The State of Things (Wim Wenders, 1982)
It all started out so promising. Three nights in a row of black and white 4k restorations from two internationally recognized filmmakers (of the kind juries like Cannes exist purely to glom on to), with the first two not disappointing, introducing me to the eccentric pleasures of Jim Jarmusch (with Dead Man and Down by Law, neither that I’d seen before)… but then came night three, and a work from the much more frustratingly complicated Wim Wenders, a director who I can’t seem to get a firm grip on, with everything I’ve seen of his either reaching the heights of near-brilliance (Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire) or falling into the dullest depths of near-interminable pretension (Faraway, So Close, a film whose only reason I would ever even considering revisiting is to stare slack-jawed at all those stunning close-ups of the unbelievably gorgeous Nastassja Kinski, Until the End of the World and The End of Violence), films so bad it’s made me question if the wannabe cool director didn’t just get lucky with the great ones on his resume (to be fair, though, I’ve gone back fairly recently to both… and they do still hold up… mostly)… alas, The State of Things falls squarely into the latter camp.
Apparently shot by Wenders in-between the troubled, interrupted production periods on the director’s other credited film release that year, Hammett (which I’ve never seen, but was rumored to have been mostly directed by producer Francis Ford Coppola), the film has the feeling of something thrown together on the fly by a filmmaker who shows that, left to his own personal musings and devices, while he’s clearly selling nouveau cool and hip, he’s operating on empty.
Starting on some cheesy unexciting apocalyptic scifi scenes from a film-within-a-film, ‘cut’ is called and the director Friedrich Munro (Patrick Bauchau) announces to his ennui-laden crew (with almost all the performers acting in this listless style, an affect that ends up feeling suspiciously like one of many attempts by a bluffing director trying to pump his film with some ‘insta-art’ – leading to, no surprise, major festivals like Venice at the time falling for it and celebrating this silliness – though perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much, as it would lead to erratic Wenders next giving us one of late legendary character actor Harry Dean Stanton’s greatest performances as the wandering Travis in Paris, Texas) that the film has run out of money and film stock, and will be stuck in Portugal as Munro heads to Los Angeles to try and find his mysteriously disappeared producer Gordon (Allen Garfield).
Wenders trying to fill in the blanks with references to great filmmakers (the director Munro’s name is obviously a clunky play on that of great German director Freidrich Murnau), and having the characters talking about classic films, as well as including cigar-chomping Samuel Fuller as the film-within-the-film’s cameraman, gruffly carrying on as if he’s in his own movie, is all perhaps kinda fun for a film nerd like myself (and helps hoodwink A-list festivals), but it doesn’t offer much in terms of content (in fact, having recently seen the Fuller cameo in Jean Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, I’m starting to get a bit annoyed by this little European directors’ game of showing how cool they are by getting their cinematic heroes to appear in their movies… I mean, I love Fuller but he sticks out like a sore thumb every time he shows up).
It’s the kind of poser filmmaking that Nicholas Winding Refn is accused of these days, having moved deeper into total formalistic austerity (though I’d still argue that in the case of Winding Refn, unlike the pure disinterest and vague annoyance with which I find the worst of Wenders’, there is still something vibrant and eminently watchable in the younger filmmaker’s aesthetic, even when the content itself is ultimately empty — case in point, Only God Forgives).
With the bored film crew characters endlessly rambling philosophically as they laze about their abandoned sea side hotel (with the location at least cinematographically looking impressive) about love, life and whatever else personally interests them, I began to feel more and more trapped as I realized which side of the Wenders’ cannon this one fell on (and why must he add insult to injury by always having his most interminable ones clocking in at over 2 hours?).
The scenes of Munro in LA (which, no surprise, brings in a quick cameo by indie genre legend producer Roger Corman as a shady film executive who may or may not have some knowledge on the potentially dangerous reasons why Munro’s producer might have disappeared), with sudden hints of menace and violence about (because, you know, as Wenders is telling us, it’s just so dangerous being a Hollywood filmmaker), at least have a bit of neo-noir spirit to them (and are also nicely shot)… but then it reaches Garfield’s Gordon, whose endless ramblings (with the only thing meaningful in his words being the movie references, of course) began to have my mind wandering again as I sat in the dark theater, occasionally trying to sneakily pull down my mask so I could finally catch a normal breath with no one seeing, wondering – as with so many of these Wenders’ disasters – what exactly does he think he’s achieving with this film? I don’t think much.
The film’s ending, which equates the assassination of our protagonist from deadly bullet by unseen gunman with the helpless holding of a camera as the only (failing) last weapon of recourse for the filmmaker, becomes a perfect metaphor for the film (and for a lot of Wenders’ work); it’s using loaded imagery to con the self-described, easily-duped intelligentsia into thinking they’re witnessing brilliance.Ah well. There will always be Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire¬ (even if, seeing that one again, as startling as it is, I’m starting to wonder about all that endless interior monologue stuff as well…)