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Dinosaurs, Babies and the Sound of Music 

Adrian Martin




The documentary Reverse Shot – Rebellion of the Filmmakers (Laurens Staub & Dominik Wessely, 2008) tells us a lot about the New German Cinema of the late 1960s and early-to-mid ‘70s – and especially about the musical tastes and listening rituals of Wim Wenders, Michael Fengler, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Peter Lilienthal and company. We hear about their favourite LP records (Wenders indeed made a short titled 3 American LPs, 1969), their favourite bars and jukeboxes (those music-machines make constant appearances in Fassbinder, like later for the Finnish Aki Kaurismäki), their reverence for certain American rock bands, or Germany’s own Can (who did music for several Wenders films, as well as Samuel Fuller’s German production Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, 1973).


But, in the powerful eloquence of its own collage-montage, Reverse Shot teaches a still deeper lesson: it gives us a real feeling, through the clips it chooses, of what a liberating force this rock music could be: blasting through the emptiness of everyday Germany, suddenly ‘opening a window’ to another mood or another world, as Olivier Assayas once described the use of a raucous dance track (‘Debaser’) by The Pixies in his Paris Awakes (1991) – in short, taking us elsewhere, beyond the confines of a particular time, place, nation and narrative.


It is important to remember this in the discussion of cinema: we must follow the music. Because, of all the arts, music – no matter how deeply rooted it is in the history and tradition of its country of origin – is the most stateless, the most nomadic and migratory. Wherever it lands, it takes root: becoming an intimate part of one’s experience, one’s history. Music’s destiny is always to be appropriated, but not in the sophisticated, knowing, tortuous way the visual arts, at least since the ‘60s, have violently appropriated images, wrenching them from their context and brazenly advertising the thematics of that displacement. Music simply carries: across space, across air waves; and then it carries us away (as the saying goes), transports us, along interior, personal paths as well as exterior, collective ones ... And, as this music travels, it mixes up the traces of all the places, all the histories, it has intersected and interwoven with: rhythms and instrumentation, textures and structure, memories and allusions, reinventions and hybridisations. ‘You Can’t Stop the Music’, as The Village People sang; nobody can stop the music ...


The story of a certain migratory cinema – the Berlin-Paris-Hollywood Passage, as Carlos Losilla calls it – is to be most readily sensed by following the music, rather than delineating the tidy, enclosed histories of national cinemas. In Tom Tykwer’s international hit Run Lola Run (1998), it is the screeching power of the heroine’s voice, coupled with the throbbing power of the techno-beat, that stages the tale’s exit into the supernatural or speculative realm of the ‘what if ...’ – bringing a sensorial dimension to the mind-game variations previously played on the multiple-destiny theme by Kieslowski and others. Lola’s feet on the pavement are merely the contemporary version, for the cosmopolitan MTV age, of all those iconic shots of spinning car wheels, and heads stuck out of car windows to feel the air, that populate the ‘suburban’ films of the New German cinema, these films of a desperate longing to escape, to expand one’s experience, as well as Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), and the Australian films of Ian Pringle (like Wrong World, 1985, or his Wenders-produced The Prisoner of St Petersburg, 1989). Films all about the desire to get out of yourself, and get out of your world.


But let us not assume, too quickly, that this is only a matter of pop or rock music and its rhapsodic, sensorial effects. The films of Werner Herzog or Michael Haneke ceaselessly retrace a path back and forth from the garage band to the orchestral concert, from High to Low musical cultures. And then there is the special case of Jean-Luc Godard.  In October 2008, Godard’s Une catastrophe was premiered as the official trailer of the Viennale film festival – and very quickly migrated to YouTube and similar Internet sites. It is merely 63 seconds long, but is as dense in the weave of its associations as any of Godard’s audiovisual works in the late era of his Histoire(s) du cinéma. As Godard splits up the words of a single sentence – ‘A catastrophe is the first strophe of a love poem’ – into a series of titles, certain clusters of images and sounds form. We pass from catastrophe – Godard’s obsessive images of war and terror, from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) to his own For Ever Mozart (1996), set to the aural shot/counter-shot of a tennis match – through to the breathtakingly beautiful, stop-start slow motion of a lovers’ kiss (another shot/counter-shot, of man and woman, but a highly unconventional instance) from People on Sunday (1930), made by Billy Wilder, Edgar Ulmer, Fred Zinneman and Robert Siodmak, matched to a poem (‘That You Be My Dearest’) in the idiom of ‘Low German’ (simultaneously translated into French by André S. Labarthe), and topped off by the briefest snatch of five familiar piano notes from Robert Schumann’s ‘Scenes from Childhood’, five notes that truly carry us away in a lyrical euphoria ... What an intra-historical tangle it is: Russian classic cinema, German classical music, a generation of German filmmakers soon to migrate to USA to turn Expressionism into Film Noir, the Austrian Mozart, the arena of world competition tennis – and all whipped together by this Swiss-French director who revels in distributing his texts through at least four of the world’s major native languages, often competing for our attention at the same moment (never more so than in Film Socialism, 2010).


Wenders and Godard define, for cinema’s Modern or Modernist period, two trajectories of imaginative, cinematic migration. Wenders travels the path from Germany to Hollywood and back to Europe (over and over again), while Godard, on a self-imposed exile from his adopted France, withdrawn into the Switzerland of his childhood, endlessly projects his artistic imagination over to Russia, Germany, America, Sarajevo ...


In the complex work of both these artists – each career falling into its own pattern of shifts and transformations – we find a difficult tangle of contradictory or paradoxical notions, almost a neurotic knot that resists its own redemptive cure. The desire to travel – to go elsewhere, to get beyond oneself – is linked to the lure of a Future and the void of a Present; for Godard in France and Wenders on Germany, like in the Neil Young song of 1969, ‘Everybody Knows This is Nowhere’ – to which Eric Burdon and The Animals answer, ‘We gotta get out of this place / if it’s the last thing we ever do’. Thus, to move, to undertake a sudden and violent displacement, is to make a clean break: to restart History itself. Hence the spinning car wheels of À bout de souffle (1960), the stirring bursts of music (Beethoven for Godard, American rock, Lou Reed or Britain’s The Kinks for Wenders), the lightning relocations to other countries ... In some real sense, these two guys have never made anything but a ceaseless cinema of travel, where the time spent on the road again, or up in the air (even with the plane engine turned off, as in Wenders’ Until the End of the World, 1991) is just as important – if not more important – than the time actually spent on holiday in some foreign, exotic place.


But History – and the stories, and storytelling, that come in the wake of its acceptance into the fabric one’s life experience – poses new problems. Above all, History brings into focus, finally, the Past – the great repressed zone of European history, particularly as it relates to the generation of these filmmakers’ parents, with the atrocities and collaborations that prompted a massive historic amnesia. Spanish cinema offers a parallel instance in the case of Pedro Almodóvar, who once said he wished to make films ‘as if Franco had never existed’ ... For Wenders, the relation to America, as image (or myth) and reality, is richly ambivalent: he described the heroes of his earliest films, like The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1971), as the characters of an American Western – archetypal Men Without a Past (again, Kaurismäki will later appropriate this trope) – but just standing around, stunned and indifferent, with nothing to do, no action to perform. (1)


For them, to enter Time is to enter History, to take Action: so, a principal character in Kings of the Road (1975) will declare himself, at the end, as having finally had the sense of ‘living through a certain period of time’ – rather than merely drifting passively through a succession of eternal present-tense instants – and Harry Dean Stanton as the troubled hero of Paris, Texas (1984) will begin his tale by walking out of the desert, just like a Western cowboy (albeit without a horse), set for a rendez-vous with the family he once deserted. And in the companion-film to Paris, Texas, again scripted by (and this time also starring) Sam Shepard, Don’t Come Knocking (2005), the story – kicked off literally with the inaugural act of a movie cowboy riding off the set, never to return – will be nothing but the facing up, and coming to terms with, a family past: a network that gets broader and deeper and richer as the film proceeds. It is really the Past itself, History and Time, which come knocking at the door of this man faced away from reality, and the consequences of the human connections he has restlessly made. (This is, indeed, a trope of much Postmodern cinema in its sentimental phase, as Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers [2005], among many others, testifies: to reunite with the child you never knew you had, who has grown to adulthood during all your wild, dissolute years of arrested adolescence.)

  1. See, for a brilliant discussion of this theme, Barthélemy Amengual, ‘Wim Wenders ou le difficulté d’etre allemand’, in Du réalisme au cinéma (Paris: Nathan, 1997), pp. 287-304.


