on 17 March 2010
The nomenclature under which these films are brought together, 'Documentaries', is not at all indicative of the style or content of these films. The reason that the term documentaries applies is that, in a very narrow sense, these films are not about fiction. This normally implies that the director is trying to lay bare a set of facts, or documents, in the same way that we may go to the library to check our facts, or an attempt to draw together information from disparate sources.
Murnau's film Nosferatu was conceived as a 'Symphony of Horror', and indeed Wenders' films have the feel of symphonic-like compositional techniques. Every frame (if this is not exaggerating) has a sense of the importance of 'now' in very much the same way that musical composition has a sense of the quality of the note that is being played now and now. This is such a rare thing in film making, although much more prevalent on the European continent and with Ozu's films from Japan. One of the films included in this set is Tokyo-Ga, which is a tribute to Ozu, but all the films here are, in my opinion, films that pay homage to the human character in a similar way to Ozu. That is, they are a homage to humanity. A homage to respect and beauty, irrespective of circumstance. How do these works achieve such goals? By letting things be; By not appearing to sub-ordinate the people in the films to a will of exploitation and vainglory.
Trying to describe the individual films themselves is, pretty much, a waste of time as I do not have the talent. It would be like the difference between trying to describe a painting and the way that painting makes you feel. I should however make something of an exception for 'Nick's Film'. It is very easy to make trite remarks about disease like 'I hate cancer', but when faced with standing by as those we love are taken from us in this way is very difficult. 'Nick's Film' follows the exploits of Nicholas Ray and Wim Wenders through some of Ray's final moments. 'Nick's Film' is, for me, charged with as much emotion as I can bear and stands as a triumph of dignity and compassion. No film has had quite the effect on me that this has had, enabling me to walk just that bit taller in moments of my deepest distress. Revealing such beauty in the human condition (even in our darkest moments) is what makes all these films true works of art.
I have updated this review piecemeal as I have watched the films over the past year.
One of the recent Axiom run of Wenders titles. It comes in a light card slip case, with the five disks in a foldout cardboard and plastic case with descriptive text. There is also a four page pamphlet Interview with Wim Wenders and a twenty page booklet on the documentaries.
Notebook on Cities and Clothes, which sounds like an early Talking Heads album is actually about the fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. It is a relaxed and arty film, with some classic Robby Muller shots of cities. It reflects on creativity and film making. Often he uses a film camera to capture a video he has taken earlier. Layering images upon images. At times Wim and Yohji are just hanging out playing pool together. The soundtrack is by Laurent Petitgand and is enjoyably striking. If you enjoy Wenders' films then you will enjoy this, it works in very much the same relaxed but contemplative way.
The extras on the disk are a feature length commentary by Wenders, a few deleted scenes with commentary by Wenders and a 12 years later feature that is around six minutes long. These are all quite fun.
Tokyo-Ga is less successful. Shot in Japan it is ostensibly about the Japanese director Ozu, opening and closing with extracts from a very ropey copy of one of his films. It also includes interviews with a frequent cast member and a crew member. There is also a chat with a dapper and suitably intense Werner Herzog, and we get a glance of Chris Marker (La Jetee). But mainly there is an incredible amount of pointing the camera at things for a very long time. You get the impression that Wenders found Japan bewildering, but had little to say beyond that. The music, again by Laurent Petitgand is ominous but gets repetitive. The disc extras are similarly half hearted, ten minutes of deleted scenes with no commentary.
Lightning over water - Nick's Story -is a documentary about making a documentary about Nicholas Ray, director of Rebel without a Cause and darling of the European new wave. Ray was dying of cancer and the film is decidedly uncomfortable watching. It is beyond simply a question of taste, is it even ethical to make a film in such circumstances. The overall slowness and uncertainty contribute to making it borderline unwatchable. I get the impression that Wenders himself remains uncomfortable about the film, and I could not recommend it. Overall I felt that the filmed meditations on film making were in poor taste and inappropriate in this context. There is a feature length commentary and further video footage of Ray available as extras.
Room 666 - is a short 44 minute series of monologues by various film directors on the future of film. It was recorded at Cannes in 1982, and is interesting not just about film but about creativity and the pressures of commercialism. Jean-Luc Godard probably has the longest monologue, the others are briefer, with Herzog, Speilberg, Seidelman being the ones that I found most interesting. There are no extras supplied. The music by Jürgen Knieper, a long time Wenders collaborator is reminiscent of that from the State of Things which he also scored. At 44 minutes it does not outstay its welcome, intriguing stuff.
A Trick of the Light - was made with film students over three years, and is about the Skladanowsky Brothers - earlier pioneers of film in Germany. Of all these films it is probably the most engaging. It mixes up recreations, and interviews with considerable charm and invention. The music by Laurent Petitgand is jolly and of the period. While it might be frustrating as a strictly informative documentary, it instills the period with life and relevance. It is a little overlong and self indulgent, but for me the charm of the characters and story won over. There is a lengthy play out sequence with accompanying music, if you skip this, all you will miss is the music. Not a film to watch in a hurry, but for me, probably the best film in the box. For extras there is a director commentary and some deleted scenes.