Friday, February 21, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Until the End of the World (1991)

Until the End of the World (1991) 
Directed by: Wim Wenders.
Written by: Peter Carey and Wim Wenders and Solveig Dommartin and Michael Almereyda.
Starring: Solveig Dommartin (Claire Tourneur), William Hurt (Sam Farber, alias Trevor McPhee), Sam Neill (Eugene Fitzpatrick), Rüdiger Vogler (Phillip Winter), Max von Sydow (Henry Farber), Jeanne Moreau (Edith Farber), Kuniko Miyake (Mrs. Mori), Chishû Ryû (Mr. Mori), Eddy Mitchell (Rayond Monnet), Adelle Lutz (Makiko), Ernie Dingo (Burt), David Gulpilil (David), Jimmy Little (Peter), Chick Ortega (Chico Remy), Elena Smirnova (Krasikova), Lois Chiles (Elsa Farber).
I’ve been thinking a lot about what happens to great directors as they grow older – the differing paths they can take. You can become someone like Martin Scorsese, who changes and evolves with the film industry – still finding ways to produce your art, in a new system that is still undeniably yours. You can be like Clint Eastwood, who seemingly has stubbornly refused to evolve – meaning some of his late films seem like Old Man Yells at Cloud the Movie, but can also produce some interesting contrasts when they work well. Or you can be like Francis Ford Coppola, who basically says screw it, and barely works at all – doing smaller films, when he wants, how he wants. Finally, you can become like Wim Wenders, who has continued to work steadily over the years, but hasn’t produced anything to rival his output in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was one of the best directors in the world, in years. I’m sure we all have our favorite late Wenders film – I personally quite liked his Don’t Coming Knocking (2005), which reteamed him with Sam Shepherd, 20 years after their masterpiece Paris, Texas. But seriously, is anything he’s made in the past 25 years close to the films like Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road, The American Friend, Paris Texas or Wings of Desire where his reputation was built?
Watching the final cut of Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991) – nearly five hours in all – perhaps gives some insight into what precisely happened with Wenders. As Bilge Ebiri says in essay for the Criterion Collection DVD of this film, Wenders was coming off of Paris, Texas – his ultimate film about America, a country he was obsessed with, and Wings of Desire, his ultimate film about his home country of Germany, which was still divided as it had been all of his life, when he made Until the End of the World. Watching this cut, you get the impression that Wenders is throwing everything he has into this film – every idea, every daring stylistic choice, every cinematic influence all onto the screen in one magnum opus. Perhaps after that, he was just all out of ideas.
To describe the plot of the film would take too long – probably as long as the movie itself – but to boil it down to its essentials, for the first three hours or so of the final cut, Until the End of the World is a kind of globetrotting adventure movie, with lots of genre elements, that Wenders puts there, but clearly has little interest in. It follows Claire (Solveig Dommartin) as she meets a man she first thinks is named Trevor, but will find out his real name is Sam (played by William Hurt) – and for some reason, won’t just let him get away. They first meet by happenstance – on the road – as she is transporting a lot of money for a pair of bank robbers, only to find he has taken some of that money. She hires a P.I. and tracks him down again – and loses him again. And on and on and on. The film is narrated by Eugene (Sam Neill), Claire’s ex, who says he wants her back, but doesn’t really do much to make that happen, and doesn’t seem too invested in actually doing it either.
The film was shot all over the world – Germany, Portugal, Russia, France, America, Japan, Italy – and eventually settles in Australia, for its final act. It’s here we meet Sam’s parents – played by Max von Sydow and Jeanne Moreau – and the full scope of what has been going on becomes clear. Sydow has essentially created a machine that can record images, and then interacts with memories, which can then be projected into the mind’s eye of someone else – someone blind. And that’s just the first machine – wait until you get to the machine that can record dreams – a handheld device that basically obsesses people, turning them into mindless zombies staring at a screen, who freak out when the battery dies.
I probably should have pointed out by now that the film takes place a decade in the future – all the in 1999 – during a time of great stress for humanity, as an Indian nuclear satellite has reentered orbit, and perhaps threatens all of humanity (I may have the details wrong on that – it doesn’t matter). So this is Wenders version of the future, now our past. It is somewhat remarkable to watch this vision of the future from Wenders now, knowing where we’d end up. You do see a lot of devices that look somewhat like we have now – and some that don’t. The film is also one of the first to utilize a lot of digital technology – photography – and what Wenders and his genius cinematographer, Robby Muller, do with it is remarkable. While the film was a financial disaster at the time, the soundtrack was a huge hit – made up of songs by famous artists like Talking Heads, R.E.M. Patti Smith, Lou Reed among others – friends of Wenders, who were intrigued when he called them up and asked them for a song that would represent what they would sound like in 1999. The result is songs that don’t really song like they come from any era – most of these artists got it wrong, but it’s fascinating to see them attempt it.
And it’s fascinating to see Wenders attempt what he does here as well. The film was butchered when it was released in 1991 – Wenders knew he couldn’t really deliver what he was supposed to – a two-and-a-half-hour film, so he tried to convince the backers to let him release two films running five hours, and got a no. So, even while he edited his film down to the 157-minute version that played, to negative reviews, and no box office, in 1991, he held onto his own negative of his work print, and kept working on that (making a director’s cut, something rarely done at the time). By the mid-1990s, he would be showing this longer cut in various venues (actually various cuts). And slowly, the reputation of this forgotten failure grew.
Seeing the film now is somewhat miraculous. No one is going to call Until the End of the World is flawless film – it isn’t. But it’s one of the most ambitious films ever made – one in which Wenders gets everything on screen he could want. Watching the films early scenes, you can almost play spot the reference – picking up moments from Godard in the early traffic jams, or Ozu in the scenes in Japan – starring some of Ozu’s favorite actors. Some Bergman here, some Ford there, some Antonioni there. And yet, somehow, all Wenders from beginning to end. It’s the oddest of films – the most ambitious of films. It looks fantastic. It has strange images and performances. It was a difficult shoot – it strained the relationship between Wenders and Muller, according to Roger Ebert the two stars weren’t talking off camera by the end, etc. But now, it’s all there onscreen. Perhaps having made this film – and everything he made leading up to it – Wenders just didn’t have anything else to say after. It would make sense.

No comments:

Post a Comment