Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 6, February 2004

 

 

Peter Ruppert

 

The Perils and Possibilities of Story:

Alexander Graf's _The Cinema of Wim Wenders_

 

 

Alexander Graf

_The Cinema of Wim Wenders: The Celluloid Highway_

London: Wallflower Press, 2002

ISBN 1-903364-29-9

ix + 179pp.

 

'Stories are impossible, but it's impossible to live without them.' Wim Wenders

 

Alexander Graf's perceptive and intelligent introduction to the cinema of Wim Wenders recalls Godard's astute observation that the French don't tell stories; they do something else. According to Graf, Wenders has been trying to do 'something else' throughout his long career as a filmmaker. Convinced that the film image and the filmic story are incompatible, Wenders has explored the possibilities of a cinema without the need for stories, or, more accurately, a cinema in which stories provide the minimal framework for the presentation of images. Graf's book examines the elementary theoretical positions that motivate Wenders's rejection of traditional movie narratives and his passionate commitment to a cinema of unmediated visual perception based on the affective richness of the moving sound image. Graf's thesis is that this fundamental conflict between image and story informs Wenders's themes, production methods, and critical writings, and constitutes the unifying factor in his diverse work in film and other media. This conflict, I would add, and Wenders's uneven success in resolving it, also accounts for the recurring criticism that his films are narratively weak, and for his reputation as a failed storyteller.

 

Citing theorists like Bela Balazs, Andre Bazin, and Siegfried Kracauer, Wenders has made the film image the technical and aesthetic basis of his cinema. Graf shows how, like his mentors, Wenders is impressed by the idea that photography is a mechanical process for recording the physical world. It is this capacity of photography to objectively record reality, Wenders believes, that promotes our awareness of physical existence, making it transparent and bringing us to a closer connection with the real world. The accurate pictorial reproduction of physical reality -- highlighting its fleeting nature and rescuing it from the transience of time -- is, for Wenders, not only an aesthetic goal, but also a profoundly ethical one. The mission of the cinema, as Wenders's sees it, is to preserve and protect the integrity of the image from anything that threatens the freedom of vision that it can provide.

 

Foremost among these threats, in Wenders's view, is our pernicious need for stories. Although Wenders recognizes the therapeutic importance of stories, he deeply distrusts them: 'In the relationship between story and image', he writes, 'I see story as a kind of vampire, trying to suck the blood from an image' (3). His conviction, as Graf demonstrates, is that stories falsify and pervert the truth latent within the filmic image; they manipulate the free flow of images, destroy their temporal relationships to reality, build illusory connections between phenomena, and bring about 'lies, nothing but lies, and the biggest lie is that they show coherence where there is none' (3). Graf's book focuses on theoretical issues underpinning Wenders's preoccupation with this story/image conflict, analyzes how these two elements interact in the films, and investigates the various strategies that Wenders has employed to circumvent this conflict.

 

Divided into three long chapters, plus a brief Introduction and a Conclusion, Graf's book pursues the contradiction between Wenders's claim that he rejects stories, and the obvious fact that his films do tell stories. Chapter One focuses on Wenders's views on the filmic image and its intimate relationship to reality. Chapter Two analyzes the narrative structures of the kinds of stories that Wenders does manage to tell. And Chapter Three provides close readings of six of Wenders's films, including the kind of meditative documentary for which Wenders is well known.

 

In the Introduction Graf notes the great diversity of theme, form, and genre of Wenders's prolific output -- 17 feature films, 11 short films, 7 documentaries, 2 television films, music videos, and numerous advertising films, along with his work as a photographer. He sketches Wenders's relationship with directors of the New German Cinema, and documents the sources of inspiration and influence -- Nicholas Ray, John Ford, the road film, film noir, the Western, American music. Often seen as one of the key figures of the New German Cinema, Graf argues that Wenders was actually 'more an outsider . . . than and insider' (7), and that American culture and Hollywood are the strongest influences on his work. (In _Kings of the Road_, for example, one of the characters utters the famous line 'the Yanks had colonized our subconscious'. Critics generally agree that they have certainly colonized Wenders's films. Probably no other filmmaker has dealt with the American presence in the European subconscious as directly and as often as Wenders has.) Given the wide variety of genre and media that Wenders's work encompasses, Graf rejects an approach to his work along the lines of a national cinema as too restrictive. He finds the term 'European director' insufficient. What best summarizes Wenders's diverse output and constitutes its unifying feature, Graf maintains, is the image/story problematic.

