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Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

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Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in wim wenders (4)


In Which Wim Wenders And Sam Shepard Begin To Understand Each Other

The Irredeemable World


Don't Come Knocking
dir. Wim Wenders
122 minutes

Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard's 1984 film Paris, Texas runs 147 long minutes. The central performance, by Harry Dean Stanton, is quite breathtaking in its solipsism, and the movie includes many of Wenders' signature shots of the harsh environment of the American West with which he fell in love. Like any film by Mr. Wenders, you have to wait a good hour to decide exactly how much up its own ass this production will end up being. His collaboration with Sam Shepard, then, seemed so unlikely precisely because the playwright got through to what actual people wanted and desired so much more organically than Wenders ever did.

If you could not tell, I was never the biggest fan of Paris, Texas, although it is a gorgeous and moving film. Wenders and Shepard finally reunited to atone for the sins of the past with 2005's Don't Come Knocking, which is substantially better in every way. Let me tell you why.

First of all, there is the matter of Sam Shepard's performance as the titular character, a vain and stupid actor named Howard Spence. Besides Harold Pinter, there probably has never been a playwright who was as good on film as Shepard, who is now no longer with us. Shepard was a genius for the stage; I mean he just knew exactly how everything should be played, but the amazing thing is he never wrote this in his scripts. His plays are all meant for the actors to do as they will, which is funny because he knew better than anyone how many bad actors there were after decades in the theater.

Buried Child was probably Shepard's best ever play, but 1980's True West was his broadest story and will probably end up his most well-known effort. The only Shepard play I ever saw live was Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly switching the main roles of True West, which kind of never made sense to me, even though they were both very good at it. The idea was it kept the concept of the two brothers fresh, and the actors enjoyed it. When I went to see True West at the Circle on the Square, Bruce Willis was sitting across from me, because he was doing True West on Showtime, maybe the worst version ever done of the play. He was horrified by what he was seeing, probably because he knew the role did not suit him.

The best part of True West and every Shepard play is the language. He knew exactly how people talked, and his characters did not talk the same. This was not David Mamet where it turned into this weird omnipoetic thing or Suzan Lori-Parks where the language overwhelmed everything and became more like a chorus. This was people and how the main fact of their speech patterns indicated their desires, ambitions, and flaws.

In Don't Come Knocking, he takes on this very slight, often drunken man who walks off the set of a Western he is filming in Utah. The first thing Howard Spence does after he escapes is go visit his mother (Eva Marie Saint). That's one of the things I enjoy most about Don't Come Knocking. His mother picks him up at the bus station, she has a couple scenes with him after that, and then he just goes on his way.

Howard heads to the Montana metropolis he passed through while he was working on another film. While he was there, he impregnated a waitress named Doreen (Jessica Lange) who he kind of had a thing for. He wants to get back to that, even though twenty years have passed. In Don't Come Knocking, she never takes him back, because this is not a Hollywood movie, thank God, it is a Sam Shepard play only with better sets, if not actors.

In that town of Butte is a woman named Sky (Sarah Polley). Sky recently lost her mother, and she carries the woman's ashes around in an urn. It was clear then that Polley was a dynamic talent, and her mere presence in Don't Come Knocking is completely overwhelming. Shepard has this great scene where he meets her and at first he thinks she's a fan, and even after she convinces him that she is not one, he still warms to her slowly. When you've been hurt the thing you learn is how dumb it is to trust someone in those first five minutes.

Sutter (Tim Roth) is an insurance man sent to bring Howard Spence back to the set by any means necessary. When he finally finds Howard, he handcuffs them together. This is such a Shepard thing, and it is a great onstage conceit in general. Roth has always been terrific when it comes to bringing a basic humanism to every kind of role, even that of the traditional antagonist. But as in many Shepard plays, the true antagonist is far more difficult to discern.

Shepard and Jessica Lange, his one-time wife, have this supercharged scene that takes place as they are walking through the main drag of the town. In this sequence, Wenders works considerable magic with windows and reflections, and the dialogue is so completely right for how people who know each other a little, but not a lot, make sense out of the conflict intrinsic to their lives.

Howard Spence knows that he has a son named Earl (Gabriel Mann) this entire time, and he goes to see him. Earl responds by throwing all of his own belongings out of his window onto the street and breaking up with his girlfriend Amber (Fairuza Balk). She sticks around anyway, sensing that this difficult moment is not really about her.

