The Measures Taken

A defunct site housing papers, articles and lengthier disquisitions by Owen Hatherley, now blogging only at Sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


American Friends


If, as Wim Wenders claims, America has colonised the post-war German consciousness and cultural landscape, it is worth examining the Bundesrepublik’s position in relation to Hollywood, and more precisely the dual role of the state as opponent and main source of funding for the Neues Deutsches Kino. John Davidson’s Deterritorialising the New German Cinema examines this colonisation in a similarly dualistic way- as actual social/psychological experience, and as an ideological confidence trick to spur into existence a continuation of the ‘Other’ Germany of the 1920s- in fact, to usurp the DDR’s claim to this Other Germany. Davidson does concede the connection between the filmmakers and the German Extra-Parliamentary Opposition (eg, prominent Red Army Faction member Holger Meins’ past as a contemporary of Fassbinder in the Munich film academy), with the US always as the ‘absent yet looming villain’. ‘(engagement) had been systematically stifled by the combination of US and FRG government policies and Hollywood tactics. In a sense then, the rhetorical strategy here parallels neo-colonial resistance working by indirection: the appeal to the nation for help against the influences of the (now removed) imperial force, when indeed it is one’s own government of the new, nationalist bourgeoisie that colonised the nation. For at least some of the Oberhausen signatories, these are strategies aimed at a Utopian Aufhebung of national boundaries moving from the West German state to the freedom of the international, and many displayed openly anti-imperialist tendencies in rallying against US imperialism in Iran and Vietnam’ . The crucial difference of course is that colonialism itself is rarely welcomed, requested- Wenders would refer to ‘how desperate I was as a child to be colonised’ : how the US provided a line of flight. In his films America plays an indeterminate dialectical role. Reading his own writings, it is striking how he describes the 1950s US- supposedly at the most conservative point in its history- in rapturously utopian terms.


Despite the BRD itself seemingly becoming more Americanised in the 1950s, for Wenders it was an alternative- somehow more genuine, more expansive, mainly in its images, in John Ford and Mickey Mouse -a potential noted earlier by Walter Benjamin, who saw in the purposeless pliability and musical kineticism of the early Disney a mirror of utopian anti-naturalism- ‘in order to explain Fourier’s extravaganzas Mickey Mouse must be brought on; here, just as his ideas imply, the moral mobilization of nature is completed… ’- similarly the Hollywood object’s hyper-reality speaks truer of the 20th century than the stoic moralism of post-war Germany. Filling vacuums and lacunae, Hollywood both provided images of other worlds and a basis for the Bundesrepublik’s amnesiac project. By 1991, Wenders is still writing of how ‘behind us was a black hole…we worked for the ‘miracle’ and that economic miracle…couldn’t have been achieved without a colossal effort of oblivion...the child I was internalised the process.’ So ‘America’, not only in its image, but in its ‘presentness’ sublates this- ‘you can only live in the present if the past is an open book and the future beckons. That’s what I learned from the American cinema.’

‘You can’t have ‘dream’, you can only have things that really exist’
playing hangman on a transatlantic flight in Alice in the Cities

What happens in Wim Wenders’ 1970s road movies- in particular, in Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road- is that this expansiveness is reclaimed for, and replicated in- Europe, specifically Germany. The use of the road, and of the autobahn, is key here, aligning Wenders with post-68 experimental groups like Neu! and Kraftwerk. In an essay on the connections between these ‘Unterwegs’ artists, Biba Kopf claims ‘the one country to challenge American road mythology is pre-unification West Germany, where the Autobahn has succeeded Route 66 in the roadway of rock history…coded with America’s failed frontier myths and gridlocked with broken heroes, the highway ultimately goes nowhere. The Autobahn, meanwhile, goes on forever. ’ Alice in the Cities follows a dissipated German journalist in America and subsequently around Western Germany, where he has to look after the child of a woman he met at the airport. In the scenes where he is travelling through the US alone, television is a near-constant presence- he complains of being ‘watched’ by it. Eventually he drunkenly smashes the TV in his hotel room. And for all the ubiquity in the film of American archetypes- the open road, the heavy industry he photographs, the radio and rock & roll that are always in the background- he has to return to Germany to transcend his enervation. The quietness and gentleness of the film is in opposition to this brashness, here complemented by a soundtrack by motorik group Can. Their score is autumnal, delicate and finally expansive- Wenders uses Michael Karoli’s guitar figures in a similar way to Ry Cooder’s 10 years later in the Hollywood entryism of Paris, Texas. The two films are oddly symbiotic in their dualism with respect to the US. In Alice in the Cities America is utopia (as when the journalist catches Chuck Berry at a music festival) and as dystopia, but never as something to be merely accepted or rejected.


This is partly achieved by the at once meditative and motion-centred way that the film is shot. Frequently, scenes are shot through the windows of cars, buses, trains- enabling a calmness of contemplation and a perpetual, delirious motion. Alexander Graf’s The Celluloid Highway posits this viewpoint as the film’s motor- enabling a sort of collusion between the director and the viewer, the latter of whom can choose for themselves which of the images are significant and which not- ‘the panoramistic shot characteristic of Wenders’ road movies promotes the searching/observing activity because there are no real limits at which the shots must stop, which imitates biological vision…the audience follows the camera, which follows the characters who often just look at the landscape passing by through the window.’ The rock and roll that punctuates Alice in the Cities works in a similar fashion- static and repititous and in perpetual forward motion.