 

Graf's detailed analyses of the six films, then, are performed within the context of Wenders's preoccupation with the conflict between image and story. For Graf, all of Wenders's films are motivated by the search for a narrative structure that allows the images to retain their affective richness and integrity. Avoiding conventional patterns of plot, Wenders's understated and diffuse narratives provide little more than a coherent context for the presentation of images. Graf notes that Wenders avoids conventional plot constructions, opting instead for episodic, fragmented, open-ended structures in which each sequence remains autonomous and yet relates to others 'like beads on a necklace' (48). From the perspective of the image/story dialectic, Wenders's entire oeuvre is 'an ongoing exploration, an experiment in progress' (92).

 

It is not surprising that Graf finds in each film a variation on Wenders's central dilemma. _Alice in the Cities_ (1974), Wenders's first independent production, is a road movie with a linear, open, episodic narrative. Graf cites scenes and sequences that do not build up meanings or further the narrative -- they are just there, sufficient unto themselves, documenting an event in space and time. The film also foregrounds perception, the act of seeing (children in Wenders's films seem to enjoy the purest perception, a pure ontological gaze), and a favorite theme of Wenders's: the inflation and commodification of images on American television -- 'an optical toxin' (80) -- and how advertising has eroded and degraded American cinematic traditions.

 

_Paris, Texas_ (1984), another experiment in cinematic form, exhibits one of the strongest narrative structures in Wenders's work, recalling for Graf the narratives of the earlier _The American Friend _ (1977) and _Hammett_ (1982). This time Wenders worked from a script by Sam Shepard, allowed the narrative to develop within a closed space, and relied more on dramatic tension. The film even culminates in a dramatic peak and a sense of closure. Graf finds again that 'the film is about images, about degraded images, and about the degraded images men can have of women' (103).

 

More than _Paris, Texas_, _Wings of Desire_ (1987) is, in Graf's reading, 'a fragmentary collection of impressions, without ever seeking to develop a story out of these' (130). Scripted by Peter Handke, the film thematizes both the image and the search for a story, and deals with the tensions between European and American cultural identity. This remarkable film seems to blend Wenders's desire for meaning-making hypnotic images with an episodic structure and a diffuse, unassertive story. Unlike many critics who see the story in this film as a more positive force in Wenders's work, Graf insists that the film reiterates Wenders's position regarding the role of stories, as expressed in _The State of Things_ (1982): 'Stories only exist in stories (whereas life goes by without the need to turn it into stories)' (131).

 

Wenders's goal, according to Graf, is to accommodate the demands of spectators for story, without compromising his passionate position on the film's image. The result, as Graf demonstrates again and again, is that Wenders uses story only as a frame to structure his films: the films are episodic, with minimal editing, and avoid as much as possible unrelated time sequences and changes in location. The moving sound image transmits most of the information in these films, and none of Wenders's films tell stories so assertive that the images are subordinate to the story.

 

Graf's primary interest is to describe and elaborate the basic premises of Wenders's film aesthetic. Although he admits that Wenders's meditations on the cinema 'can sometimes leave an impression of puerile idealism' (151), Graf generally refrains from staging a full-scale critical interrogation and refutation of Wenders's premises. No doubt Wenders's film aesthetic is more of personal moral stance than a substantial theoretical position on the nature of cinema. Wenders's weighty statements about unmediated visual perception and the redemption of the real can strike the reader as naive, essentialist, and ahistorical, especially at a time when current theory emphasizes the inaccessibility of the real, and the constitutive process and mediating structures of representation. Wenders's belief that cinematography bears an unimpeachable witness to 'things as they are', and provides an ontological bond between representation and what it represents, invokes a metaphysics of presence that leads to the misrecognition that images can exist somehow in an unmediated, nonmedialized, nonedited form. For Wenders, only film can redeem the real. The temporal and spatial separation of images from the realities they depict -- making them reproductions, mere illusions of reality, and spectacle -- seems to have little bearing on Wenders's desire for an unmediated representation of reality. Unlike Farber's special high tech camera in _Until the End of the World_ (which records not optical images, but the neurological event of seeing), moving film images (even 'true ones') do not automatically imprint on our brains -- they are negotiated, mediated by our point of view, our experiences, our memories. Even if we grant that film images have a latent truth-telling potential and can preserve the real world, they are also, as Graf points out, highly fragile and open to abuse. Just like stories, they can be used to manipulate, distort, and tell lies.