The ambivalence comes, for Wenders, at the inevitable political end of this personal-communal equation: must it be America, land of violence and death and rabid fear of the Other, the ironically named Land of Plenty (2004), that is to be the privileged stage for our New Life, our New World? Another song rises, and indeed its lyrics literally sign themselves in the sky in the Wenders’ film that takes its title: ‘May the lights in the Land of Plenty / Shine on the truth some day’ (Leonard Cohen, from Ten New Songs, 2001). But from which point of the global cultural map, which hybrid identity-position or multiple-self palimpsest, to see and grasp this Truth?


For Godard, the ambivalence is even more acute. From his earliest shorts, Godard was the filmmaker of the eternal present par excellence – exactly the kind of present-tense moment which is dynamised (rather than emptied out, as in Wenders), and that Godard as a critic celebrated in the ‘50s:


  An Ingmar Bergman film is, if you like, one twenty-fourth of a second metamorphosed and expanded over an hour and a half. It is the world between two blinks of the eyelids, the sadness between two heart-beats, the gaiety between two handclaps. (2)   2. Jean-Luc Godard, ‘Bergmanorama’, in Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), p. 77.

Later, in the analytical-structuralist era of Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), carefree dynamism was replaced by a sense of multifactorial complexity, but the commitment to the present moment remained intact. Much later again, at the beginning of Germany 90 Nine Zero (1991) – a key film in the Berlin-Paris Passage to which I will return – Godard’s voice-over alter ego (actually André Labarthe) begins with a familiar reflection: ‘A story with the words “and time passed”, “time followed its course”, and so on – no one in his right mind would try a narrative’. The simple linear progression of time, from Past into Present into Future, is disallowed. By this late point in Godard’s career, the refusal of narrative has a powerfully political dimension: looking back to the historic post-World War II tabula rasa marked by Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1948) – the beginning of Modernity in both society and cinema – Godard now seeks, amid the buildings, fields and docked ships of East Berlin suddenly accessible to the West, a new zero (the doubled meaning of neuf zero in the film’s title), a new start.


Yet, at the same time, Godard scolded his collaborator on this project, Romain Goupil, for filming images of a German stadium (once filmed by Leni Reifenstahl) that were ‘unable to retransmit the past’, unable to communicate the history of that site and its associations, and hence at some level functioned as fascist images – images that precisely repress the Past. (3) Germany 90 constantly oscillates between two positions: on the one hand, the overwhelming sense (found also in Éloge de l’amour [2001] and Nôtre musique [2004]), that the Past is embedded in the Present, and must be seized (à la Walter Benjamin), or retransmitted, in the sound and vision of representation so as demonstrate these crucial, vital traces; and, on the other hand, this attachment to the notion of a clean break, condensed in the evocation of Freud’s famous patient Dora, who had to detach herself (the term is repeated and insisted upon by Godard) from her father, and from the past, in order to break into life.


But the story of Dora brings up the matter of generations: of adults and children, of dinosaurs and babies ...









3. Richard Brody, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008), p. 535.



Bernardo Bertolucci likes to boast that, when he worked with Dario Argento on the screenplay of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), he smuggled in quotations – from Johnny Guitar (1954) and other American Western classics beloved by cinephiles like themselves – quotations that he knew director Sergio Leone would not recognise. Bertolucci and Argento kept this a secret because they were trying to engineer a true moment of innocence: Leone would recreate these second-degree quotations, but in the first degree, without knowing it. He would become Ford, Hawks or Nicholas Ray – the Ford, Hawks or Ray of the Modern World – but naturally, unselfconsciously. Later, when he read the interviews in which his collaborator made this boast, Leone angrily denied that he was the dupe in this game, the savage. He knew. Or so he claimed.


Film history always goes something like this: once upon a time, Hollywood directors told innocent, unself-conscious stories about gangsters and pirates, lovers and liars. Then came the New Cinemas of France and Germany in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The characters in these films sadly recognise the gap between their tawdry, unglamorous real lives, and the unreal Hollywood images they love. And the directors of these films realise that something has been lost for them, also: a certain ease, a fluency, a directness. Everything for them in cinema – and perhaps also in life – is mediated, and premeditated. So this is a story of The Fall. The Garden of Eden. The Lost Object. Loss of Innocence.


Afterwards, after this loss, everything becomes confused. While American-born Martin Scorsese and his New American Cinema comrades strive to make films in the European style – getting away from Los Angeles to stake a Neo-Neo-Realism in the streets of New York – German wunderkind Wenders longs to travel to America and make a real Hollywood film. His story will be a story of illusion, and disillusionment. The taking on and discarding of an American Dream.


Filmmaking is often a beam of desire that projects to another country, another land. In the ‘90s and beyond, Scorsese will want to emulate Mizoguchi (Kundun, 1997), or Johnnie To (The Departed, 2006). John Carpenter will want to be Tsui Hark (Big Trouble in Little China, 1986). And every American Independent filmmaker under age of 35 will want to be Wong Kar-wai – at least until Wong Kar-wai decides that he, too, like Wenders, will make his American Road Picture, his American Romance (My Blueberry Nights, 2007).


Projecting yourself into an imaginary geography is another way to recapture, renew, re-invent a state of innocence. Like a Virgin. The European finds the Wide Open Spaces in America, as the American finds Tradition in Europe. Mythology trumps History in these imaginings, these wanderings – for a while, at least.


The Dinosaur and the Baby face off. It is 1964, a year after the shooting of Jean-Luc Godard’s richest film, Le mépris (Contempt), and the young French rebel of the Nouvelle Vague has reconvened with his untouchable, severe-but-charming mentor, German maestro Fritz Lang. The older man calls himself a Dinosaur and the younger man regards himself as a Baby. But in this exchange between them, there is also a transmission between generations; Youth – as well as Romance – is all they really talk about for an hour. Filmmaking is about youth, depends on youth, gives the gift of youth, they say. Eternal Youth, a Fountain of Youth, it seems. Although one improvises in his filmmaking practice while the other doesn’t, although one starts from documentary while the other starts from fiction, their conversation stages a meeting, a fusion. Lang is the Father, but he will take directions (as an actor) from his disciple in Le mépris (Lang to Godard: ‘I know you know a lot more about my films than I do’); as if to set the balance back to its respectful spot, Godard will cast himself as Lang’s diligent assistant on the film-within-the-film, this strange, impossible rendering of Homer’s Odyssey.


Lang calls his young comrade a Master, but confesses that because several ‘young people’ encouraged him with their expressed love for his films after a Cinémathèque française retrospective screening, he will try to make one last film: Death of a Career Girl, a German production set to star Jeanne Moreau. But ‘superstition’ prevents him from saying any more about it in public. Lang – although he is not showing it here – is already beginning to lose his eyesight and other physical faculties, and his drawcard ability to raise finance on his Name alone is derisively indicated by the B-budget of his last film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960 – a year that marks Lang’s end and Godard’s beginning). Death of a Career Girl – like all of Lang’s final films, a mirror reflecting not ‘60s radical youth or Women’s Lib but his own melodramatic, sensationalist days in silent cinema – will never be made. The Dinosaur and the Baby will finally be cut together (by ex-Cahiers du cinéma critic and occasional Godard collaborator Labarthe) and broadcast on television in 1967. By then, the ever-restless Godard will already be past the point of paying respectful homages to the Dinosaur. And when Lang at last dies in August 1976, it will not be Godard but Wenders who provides the tribute in the film he is making at that moment: Im Lauf der ZeitIn the Course of Time or, as it is known in English, Kings of the Road.


Godard’s relation to – even more pointedly, his consciousness of – German history, and especially the 20th Century history of Nazism and the Holocaust, alters dramatically over time. In The Dinosaur and the Baby and Le mépris alike, German history is a matter of headlines, legends, icons, more or less superficially scanned: Goebbels, Hölderlin, Lang’s own early masterpieces. Even as his films leading to the mid ‘60s begin to centre on the issues of violence, terrorism and war – Algeria in Le Petit Soldat (1960), an abstract Rossellinian war in Les Carabiniers (1963), Vietnam referenced in Pierrot le fou (1965) – the German Question is raised only in formless ways, via vague, fuzzy gestures. In the book Introduction à une veritable histoire du cinéma, based on freeform 1978 seminars by Godard that provided the first conceptual brainstorming sketches for the associative network that will become the Histoire(s) du cinéma, Alphaville (1965) gets pulled into a cluster with Murnau’s Faust (1926) and Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952), as well as Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) – but still the German connection goes largely unmentioned, only sensed, hinted at more in the treated photocopies of film stills that accompany this ‘Third Voyage’ of the seminar series than in anything yet spoken. (4) It is only a decade later again, inside the Histoire(s) itself, that the Expressionist connection joining Murnau, Lang and Alphaville (and much else besides) is specifically linked to a historic prefiguration of, and subsequent reflection upon, the Holocaust.


