No more pretty face

Philip Horne

Wim Wender’s very pleasurable Paris, Texas (1984) is both an American movie and a European film. Its creative pedigree is mixed – all through the credits: the German Wenders as director, the American Sam Shepard as writer; the German Robby Müller as cinematographer, the American Ry Cooder as composer/performer of the music; the American actors Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell as the central Henderson brothers, the French Aurore Clément and the German Nastassia Kinski as their wives. For Wenders, a long-time lover of the Western and of American rock music, it was, as he has since told the French magazine Positif, the closing of a circle, the completion of his preoccupation with the USA. The last piece in his (embarrassingly titled) Emotion Pictures is a long, troubled free-verse meditation on ‘The American Dream’, written in 1984, in which he deplores the perversion of American ideals by what he calls the ‘state philosophy of “entertainment” ’. As in his exploration of the German condition in Kings of the Road (1976) – where his pair of heroes are the son of a small-town printer and a travelling cinema engineer, intimates of past and present cultural technologies – Wenders unobtrusively loads the two Henderson brothers with implications, makes the contrast between them richly suggestive.

At the start of the film one brother, Travis, stumbles out of the desert near the Mexican border and collapses, speechless and ragged. The other brother, Walt, is summoned from Los Angeles to collect him: he answers his portable phone in front of a giant painted image of Barbra Streisand – one of the billboard signs he manufactures. Walt, a nice, normal guy, flies off to get his brother out of a jam. The disturbed Travis, however, is obstinately mute, and keeps wandering off again whenever Walt leaves him for a moment; the Henderson brothers live in different American worlds. The cosily domestic Walt, with his sign-painting factory which is presumably to recall that of his Disney namesake, wants ‘Trav’ to come back in from the wilderness which calls him: ‘You mind telling me where you’re headed, Trav? What’s out there? There’s nothing out there.’ His own horizons are more limited: ‘It feels good to be in new clothes, huh?’ Travis, contrarily, numb with frustration and guilt on account of the jealous rage that broke up his marriage four years before, is forlornly open to the appeal of the ‘nothing out there’. He is alienated, lonely, capable of violence, and in this he is like a figure from an American cinema at the opposite pole from Disney’s – like another namesake, Travis Bickle, Martin Scorsese’s vigilante and Taxi Driver of 1975. The contrast between the characters is representative of the respective timbres of the directors’ work. Scorsese’s Travis takes out his frustration bloodily, on the streets; Wenders’s takes his out moodily on the road.

Wenders and Scorsese are hot properties at present: Wenders artily after the lyrical fantasy of Wings of Desire, Scorsese more controversially after the unfashionable but extreme heresies of The Last Temptation of Christ. They are therefore attractive figures for Faber, who are launching a welcome new series of director-based film books (they have been publishing screenplays for some time). Since the mid-Seventies, Britain has been lamentably served in this respect, with the decline or disappearance of the main series that flourished in the Sixties, the era of Bergman, Fellini and Godard. Secker had Cinema One and Cinema Two; Lorrimer did Classic and Modern Film Scripts; and Movie magazine, through Studio Vista, produced a couple of dozen Movie Paperbacks. These mostly gave way in the mid-Seventies to the theories of Screen and Macmillan, for whom film history was too often an abstract History focused on the means of production rather than the contribution, say, of a given producer (a bourgeois individual). It is only with the redrawing of cultural-political attitudes in the Eighties, and the growth of video, that a less doctrinaire interest in the cinema has revived – though a Briton can still be shamed, visiting a Paris bookshop, to see how thoroughly and interestingly the French cover the field. One new series, Ramsay Poche Cinéma, already has about seventy strong titles, including many judiciously chosen reprints. Perhaps Faber or Cambridge will pick up Bogdanovich’s Fritz Lang in America or Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Dreyer in Double Reflection, Rossellini’s Fragments of an Autobiography or Renoir’s Writings 1926-1971.

