Born to Run (and to Film): Wim Wenders Series Continues

The second weekend of the German director's retrospective includes "The American Friend" and "Paris, Texas."

The second weekend of The Northwest Film Center’s retrospective “Wim Wenders: Portraits from Along the Road” features some of the German director’s most accomplished work.  If the films screened last week were the work of someone exploring the possibilities of cinematic storytelling, the ones on deck show Wenders’ cementing his identity as a filmmaker and searching for his place within the history and industry surrounding the form.

In his early features “Alice in the Cities” and “The Wrong Move,” Wenders’ protagonists are a journalist who takes up photography and an aspiring author. In 1976’s “Kings of the Road,” the concluding part of his “Road Movies” trilogy, Wenders’ on-screen correlative, actor Rudiger Vogler, plays an itinerant projectionist named Bruno who travels from village to village repairing the machinery of movies.

Rudiger Vogler in "Kings of the Road"

Rudiger Vogler in “Kings of the Road”

The film opens with a conversation between Bruno and a cinema owner who recalls the glory days of silent films like “Die Nibelungen” and “Ben-Hur,” and the cinematic references pile up from there. After Bruno rescues a lost soul named Richard (Hanns Zichsler) who has driven his Volkswagen into a river, the pair form an existential-bromance sort of bond, traveling the byways along the border between East and West Germany.

Bruno’s usual costume, a pair of striped overalls, is as much his trademark as Chaplin’s cane or Keaton’s straw boater. In one sequence, the two men are repairing a speaker prior to a presentation in a school auditorium, and their backlit antics behind the movie screen entertain the assembled children as much as any silent film comedy. This post-1968 version of Huck & Jim floats along  side roads and through forgotten towns, their truckload of cinema ready to transport them to the past or the future, or even to help them fall in love, if only for a night.

I said that “Kings of the Road” starts with a conversation, but it actually begins with its own technical specs as opening credits: “in black & white, widescreen 1.66:1 and production sound, shot in 11 weeks between July 1 and October 31, 1975,” and so on. This sly self-consciousness about the filmmaking process is even more evident in 1982’s “The State of Things,” but in a much more curdled vein.

To understand why requires mentioning a film that’s not part of the Film Center’s series, the misbegotten “Hammett.”

Dennis Hopper in "The American Friend."

Dennis Hopper in “The American Friend.”

Wenders followed up “Kings of the Road” with 1977’s “The American Friend,” which was based on a novel by American crime writer Patricia Highsmith. It’s the director’s homage to film noir, features his first American lead (Dennis Hopper as Highsmith’s iconic antihero Tom Ripley), and has two of Hollywood’s most famously idiosyncratic auteurs (Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray) in supporting roles. It’s no surprise that Wenders was approached by producer Francis Ford Coppola to direct what would be his American debut, a fictional take on the life of pulp novelist Dashiell Hammett.

That experience, as it has for so many European filmmakers in Hollywood, turned into something of a nightmare. The movie was shot in 1979, essentially re-shot in 1981, and was eventually released in 1982 with, say some sources, only 30% of it drawn from Wenders’ footage. By that time, Wenders had completed a whole other feature, “The State of Things,” in which a filmmaker and his cast and crew are screwed over by their producer. Coincidence? Probably not.

Samuel Fuller, Patrick Bachau, and others in "The State of Things"

Samuel Fuller, Patrick Bachau, and others in “The State of Things”

Director Freidrich Munro (Patrick Bachau) is working on a postapocalyptic sci-fi B-movie in a seaside Portuguese town when his cameraman (Sam Fuller again) informs him that they are out of film and money. After languishing in the town’s dilapidated resort hotel for days while trying to reach the producer, Friedrich hops on a plane and heads to Los Angeles. In contrast to the Road Movie trilogy, “The State of Things” is about people who’ve come to an abrupt and paralyzing halt.

Once in L.A., Friedrich has encounters with a lawyer played by Roger Corman and eventually gets quasi-kidnapped by his mobile-home-dwelling producer (Allen Garfield, billed here as Allen Goorwitz). The atmospheric of cinephilia saturates these sections, with shout-outs to (then-)forgotten film noir classics like “They Drive By Night” and “Thieves’ Highway” juxtaposed against oppressive billboards for the forgettable crop of current box-office hits (“Ordinary People,” Ringo Starr in “Caveman”). Like Woody Allen had done with “Stardust Memories” and the Coen brothers would later do with “Barton Fink,” Wenders turned artistic frustration into a scathing, highly entertaining expression of itself.

Harry Dean Stanton in "Paris, Texas"

Harry Dean Stanton in “Paris, Texas”

This sort of primal scream can often clear a filmmaker’s aesthetic throat, and in Wenders’ case, it led directly to perhaps his greatest accomplishment, 1984’s “Paris, Texas.” This film begins a whole new chapter in the director’s career. Instead of fleeing America after the debacle of “Hammett,” he dove headlong into its landscapes and mythologies. (With European financing, though.)

“Paris, Texas” was written by Sam Shepard and adapted by L.M. Kit Carson, and on the surface it seems to fit the Wenders road-movie template. A haggard soul named Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) is found wandering in the south Texas desert after having been missing for four years. He’s retrieved by his brother (Dean Stockwell), who reunites Travis in Los Angeles with his young son Hunter. Travis then takes Hunter on a trip back to Texas in order to confront the events that led to his disappearance and the woman (Natassja Kinski) he left behind.

It’s a simple, moving story that’s as much about the blues—both the color of a wide Texas sky and the Ry Cooder soundtrack music—as it is about human fallibility and the happy endings that are always just out of reach. By the end of its two-and-a-half hour running time, it’s clear that Wenders has worked through whatever anxieties he may have had and emerged whole, confident in the knowledge that he was put on this planet to make movies.

(“Kings of the Road” screens Thursday, March 10, at 7 p.m.; “The State of Things” screens Friday, March 11, at 8 p.m.; “The American Friend” screens Sunday, March 13, at 4: 30 p.m.; and “Paris, Texas” screens Sunday, March 13, at 7 p.m. All screenings are at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium.)


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