Lightning Over Water (DVD)
When the time came for German filmmaker Wim Wenders to name his production company, it couldn't have taken long to come up with "Road Movies." Wenders began his career making road movies almost exclusively, and in some respects, he never stopped. But where the Wenders road film owed a heavy debt to the American variety, there was still no mistaking one for the other. The journey still mattered more than the destination, but the writer-director made the genre a magnet for other concerns. He examined the spiritual dislocation that accompanied the physical kindthe way the freedom of the road could mirror a kind of existential terrorand he discovered, in the passing scenery, a Germany still unsteady from WWII and torn between tradition and the encroachment of American pop culture. In the '80s, Wenders earned attention and praise for taking a seraph's-eye view of Berlin with Wings Of Desire, but his quintessential film of the '70s was the low-to-the-ground Kings Of The Road, which somehow made a three-hour epic about two men traveling up and down the border between East and West Germany, repairing old movie projectors and listening to rock 'n' roll, as compelling as a David Lean classic. Like many of Wenders' movies from the '70s (and smaller-scale projects from later decades), Kings has been tough to find on video for a while, but it's due later in an ongoing series of reissues inaugurated by three diverse titles. Adapting Ripley's Game, the third of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels, 1977's The American Friend knits Wenders' ongoing concerns into a thriller in the Hitchcock mold. Suffering from a chronic blood disease, Hamburg picture framer and antique restorer Bruno Ganz gets drawn into a murder plot instigated by cowboy-hat-wearing art dealer Dennis Hopper, an American with a well-deserved sinister reputation. As Hopper's scheme progresses, the men form a bond of unexpected complexity, founded on deceit, solidified by mutual interest, driven by jealousy and desperation, and ultimately sealed in a strange kind of affection. On Friend's DVD commentary track, Wenders discusses how he borrowed the film's look from Edward Hopper. That influence endures in Wenders' recent projects, but seeing Hopper's dead-end cityscapes and hard-luck drifters relocated to a Europe equally unsure of its direction becomes a skeleton key to understanding Wenders' work. Another American influence (and American Friend bit player), Nicholas Ray serves as the subject of Lightning Over Water. Director of Rebel Without A Cause, Johnny Guitar, In A Lonely Place, and others, Ray became a Hollywood exile after a reversal of his commercial fortunes in the early '60s. He spent his time teaching, abusing substances, and working on an unfinished experimental magnum opus called We Can't Go Home Againa Wenders title if ever there was one. Shot in 1979, as Ray rarely journeyed from his deathbed and as Wenders took a break from shooting his troubled first Hollywood film (Hammett), Lightning Over Water is credited as a co-directing job between the two of them. It says more about the moral and therapeutic value of art and work than it does about Ray. Neither documentary nor narrative, it keeps pausing for odd asides and to dwell on Ray's physical decline and Wenders' own emotions, when the subject demands a greater focus. Even if it's not an ideal last testament, it still qualifies as an act of virtue that somebody even attempted to make one. Wenders has said that he would still have made the movie even if his cameras were empty, and the emotions behind every moment of Lightning support that claim. The 1989 documentary Notebook On Cities And Clothes, on the other hand, barely qualifies as an infomercial. Tedious even at 81 minutes, it follows designer Yohji Yamamoto as he prepares a new collection. For Wenders, this involves many shots of fabric being cut, some ponderous thoughts on the difference between film and video, and one cool device (the juxtaposition of the two media against one another) repeated again and again. In one of the more comic moments, Wenders professes an almost metaphysical connection to Yamamoto's clothes, but even in this halfhearted film, it's hard to question his sincerity. When the designer talks about feeling separated from his country of birth, the way cities can feel like nations unto themselves, the ephemeral nature of art, and mining the past for visions of the future, he couldn't sound more like a Wenders character if he'd been working from a script.