Within film criticism, Jonathan Rosenbaum likewise anticipated this evolution of an idea in its gradual apprehension: grasping Alphaville (in 1972) as a critical meditation on the roots and fates of German Expressionism, Rosenbaum traces its cinematic extremes of brightness and blackness to the Orpheus myth (hence the Cocteau connection), to Film Noir (hence the migration of Ulmer, Wilder and Zinnemann to America), and finally to the ‘implicit thematic values of light and darkness’ that open up issues of Germany’s political history. Hence, for Rosenbaum, Alphaville is ‘criticism composed in the language of the medium’, which ‘brings social and aesthetic insight equally into focus’ and ‘deserves a place’ next to the socio-cultural commentaries, also written with historical hindsight, of Siegfried Kracauer and Lotte Eisner. (5)


What happened to Godard in the ‘80s to cause this change in the way he considered his relation to Germany, its history and culture? Here, Germany 90 Nine Zero, and Godard’s own commentary upon it (in a public dialogue with Labarthe), provides a particular clue. ‘Why Germany?’, he asks himself, why is he drawn to it as a subject? To answer this, he links certain aspects of his childhood memories – his early attachment to German Romanticism, to Novalis and the young Goethe – to a curiously buried aspect of his family legacy, brought to his attention by partner-collaborator Anne-Marie Miéville: his father had spent time in Germany, but never spoken of it. Simultaneously, he explicates certain almost Surrealist elements of the film, arrived at spontaneously or unconsciously, via free association – such as the incongruous appearance of Don Quixote in the landscape of East Berlin – as the ‘rising to the surface’ of certain historic connections: in this case, the recollection that ‘Charles Quint was King of Spain’ as German Emperor in the sixteenth century. Godard concludes: ‘So this is what I call the cinematic unconscious’. (6) It is, once again, an almost Benjaminian idea, mixed intuitively with more recent theories (especially from Jacques Derrida) of historical haunting and a trans-personal cryptonymy: the individual psyche becomes the repository of not only Gothic family secrets (revealed by a psychoanalysis), but also the hidden congress of nations, the véritable logic of political migrations and interminglings. (7)


In 2008, Une catastrophe reprises a knot of articulations directly derived from Germany 90: war, visual strobe effects, Labarthe as narrator, German poetry, People on Sunday (the same rapturous clip of the kiss, slowed down and stopped differently), the same snatch of Schumann. Yet this is a Germany not at the centre of the work but splintered and refracted, even more than in the time of Alphaville, into multiple associations: joined with Russia to signify a heroic Communism and the spectres of Marx (as Derrida calls them); linked in image-sound montage with the global media spectacle of sport (and has JLG seen Larry Clark’s Ken Park [2002], in which that same sound of tennis grunting is linked to both porno and auto-erotic asphyxiation?); and taken back to the everyday, poignantly redemptive realm of those people on Sunday, as Walter Benjamin did in his whimsical moments, or indeed Godard did in the scenes of Vivre sa vie (1962) and Bande à part (1964) where ordinary people find momentary release from quotidian misery on the wings of popular song ...






4. Jean-Luc Godard, Introduction á une véritable histoire du cinéma (Paris: Éditions Albatros, 1980), pp. 105-123.






5. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 21.





6. Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard. Tome 2 1984-1998 (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1998), p. 296 (my emphasis).


7. On this theoretical work, see Nicolas Abraham & Maria Torok, The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonymy (Chicago: University of Minnesota, 1986); and Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (London: Routledge, 2006).



In March and April of 1984, Wenders – after the dispiriting adventure of working under the tyrannical hand of Francis Ford Coppola on his most conventionally ‘American’ project, Hammett (1982) – composed a long poem titled ‘The American Dream’. It is a lucid account of the director’s changing relation to America and its culture, as well as the fantasy it represented for him, once upon a time:



always means two things:
A country, geographically, the USA,
And an idea of that country, the idea that goes with it.
‘American Dream’, then, is:
A dream OF a country
IN a different country,
That is located where the dream takes place. (8)




8. Wim Wenders, Emotion Pictures: Reflections on the Cinema (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), pp. 117-118.

Ambivalence is the keynote of Wenders’ reflection:



How else but with ambivalence
Should one look at this country with its dream of itself?
What other stance is imaginable
Apart from ‘being of two minds’? (9)




9. Ibid, pp. 122-123.

And its end-point is loss:




The original title for Kafka’s novel Amerika
Was: The Lost One.
There’s no better final word
For the American Dream:
LOST. (10)





10. Ibid, p. 146.

When Wenders ponders on his primal, youthful encounter with the dream of American culture – through its popular cinema and its popular music – he speaks of being saved from ‘another, more joyless life’, his life in Germany up to that point, and asserts that what he discovered was ‘a concept of pleasure’. (11) The music of Chuck Berry, for instance, offered a model of ‘pure pleasure’ for which ‘no cultural knowledge was required, / Only some sort of present, physical, / simple and direct experience’. (12) At the same time, alongside this pure, abstract, stateless ‘presentness’ of music, American Westerns offered the kid Wenders, rather paradoxically, some sense of an ‘imaginable past’, not the blatantly fictive stories ‘from dim prehistory or the Middle Ages’ that (presumably) filled the mainstream European cinema of those years. (13)


Although I will leave it as a sideways connection here, many of the non-American cinephile’s ideas about America and American culture come as much from writing – specifically, the annals of film criticism itself – as from US cinema. For what is a cinephile if not someone who acutely longs for an elsewhere, an imaginary world offered by cinema – but an elsewhere mapped to specific projected sites, places, nations? (14) This typical cinephilic trajectory is one way to grasp what is at stake in Wenders’ poetic evocation of the American Dream, and its eventual ruin. Eric Rohmer in a 1955 Cahiers, for instance, summed up the appeal – inflected with only a little bit of ambivalence – that America held for many French intellectuals, from Sartre to Deleuze & Guattari, and today Bernard Henri-Lévy, this romance of its sheer size, and hence its complexity, in a text tellingly titled ‘Rediscovering America’: ‘America is protean: one moment astonishingly familiar, the next incomprehensibly opaque to our European eyes’. (15) Here we see one of the major tropes of European reflection upon the New World of America: its strangeness, opaqueness or even incomprehensibility is precisely what takes us non-American watchers out of the comfort zone of what is familiar to us, what is traditional. Hence the constant lure (again, always tinged with severe doubt) of what is vulgar, shocking, brazen in American popular culture: a tense romance that is still being played out today in the European love/hate letters to current US trash comedy, for instance.



11. Ibid, p. 126.


12. Ibid, p. 125.


13. Ibid, p. 124.



14. See Adrian Martin, ‘No Flowers for the Cinephile: The Fates of Cultural Populism 1960-1988’, in Paul Foss (ed.), Island in the Stream (Sydney: Pluto Press, 1988), pp. 117-138.


15. Eric Rohmer, ‘Rediscovering America’, in Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma: The 1950s – Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), pp. 88-93.

Rohmer’s sentiment finds its complement, over fifty years later, in the text of a young Positif writer Philippe Fraisse, as part of a dossier on US cinema of the 1970s, who confesses that he has never been to this Great Land of America, but imagines it from the filmic masterpieces of the ‘60s and ‘70s as an enormous place of opportunity, experience, social difference ... at least until what he calls the ‘great shut-in’ clamps down on all these spaces. (16) Fraisse’s sense of possibility can be traced through many writings, often not primarily or essentially about this interpretation of American life, but with a certain starstruck attitude rising to the surface in unexpected, passionate punctuations or declarations. From within America itself, Pauline Kael eulogised a scene in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986) in which people sing to recorded music as they speed along in a car, and mused that every car in the land must have the memory of such a moment of joy (it’s a ‘party movie’ with a ‘buzzing vitality’ for Kael). (17) And over in Britain, Mark Le Fanu of Thomas Elsaesser’s Monogram magazine in the mid ‘70s – and also a contributor to Positif in that period – described the ‘open style’ of Bob Rafelson’s movies, such as Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Stay Hungry (1976), in the following terms:




16. Philippe Fraisse, ‘Le grand renfermement (brève présentation de la figure du mal)’, Positif, no. 545/6 (July-August 2006), pp. 24-27.


17. See Kael’s review of Something Wild in For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies (Plume, 1996).

  Rafelson’s ideological position is suggested by the nuance on the word easy, meaning relaxed, open, pleasantly ironic in front of the possibilities of life, and precisely, in the last resort, not paralysed by distinctions of class. His is an extremely attractive aspect of American culture, and it imparts to the films in question a certain documentary freedom, part of their power and their interest, as if America, seen through the eyes of this director, was still a country full of opportunity and occasion ... We have the unmistakeable feeling that they society they depict is culturally and semiologically rich ...  This is the magnificent openness of American culture. (18)  



18. Mark LeFanu, ‘Bob Rafelson (1935)’, in Jean-Pierre Coursodon (ed.), American Directors: Volume II (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983), pp. 298-306.