Polley is phenomenal in her scenes with Shepard, but she interacts with her potential stepbrother even better. in both circumstances she glows with a vital radiance all the other participants in Don't Come Knocking are so keen to recapture. We never do find out if Sky is actually Howard Spence's daughter, and it is implied that she is probably not. But that actually only improves things for Howard Spence, because he finds it easier to love someone he never was told he had to be responsible for than his actual son. In typical fashion for this great American author, one form of love ends up being a bridge, the only true path, to the other.

In every narrative, the idea is that by the end something has to change. Shepard gave this rule of stage a clever and brutal twist. He conceived of the idea that people could try to evolve, but nothing could actually change them - not dialogue, not action, not violence, not death - they could only react to it unconsciously, like putting on a winter coat to repel a cool breeze. Things were altered, but not necessarily what was needed.

The most redemption Howard Spence receives is a soft hug. This is not only enough for him, it is beyond his wildest expectations. Years and years of loneliness change what gives us pleasure; the merest thought of those we truly care for, not the return of the affection, can provide solace. It is enough to see and be around those we love.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.


In Which We Feel Separated From Wim Wenders By More Than Miles

Place Without A Name


Paris, Texas
dir. Wim Wenders
147 minutes

My anxiety about the future is only exceeded by the insurmountable fear that the past will return in a grotesque wave, vast and immitigable. I would like to believe in a general inconsequentiality that would allow for the course of my progress to be cut, when I want it to be, so that another course may begin anew.

I want some malleable theory of structuring experience to counter Joan Didion’s terrifying assertion in “Goodbye to All That” that “some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

It is perhaps for this reason in part that Wim Wenders’ 1984 masterpiece Paris, Texas affects me so deeply. It is a film that seeks to revive an immutable past so as to rectify a fractured present. The focus of Paris, Texas wavers between what was and what is slowly and gracefully. The past emerges anecdotally or through photographs or film reels. The past becomes a significant presence in Paris, Texas. That the film ends well is enough to temporarily stint my neurotic disdain for the unshakeable nature of the past. That its plot progresses in a manner trance-like, quiet and beautiful is enough to still the part of my mind that produces these monumental anxieties in the first place.

We meet Travis, the ravaged, quasi-mute protagonist of Paris, Texas, as he emerges from the basin of a canyon into a small town saloon. He walks with too much purpose for us to assume him merely a wanderer; a ludicrously ill-fitting suit worn with torn sandals gives him the impression of a quiet insanity. The suit and his face look equally worn, tarnished with wrinkles and gray-brown soot. He picks a handful of ice from the ice machine into dirt-browned hands, brings his hands to his mouth, swallows the ice, and falls plank-like to the floor.

For the first stretch of Paris, Texas, Travis remains silent. To the questions of the plump doctor with a throaty German accent called upon to rouse him, Travis is blank, wide-eyed, hazy. His brother is summoned from Los Angeles to retrieve him, and the two share an uneasy journey to the West Coast from the Texas-Mexico border. Walt plies Travis with questions regarding his four-year lapse from society and contact, and Travis stares back at him blankly.

An explanation of those missing four years is never supplied beyond Travis’ brief statement later on that he was in Mexico. He demonstrates throughout the film a compulsive desire to disappear, to fade away as much as one can manage while harboring still both body and mind. He seems to be alive only incidentally, so tormented by a past brokenness that he fails to function in his present reality.

It is jarring when we learn that he has a son, had a wife. The only connection he seems to have to the family he once had is a small series of old photographs that he carries with him in a plastic bag.

Travis' attempts to relate to people seem often impossibly strained. The chasm between Travis and his brother as they drive to the coast together feels painful and blatant, their relationship marked by emptiness, silence and an unknowing of one another. The soundtrack is sparse, silence punctuated with soft, twanging guitar. Mountains and open expanses of land frame their rental car.

Travis and Walt are shot often through windows or as reflections in motel mirrors, or sitting parallel to one another in awkward silence at roadside diners. Walt pushes for the fastest routes, while Travis twice attempts to escape in order to walk alone again without discernible destination. His drive with Walt represents a slow revival, during which Travis acquires better-fitting clothing and learns again to eat, to speak. We discover that he long ago bought a plot of land in Paris, Texas, but throughout the course of the film, neither he nor we ever go there. 

