Saturday, January 18, 2020
Wenders Watch: Until the End of the World (1991)
Format: Criterion BluRay
It was a miracle I even got out of this five hour movie alive.
Way, way back in the 1990's, I saw this movie the first time - I believe - between my junior and senior year of high school. My vague memory of the film was that it was known for two things - it was a movie directed by the same guy who did Wings of Desire (which I'd never seen), and for the soundtrack full of musicians both huge and indie (back when that meant something in particular). Ads appeared in Spin and/ or Rolling Stone for the OST, which read as a mixtape from a pal with particular but good taste (Now That's What I Call College Rock vol. 1!).
I found the film, itself, a challenge. At over two hours, it felt disjointed, like a series of ellipses. Even then I was a little bit used to foreign and indie cinema (because I was a pretentious knob who would traverse the miles of Houston sprawl to hit the surprisingly good art and indie cinemas tucked away here and there in the age just prior to the 24 screen multiplex) - so it's not like I didn't know how to watch a movie. But somehow, this film seemed to move from one sequence to the next with only vague ties.
Technologies shown in the near-future scenarios seemed oddly possible and practical, and almost everything shown wound up occurring as a possibility one way or another - especially as a near future that doesn't quite rub up against the true era of the internet, which would crest just about exactly at 2000 or 2001 as high speed moved into homes. The video calls placed would take more time to appear as a practical technology (echo cancellation is a monster of a problem), but searching for people using credit card hits and other financial transactions was predicted with amazing precision (but minus the delightful cartoon bear). But the film includes GPS in cars, people-finders, etc...
The movie followed Claire (Solveig Dommartin), a woman just out of a relationship with Eugene (Sam Neill) after he's cheated on her. She's at loose ends and has been partying her way across Europe when she stumbles into, first, a pair of bank robbers she assists in their getaway, and then Trevor (William Hurt) - who is pursued by a mysterious bounty hunter. She falls for Trevor and pursues him, hiring a detective who finds he's worth a lot of money for a finder's bounty. The movie criss-crosses the planet as Claire pursues Trevor, and various configurations of the characters find and work with one another. During all of this, an Indian nuclear satellite has spun out of control and threatens to crash, which could cause a global catastrophe.
The cast lands in Australia as the satellite situation gets worse and - frankly, I didn't really remember the back third of the film, just the epilogue.
In college, some time after having had my own first break-up, I saw the movie again. By then I owned the soundtrack on CD and knew it pretty well back and forth, but I better understood the film, What I had found somewhat absurd as Sam Neill's character pursued and assisted his former lover as she skated across the globe in pursuit of her new romantic interest now resonated, both the desire to see if you can win someone back (hey: don't do this, kids), and the notion that you can find some meaning in what was by supporting in new ways and make good on the notion of remaining friends... anyway, it resonated.
But I hadn't seen the movie since. Wenders is probably still beloved in some film circles, but like a lot of things in art and culture, he's somewhat faded from cultural memory and I don't think he's a name the kids think of when they think of film and directors. I dunno. Maybe all the kids are out there streaming non-ironic 80's-ish German indie cinema. Fortunately, we've got Criterion, who is here on a mission to make sure cinema is preserved through access, and who just released a new cut of Until the End of the World (1991), but not the cut I'd watched on a VHS tape from Blockbuster, but in a beautifully restored directors cut which clocks in at five hours.
Yeah. Five hours.
You'll occasionally see this space railing about narrative economy, fat in a film, etc... but as I am annoyingly inconsistent, I'll also say "yes, this story needed to be five hours".
We have a certain expectation, drilled through thousands of movies, plays, etc... for how long a story should take to tell and how information in a story relays to the audience. And, understandably, when that changes, it can shatter the relationship between storyteller and audience. Frankly, it doesn't *always* work (I saw Gettysburg in the theater), but sometimes it does. Sometimes it's asking us to interrogate our expectations, but it's always trying to do something a bit more to stretch our experience.
At five hour film, Until the End of the World breathes, those ellipses become full thoughts and ideas, and the meaning of what Wenders intended when shooting the film becomes far more clear. What was a kind of oddball sci-fi near future road story gains depth as it has room to grow. It would be dishonest to also claim I was ready to get a lot of the nuance of the film the first go-round, but here in the thick of middle age and with vastly more experience under my belt, I am far more ready to absorb and process what the movie was laying down. But I also understand why this film needed to operate in two parts, each a film unto themselves - the dash around the planet and then the sojourn in the Outback. The expansion allows for the viewer to feel some of the waiting and wondering in key scenes (especially when the fate of the world is in question), and to flow from the stream of the road movie into the pool of the Australian portion, collecting and reflecting on what exists outside and what we do now.
What had been a kind of wild chase movie becomes a movie about seeing. Claire is armed with a handheld digital video camera (something which didn't really exist in 1991), and Trevor/ Sam is acting as an experimental subject, recording relatives and friends of his mother - scattered across the planet - so that a process developed by his father can play those images back and send them directly to her mind.
It's the storyline of a filmmaker, dashing about madly to capture what you can, and then return to a laboratory environment where you'll make some of and interpret what you have seen so that others may not just see images, but receive the emotional experience of the moment. He understands and shares the methodology of "seeing", of the power of images and how rich and dreamlike the world can be. Not everyone sees as well as others, some have a knack for it. And receiving those images can and does take a toll.
And much of what Wenders had/ has to say about images and how we relate to them was oddly, somewhat horribly prophetic. The technology imagined for the film used to capture our experience of seeing is turned back inside us to capture our dreams. In a film made in 1991, William Hurt and Solveig Dommartin hold devices in their hands, refusing to look up as they look at reflections of themselves, going nearly mad when the screens are taken away.
The longer running time also shows some of what was cut. Sam Neill's Gene is given a voice over that helps bridge geographical hopping gaps, and he becomes the storyteller of the film rather than an ex mooning over his lost love (though he's that, too). The supporting characters, from Max Von Sydow as a scientist to the detective supporting Claire in her pursuit are no longer curiosities on the edge of the story, but part of it - making the eventual peak of the Australian sequence far more sound.
With the run time, like the best of scripted television, the movie has a chance to be everything. It's sometimes deeply serious, sometimes silly, romantic, and even heartbreaking (William Hurt and Max Von Sydow's mourning sequence is shattering). But it's got a rhythm previously lacking, and the brilliant visuals of the movie (supported by that famous soundtrack and Graeme Revell score) pull together rather than co-exist.
It's touch to describe Wenders' actors performances. When you cast William Hurt, you're getting something specific. And, arguably, the same goes for most of the cast. But those styles and performances bouncing off each other are part of what makes the movie - travelers are always a mishmash of people thrown together by circumstance. But as she is in Wings of Desire, Dommartin is a bright light in the film, and a believable focal point for our crew to coalesce around.
I can't say I think this is something everyone will like. For whatever reason, this movie was very much still in my wheelhouse all these years on. Maybe even more so now. But I am especially glad to have seen the movie presented far closer to how Wenders intended, and see that the near future of 1991 (the film's 1999) resonates so shockingly well with 2020. He was simply giving us too much credit for how fast we'd move toward the apocalypse he was predicting.
The soundtrack, btw, holds up shockingly well - just like the movie -sort of refusing to age or seem dated.