Intriguingly, Le Fanu again raises the ‘attractiveness’, in this context, of the figure of the American Hero With No Past, such as we see him incarnated in Rafelson:



This absence of a background is not uncommon in the cinema. Indeed, it is an advantage of the medium in terms of immediacy and spontaneity. The story is simply there; we plunge into it assuming that a life only becomes interesting the moment the hero has broken free of family confines. (19)




19. Ibid, p. 298 (my emphasis).

This reference to the confines of family will soon become central to our understanding of the films of Wenders. Meanwhile, another side-way to illuminate the Wenders-style imaginary of America – by no means a unique or atypical dream – is by reference to a very different filmmaker, that associate of Godard who migrated to the US in the mid ’70s and has stayed there ever since, redefining his personal and professional life in the process: Jean-Pierre Gorin. All of his major films, documentary-essays including Poto and Cabengo (1980) and My Crasy Life (1992), reflect upon the strange, fascinating ways of his adopted homeland, and of the difficult passage of his own assimilation into it. But the one that resonates most directly – in its proudly low-budget, artisanal, ‘termitic’ way – with a film such as Paris, Texas is Routine Pleasures (1986).


As Gorin explained, the film arose from his sense of the break with deep or vertical History that America represents in relation to his previous home of Europe; here, in the New World, everything is horizontal, on the surface. Hence the Western, the Road Movie ... (20) But Gorin, as a modern filmmaker, wishes not to get in a car, train or plane to scan these romantic wide open spaces (the same open spaces that become – as we shall see – disquieting for Monte Hellman and eventually life-threatening for Bruno Dumont); rather, he decides to plant his camera in a single, homely place, and to take the measure of the country from that small vantage point. In this conception, we can already intuit the profound influence of the recently-deceased American film critic Manny Farber – with whom Gorin worked for two decades, teaching in San Diego – on Routine Pleasures: wisdom is to be found in a humble patch of earth, a small slice of experience, not in a synoptic sweep of vast expanses. Farber is in fact one of the key subjects – and rather reluctantly and evasively so – of Routine Pleasures, a true Dinosaur to Gorin’s Baby, just as Godard (himself ceremoniously switching from the Baby role that he occupied in relation to Lang) had previously been for Gorin.




20. See the interview with Gorin, ‘Trains of Thought’, Filmviews (Australia), no. 133 (Spring 1987), pp. 11-12.

So, from European Father-figure to American Father-figure – and then, in an elaborate displacement, to a whole team of Yankees who seem like something out of a Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh film of the ‘30s. Gorin finds, fortuitously, a group of (fairly old) men who run a remarkable model train spectacle, not for the public but their private amusement; complete with landscape, figures, tracks and roads and crossings, it is, incredibly enough, an entire miniaturised Road Movie in itself – a complete world reconstructed in situ, in a large room. Gorin’s film is, in part, a comedy, about how he will never belong to this group of Old American men, no matter how much he appreciates their imagination and skill (which, naturally, he compares to the imagination and skill needed to make a good film). When these chaps want to eventually get rid of him, they silently give him a fatal, hilarious sign: they place their little model of his red car (an earlier sign that they had accepted him) in the path of an oncoming train. Gorin must then leave the fantasy bubble of this Americana shed, and weigh up in his montage and voice-over what he has learnt on this spot ...


Let us return to Wenders now. The Westerns that he once adored as a child or teenager proved to be a curious, somewhat treacherous foundation for his adult imaginary. On the one hand, it provides him with an imaginable Past, a History; on the other hand, it is a pure form forecasting, but cleanly cut off from, the urban capitalism of later American history. Cowboys, as we well know, are those Men Without a Past, who come into being only at the moment they step or ride onto the screen – and cease to exist when they exit into the sunset, or out the door as at the end of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). This will be exactly the trajectory of Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas. But, for Wenders himself – unable to vanish into the mythic air – the conjunction of History and Story will form the basis of a constant, never truly resolved struggle, just as it does for Godard.


Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976) form a summit in Wenders’ career that he has never quite recaptured. In fact, it would be impossible for him to do so now: not because of any loss of artistry (Wenders is still evidently a genius at matching an actor’s gesture to a camera movement and a song, and his films are often dramatically and formally satisfying in their own terms), but because the terms of that struggle with seizing, living in and narrating History have irretrievably changed for him. Alice in the Cities is a film of special poignancy and beauty. With it, Wenders became one of cinema’s supreme poets of twilight, alongside Jacques Tourneur and Pedro Costa (it is no coincidence that Wenders’ early cinematographic collaborator Martin Schäfer worked on the shoot of Costa’s Blood, 1989), the expert dissector of what can be called the Half-Life Syndrome: the withdrawn, detached, introspective, often indifferent life of an individual who simply drifts through landscapes and interpersonal situations – an ambulant voyant in the sense diagnosed by Gilles Deleuze (for whom Wenders in the ‘70s is a key figure).


The characters in Alice in the Cities speak of having no past or future, of having lost their secure identity in some unspoken crisis of long ago, of not even knowing how to live. Philip (Rüdiger Vogler, a constant actor for Wenders) falls into an extended wandering, because of the vagaries of chance encounters and mishaps, with a prepubescent girl, Alice (Yella Rottländer); their perfectly sexless relationship (it is almost uncomfortable to look back on this film from the vantage point of our hyper-sensitive, politically correct times!) is a testament to the ephemeral catalogue of little laughs, irritations and miracles that somehow compensate for the wretched conditions of the alienated Half Life. In fact, Alice in the Cities replaces ego-based misery with an ego-less state – a zone in which neither the man nor the child are yet fully formed beings. The film captures a blissfully prolonged (110 minute) moment of ego-less suspension – substituting a temporary, fluid sense of commitment, in place of the grimness associated with the conventional Mummy-Daddy-Child nuclear family unit. (21)


Alice is one of Wenders’ best and fundamentally happiest films because it, too, accepts that many meanings of that word easy, as in Rafelson’s work: its Half Life is empty, but open. To Philip’s final question, ‘What next?’, Alice simply shrugs and hangs out a train window, taking in the countryside. And here is a curious musical footnote: what might be taken as an unofficial soundtrack to the movie, the remarkable basement-tape album Colour Green by Sibylle Baier (whom we glimpse singing on a boat near the film’s end), which only came into the public realm in 2006 when Baier’s musician son found and released the recordings his mother had privately made between 1970 and 1973. A happy instance of filial transmission! (Baier and son would eventually contribute a new song to Wenders’ little-seen The Palermo Shooting [2008].)





21. For more on this, consult my feature-length audio commentary on the Australian DVD of Alice in the Cities, included in Wim Wenders’ Road Movies (Melbourne: Madman, 2007).

Already, by Kings of the Road two years later, Wenders seems determined to get beyond this rootless suspension, however pleasant it may be. Questions of the Past, of German History, of the relation of Sons to Fathers, become more pressing and earnest, even as the characters seem determined to flee these issues (alongside Vogler, the other road king is played by Hanns Zischler – fifteen years later a central figure in Godard’s Germany 90). There is much talk of the imperative need, and desire, to ‘start all over again’. However, what wins out here is still the suspension, the moment before beginning to act in the world, precisely a pre-Symbolic moment (in the psychoanalytic sense) associated with childhood, and inevitably with cinema itself in its most primitive, primal state: when the projectors that Vogler repairs for a living no longer work, he and his pal put on a buffoonish shadow play as silhouettes behind the makeshift white screen – to the delight of the assembled children. As scenes of cinema go, it has none of the anguish of the torn screen in Godard’s Les Carabiniers (1963) nor the terror of the Punch and Judy show opening Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998). And it is, in the most profound sense, non-narrative cinema: a film with characters and incidents and locations, but not a driving plot.


This is where the knotty, neurotic problems begin for Wenders, and they will become intimately bound up with the imaginary-become-real relation to America – especially when the US Dinosaur he encounters as Baby-apprentice, a very sick Nicholas Ray in Lightning Over Water (1980), turns out not to be the Promise of America, but its ruin, the sign of a Lost World and a long lost cinema; and even the florid American folk-rock music (Dylanesque Rolling Thunder Revue style) to which he is intimately connected in that moment, the songs of then-wife Ronee Blakley, form a mainly melancholic soundtrack-commentary to this journey. (Blakley, who had appeared in Altman’s Nashville [1975] and in Dylan’s mythic Renaldo and Clara [1978] as ‘Mrs Dylan’, wrote a song at the time about Wenders as the disconnected ‘travelin’ man’ ... and made an autobiographical film in the vein of Renaldo and Clara about their relationship, I Played It for You [aka Docu Drama, 1984], partly co-directed by Wenders.)