Both Wenders and Scorsese, born in the Forties, became obsessed with the cinema, and with American rock music in those favouring Sixties. They started young and went to film school, directing their first features at the end of that decade, each thus joining a rising group of film-makers: Scorsese associated with America’s ‘Movie-Brats’ (Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas), Wenders with the ‘New German Cinema’ (Fassbinder, Herzog, Schlondorff). And each has been so prolific and consistently original (Wenders with 14 films, Scorsese with 16) that he has become the dominant figure in his national cinema. Scorsese, like Wenders, blends European with American strains: Fellini, Rossellini, Pasolini have been admitted influences on parts of his work. But their styles map out on very different grids: Scorsese’s mean streets don’t lead at all obviously onto Wenders’s lonely roads. Scorsese, in the interviews which have been edited together to make up this book, repeatedly uses ‘shocking’ as a term of praise; Wenders’s reflections, mostly written between 1968-1971, prefer ‘quiet’ (especially in Westerns).

Wenders became ‘hooked’ on films at the Paris Cinémathèque, and much of his lyrical, paradoxical, epiphanic manner in these pieces is familiar from the Cahiers du Cinéma of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer and Rivette. He writes of ‘that bleak feeling in your eyes that you get from watching films that win Oscars’; Easy Rider ‘is political because it is beautiful’; American films have a ‘stance ... of quietly and unobtrusively spreading out the surface of their world for ninety minutes and nothing else’. And Nicholas Ray, director of Rebel without a Cause and The Lusty Men, the darling of the Cahiers, is Wenders’s favourite; he used him as an actor in The American Friend (1977) and filmed his dying in Lightning over Water (1980). There is here a 1983 essay on The Lusty Men, a tribute to his dead friend in which he quotes Ray saying:

When we started we had 26 pages of script. The only thing we could do was write every night. That’s the way I like it. It keeps the story alive. And your imagination works overtime ...

Wenders approves; and by all accounts Paris, Texas was made this way, with improvisation and constant phone calls to the writer, Sam Shepard. For Wings of Desire Wenders had his old collaborator Peter Handke write nine ‘texts’, including a poem about childhood: but otherwise the film had no script. As Wenders told an interviewer, ‘I said to myself, “The idea came so spontaneously, we must go on like that. We must remain spontaneous.” Everyone was horrified.’ For better and (occasonally) worse, this value of spontaneity is part of Wenders’s Sixties heritage: he praised a film in 1971 for not being ‘commercial; it doesn’t create or satisfy any urge for “adventure”; at most it makes you want to kick a football around, stand on a balcony in the early morning and look at the sky, or sit in the back of a truck talking to a girl as the sun goes down.’

His attachment to quiet epiphanies here may strike us as a little dated: but perhaps it shouldn’t, since these are hardly period-specific pleasures. And one wouldn’t want to line up with the point-scoring American film critics of today, reviled by Wenders in the Introduction as lacking ‘modesty or humility towards movies’, as making ‘only a cynical show of superiority and self-importance’. In the title essay Wenders deplores the incapacity of modern audiences, indulged and debased by the hollow consumerist ethic such criticism reflects, to appreciate the beauty of John Ford’s Westerns; he is pained by ‘the increasingly indignant audiences who consistently show that the future belongs to the very worst Z-movies, to the pictures that block off your vision and to the sounds that clout you across the ear’. Fourteen years later, in ‘The American Dream’, he attends a new horror film in New York and is scared by the riotously ghoulish young crowd: ‘John Ford’s films/would be unwatchable for this audience,/“invisible movies”.’

Wenders gives voice with remarkable consistency to his anxieties about the brutalisation of the cinema and of American culture. A short piece, called ‘Despising what you sell’, records the distress he felt when he had a part-time job in the United Artists distribution office in Düsseldorf: the whole loveless commercialised industry gave rise not only to soulless exhibition but to crude, aggressive film-making. ‘From production to distribution, the same violence was at work: the same lack of love in dealing with images, sound and language; the stupidity of German dubbing; the vulgarity of the block and blind booking system; the lack of variety in advertising; the lack of conscience involved in exploiting the cinema-owners; the idiocy involved in cutting films down, etc.’ An essay from 1976 praising Robert Altman’s Nashville begins with two and a half pages of honest rage at the philistine state of German film criticism, which has dwindled to the status of the listings guide. ‘As this sort of criticism writes about films only as something that you can, should or shouldn’t go to see, it blocks any sense that cinema might have something to do with life, that cinema is a more precise and wide-ranging documentation of our times than theatre, music or the visual arts, that cinema can damage people by alienating them from their longings and fears, or that cinema can be useful to people by showing them freedom and opening up their lives – in short, that cinema is more than the industry that produces films.’

