jacket from childhood. We imagine her in the future as slightly inelegant, a fast runner, whip-smart, warmhearted but impatient. Alice's gestures anticipate a later self rather than entertain a temporary quirk or tap dance.

For Philip, she offers something foreign, or at the very least, forgotten: the dewy and resolute charges of childhood. Alienated by the American landscape, Winter meets Alice at a particularly lonely time in his life. "Not one picture leaves you in peace," he announces near the beginning as he considers the lifelessness of his Polaroids — a rest stop like any rest stop; the framed ashen fragment of a nameless beach. But Alice does not fill this void, she joins it.

At first their exchanges are limited and take on a Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, incoherence. Later he takes a Polaroid of Alice as they ride the ferry. As it develops, Winter's worn-out reflection appears on the photograph. A barefaced metaphor, this image does however band with the movie's larger influence. While some films wonderfully entertain and distract, and offer immediate familiarity, humor, distress, fear, or romance, others impart mood and psychic moments of recognition that inexplicably resonate despite foreign intrigue, foreign relationships, humiliation and heartache. Instead of happening to you, these movies chime in and out with discerning reciprocity.

Less involved with choice, Alice in the Cities patiently imparts emotion to inaction. Stillness, like Philip slowly unplugging the bathtub with his toe, is who we are when our emotions no longer have dramatic gestures or words. Delay, dissatisfaction: these sensations cannot be seized in one cartoonish sigh. These sensations exist uninterrupted. Like Alice, slouched in the passenger seat, as if her entire self might stem from the center of her wilted torso. When I see it, I will know, she repeats to Philip as they drive up and down Wuppertal's gangly streets. Her certainty tolls, and we believe her.

Durga Chew-Bose is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She tumbls here and twitters here.

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Reader Comments (3)

way better than Curly Sue.

September 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteraquameg

Will Oldham showed this as one of his picks at Cinefamily earlier this year. I had never seen it and I totally fell in love.

September 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

I love that this rarely mentioned Wenders film was celebrated on a site I have grown to respect more and more over the past few years. I fell in love with it by way of the local library's 'videotape' collection way back in the ancient early 90s. And like Forsyth's (sp) 'Housekeeping,' (another great sleeper this website has championed) this is a film I can't believe isn't on DVD. If it is, please correct me (in formats conducive to DVDplayers here of course). Anyways, again, thank you and much gratitude to you and the site for celebrating this film. If I had a top ten listing of cinematic moments, the panning shots moving from right to left of industrial Germany and the lost Alice wandering them, would be in there. And strangely enough, just a few weeks ago I actually read in one of Geoff Dyer's nonfiction works an aside of his where he mentioned being obsessed with this film and actually visiting the industrial towns of Germany. Anyways, I never write comments so this is maybe too long and break many a rules of online decorum, but my enthusiasm for this film's rare nod of recognition overrode my usual tendency to keep my opinions untyped. Thank you again, Duggan

September 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDuggan Phillips

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