It is fascinating to look back and realise that, in his very first feature Summer in the City (1970), Wenders had already included an archetypal reflection on the evils of narrative. The super-alienated main character (Zischler again) begins to retell the story of a novel, in which a man wasting away in prison starts, each night, to narrate the story of his life. The details of the prisoner’s account inexorably start to draw together with ritual force; they take on a direction, an inner movement and logic, an inexorable destiny ... Zischler then avows he could not bear to finish the book, because it was obviously going to end in death; he immediately changes the subject. Seventeen years later, in Wings of Desire (1987) – another crucial crossroads for Wenders’ career – one of the angels tells a mythic tale that sums up Wenders’ association of narrative with disequilibrium and violence: the story of the man who began history by breaking the peaceful circle of human beings and running furiously forward.


Narrative is Death: this is the equation that worries and drives Wenders. He gives the theme its purest expression ever in the largely Portuguese-set The State of Things (1982): the instant that the hero sets foot in Hollywood, looking for money to complete his film and tie up his story, he’s a dead man, gunned down mysteriously in the street. The appearance of the great itinerant, American-born filmmaker Robert Kramer in The State of Things is not accidental: for him also, Hollywood, with its compunction to tell and sell stories, is intimately bound up with Crime (which was the title of one of his unrealised projects), and thus death. Before this sorry conclusion in Wenders’ film, there has been some kind of story, but – as in Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road – it is a story under no pressure to go anywhere in particular, to ‘add up’, or to end. Instead, instants, incidents, episodes and fragments – the life of the Eternal Present – are simply left to proliferate and resonate with each other, over and above the linear unfolding of the plot, finding their own rhythm and tone. The same happens in the first, black-and-white half of Wings of Desire: the angels fly around, gathering scattered testimonies of a city (Berlin) and its sad Half Lives. And, thirteen years later in Million Dollar Hotel (2000), the hotel imagery of The State of Things returns: a hotel, after all, is the perfect House of Fiction (as Jonathan Rosenbaum describes the films of Jacques Rivette), where a narrator-camera can drift from room to room without necessarily ever ‘driving forward’ to a conclusion. It is an image that returns frequently in European cinema, for instance the grand hotel in Godard’s Détéctive (1985) – which, as often in JLG, rushes to a sudden flurry of death in its final instants – or the more modest pensione that gathers and compares various separate characters in Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds (1995): a linking (and here concluding) between tales that was in fact staged and shot by Antonioni’s legally required assistant, who was Wim Wenders!


In the 1990s, in particular, Wenders began to convince himself of the need to tell stories – not only to connect (hopefully) with a mass audience, but as part of a certain spiritual and humanist-political mission. The effort felt like a strain – an effort on Wenders’ part to prove to himself that a certain kind of personal and collective redemption is, after all, possible – and the often poorly assembled narratives designed to further this evangelical mission prove it. At this point – the weakest point of his career, the era of the misguided Wings of Desire sequel, Faraway, So Close! (1993) – a crippling Judaeo-Christian ideology mingles with a United Nations-style sermonising in Wenders’ films, and his public writings and pronouncements follow suit. There is a sort of official pop music, a music of anthems and chants, that begins to swamp his films and related productions (documentaries, rock videos), especially in his close link to the band U2. (In Faraway, So Close!, as a friend remarked, one almost expects to hear a chorus of ‘We are the World’ in the closing scene.) And there is an Americanism of a weirdly re-mythologised kind, the sort of ‘old, weird America’ associated with the regional and eccentric, outsider forms of Americana music (as celebrated in the writings of, amongst others, Greil Marcus), which is evident in Million Dollar Hotel and The Soul of A Man (2003), his contribution to Martin Scorsese’s series The Blues. Only in the underrated The End of Violence (1997) does Wenders find a satisfying balance between a critique of America and an enjoyment of it as the postmodern setting for a new kind of drifting, suspended narrative.


Until the End of the World marks a nadir for Wenders in this period of re-definition. This attempt to make a modern, international, Homeric epic – the Return to Narrative with a mythic vengeance! – flounders in many ways and at many levels. But its most disturbing aspect is its collusion with a particular marketing trend in music – the so-called World Music phenomenon, which was at its height at the start of the ‘90s. Ever since Paul Simon’s album Graceland in 1986, there have been complaints about how this World Music and the cultures it represents (Africa, Latin America, Egypt, Israel, India, Australia ...) have been commodified, reduced to pure mass media cliché and sleek exotica: as I write these words, I recall, as in a nightmare, the spinning world globe imagery of the dance club scene of that time, where images of cute black boys and Japanese girls uttered ‘don’t worry, be happy’-type slogans over a mystical world beat ...


No one can dismiss the fact that, so many years down the World Music track, many people’s listening tastes do, indeed, appear to have expanded, and much more of global production is available than it used to be; still, the critical doubt always comes back to the valid suspicion that what we are being sold is not The World but a Shrunken World (miniaturised, just like in Routine Pleasures, or more exactly like in Jia Zhang-ke’s dead-on The World [2004]), a world in which everything has been filtered and tailored for the requirements of the leisured classes of the West. Indeed, the ‘80s dance-world phantasm is now back with a vengeance in a slew of club hits including Jennifer Lopez’s ‘On the Floor’ (2011), in which Pitbull raps up a global itinerary: ‘Brazil – Morocoo – London to Ibizia – Straight to L.A. – New York – Vegas to Africa’!


In Until the End of the World, Sam Farber (William Hurt) drives along the streets of a metropolis with Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin), listening to his favourite tape of a chanting pigmy tribe. This ‘ultimate road movie’, as Wenders called it, is also the ultimate tribute to a particular Eurocentric fantasy of international culture, of the kind popularised in those years by Herzog, or the novels of Bruce Chatwin (The Songlines). This band of world travellers – a cast that ranges from Hollywood stars to the indigenous Australian Ernie Dingo to that old stalwart Rüdiger Vogler – zip from country to country armed (and here the film turned out to be quite prescient) with their Walkmans, mini-VCRs, computers and sophisticated telecommunications devices. No decaying cityscapes of cyberpunk – of the kind fictionalised by William Gibson and filmed by Abel Ferrara in New Rose Hotel (1998) – here: their charming bohemian lifestyle depends on conspicuous wealth derived from high-flying crime, as if that seedy Hollywood producer (Allen Garfield) at the end of The State of Things had metamorphosed from a Harbinger of Death to a Sign of the Times.


All places on the map are merely blink-of-the-eye stations on the hero’s spiritual quest. Each one is like a postcard invested with some feverishly imagined association: Japan, for instance, is a leafy, quiet place for solace and cure, the land of Ozu (one of whose regular actors is given a suitably therapeutic role). Europe is a matter of its Art Cinema national stars, Max von Sydow from Bergman and Jeanne Moreau from Antonioni; and America is, once more, the fly-over land of the Wide Open Spaces. Of course, not everything is well in this best of possible worlds: the characters must face a crisis, must go through a purification, must reach the limit of their techno-imagination – especially with the help of an Aboriginal tribe in the Australian desert outback. And that is where, alas, the film loops back to those recorded pigmies with their timeless song, removed from History only to be our reassuring, comforting mirror ...


Eventually, Wenders will again follow the music. To Cuba, and the wonderful old guys and dolls of the Buena Vista Social Club (1999). Once again, it is not a particularly political or clear-eyed vision on Wenders’ part. Once again, it is a Romance of an exotic country – some Other country that provides what we lack: music and sensuality and serenity and dance. Not to mention dignity for the elderly. Yes, there are some black-and-white photos of better days, some signs of stress, some economic hardship. Some vague pre-credit hints that life under the ageing Fidel Castro just ain’t what it used to be – in those heroic, golden years when the French (but culturally Yankee) Chris Marker made Cuba Si! (1961) or the hyper-modern Russians arrived with their super-camera-technology to weave I Am Cuba (1964). Instead, this melancholic atmosphere of loss – of always starting from loss, from the goalie’s anxiety at the penalty kick – that Wenders has never been able to shake, from the beginning.


But instead of the hard facts of the political or the social there is the line of flight offered by music: up stairs and into rooms, around the streets, from region to region, a beat begins, a song is born, and its refrain leaps everywhere, finally joining everybody in unison: the world is a stage, the stage is a world of music. Not solely in America, any longer, but with that vanishing, fleeing, chameleon American artist who once provided the slide guitar for Paris, Texas: Ry Cooder. And his son, how fortuitous! The Father and Son Reunion story begins once more, snaking its way around the block, gathering momentum like a rolling stone ...


