By Ron Holloway | July 6, 2008
He’s Germany’s best known director, a welcomed guest at top international film festivals, a cultural icon whose reputation was boosted even more when he was elected to succeed Ingmar Bergman as president of the European Film Academy. Yet Wim has not made a good Wenders films for some time now. Would The Palermo Shooting (Germany/Italy, 2008) stop the bleeding?
Although deemed something of a critical disaster by many Cannes veterans, The Palermo Shooting nevertheless marked Wim Wenders’s ninth entry in the Côte d’Azur sweepstakes – a record that alone puts him head and shoulders over others in contention for this year’s Palme d’Or. But there’s more to the Wenders story than just that. Wim had become a kind of Cannes ritual, if such is possible in today’s festival politics. One look at that record raises not only eyebrows, but also the question: How did he do it?
His first appearance in the Cannes competition was 32 years ago, when his Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road) (1976), photographed by ace cinematographer Robby Müller in black-and-white, was awarded the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize. Shot from a script that barely covered a page, Kings of the Road stands today as one of the high-water marks of New German Cinema. Improvisation, from that time on, became his directorial trademark.
“Most stories are quite self-centered and have a tendency to push everything else aside,” he once said in an interview. “All the stuff you have to show in the course of a film just to satisfy the dramatic construction and keep the storyline going. But films can do so much more than just transport a plot!”
The following year, Wim Wenders returned to Cannes with Der amerikanische Freund (The American Friend) (1977). Loosely based on a Patricia Highsmith mystery thriller, The American Friend starred Dennis Hopper among a bevy of name directors: Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Daniel Schmid, and Jean Eustache (all since deceased). Fast forward thirty years, and Hopper has rejoined Wenders in The Palermo Shooting to impersonate Death, the mysterious cloaked figure pursuing the photographer Finn – an alter ego for the director himself, played by Campino, the leader of Die Toten Hosen rock-‘n-roll band – from Düsseldorf to Palermo. Both Wim and Campino were born and raised in Düsseldorf.
Wenders’s third visit to Cannes, with Hammett (1982), a production for American Zoetrope, is the one he least likes to talk about. The San Francisco story of hardboiled detective writer Dashiell Hammett living one of his own stories in real life, Hammett went through several rewrites before finally limping its way into production. While in Cannes with Hammett, he hit upon the idea of renting an hotel room in the Carlton to allow filmmakers an opportunity to speak undisturbed to a turned-on video camera about film art. Chambre 666 (1982) was the first of many amusing festival ploys Wenders used at random in the years to come. Other ploys he was to master were such image eyecatchers as changing the color of his glasses, cutting his hair to aptly fit the style of the film production, wearing chic Japanese dress, mumbling something cryptic into the camera during interviews to avoid answering direct questions, taking snapshots of his travels for exhibitions in world-wide Goethe Institutes, and exchanging female partners almost on a whim.
Defiant over the Hollywood Hammett debacle, Wim returned to Europe to shoot quickly on a shoestring Der Stand der Dinge (The State of Things) (1982), the wacky story of a film crew in Portugal about to run out of film. Featuring Samuel Fuller and Roger Corman in supporting roles, The State of Things was entered in the Venice film festival – and won the Golden Lion.
Supported by German and European film funds, Wenders enlisted American playwright Sam Shepard to collaborate with him on Paris, Texas (1984), awarded the Golden Palm at Cannes. Originally, Sam Shepard was to play the lead role in Paris, Texas, but due to scheduling conflicts the lot fell to Harry Dean Stanton instead. Natassja Kinski and Bernhard Wicki also starred in this rambling film about a man wandering around the Texas desert. At this stage in Wim Wenders career, he had already mastered the inside-out of festival politics. The print of Paris, Texas came directly from the lab to the projection room at Cannes. Interviews, given in three different languages, were with picked journalists. Also, the only preview of the film’s contents before the press screening of Paris, Texas at Cannes was a “teaser” broadcast on French television. That, too, was an easy option, for Wenders had lived for a time as an art student in Paris and speaks French fluently.