The film suggests a re-use of the panoramas of John Ford and Chuck Berry for a more rationalist purpose- he takes a certain ‘slowness’,a meditativeness already in John Ford’s panoramistic Westerns and relocates it. Writing about Ford, Wenders writes ‘slowness…means no action is worth so little that you could speed it up, shorten it, or even leave it out to make way for another, more exciting or more important one…all the images are of equal value, there is no suspense to suggest peaks or pauses, but only the constant feeling of tension… ’ There is very little in his cinematic practice or interests that is not fundamentally American- but what it suggests is a reconciliation of a sort. This finally idyllic element in his project can be encapsulated in the ending of Alice, where the camera pans out of a train bound for Munich, sweeping over a vast industrial/rural landscape, in a vertiginous, lustrous European grey. It’s significant that the much darker subsequent depiction of the Deutsche-Amerikanische Freundschaft, the Patricia Highsmith adaptation The American Friend, is in Hollywood-friendly colour, the better to depict a seductive front that hides a manipulative, sociopathic America seducing Europe through images, through adventure, for no purpose other than its own ruin. In slightly schematic fashion, here Bruno Ganz’s ill, snobbish bourgeois is used utterly by a ferociously intelligent, wealthy, elegant and insane Dennis Hopper.


The American Friend has a kind of sardonic fatalism about the elective affinity between the American and the German, a collusiveness in myth. Essentially, Dennis Hopper’s Ripley sells him Hollywood. Graf writes of the European bourgeois failing to disavow a secret longing for the irrationalism and blood feuds of Hollywood atavism- ‘while it is not the case…that Ripley actually offers Jonathan a ‘movie-like life of intrigue, assassination and gangster martyrdom’, there is no doubt that the middle class, bourgeois Jonathan is attracted by Ripley’s apparent rootlessness and suspicious dealings, of which he is well aware from the beginning of the film…Jonathan’s consciousness seems so colonised by the myth of the glamorous Hollywood story, that he is seduced, against his instinct but in accordance with his will- his dreams, perhaps- to enter such a story with himself in the lead role’ . This perversity is reiniforced by Wenders’ decision to use the very B-Movie directors that inspired him- Nick Ray and Sam Fuller- as the senior gangsters in the film’s New York scenes. Ray in particular plays a wiry figure of sly corruption and guile, a conscious manipulator in accordance with his role in moulding the young Wenders’ subconscious in tales of suburban pathology such as Bigger than Life and Rebel Without a Cause. Wenders, soon after, films a heavily scripted account of Ray’s own demise with Ray playing himself, Lightning Over Water, which reverses the earlier film’s vampirism.

It might be interesting to look at some auteurs who in their work did not appear to want to impress an American film sensibility on their audience. Maybe Fassbinder. Certainly Herzog (where an eerie kind of 'transcendental' naturalism prevails).

The sad news is that Haneke is said to be remaking his Funny Games with Hollywood actors atm.
with wenders (as with fassbinder, only there it's sirk and not ray) there has to be a dialogue with america, as to ignore it risks falling into hermeticism, as can be seen i think to some extent in herzog- hence the naturalism you mention...but this is a critique as well, an appropriation of the appropriators to places they themselves wouldn't go.
I don't see Herzog's 'hermeticism' as a problem, but I'm aware of the critical attitudes toward it. Guess I'm a sucker for transcendentalist film (Malick et al) and Herzog fits into that group (even if his recent work is set in or around Nth America).
Wenders' best film, imo, is Lisbon story and has very little to do with specifically American ways of seeing and shooting film, on the contrary, he seems to try to work out a 'European' problem in it (loss of faith in creativity), and can't conclude beyond the whimsical. I'm aware that this schematism is tenuous.
Wenders' most recent film, Don't come Knocking, replicates Wenders' whimsy and bored me greatly, an effect not many films achieve on me.

I suppose I'm unsure why hermeticism would be viewed as a problem of imagination. This whole situation of the direction of the transatlantic gaze is very interesting, though, and similar constellations are found in literature (Kafka, Eliot, James, et al).
the key in literature to this is (surprise!) brecht, specifically 'americanismus' brecht, (i.e st joan, the weill musicals, lindberghflug, and later on the hollywood songbook in a v different way) where a european leftist sensibility uses america both to stand in for (the future of) europe and as an entirely mythical land- this is what's going on in 70s wenders, i think

i didn't bother with don't come knocking, must admit- i tend to take the view that wenders lost it irredeemably half way through wings of desire- though i haven't seen lisbon story. have always been curious about faraway so close, which is apparently dreadful, but the idea of him training his camera on the post-wende east berlin intrigues me...
Prolly worth to think aboutTocqueville, or Dickens, or Mark Twain. as well and that whole problem of landscape the 19th century EU writers had during their US trips.
It's pretty hard to speak for any one group of ppl, but I recall that the US during my youth in particular seemed to hold the promise of a lack of limits (of law, prosperity, imagination) - which is to say, its romatic image as seen in Wenders films and the Westerns he "cites".
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