Wenders is currently at another career crossroads, as he has been several times before. On the one hand, his own career seems stalled. On the other hand, renewal beckons through his work serving as a producer for young directors working in digital formats, and through re-routing the Berlin-Paris-Hollywood Passage through Asia. In October 2008, Wenders helped scout locations in Taiwan for Arvin Chen’s debut feature First Page Taipei, renamed on completion Au revoir Taipei (2010). America has a background role in this professional alliance: the film is an expansion of the short Mei (2006) that Chen completed as his thesis project at University of Southern California. The young Baby declares his kinship with the person some now consider a Dinosaur: he too will look at his chosen city, his birthplace, ‘from a foreigner’s perspective’ after growing up in California. Furthermore, Au revoir Taipei – ‘a romantic comedy that takes place over the course of a day in a bustling night market’ – is conceived as ‘a homage to the French Nouvelle Vague’! (22) How cosmopolitan can you get?







22. See the Hollywood Reporter piece by Thibault Worth, ‘Wenders Turns Page in Taipei’, World, 29 October 2008.



In Bruno Dumont’s sadly underrated Twentynine Palms (2003), there is really only one piece of music – supposedly coming out a car stereo played like a tinny, twangy, annoying piece of Muzak over and over: a Japanese pop song by Takashi Hirayasu (expert in Okinawan string instrumentation) and Bob Brozman titled ‘Akata Sun Dunchi’ – which, ironically enough in the light of Wenders’ Until the End of the World, was licensed (as the final credits inform us) through the World Music Network. This is a deliberately odd, incongruous element in what is effectively an American Road Movie; neither of the central characters, played by David Wissack and Katia Golubeva, appear to react to or relate to this musical track at all, thus flaunting the likelihood that Dumont mixed it onto the soundtrack later. A Japanese tune floating at some distance from the nominal genre and apparent diegesis of this made-in-America film: the tone and strategy of the film is given all at once, in the first airing of this sound.


There is nothing here of the wall-to-wall USA rock music of Easy Rider (1969) – a film praised, at the time, by a young Wenders – and not even the slowly building musical stylings of Can, picking up orchestration and rhythm with each reprise in Alice in the Cities. Dumont is perhaps pledging his allegiance to Monte Hellman’s classic Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) – a film which is profoundly uncharacteristic of its national genre, not least of all in its almost total absence of music; it is little wonder Pascal Bonitzer once praised the film in a mid-‘70s Cahiers du cinéma for having a hard Lacanian edge, with room for no reassuring intersubjectivity between either the characters, or between the screen and the spectator, and no fluid fit between an imagined landscape and its mythic music soundtrack. (‘Visibly, for Hellman’, Bonitzer wrote, ‘the notion of the past, of memory, the recollection of previous fiery lives, is just something ridiculous, a joke’.) (23)


Why this filiation with Two-Lane Blacktop? For Twentynine Palms is not a film about a charged erotics of encounter – the trope upon which so many strong films, including some by Wenders and Godard, rest – but a bad encounter (Lacan-style), two people who should never have met, should not be together, who come together only in acts of sex, and even there seem to be operating on starkly different, incommensurable planets, masculine and feminine. Silence, solitude, entropy, madness, death is all that awaits them, just as the violently burnt-out film-frame, at last emptied of even the slightest sound, awaits James Taylor at the end of Two-Lane Blacktop.











23. Pascal Bonitzer, ‘Lignes et voies’, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 266-267 (May 1976), pp. 68-71.

Twentynine Palms belongs to a curious tradition of films that, by and large, has been derided and dismissed by even some of the best US critics: America as visited, seen, experienced, reinterpreted by outsiders. The crucial film is this tradition is Antonioni’s long-unappreciated Zabriskie Point (1970); another, more kindly treated by commentators, is the Wisconsin-set section of Herzog’s Stroszek (1977); and yet another, far less grave than these two predecessors, is Kaurismäki’s picaresque musical farce Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989). And not to forget a film too rarely related to these: Straub & Huillet’s Class Relations (1984), adapted from Kafka’s unfinished 1927 Amerika. It is easy to fault these films as remote from American customs, sensibilities and daily realities; as, in a negative sense, European Visions. But isn’t it precisely that lack of fit between the place and its given sensibility, between a genre and its unconventional treatment, between European and American sensibilities, that makes all these films endlessly fascinating?


We need to recall – from a completely different era and set of genres (Film Noir, spy thriller, romantic comedy) – the sort of sensibility that infiltrated US cinema in the 1930s and ‘40s via all those remarkable émigrés, from Lang, Ophuls, Renoir and that historic People on Sunday crew, to the Greek-Armenian-Turkish-American screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955) and the Hungarian-born composer Miklós Rózsa, whose music spans Alexander Korda in London, Lang and Wilder in Hollywood (and into Wilder’s late European exile with Fedora [1978]) and ultimately another selectively Yankee-loving French-cultural connoisseur, Alain Resnais (Providence, 1977). The modern equivalent to these folks is someone like cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who literally travels, in his international career (alongside Fassbinder, Scorsese, Wenders, Raúl Ruiz ...), a Munich-New York-Paris (Texas) Express. It is no accident that a casual gag at the beginning of Germany 90 Nine Zero (‘he mentioned the man I’d forgotten since the conference in Casablanca: the Last Spy, it sounded like a pulp novel’) at once capitulates Godard’s predilection for the mixed-up, globalised space of the contemporary espionage thriller (sometimes laced with sci-fi, as in Alphaville) and also reiterates his fondness for that particular pop classic which is Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942). For Curtiz’s film epitomises the height of artificiality, in its perfectly Hollywood set-bound and convention-bound depiction of the Europe lost to these émigré filmmakers during Wartime, and yet also speaks the truth that the Argentinean-born, long Paris-dwelling Edgardo Cozarinsky intuited in the cinema of Ernst Lubitsch: that this faux Europe, recreated in America, and always shown in its intersection with American manners, morals and politics (as in Ninotchka, 1939), also presents an America made-strange: a world of odd codes and rituals as could only be decoded by the attentive eye, both urgent and droll, of the eternal foreigner, even after legal ‘naturalisation’ within the adopted host country. (24) (The same can be said, for instance, of Ruiz in France today.)


What we see and hear in modern films like Zabriskie Point and Twentynine Palms is a processing of America – and the myths of America – through the rich, multi-layered filter of the Berlin-Paris-Hollywood Passage. The link between Antonioni and Germany is not strong: it emerges most clearly in his embrace of a melodramatic fantasy of declining Austrian empire in The Oberwald Mystery (1981), an adaptation of Cocteau’s strange 1946 play The Eagle with Two Heads – which was filmed by Cocteau himself in 1948 and has, for many years, helped inspire Ruiz’s multiple-identity-games in cinema. With Dumont, the link comes through not merely the wartime subject matter associated with the title and place-name of Flandres (2006), but also, crucially, philosophy – the same French engagement with the great German tradition of philosophy (Heidegger, Hegel, Marx, etc) that marks the work of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy (a close collaborator of Claire Denis), Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Bernard Stiegler (veritable star of the Australian essay-film The Ister [2004], which follows a musing journey down the Danube), and many others on the stage of contemporary European thought. (In Italian cinema, it is not Antonioni but Pasolini who had a formative real-life connection, during the 1960s, with a crucial philosopher of our time who actually studied under Heidegger: Giorgio Agamben.)












24. See Cozarinsky’s 1985 contribution to Bernard Eisenschitz’s and Jean Narboni’s edited collection Ernst Lubitsch (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 2006). See also his ‘Les réalisateurs étrangers en France: hier y aujourd'hui’, Positif, no. 325 (March 1988).

Dumont, a teacher of Greek and German philosophy in his ‘20s and ‘30s, has declared that he wished to move away from abstraction of ideas and into the reality of bodies and landscapes that cinema offered him; nonetheless, a hard core of philosophical attitude remains in all his film work. And especially in terms of philosophy’s attitude to America: where a watered-down version of French Existentialism easily made its way into the ego-psychology of American popular culture – and still swims around there, fifty-one years after Donen’s Funny Face (1957), in Woody Allen’s Spanish-set Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) – and Stanley Cavell’s neo-Emersonian thought today finds a welcome berth in the audience-friendly family dramas of Arnaud Desplechin, the German philosophical heritage puts up a tougher resistance to co-option, and its categories of Being alienated from itself (interpreted and illustrated more savagely by Dumont than by Wenders) feed into the fundamental, tearing décalages at the heart of Twentynine Palms’ American Odyssey.


