Directed and written by Wim Wenders
Starring Rudiger Vogler, Patrick Bauchau, the fado group Madrudes and Manoel De Oliveira
Distributed by Fox Lorber
After the debacles of UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD and SO FAR AWAY, SO CLOSE, it's tempting to assign Wim Wenders a place in the history books and forget that he continues to make films. The temptation may be a bit premature. French cinephiles and critics have a tendency to judge a director by his best work (witness the tendency of CAHIERS DU CINEMA to treat every Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood or Brian de Palma film as if it were the equal of RAGING BULL, UNFORGIVEN or BLOW OUT) ; Americans have a corresponding tendency to judge a director by his latest work and to shower praise on his earlier films while ignoring or scorning that same director's latest work. Despite the reputations of Fellini and Antonioni, Fellini's VOICE OF THE MOON and Antonioni's IDENTIFICATION OF A WOMAN and BEYOND THE CLOUDS, to which Wenders contributed extensively, still haven't been released in the U.S. Jean-Luc Godard has been a recent victim of this process. It's depressing but predictable to see the re-release of CONTEMPT, probably his most straightforward and immediately accessible film, lauded by the likes of Owen Gleiberman and Roger Ebert while they dismiss or misunderstand the more radical aspects of his 60s films and act as if he stopped working in 1968. The challenges of Godard's best 90s films (NOUVELLE VAGUE, HELAS POUR MOI, JLG/JLG) have been met by deafening silence, except on the part of a handful of perceptive critics.
At any rate, there's one good reason to reserve judgment on Wenders: the difficulty of seeing his most recent films. Although his latest, THE END OF VIOLENCE, will be released by MGM/UA next month, the 1994 LISBON STORY took more than two years to find an American distributor. As I said above, BEYOND THE CLOUDS has yet to find one. The 1996 TRICK OF THE LIGHT, a quasi-documentary about the Skladanowsky brothers (a team of important early German filmmakers,) and the 5-hour "director's cut" of UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD haven't had a single public screening in New York.
In the first scene of LISBON STORY, German soundman Phillip Winter (Rudiger Vogler) receives a postcard from his friend, director Friedrich Monroe (Patrick Bauchau,) imploring him to come to Lisbon, where Friedrich is having severe difficulty finishing a film. Despite having a broken leg and a decrepit car, Phillip drives from Frankfurt to Lisbon. (The car doesn't survive the trip.) Upon arrival at Friedrich's house, he discovers Friedrich's room, seemingly abandoned and filled with garbage and graffiti. Phillip stays in the house, spending his days wandering around Lisbon recording sounds for Friedrich's film and his nights reading and looking at the footage Friedrich shot. Eventually, he discovers an experimental project of Friedrich's. Disgusted with the way "images are used to sell us the world - at a discount," Friedrich has been walking around with Lisbon with a camcorder strapped to his back, in a quest for unseen, "innocent" images. Phillip may be suffering from a certain amount of depression, but Friedrich has sunk so far that he makes IRMA VEP's René Vidal look upbeat.
LISBON STORY is a kind of WENDERS UNPLUGGED, a "greatest hits" anthology. The presence of Vogler recalls the ALICE IN THE CITIES/WRONG MOVE/KINGS OF THE ROAD trilogy; the presence of Bauchau, as well as the Portugese setting, recalls THE STATE OF THINGS. (Alain Tanner's IN THE WHITE CITY, which starred Wenders regular Bruno Ganz as a sailor stranded in Portugal with a super-8 camera, is also evoked.) A low-budget film made with a tiny cast and mostly shot on the streets of Lisbon, its finest moments recapture the spirit of some of Wenders' best films. Much of the same mood of existential angst remains, in a more self-conscious form. Wenders and Vogler are now in their 50s, and LISBON STORY may be as much about aging as about filmmaking.
At times, it also appears to be a documentary about Wenders' summer vacation. For long stretches, LISBON STORY doesn't seem to be attempting much beyond an evoication of some of life's smaller pleasures. These evocations are what Wenders does best. Paradoxically, he has always been less pretentious when making slow, arty films about aimless characters than when trying to be an entertainer. Unfortunately, the last twenty minutes take a detour into White Elephant territory. At this point, Wenders may be incapable of making a film without Making A Statement About Cinema And The Corruption Of Images. (We're spared a sermon about the evils of movie and TV violence, but we'll probably get more than enough of that in THE END OF VIOLENCE.) he's far better at framing memorable images than writing speeches about The Destruction Of Memory, and I wish he'd realize it.
So, is Friedrich's quest successful? What can a filmmaker do in an era when he can't even take a nap without being waken up by a kid with a camcorder? For that matter, is Wenders' quest successful? For the answers to the first two questions, you'll have to see the film yourself. As for the third, LISBON STORY remains just on the right side of the border between partial success and honorable failure. It's a minor film, but it suggests that Wenders may still have a few tricks left up his sleeve.