Criterion Prediction #44: Wim Wenders Documentary Collection, by Alexander Miller
Titles: Lightning Over Water, Room 666, Tokyo-Ga
Years: 1980, 1982, 1985
Directors: Wim Wenders, Nicholas Ray
Cast: Jean Luc-Godard, Paul Morrissey, Steven Spielberg, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michelangelo Antonioni, Monte Hellman, Yilmaz Güney, Wim Wenders, Ana Carolina, Mike De Leon, Mike Goupil, Susan Seidelman, Noel Simsolo, Robert Kramer, Maroun Bagdadi, Nicholas Ray, Chishu Ryu, Yuharu Atsuta, Ronee Blakely
Synopsis: Lightning Over Water formed when Wenders and his crew became a surrogate family to Nicholas Ray during his final days as he was battling with cancer. Ray wants to see his last concept for a movie come to fruition, a story about a dying painter who travels to China to find a cure. The subsequent journey would be this semi-docudrama, meta-movie, tribute and eulogy, celebrating the creative process, and the work and life of individualistic, maverick filmmaker. Ray also received a directing credit on the film.
Tokyo-Ga is an informal documentary on venerated director Yasujiro Ozu that also acts as a travelogue of Wenders’ journey through Japan. He interviews frequent Ozu player Chishu Ryu and cinematographer Yasuharu Atsuta, who worked almost exclusively with the late Japanese director.
For Room 666, Wenders booked (presumably) the 666th room at the Hotel Martinez during the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and invited a myriad of talented directors from around the world in order to record interviews with them. Each director has an eleven-minute reel of 16mm film and are left to their own devices regarding the influence of television on filmmaking, the advent of video, the arrival of the blockbuster era, and the overall future of cinema.
Critique: Wim Wenders has an astonishing relationship with artists from all walks of life; around the time these documentaries were shot he was casting directors like Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller in his classic (and personal favorite) film The American Friend. These three documentaries coincidentally, or by casual intent, bear the signs of a reflective trilogy that connect the work of Wenders while bookmarking the growth of world cinemas manifold figures who would drift into the directors orbit through the years.
Lightning Over Water is a challenging but compelling look at the twilight years of outcast maverick Nicholas Ray. It is occasionally hard to watch and heartbreakingly personal, as Ray is ravaged by cancer, but Wenders reinforces a much needed a degree of warmth and humanity. He has true affection for Ray, an acknowledged leftist outsider from the Hollywood system. A veritable minefield of ethical debate can arise when measuring Wenders’ intentions; many allege his idolisation of Ray as exploitative, but he’s fulfilling the wish of a dying man whose legacy he greatly admires
The synopsis for Room 666 more or less sums up the overall content; the varied insights from Godard, Herzog, Hellman, Güney, Spielberg, and Fassbinder on the state of film and the evolutionary art form range from the contentious to the optimistic and everything in between.
Hellman is overwhelmed by the selection of tapes he’s recorded from the television; Goupil admits that cinema is in trouble, but unlike Hellman, he embraces video technology. Herzog maintains his reputation as cinemas leading peculiarities by removing his shoes and shutting off the not-so-subtly placed television playing over his shoulder, stating “you can’t answer a question like that with your shoes on.” Godard smokes and talks about Mozart, and Fassbinder makes a glorified cameo. Güney (whose film Yol won the Palme d’Or that year) couldn’t attend due to his legal troubles with the Turkish government, and appears via audio recording.
With a running time of 45 minutes, Room 666 is a compact package that provides an absorbing view into the personalities and feelings of those who have made some of the most important contributions to international cinema. Wenders recycles some music from The American Friend soundtrack, and it’s a tad overemphatic, but then again so is the title of the film (despite sounding cool). However, what matters is seeing and hearing these luminaries share their perspectives.
Room 666 is very much of its time, which is a compliment, it stands as a compelling time capsule as well as a compatible reference point during a second (or third?) golden era in television, along with streaming media, digital cinematography, crowdfunding and so forth.
Why Does it Belong in the Collection: This idea started with Room 666 as a barebones type release, after re-watching I realized it’s a fascinating piece of work, but there’s not enough meat on the bones for a spine number. Arriving at this realization I wondered how, or where this film would “fit” in the Criterion Collection, then Lightning Over Water and Tokyo-Ga came to my attention, thus bringing the matter full-circle.
After reading up on Wenders, I realized that these three documentaries were sandwiched in between the shooting of his best work. On their own, movies these three titles are fine but strung together they are a much more potent testament to him as a passionate director paying admiration and homage to his influences. Now that Criterion has Paris, Texas; Wings of Desire; Pina; The American Friend; and The Road Trilogy under their belt, it seems like the director’s work is more than accessible. This would be an interesting item in the way Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida were released as a double bill. Tokyo-Ga is already available as a supplement on their Late Spring release, but hey, if Bergman Island can be a supplement on The Seventh Seal and still earn its own release, Tokyo-Ga is certainly equally worthy.