 

But there is also much that is attractive and appealing about Wenders's film aesthetic. His ideal, after all, is to restore an existential openness and visual richness to the film experience and to safeguard the viewer's freedom. Cinema, for Wenders, is not just as sensuous object, but a sensual, sensing, sense-making process -- a performative act that implicates the viewer in a kind of double seeing: the film sees the world as visible images and the viewer sees the images both as world and the seeing of the world. Wenders's respect for the appearance of physical reality, his desire to waken the spirit in things, to narrate the flow of time in images, suggests that he remains committed to the high modernist aesthetic and ethical project to redeem everyday life in and through film. Graf observes that Wenders's approach to filmmaking is 'purely phenomenological' (70), an approach that promotes creative perception of images, remains open to the visible world, and allows things to present and represent themselves, in order to uncover their secret. Unlike Eisenstein's montage, which represents an analytic and violent approach to life, showing our maladjustment to the world we live in, Wenders's cinema patiently probes, offering us a poetics of film which values contemplation, harmony, accord. Wenders's desire is to show things 'as they are', to avoid the consumption of images by story, a cinema that carries on an incessant dialogue with reality. Like Balazs and Bazin, Wenders sees a genetic link between the image and the physical world, a link that allows for discourse with the real world, and opens the possibility that we might see what we had previously ignored.

 

Overall, Graf provides a balanced, penetrating, and coherent introduction to the work of Wim Wenders. The strength of Graf's book is in its exposition of Wenders's film aesthetic, and the clarity of his explanations. Unlike many introductory books of this kind, Graf manages to take us to the core of Wenders's cinema. It may seem churlish, then, to criticize a book that is so insightful and informed. But I must say that I found the 13 stills from Wenders's films arbitrarily chosen and not always helpful as illustrations. There are no captions explaining the relevance of the images shown and there is little or no direct discussion of their significance in Graf's text. Obviously, the poor quality of the reproductions are especially disappointing given Wenders's valorization and hypostatization of images. Furthermore, Graf's provides little in terms of Wenders's international career as a filmmaker, a career that extends over four decades. There is, for example, only a brief mention of Wenders's misadventures in Hollywood and his disputes with Francis Ford Coppola. Nor is Graf interested in pursuing Wenders's friendship with Bono and Salmon Rushdie.

 

More significant, perhaps, is Graf's failure to mention the slate of critical and box-office failures that Wenders has made since the demise of the Berlin Wall. _Until the End of the World_ (1991) was generally dismissed by critics as an addled futuristic drama, _Far Away, So Close_ (1993) was seen as a dull and drab sequel to _Wings of Desire_, and _The End of Violence_ (1997), was criticized as a pompous and lugubrious meditation on identity. Wenders's only success in this period was _The Buena Vista Social Club_ (1999), a documentary on the legendary Cuban jazz musicians, which was nominated for an Academy award and which made for compelling viewing.

 

At a recent London screening of _The Soul of Man_ -- Wenders's most recent film -- he stated that the narrative only came together during the editing process, as if by accident. Still obsessed with the salutary power of the image and still struggling with story, Wenders's comment after the screening was: 'It's funny, but the one thing they didn't teach me in film school was that you could say cut.'

 

Florida State University

Tallahassee, Florida, USA

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004.

 

 

Peter Ruppert, 'The Perils and Possibilities of Story: Alexander Graf's _The Cinema of Wim Wenders_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 6, February 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n6ruppert>.

 

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