Thursday, May 12, 2016

At last: 5-hour ‘Until the End of the World’ a revelation

Solveig Dommartin, obsessed with her dreams on tape in "Untill the End of the World."
Until the End of the World
Dir: Wim Wenders
Scr: Wim Wenders, Peter Carey
Phot: Robby Muller
1991
288 min.
  
Sometimes it’s worth the wait. Neue Kino film legend Wim Wenders made this “ultimate road movie” 25 years ago, and even though it was initially released in a confusing, truncated 158-minute form, it was so visually rich, thought-provoking, and intriguing that I was tantalized by it. I yearned to see the “full” version. Finally, thanks to curator Pablo Kjolseth and CU’s International Film Series, a lucky group of viewers got to see it in its director’s-cut, 288-minute version, prepared and restored under Wenders’ supervision.

It’s a high-tech sci-fi thriller that meanders along. It contains no car chases or explosions. Every time Wenders has the choice to lapse into a mainstream cinematic cliché, he deliberately goes the other way, subverting expectations. This is a movie that’s dares to be constructive, kind, and positive without being boring. It’s about personal and social evolution, about healing the world, about memory and perception, about recognizing what is real and of value.

For years, the film’s been more celebrated for its soundtrack, perhaps the best compilation film score ever made. Wenders, whose musical taste is excellent, went to artists such as Lou Redd, Patti and Fred Smith, Nick Cave, and Elvis Costello and commissioned them to write tracks about the end of the world. These songs, interlaced with Graeme Revell’s sinuous score, are virtual characters in the film, propelling the sequences and helping set the pace of its stately rhythm.

About that rhythm. It may seem regressive and dull in contrast with the hyperkinetic pace and editing of modern films. But it’s natural pace, a saunter that gives the viewer time to really look around the frame, to see what is happening, to think about it. It’s sad that only film geeks will have the patience and will to sit through it.


Wenders also keeps his camera movement slow and flowing. He repeatedly uses a hypnotically elevate-and-pan maneuver to open a scene up, revealing the information needed to make sense of the scene. Even when the characters are driving deep into themselves, Wenders keeps us anchored in the natural world, constantly reminding us of the larger perspective. He’s an Ozu of motion.

The film is set a decade ahead of the time it was filmed, creating a putative 1999 that still resonates. Wenders anticipates GPS, iPads, and cell phones – his intuition about the coming digital world is astounding. The film opens as an Indian nuclear satellite goes out of control and threatens to crash, panicking humanity. Out of the chaos comes the film’s central figure, Claire (Solveig Dommartin), a dissipated divorcee who drags herself out of a life of dissipation and determines to have a mission in life. A chance accident puts her in the path of two laissez-faire robbers who trust Claire and let her smuggle an insane amount of ill-gotten gains into Paris for them.

The robbers don’t seem to mind when Claire starts appropriating wads of money to enable her to follow Travis (William Hurt), a mysterious American fugitive with a price on his head on whom she becomes romantically fixated. It turns out he is gathering data from his siblings to transmit to his blind mother (played by Jeanne Moreau) using a device invented by his stern scientist father (Max von Sydow) intended to enable her to see, after a fashion. It’s a task that’s debilitating, and Claire heals Travis with the aid of some traditional medicine.

The two almost make to his parents’ hideout lab in the Outback when the U.S. detonates the rogue nuclear satellite, creating an electromagnetic pulse that wipes out technology, including the engine of the plane they are flying. After an exhausting trek, they make to the lab.

What was an effort to restore sight changes after the mother passes away. Now it seems that dreams can be recorded and viewed as well. Immediately, the aboriginal staff leaves rather that abet exploration into that sacred territory. The primary characters continue, dreaming and then viewing the dreams. They vanish into narcissism, staring intently at the readouts, ignoring everything else, trying to re-dream their dreams and improve them, to “get them right.” With the aid of Claire’s ex-husband and the film’s narrator, the writer Eugene (Sam Neill), Claire is weaned from her addiction. In the film’s coda, she is revealed to have gone on to join the space program as an ecological observer, circling the planet and beaming down on it like a benevolent goddess. She is watching everything, in real time, for a real purpose.

The idea that the psyche has to be turned out towards the world to stay sane isn’t new, but it hasn’t been expressed as eloquently before this. Now that we are in an age when Wenders’ devices and processes aren’t so far-fetched, it’s a lesson we could use. We need to not only perceive the real, but use it as our building material. Only by filtering experience through our consciousness, by interpreting and reordering it for others, turning it into narrative, can we really own it.

At one point, an old aboriginal man in a truck is reciting a story to a group of travelers in his own obscure language as it moves across the desert. “He’s the man who tells the story of the land,” says Travis. “He is responsible for this part of the country. Every landmark is a character. That tree could be Jonah; that rock, the whale. He must tell the story of the land or it will die. And so will he.”

Wenders embodies this assertion in the act of making the film itself. The characters are impossible without the landscape. The architecture, movement, color, and light tease out the story that is never explicitly laid out in dialogue or heavy-handed inmagery. The frames are packed with information. The viewer must work patiently. The result is a meditative masterpiece.

And there’s Solveig Dommartin. The actress, who co-wrote this film with Wenders, has beauty, but more importantly, she is particularly alive on screen, always watchable, her eyes full of life. She died young in 2007, but we have her work in this, Wings of Desire, and other films to remind us of her extraordinary appeal.