Wim Wenders' Web Site
If it's hard to
imagine how and
guitar maverick like Ry
Cooder wound up on a
Caribbean island jamming
with the senior elite of
Latin romantic music,
it's just as hard, at
first glance, to figure
out how European master
filmmaker and New German
Cienema vanguardist Wim
Wenders wound up on the
But, like Cooder's long, winding quest for musical and cultural meaning, Wenders has long been a peripatetic soul as well. Born in Germany at the close of World War II (Dusseldorf, 1945), Wenders belongs to the European generation whose parents lived the conflict, and that experienced in its formative years both a painful coming-to-terms and the birth of the Cold War. And while Wenders clearly shares with other artists of his generation the existentialist world view of mid-20th century Europe, he also early on felt the profound post-war influence of American pop.
As a teenager in Germany, Wenders was fascinated by the arrival of America via music and film. Among his early films was a "road movie" trilogy, Alice in The Cities (1974), Wrong Move (1975), and Kings Of The Road (1976). Captivated by the American mythical obsession with road-as-escape and road-as-life-itself, Wenders' Europeanized this influence in his films and mirrored a Europe involved in an intense, ambivalent search for its own future.
In many ways, Wenders is as much a "borderlands" creature as Cooder. A fiercely independent filmmaker (he often produces as well as directs and scripts his own projects), his films do not read quite as obviously "European" as the efforts of many of his peers, but they certainly don't inhabit the realm of classic Hollywood, either. Indicative of his conflictive relationship with the American film industry, he came to America in 1978 on contract to direct a film (Hammet) for Francis Ford Coppola; after a series of disputes over the project, only 30 percent of Wenders' shooting made the final cut.
One of Wenders biggest critical achievements, Wings of Desire (1988), was also a relative commercial success in America, but it is the lesser-known Paris, Texas (1984, his first collaboration with Cooder) that best sums up his hybrid, Euro-American sensibility. Starring critically-acclaimed character actor Harry Dean Stanton and Natasha Kinski in a role that softened her European lisp into a healthy Texan drawl, their characters-on the road, on the run from themselves and their pasts-could represent a lonely search for meaning on either the European or American sides of the Atlantic.
In the end, Wenders, is no radical existentialist. Paris, Texas allows a tender reunion between its drifter-characters, a brief catharsis that cleanses the wounds of their pasts before they must embark on uncertain futures. Here, and especially in Wings of Desire, Wenders achieves a visual and narrative poetry-a bittersweet kind of yearning.
More recent Wenders outings have included Far Away, So Close (1993, the sequel to Wings of Desire), Until the End of the World (1991), yet another road movie-like meditation, and The End of Violence (1997), with Cooder again providing the score.
Although best known for his feature films, Wenders is also an accomplished documentarian. A gem of a film is his moving Lightning Over Water (1980), a collaboration with the legendary Nicholas Ray (director of such American classics as Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar). Originally conceived by the ailing Ray as a work of fiction, Wenders wound up shooting a deathbed documentary. The finished product is an ode to Wenders' mentor, as well as a pondering of the nature of story, film, and of life's great, unrequited desires.
And so it was with a sensibility for the lyrical and the futile, for absurdity and evil-and most of all, perhaps, with a deep knowledge of how brief and precious moments of redemption are on the long roads that individuals travel -- that Wenders turned to The Buena Vista Social Club.
The tone here is elegiac-fitting for an ode to elders who've suffered in invisibility-indeed, ignominy-for so long. It is also a film whose visual style draws upon Wenders deeply lyrical eye. Nostalgic, nearly black-and-white tones are disrupted by the effusive color of the Caribbean -- and, of course, by the music itself. In the end, the story of these great musicians is simultaneously sad and uplifting. Despite the celebration of the rediscovery of their artistry, we can't help but be reminded that were it not for the trickster-gods of geo-politics (Cold War characters on all sides), these geniuses of a time-honored genre would probably have received their due in their prime.
As to how Wenders signed on to the project in the first place, the story goes that Cooder slipped a copy of the original CD into Wenders' suitcase one day, hoping to entice the director into their third collaboration. The trick, of course, worked.