Wenders’s heroic attempts to sustain an open cinema of artistic and social value are certainly not exempt from traces of high sentimentality (as with the heavily romantic treatment of the love between trapezist Solveig Dommartin and newly human ex-angel Bruno Ganz at the end of Wings of Desire). Yet the decency of his intentions and the startling beauty of his creations (both exemplified when he introduced a magnificent pristine print of Paris, Texas at the Cambridge Film Festival in 1984) outweigh the odd lapse into pretension or wetness. His care for the medium is exemplary, and his chaste aesthetic, with its leisurely rhythms and its refusal to coerce the viewer, is rare these days. The value he places on tenderness emerges in his technique, as one would expect from his 1970 admiration of Truffaut’s L’Enfant Sauvage, with its black and white photography and its old-fashioned use of the shrinking iris to close a scene by picking out a detail: ‘The serious way in which circle-outs centre one’s vision on a detail of the image is also a kind of affection towards its objects, in stark contrast to zooms, which grab their objects and violently pull them towards us.’

Martin Scorsese’s most recent film to appear in this country, Life Lessons (which is the first and only really good part of the episode film New York Stories), starts with an opening iris, one which discloses a brightly coloured surface thick with paint. Scorsese’s episode was photographed by Nestor Almendros, who was responsible for the shots which moved Wenders in L’Enfant Sauvage: but one could hardly call Life Lessons chaste or uncoercive in style. A maestro’s sensuous tour de force, it makes Wenders look puritanical. The iris-opening from black is repeated several times, on canvas, palette, paint tubes, smudged brandy-glass; and on the soundtrack come the ecstatic strains of Procul Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. Scorsese’s hero, the successful but shabby and shambling New York painter Lionel Dobie, paints with ferocious energy, channels the music of the Sixties – played at top volume – through his hulking frame onto his huge, ’Scope-shaped canvas. In the Faber book, which brings together facts, feelings and opinions on Scorsese’s whole career to date, he says: ‘I guess that from now on what I intend to do is paint with colour.’ It’s certainly what he and Almendros do in Life Lessons. And he works, always, with verve and passion. He reacts violently against the declaration of Jim Jarmusch, the most Wenders-like of American directors (long shots, long takes, cool journeys through American backwaters), that ‘I’m not interested in taking people by the hair and telling them where to look.’ Scorsese’s response to this is characteristically full-blooded (and of course the interview mode discourages qualification): ‘Well, I do want them to see the way I see. Walking down the street, looking quickly about, tracking, panning, zooming, cutting and all that sort of thing. I like it when two images go together and they move. I guess it may not be considered “mature”, but I enjoy it.’

This stylistic agitation (with the inclusion of the zoom) would seem to be anathema in Wenders’s terms. Scorsese is often to be found speaking with enthusiasm of the ‘emotional violence’ of scenes he likes. But where for Wenders (as in his remarks about United Artists) violence and lack of love are equated, for Scorsese violence and love are not at all incompatible, and indeed often become tragically intertwined. The violence Wenders speaks of is a large-scale, institutional violence; Scorsese’s belongs to a personal vision, is an inevitable part of human nature as he understands it. On the South Bank Show which dealt with The Last Temptation Scorsese was asked about blood sacrifices and the violence in his films:

It seems that, er, we’ve become more civilised, in our religion, but these ... the primal, I think the primal, feelings, of that wanting to sacrifice, of that wanting to ... that bloodletting, is still there. I think there’s a lot of that in Taxi Driver. I think in order to be righteous, in order to be correct, the only answer for him, was to, um, be the wrath of God, the Old Testament God.