From then on, like a magician, Wim Wenders was a welcomed guest in the Cannes competition, an auteur who could charm Cannes cineastes with a ever expanding grabbag of tricks. Veteran French cinematographer Henri Alekan replaced Robby Müller to lens his Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) (1984), the tale of a fallen angel set in Berlin. Wenders was awarded Best Director. In 1989, he served as President of the International Jury – under his aegis, Steven Soderburgh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (USA) was awarded the Palme d’Or. His In weiter Ferne, so nah (Far Away, So Close) (1993), the sequel to Wings of Desire, was awarded the runnerup Grand Jury Prize. Constructed on mood, rather than narrative, its overlapping dialogue seemed to free himself entirely from the burden of a screenplay.
About this time, Wim Wenders also became intrigued by the technological side of filmmaking. The End of Violence (1997), set in California, projected a future in which human life would be completely controlled by satellite surveillance. Since nobody could make heads or tails of the story, the film was a box-office flop. In 2003, he was back at Cannes again, this time as president of the Caméra d’Or Jury. Not surprising, Christoffer Boe’s experimental Reconstruction (Denmark) in the International Critics Week was awarded Best First Feature. The film went nowhere on the commercial market.
Returning to the United States to film Don’t Come Knocking (2005), a thematic update on Paris, Texas and Hammett, Wim pulled out all the stops to promote the film in the French press and media. His portrait appeared on the front page of the Le Monde special edition along with an article on films not-to-be-missed among Cannes entries. Die Zeit, the prestigious German weekly, also featured the director’s remembrances of his many visits to Cannes – particularly the night he played flipper (“to calm my nerves”) on a pin-ball machine in the bar of the Petit Carlton on the rainy night that Paris, Texas premiered in the Palais des Festivals.
Even Sam Shepard was back in Don’t Come Knocking, this time not just as screenwriter but also as the actor playing Howard Spence, the burnt-out Western star who gallops off the set in the middle of production. Shot partially in Moab, Utah (John Ford country), partially in Butte, Montana (Dashiell Hammett country), Don’t Come Knocking came across as a backlot B-Western – a film of pretense and without much depth.
Much the same is true of Wim Wenders’s latest Cannes venture, The Palermo Shooting. “I wanted to make a film like Rock-‘n-Roll again – bold and daring, adventurous without fitting a bill, without being afraid to ‘say something,’ without forethought or scheming,” he stated in an interview. “That is where I wanted to pick up with The Palermo Shooting, by exploring once again the terrain of a character and his story – not knowing it fully in advance. I wanted to tell a story without knowing how it would end, to know my subject and my topics without having to peg them to a story from the beginning.”
Set in the mythical city of death, The Palermo Shooting is a story about Death personified. Death in a clinch with a burnt-out photographer-filmmaker. Death, too, of Wim Wenders cinema. Finn, a high-paid chic-fashion photographer, whose mobile-phone is always ringing, is tired of globe-trotting fashion shoots. Campino’s battered face and tattooed physique tells half the story. The other half is Campino’s encounter with Death. One evening, on a Düsseldorf Autobahn, Finn nearly plows his red antique convertible into an approaching vehicle while shooting wildly with his wheel-around camera. By accident, one photo captures the image of Death – Dennis Hopper cloaked behind in a grey hood – who is so enraged that he takes off in pursuit.
A score of pop songs on Campino’s iPod later, Death catches up with the hip photographer in Palermo, a Mediterranean city bathed in sunshine with a striking medieval core and a traditional Festival of Death. Along the way, Death has been firing spectral arrows at Finn that hit and pain, but leave no trace immediately after impact. The mystery is half-solved when Finn meets the beautiful Flavia (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), an art restorer working on a 14th-century painting by an unknown Sicilian master. The painting features Death shooting arrows at the Wicked and Depraved in Church and State. When Campino and Death finally meet face-to-face, they exchange pseudo philosophical thoughts on the nature of existence, the way of worldly flesh and fetish, and Death’s view that analog film is more artistic than digital snapshots. Also, Death is “sick of playing the bad guy”!
As if to underscore that Death is the final arbitrator, Wim Wenders dedicated The Palermo Shooting “to Ingmar and Michelangelo” – that specious ploy drew spontaenous boos at the Cannes press screening. According to reports, next on Wim’s shooting schedule is a horror movie shot in Tokyo. Willem Dafoe in the role of Dennis Hopper. In between, he has been asked to serve as president of the international jury at Venice.
– Ron Holloway
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