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Wim Wenders won't give up

Katja Nicodemus on Wim Wenders' most recent film, "Don't Come Knocking"

Let's face it, if you want all your prejudices about Wim Wenders' films confirmed, you won't leave "Don't Come Knocking" disappointed. There's no escaping the moments of hopeless pathos in this tale of a man who leaves home to search for his past, for a grown up son he's never met, and perhaps even for himself. Moments where you wish the big red seat would just swallow you up whole. There are takes which almost creak under the vast directorial weight, and actors that are directed with such chronic awkwardness that they can only struggle to stay afloat in the vast emotional depths of the script. And then there's the usual Wenders superfluity, his penchant for piling onto his images enough meaning to satisfy an audience of dunces.

And indeed it would be child's play to pan "Don't Come Knocking" or to roast it alive or whatever torture method you prefer. But you could also argue that you have to take the bad with the good in a director, and that they are mutually dependant. You could say that "Don't Come Knocking" is the best Wim Wenders film in a long time. And that it takes more courage to make a film in empathetic oneness with its characters that to stick them into some test laboratory with cool objectivity.

The opening scene is an old Western chestnut. A picturesque motif, filmed a thousand times and photographed to death: an eroded arched rock in the desert of Nevada. But Wenders allows this arch to occupy the screen for so long that it becomes a frame, a pair of glasses, and the landscape becomes a stage set. It is a backdrop that has been used by innumerable films and male biographies. "Don't Come Knocking" asks what happens when one of these heroes suddenly realises that he's a nobody in real life. When he runs off the set, leaving the myth behind.

Without saying a word, ageing Western actor Howard Spence (Sam Shepard) gallops off in his cowboy getup, leaving the set and the sponsors behind him, to retrace the tracks of his own story. After a life of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll he's going home to Momma. The relationship between the endearingly upbeat mother (Eva Marie Saint) and her actor offspring who turned out to be a drunken loser is the best part of the film. There are no tears, no questions and not even the slightest reproach of a son who, having not shown his face for 30 years, now suddenly wants to slip back into the ever-ready nest. Wenders portrays Mrs. Spence's small town life with great tenderness. We see an older lady happy in herself, who regularly lays plastic flowers on her husband's grave and makes herself treats of sweet smelling cookies. That there may be more sentience and perhaps even life in this provincial existence than in the escapades of her son is the utterly unconventional thesis of the film. Equally unusual is Wenders' parenthetical treatment of a life in which nothing has really happened. He uses just two shots: Spence in his poster-plastered childhood room, which obviously looks identical to the day he left it; and Spence flicking through scandalous newspaper clippings which his mother cut out of the tabloids.

Then Wenders whisks his hero off to the vast open plains of Montana to see whether anything more has remained from all those years aside from the booze binges, the women and a few dodgy films. Here, as Spence is searching for his legendary son, the pictures seem to stretch. Here, where Wenders the photographer is in his element, he sends his ex-cowboy off through the American dreamscape in an ancient sky-blue automobile. And yet this vast emptiness is no longer a boundless realm of possibilities, an identity-shaping free-for-all. Quite the opposite. Through this protagonist, who embodies the sordid truth behind the great promise of freedom, Wenders succeeds in freeing the landscape from the myth. This leaves him to celebrate it with even less restraint.

In Butte, Montana, a little town where Spence hopes to find his son and whatever else he might be searching for, the shots open up even further to become melancholy paintings a la Edward Hopper. The silent eternity of a shadowless corner house, the view of a deserted street – you can't get enough of the virtuosity of these momentary recordings, the play with colour, light and contrast. His cinematic eye, his love of the composed moment: this is Wenders' greatest strength, and it works to the detriment of his narrative skills.

Because the more perfectly he composes his images, the more difficult he finds it to break the frozen moments with moving characters. When Spence's adult son vents his anger at the decades of his father's absence, it's not just that the actor is out of his depth. It's more the case that realistic, heart-rending emotions are simply out of place in the hyperreal Wenders world. They seem lost and oddly out of place, like a couple suddenly breaking into a full-blown domestic row in some swanky designer boutique.

Even the most moving scene in "Don't Come Knocking" is a tightrope walk. Jessica Lange gives a wonderful performance as Spence's ex-girlfriend Doreen. She stands in the street and gives the burnt out father of her son a jolly good talking to. And with him, all the other men who head off into the world, spreading their genes, only to seek out the warmth of a mother or lover in the end. It's a settling of the books with her sense of powerlessness, with all the crap about manly ideals, with the eternal disappearance into the prairie or the battlefield of all film heroes who puff themselves up about freedom and coolness and whatever else they can think of.

While Jessica Lange is speaking, crying, cursing, accusing and almost dancing in fury at her former lover, we see the natural light transform the scene as if a cloud was passing overhead. It changes slowly and softly and yet, like the straw that broke the camel's back, it is just too much. It's as if the picture was threatening to tear apart, stretched too many ways between natural coincidence, authentically played emotional drama and aestheticizing abstraction.

Wenders always wants it both ways: high artifice and incorruptible honesty. The discourse of the images and closeness to the broken little people that populate them. Photography which reaches to artificial heights and a camera which sees right into the characters' hearts. He wants it all, sometimes he wants too much and he has to pay the price. But what makes him likeable is that he won't give up trying to square the circle, the circle that is cinema.


This article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on August 25, 2005.

Katja Nicodemus is the film critic for Die Zeit.

Translation: lp - let's talk european