The reference here to the controversial Taxi Driver, which was cited by John W. Hinckley Jr as having driven him to shoot Ronald Reagan, should be clarified by Scorsese’s other comments on that film. Travis Bickle, Scorsese says, has ‘the power of the spirit on the wrong road. The key to the picture is the idea of being brave enough to admit having these feelings, and then act them out. I instinctively showed that the acting out was not the way to go, and this created even more ironic twists to what was going on.’ For Scorsese himself, then, at least, the violence here (and presumably also in Raging Bull, which also associates violence and jealousy) is viewed analytically, and without approval – with horror. At this point one might say that the complexity of the artistic intention was bound to elude the audiences seeing the film in commercial cinemas (‘it’s scary,’ Scorsese admits). The intricate preparation in Raging Bull for Jake La Motta’s cruel and frightening disfigurement of his young opponent Janiro in the boxing-ring may go over the heads of many spectators, for whom the film may only be a gorier but fussier Rocky. Jake’s wife has mentioned in the most offhand manner, in an innocent context, that Janiro is ‘good-looking’; Jake, like an inarticulate Othello, has brooded on her word to the point of frenzy; and in the ring his dumb bafflement emerges in a bloody, bewildered battering of Janiro’s head. The scene of physical violence is thus also a scene of emotional violence, a mark of La Motta’s distress. Afterwards he gloats: ‘No more pretty face.’ He doesn’t really know what he has been doing.

Scorsese on Scorsese is enlightening not only about his use of violence. The text has been edited, sometimes with a strong hand, to make an artistic autobiography, an account of a Hollywood (and non-Hollywood) career. Scorsese remarked in 1986, with regard to The Colour of Money, that ‘the way I make pictures, they’re all personal, one way or another.’ But the record of deals, compromises, frustrations and disappointments (notably for a number of years over The Last Temptation, which was only made when Scorsese had shown himself trustworthy by directing a mainstream success) shows the enormous energy and resilience required for the practice of cinema as an art in America.

Success of the sort Scorsese has achieved calls also for toughness and, no doubt, along the way, for a degree of obsessive single-mindedness. He was asked to play a jazz-club owner in Round Midnight by his friend Bertrand Tavernier ‘because he’s just like you, he’s a nice guy, but he’s ruthless.’ One of Scorsese’s favourite films is Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, about ballet and the human cost of perfection in it. (Michael Powell, who died recently at 84, was married to Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoon-maker, and introduces this book, which was originally his idea.) ‘I became fascinated by Anton Walbrook’s character, the impresario Lermontov, whose dedication destroys everything around him. What appealed to me was the cruelty and the beauty of his character – especially the scene where he smashes the mirror, filled with self-hate.’ Artistic perfection is an end which may be taken to justify many dubious means. In the making of Mean Streets, ‘something had happened between Bobby [De Niro] and Richard [Romanus] because the animosity between them in that scene was real, and I played on it. They had got on each other’s nerves to the point where they really wanted to kill each other. I kept shooting take after take of Bobby yelling these insults, while the crew was getting very upset.’ The ethical dilemma here is disturbing: to Scorsese, as well as us. The scene in the finished film is better acted – it is alive with hostility – because Scorsese did not act (in the other sense) as a peacemaker while it was being shot. The actors channelled their own fierce feelings into their performance as Lionel Dobie is shown doing in Life Lessons, where he uses Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ to propel and marshal his sexual frustrations into painting.

Scorsese’s anxieties on this score are shaped by his uneasy Christian sensibility. His original vocation was to be a priest, and he urgently wants film to be a redemptive medium, purifying and renewing the troubled souls of its audience as well as its makers. He frequently speaks of ‘exorcising’ obsessions and impulses through cinema, and we might think of the very physical casting out of demons in The Last Temptation, where Christ has to wrestle with almost uncontrollable forces: yet he knows well enough that ‘it doesn’t go away, there’s no magic cure.’ The Last Temptation is the only one of Scorsese’s films he watches repeatedly, ‘and every time I see it I’m moved by the idea of trying to find out how one can live like that.’ His other studies of vocation – New York, New York, The Colour of Money and Life Lessons – all concern a human calling, like Scorsese’s own, which costs the hero and those around him dear but which feels in itself like a duty and a need. ‘It’s not about talent, it’s about no choice but to do it,’ Lionel Dobie insists.

For his next film, Scorsese has returned to the New York Mafia world with which Mean Streets demonstrated his intimacy 17 years ago. Nicholas Pileggi’s brilliant, shocking Wise Guy, a book based on conversations with a scarcely repentant mafioso who reluctantly joined the Federal Witness Program when his life was in danger, describes with harrowing gusto the daily routines, the detail of criminal operations, the social attitudes the Mafia fosters and relies on. Scorsese and Pileggi have written the film together. It will not be ‘quiet’. Scorsese told Positif in 1986 (when it seemed likely to be his next film) that ‘it will be a very hard, very violent, very ironic vision of the American Dream.’