Where Antonioni entered America through a dream of youthful, activist Revolution that was raging at the time – although he already regarded this Dream askance, from a somewhat ironic or critical distance – Dumont approaches this nation, as so many have done before and since, through its faits divers, its short, brutal, senseless tales of murder, abandonment, lonely death, escape into the desert. Paris, Texas is the least violent of these visitor-outsider films tuned into everyday American disconnections; Dumont was probably less influenced by the loquaciousness of Wenders’ highbrow soap opera (with its twenty-minute scene of Stanton’s sex-booth confessional monologue to Nastassja Kinski) than by the mundanity and muteness of Jacques Demy’s still too-little-seen Model Shop (1969, the same year as Easy Rider but in every way its diametric opposite), equally keyed into the mild eventfulness of the fait divers, undeniably emotional and momentous events happening to, or resonating within, derisory bodies that can scarcely support, transmit, narrate or pass on that emotion. But while Demy was still close to his actors, still warmed to them on an intimate personal level (whether French: Anouk Aimée or American: Gary Lockwood, the glacial spaceman of Kubrick’s 2001 [1968]), Dumont took a more radical (if colder and unattractive) step, seeming to regard his actors as mere, indifferent vehicles for the characters’ vacuity and idiocy. Ruiz’s little-seen low-budget American production The Golden Boat (1990) also follows this fait divers path in its depiction of a surreal violence occurring to everyone, everywhere on the USA streets.


The intractable hard core of Germanist critical thought also informs the work of Michael Haneke, who rides the Berlin-Paris-Hollywood Passage via his roots in Austria. As surely as any of the loud, dynamic clips in the Reverse Shot documentary offer us a path into New German Cinema, we can well enter the filmic universe of Haneke through an abrupt, forceful piece of music that literally bridges continents in his career: the jazz-punk-metal sound of John Zorn’s Naked City (curiously, Zorn also scored The Golden Boat) that appears both in the original German-language Funny Games (1997) and its American re-version, called in some territories Funny Games U.S. (2007), cutting into the placid classical track and accompanying the Kubrick or Godard-style credit graphics as the central family of characters drives along in its car, on the way to a fatal holiday resort. In whichever version, Funny Games is (as Nicole Brenez has pointed out) deeply indebted – even if only unconsciously, in a relation of figural filiation or transmission – to Elia Kazan’s violently independent, low-budget production made during the time of the Vietnam War, The Visitors (1972), scripted by his son, Nicholas Kazan (itself a brutal fait divers which is later also the basis of De Palma’s Casualties of War [1989]). (25) In fact, The Visitors, Funny Games (x2) and Twentynine Palms can all look, from the viewpoint of 2009 in World Cinema, like forerunners to a particular kind of politicised horror movie: the so-called torture porn of the Hostel series (2005-8) or John Stockwell’s Turistas (2006) – films in which holidays in or visits to foreign countries (or simply even the foreign ‘dead centre’ of one’s own country, as in the influential Australian entry to this trend, Wolf Creek [2005]) unleash a veritable Revenge of the Other, whether that Other be an oppressed minority or simply an ignored majority of ordinary insane people, Deliverance-style.







25. Nicole Brenez, ‘Replay’, Meteor, no. 11 (1997), pp. 40-43.

Intriguingly, all of Haneke’s work has a torture porn aspect, regardless of whether the soundtrack is John Zorn or the classical piano repertoire: this general view of society might be summed up as a surveillance and torture machine. Music almost never carries an ecstatic or sublime quality in his work; although his analysis of music as something appropriated within social and ideological relations sometimes approaches that of other filmmakers like Pere Portabella, Straub & Huillet, Alexander Kluge in The Power of Emotion (1983) or Hans-Jürgen Syberberg (another talking-head in The Ister), not even grand opera (Adorno’s favoured form) has a redemptive, transcendent, autonomous existence for him. Music, when it is not simply a banal  ‘bourgeois lifestyle accessory’ as it is in Caché (2005), essentially exists for Haneke in its brutal décalage from the time and place of performance and hearing: the summit of this procedure might well be, in Code Unknown (2000), the prolonged barrage of a Brazilian children’s drum orchestra that weaves together (or flattens out) all the disconnected characters and threads of this ‘incomplete narrative of various journeys’ (as the lead subtitle proposes it) – a systematic parsing of all the mutually incommensurable tongues, codes and customs that make up any contemporary multicultural metropolis (in this instance, Paris – which Haneke emphatically claims could be have been any one of a dozen such cities). The Piano Teacher (2001), adapted from Elfriede Jelinek’s novel, is special in Haneke’s career in tackling, more frontally than any of this other films, the dinosaur/baby side of a musical culture: namely, the question of a tradition and its transmission, eternally dramatised in an earlier exemplar, Frank Borzage’s I’ve Always Loved You (1946), where a tragedy of non-transmission is located within a female pianist who comes up against an intransigent conductor-patriarch intoning: ‘There is no woman in music!’


The Piano Teacher is a relentless critique of the culture, institutions and rituals of High Art music – something very rarely encountered in either Art Cinema (which tends to the Adorno position) or Popular Culture (which obsequiously genuflects to the ‘finer lifestyle’ aspiration which this Art comes to represent). Haneke describes it as the ‘parody of a melodrama’, and accordingly strips away the romantic lushness of the melodramatic genre to expose a cold, alienated social structure founded on abuse. It is about the psychosexual neuroses underlying, even generating, the intensity of great art and the rituals we build around it – like Paul Morrissey’s overlooked and underrated Beethoven’s Nephew (1987), which anticipates The Piano Teacher also in staging a strange and unreal (for a contemporary European film) superimposition of languages: Haneke’s Austrian drama is in French (due to casting and production exigencies), Morrissey’s is in English.


Haneke’s familiar target is institutionalised behaviour. The Viennese music academy provides a fine metaphor for this, with its rigid discipline and brutally hierarchical rituals. And the law of this cloistered order is, again, forbiddingly patriarchal: the pianiste Erika (Isabelle Huppert) submits to the Great Masters of music, all of them male composers, just as she submits to her pretty but brutish student Walter (Benoît Magimel). Not being a man – although blessed or cursed with a sexuality that Jelinek fiercely claims as masculine in its drives and desires – Erika does not truly have the Oedipal option of killing the Father, that (melo)dramatic gesture which often resolves male stories of what Harold Bloom designated as the anxiety of influence, the Baby’s neurosis (or psychosis) in having to follow in the footsteps of the Dinosaur. (26)


The complexities and paradoxes of The Piano Teacher are contained in the classical music (especially Schubert and Bach) it so generously uses. Allusions to Adorno’s critical writings on music in fact pepper the film. Haneke and Jelinek worry over the same issues that Adorno pondered: can the sheer, soulful beauty of music remain untainted by the vicious power structures that contain and channel it to social ends? Can great art, despite everything, offer hope, a glimpse of a more humane future? It would have been too facile to juxtapose beautiful music and horrible world. Jelinek gives this opposition a further twist in the psychosexual significance she accords to Schubert’s music. Its majesty, she maintains in a 1998 essay, is in the ‘abasement’ it forces upon the listener who, under the ‘time-whip of sound’ is ‘estranged forever from himself or herself’. (27) If that sounds uncannily like a description of Erika’s sexuality, this is surely not accidental. The Piano Teacher invites us to step, at least in our imaginations, into the murky zone between civilisation and perversion. And this zone – this atopia or no-place – corresponds precisely, in Haneke’s art, to the imaginary space between and across different countries.


In a truly perverse, ultimate demonstration of this principle, taken almost to the point of absurdity, Funny Games U.S. engages even less with American landscape, customs or experience than the ‘outsider’ films of Antonioni, Herzog or Dumont: America is for Haneke simply a site, blank but necessary, an advanced point of the social logic previously grasped at work in Europe and elsewhere, the place where the original 1997 story could or should have taken place, and hence where it can now unfold, all over again, on instant reply (this self-remake is identical in almost every detail, including the soundtrack music selections). Just as Haneke deliberately empties out the Romantic or violent charge of inter-personal and inter-national relations, so again he here defuses the usual melodrama of aesthetic filiation or transmission: transporting the material of Funny Games to its very unspiritual Homeland in the US delivers no Oedipal struggle, no anxiety of influence, no wrenching transformation of Self or Other or cultural identity. Is this where the Berlin-Paris-Hollywood Passage ends, with Haneke, in a grim cancellation of its entire travel itinerary, as well as its entire imaginary repertoire, and an implacable erasure, through entropy and self-destructiveness, of every History and Story?


