Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Wim Wenders

On the Road Again

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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As members of the German New Wave of the 1970s, filmmakers Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog quickly established their own signature style; viewers knew from looking at their films exactly what they were trying to get at.

Their contemporary Wim Wenders has never really done that, except to say that his career represents a constant searching for something, something indefinable. Fans might argue that he has found it, at least twice, in his critical and audience favorites Wings of Desire (1987) and Buena Vista Social Club (1999).

But another look at the films shows that Wenders's recurring theme is wandering, and never stopping, for stopping means an end and perhaps even a failure. That's why so many of his films are road movies, why so many deal directly with the cinema and/or music, and why most of them run more than two hours in length (one, Until the End of the World, runs nearly five hours in its complete, unedited version).

True to this theme, Wenders has gone back to one of his traveling companions, Sam Shepard, for help on his newest film, Don't Come Knocking. Shepard and Wenders collaborated on the wonderful Paris, Texas (1984) more than twenty years ago, and they pick up again just as if they had never parted ways.

This time Shepard stars in the film as well as co-writing the screenplay; he plays a nearly washed-up cowboy actor, Howard Spence, who decides to ride away from the set of his latest Western. Why? He's not sure. Where? He hasn't seen his mother in a number of years, so why not drop in on her?

From his mother (a delightfully spry Eva Marie Saint), he learns that he may have fathered a son, and so he borrows an old car and drives off to Butte, Montana, where he looks up an old flame (Jessica Lange) and finally meets his son (Gabriel Mann), who is none too happy to learn of his absent father's existence.

Coincidentally, a young woman (Sarah Polley) who also may be the cowboy actor's offspring, also turns up. Throughout, a bond company detective (Tim Roth) traces Howard's steps in order to drag him back to the set.

Wenders recently visited San Francisco -- where part of Until the End of the World was shot -- to talk about his new movie.

The director is a longtime fan of Westerns, especially those by John Ford (The Searchers) and Anthony Mann (Winchester '73), but says that the genre is obsolete. Nevertheless, it provided the perfect thematic backdrop for the new movie.

"What are the great Westerns about?" Wenders asks. "They're all about the same question: where do I belong? They're all about these guys who run around and eventually meet the women of their lives and they say, 'I know I should settle here with you but I still have things to do.' And you know they're wasting their lives. It's a fake promise, these Westerns."

Don't Come Knocking also casts George Kennedy as the aging, inconsequential film director in charge of completing the Western. Wenders says that in the past he may have cast real-life Western makers Sam Peckinpah or Sam Fuller in that role, but they're no longer with us. So why George Kennedy? "Why not?" he replies.

This cynical viewpoint may lead viewers to believe that Wenders has lost faith in, and hope for, movies. Fortunately, that's not the case.

"I think there's a lot of hope," he says, mentioning Terrence Malick's The New World, which he saw recently, and four times. He calls it one of the greatest films of his life.

"It was in a class by itself, way above all of it," he says. "It was so good that nobody could even grasp it. In ten years it will be a classic."

At the other end, Wenders is inspired by the comeback of documentaries, which is linked to the rise of digital technology. "That's the favorite thing for a lot of people to see. And that for me is very promising."

So like Paris, Texas before it, Don't Come Knocking concentrates less on movies and more on Wenders' unstoppable, unnamable journey.

"I work very much from a sense of place," Wenders says. "That's sort of a driving force in all my films. Most of my films have started with a desire to shoot in a certain city or in a landscape and let that place tell its story through the actors and the characters."

He says that he and Shepard wrote the story specifically for Utah; Elko, Nevada and Butte, Montana. "These are little precious places and you can still find some of the West that has disappeared in theme parks and adventure rides," Wenders says.

The wanderer Wenders journeyed to these regions once before. His favorite American novel, Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest inspired him to visit Butte, Montana in 1978. Wenders learned that, while working as a Pinkerton detective, Hammett had been sent there as a strike-breaker and recorded everything he saw. Wenders jumped into his car and drove to Butte, perhaps hoping to catch some remnant of what Hammett experienced there, or perhaps to trod upon the same ground.

Indeed, over the course of his 60 years on this planet and his nearly 40-year moviemaking career, this German-born director has traveled all over the world for many different reasons, both work-related and personal, and so the obvious question is: where does he consider home?

"I always enjoy being home wherever I am," he says. He explains that he has lived in America for 16 years but still feels at home in Berlin, where he can speak his native language.

He continues. "I've never felt the need to define home. I feel homesick for many places. I have this strange thing about harbor towns. I like Lisbon, Sidney and San Francisco, and they're almost my three favorite places in the world."

March 15, 2006

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