Sunday, August 14, 2016

Alice in den Städten (1974)

9/10 - What a joyous experience watching this again for the first time in many years. It’s such a marvelous piece of cinema. Unavailable for a long time on DVD, partly because it was shot in 16 mm and the original negatives were badly damaged, it’s now out on Criterion. The cinematography by Robby Müller, especially in the opening road-trip sequence through the U.S., has to be some of the most stunning in film history. And that’s saying a lot, considering his opening sequence to _Paris, Texas_ would be another candidate. You could stop on almost any frame in the first ten minutes, and it would make a photograph worthy of hanging in a museum. Just absolutely brilliant. I was so sad to read this morning that Müller has been suffering for some time from vascular dementia, a degenerative disease that has left him unable to walk or talk. He was one of the greatest cinematographers in the last part of the 20th century. He and Wenders, particularly in this film, lead directly to Jim Jarmusch (who used Müller extensively in his own films) and Hal Hartley. (who seemed to cop the score by CAN for his own movies.) There’s such an intimacy in the filmmaking, in the acting, the photography, the writing, and it made me sad that Wenders lost that in his work somewhere along the way. In the commentary that comes with the film, he sounds wistful and nostalgic talking about how simple the film was to make, just him and a few people in the crew, following their instincts and shooting whatever they felt like, and how it would be impossible to do now. And Alexandra and I felt nostalgic watching the film, thinking of what life was like in the early 1970s, with Polaroid cameras (the new technology at the time), neon-lit motels, and the carefree nature of the hippie spirit still in the air.
The story wouldn’t work today – cell phones would resolve the situation immediately, and people would be much more guarded and scared. A somewhat lost German photojournalist wandering aimlessly around the U.S. wouldn’t wind up travelling with a nine-year-old girl back to Germany to find her grandmother. Such a simple story, but Rudy Vogler (a delight to see again) and the young Yella Rottländer give excellent performances. If that’s even the right term. They inhabit the film beautifully. Along with many non-actors that Wenders used. This is post-Godard cinema that was vibrant with wonder and poetry. “What should we do now?” It feels so alive because they were basically living out an experience. You sense the joy of a 28-year-old German who loved rock and roll and American culture drifting around the U.S. taking pictures and making up a story. Just wandering. In several of his earlier films, Wenders captured better, perhaps, than any American director a certain magic and mystery of being on the road. Alexandra said parts of the movie reminded her of W.G. Sebald, and I can see that. Although Peter Handke is the more direct influence. But there’s definitely a literary and poetic quality that seems rare in cinema these days. In any case, it’s a lovely movie. It used to be in my 100 Favorite Films but had dropped out because I hadn’t seen it in so long. It will definitely go back on that list when I do one again.

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