26. See Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1997).  




27. Elfriede Jelinek, ‘Unruly Paths Trodden Too Late’, Elfriedes Fotoalbum.







I have long believed that we should pay more attention to the concept of mood in cinema. Mood, atmosphere, ‘feel’: clearly, in aesthetic terms, this is not a single, monumental thing that can be detached and scrutinised (like rhythm or lighting), but a complex sum or gestalt of techniques and affects. Like all good ideas, this is not a new thought: Hungarian-born Béla Bálázs had already singled out the term for special attention in his early theoretical text The Visible Man, or the Culture of Film in 1924; and Walter Benjamin also alighted upon the notion of mood as the multi-faceted embodiment of a zeitgeist, in his famous 1929 text on Surrealism: for him, the immense achievement of authors such as Breton and Aragon was in their ability to intuit the revolutionary potential in ‘outmoded’ things, and to ‘bring the immense forces of “atmosphere” concealed in these things to the point of explosion’. (28) In Benjamin, a mood is a powerful aesthetic condensation (if not also a Freudian dream-work displacement). And most directly, in terms of film production, mood was part of the panoply of concepts associated with German Expressionism across several arts, where it was known as Stimmung – the designation for a thickly textured (and condensed) mood-construct that, in its most popular form, gave birth to the shadows and fog of American Film Noir.


Giorgio Agamben revisited the notion of mood, après Benjamin, in his 1985 work Idea of Prose. With an eye on world cinema, and a literary style that is itself cinematic in its associations, leaps and swirls, Agamben sweeps the idea of mood into a swiftly evolving dance of meanings in his chapter ‘The Idea of Music’. (29) A Stimmung is not only an emotional state or impression – not just an ephemeral or briefly influential taste – for Agamben, but the condensation of a cultural sensibility marking a certain historic moment. Thus it can also be construed – and this is Agamben’s boldest step – as form of music; indeed, this mood music (as we might today call it) expresses nothing less than the ‘silent music of the soul’ that is heard and felt collectively. Benjamin had reached the same poetic intuition: a communal cultural mood is precisely an ‘air’ that is heard, momentarily sung in unison, something that is passed on through streets and airwaves, something that echoes and resonates, waiting for its next audience or performer in order to be activated once again, and offer its ghostly, unmoored inspiration ...




28. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: Volume 2, 1927-1934 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 210.




29. Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose (State University of New York Press, 1995), pp. 89-91. All subsequent quotations from these pages.

For Agamben, the Twentieth Century’s greatest works of philosophy and theory – ‘written for the most part between 1915 and 1930’ by Heidegger, Benjamin or (in literature) Proust and Joseph Roth (author of Reports from Berlin) – are all distinguished by their character of phenomenological description, or ‘thick description’ as we might say today, using the language of anthropology. They are works marked by poetic images (or sounds) – arising from concrete observation and description – that sum something up: the reigning obsessions of a time, a people, a nation. Beyond 1930, this field becomes, in Agamben’s view, a desert. After the Second World War, there is only French Existentialism, ‘and in its wake European cinema of the late 1950s’, that begin to aim for and sketch ‘a popular reassessment of man’s basic moods’. But the attempt is failed, aborted; it ‘came to an end once and for all in Europe around 1930’.


The aim of the most advanced art or culture, in this account, would be ‘the registering of Stimmungen, the listening to and transcription of’ this hyper-significant music. Agamben draws the line at 1930, and then agrees to extend it a little – thanks to cinema – to circa 1960. It is harshly definitive context, but it helps us illuminate something particular about our Berlin-Paris-Hollywood Passage. That grand art-auteur cinema of the early ‘60s was the last time (according to Agamben) that artists could truly, authentically ‘take the pulse’ of their time by tuning in to their own mood; they could expect to see, faithfully reflected there, the mood of the collective, the mood in the air. Cinema as (to alter the metaphor for a moment) a seismographic instrument, taking a reading of the temper of the times. And isn’t this precisely the thing that art cinema today – long ago transformed into a Myth and an Institution – strains most to do, the mission-impossible that its practitioners and spokespersons desperately internalise? This is indeed what characterises Godard, Wenders, Tarkovsky and Haneke in the modern (and postmodern) age, just as it characterises Derek Jarman or Béla Tarr or Alexandre Sokurov: the pretension (and I do not use that word negatively) that what they feel in their inner solitude, that ‘silent music of the soul’, is what the whole world itself feels, or is on the brink of feeling. (Remember, here, Godard’s twin belief in the value of solitude – Germany 90 presents itself, in a subtitle, as film on ‘solitude: a state and variations’ – and in the predictive, prescient power of cinema in the face of unfolding history.)


This seems, today, like a nostalgic set of beliefs in the unique power of art; certainly, much art cinema (as much as art in other fields – so-called serious music included) stands exposed and empty in its failure to convincingly take the pulse of the times, and its over-emphasis on the sophisticated, refined sensibility of the artist. (A different breed of contemporary film-artist, exemplified by Portugal’s rising star Miguel Gomes, positions himself at the opposite extreme point: ‘I’m always astonished by these filmmakers who are prophets who speak the truth. Basically, I know nothing. I can try, but I don’t know if you ask me the same thing in two hours I’ll say the same thing.’) (30) This is exactly the problem with Until the End of the World: Wenders’ lament for the world in an unspiritual age of Media, Image and Technology seems hollow, detached from the possibilities of social change on the eve of the Internet revolution – it registered as hollow in 1991, and looks worse, in retrospect, now. In part, Art Cinema (in its most congealed, clichéd versions) doomed itself to a type of irrelevance by insisting on its absolute separation from, and opposition to, Mass Culture: this is clearly Haneke’s stance once and for all, against television, against the indifferent flow of desensitising media images, against the slick representation or packaging of violence ... And thus, also, as an inexorable part of this logic, against the USA: America, home of Mass Culture, posed eternally as the diametric opposite of Europe with its Art and its Spirit (in the philosophical sense): this is the point where the Berlin-Paris-Hollywood Passage breaks down, despite some American soul brothers to European sophistication like Paul Thomas Anderson or John Cassavetes or James Gray ...


30. Mark Peranson, ‘The Rules of the Game: A Conversation with Miguel Gomes’, Cinema Scope, no. 37 (December 2008).


Agamben, for his part, is frank about this aspect of the history of Stimmung. The moment that ‘the limit-experience of an intellectual elite became mass experience’, as the Twentieth Century wore on, spelt the death-knell for the ability of an Artist to ‘divine’ – as well as phenomenologically describe – his or her time. For ‘a Stimmung of the masses is not recordable music; it is mere bedlam’.


I end on a note of such bedlam – far from the cinema, but deep within our audio-visual culture. A franchise-program that has carried to several countries is television’s Next Top Model series. Once again, the Berlin-Paris-Hollywood Passage has stopped dead, run aground on the tracks, as a recent series of America’s Next Top Model (hosted by its creator, ex-supermodel Tyra Banks) plays out a conflict of national types and sensibilities that is pure Nineteenth Century Henry James. On the one hand, Next Top Model is strictly postmodern-cosmopolitan in its outlook: this is the fashion world, after all, and in each series the American participants get to travel to a glamorous European capital (Paris, Milan, Amsterdam ...) or exotic on–the-rise Asian capitalist centre (Shanghai, Taipei ...). On the other hand, the intrigue of the show – a reality show, but carefully nurtured and nudged along by fictive devices – depends on some very old-fashioned forms of national and social difference. In the 2008 series, two contestants – who constantly describe themselves as ‘very European’, not only in their birthplace-origin, but also in their manners, outlook, and even their capacity to feel and express certain emotions – clash repeatedly with the proud Americans, who preach a rigid, defensive gospel of cultural assimilation, as if they were shocked and offended to be confronted with any way of life that is even slightly different from their own. A line spoken by Hanns Zischler in Germany 90 comes irresistibly to mind: ‘Now the Cold War is over, being American is pointless’ – uttered just before his car drives over a sign bearing the name ‘Karl Marx Street’, as if to kiss goodbye, just as pointedly, to that other progressive side of the old equation as well.


But even amidst this morass of materialistic insensitivity, something pipes up to carry us out, and away. It comes from an Asian-American contestant on Next Top Model who appears to be more fiercely proud of her US status than any of her home-grown neighbours. In a verbal pitch-battle over the respective meanings of American and European sensibilities, she cancels the argument by suddenly declaring: ‘It’s where you’re going, not where you’re from!’ And that is the lesson, along the Berlin-Paris-Hollywood Passage, of dinosaurs, babies, and the sound of music.


This essay first appeared, in Spanish translation, in Carlos Losilla (ed.), En tránsito: Berlin-Paris-Hollywood (Madrid: TB Editores / Las Palmas International Film Festival, 2009).


from Issue 1: Histories


© Adrian Martin April 2011.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.