This initial portion of the film, much like a proper road trip, appears not to have any real destination. Wenders demonstrates a clear and profound affection for the American landscape, and the visual dimension of the film is enough to sustain interest through a plot that slowly and languidly unwinds.

Travis can be read as a strange perversion of the American cowboy, stony and dusty and bound intrinsically to the land. His journey with Walt features such sparse dialogue and interaction as to draw one’s attention to the dusty, dream-like, expansive Americana entirely foreign to me and my New England born-and-bred sensibilities. That they end up in Los Angeles does, for an instant, seem discomfiting, accidental, nearly impossible. Such disparate locales should be separated by more than distance, miles, land.

Wenders imparts upon the American landscape the sort of grandiose love that can only exist within people not from here. His vision is never at risk of collapsing into regionalism, nor of tidying itself into suburbia, nor affecting experiential bias. For a wandering narrative, the middle expanse of the United States is an optimal locale into which to drop one’s perpetually malcontented, wavering characters.

Wenders draws Travis in a story as winding and unfixed as Travis’ inner-mechanisms. In the process, he celebrates the seeming boundlessness of the American rural panorama with as much dedication and aesthetic sensibility as the Beats, but with a steadiness that feels more genuine and proves much less annoying.

Travis is reunited with his son Hunter when they arrive in Los Angeles. The two suffer a brief period of awkwardness and distance before Hunter’s anger seems to quietly subside. Watching a homemade film reel from years prior, Hunter smiles at his three year old self in his father’s lap at the wheel of a pick-up truck. Travis watches his estranged wife Jane dancing and laughing with buoyant curls, and he puts his head in his hands as his body visibly trembles. Shortly after, Hunter and Travis drive back to Texas to find Jane.

That the destination of the film should be a person, not a place, is befitting of a narrative that watches the movements of a chronic drifter. When Travis does find Jane, she is working at a peep booth in Houston. He speaks to her on a telephone and through a one-way mirror. He recounts to her the intensity of their dissolution. He apologizes for a relationship marked by violence, alcohol and jealousy, for a marriage that literally went up in flames. He describes running from their trailer, from the fire she’d started within it, and never turning back.

He speaks slowly, clearly and for much longer than we’ve seen him speak so far. Everything he says is all that we’ve wanted him to say throughout the entire film; we come to understand him, the breadth of his brokenness, and by watching her face fall while he speaks, we understand her, too.

Speaking to her through glass keeps her unattainable, a ghost still, as intangible as his memory of her. Watching their obstructed intimacy, I remembered the photograph he kept of her, and how he had, on their road trip, given the picture to Hunter to keep. It initially seemed to me that he carried the image to remind himself of her, but I think perhaps that a photograph was as much of her as he could handle. In giving the picture to Hunter, he relinquishes his only vestige of his marriage, a memory that has taken on a huge, impossibly painful form. It becomes clear, in that moment, that he will reunite Hunter with Jane and then he will leave again.

His leaving is the only possible outcome. Travis’ innate compulsion to flee from his life does not seem to indicate a desire for new beginnings, but rather a need to try to wander away from himself, his identity and history. And after reuniting Hunter and Jane, leaving is the only measure that ensures he will not break up his family again. It is his way of maintaining boundaries in his life; after having, temporarily, drudged up a painful past, he can now push it back to where it belongs and create a new foundation for a positive future for the family he loves but cannot be part of.

It is a bittersweet, soft sort of ending. After watching a film that moves back and forth through the southwest, that wavers between two different realities (that of then and of now), the conclusion of Paris, Texas feels finite and contained and satisfyingly tidy. There is symmetry in our leaving Travis alone again, as we found him, this time in the blue light of a parking lot walking toward somewhere. Hunter and Jane embrace in a hotel room. The simple chords of the twanging guitar that have followed us through the film lead us out.

It is comforting to exist temporarily in a universe that embodies some rule of life that all roads lead home. Travis' alienation and aimlessness seem inconsequential after he rebuilds a family for his son. In a film with such emptiness and scarcity, there is no greater intimacy.

Laura Hooberman is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Greenpoint. She last wrote in these pages about Last Tango in Paris. You can find her website here.

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In Which Just Saying It Could Even Make It Happen

Almost Divine


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. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here

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