Monday, 30 March 2015


"The camera is a weapon against the tragedy of things, against their disappearing."
'Why do you make films?', Wim Wenders, The Logic of Images
Some things are surprisingly resistant to change. Despite the myriad pressures involved, the built environment remains stubbornly so. Patrick Keiller's The City of The Future drew on footage from the first decade of cinema (1895-1905), with the curious insight that many British cities are very recognisable from how they appeared around the turn of the twentieth century. Visionary architects of the modernist avant garde always presented the city of the future as erupting, fully formed, from a tabula rasa. However, many of the fleeting figures from the film footage that Keiller curated would easily recognise those same streets in London, Liverpool, and the other cities one hundred years on: much of the late Victorian and Edwardian infrastructure continues to shape life in the cities today.

Keiller also touched on similar themes in the rarely-seen The Dilapidated Dwelling, a film commissioned, but not shown by Channel 4, due, Keiller believes, to its pessimistic tone around the inability of the domestic house to become innovative through the vested interests of capital. Keiller's central premise is that technological advances in design, manufacturing and automation, have been painfully slow at affecting house building - especially in Britain - when these have transformed so many other spheres of life in the material world. Patrick Keiller uses a statistic that, at the current rate of replacement, buildings in Britain will have to last an average of five thousand years.

Forty years is a trivial length of time in comparison, yet in terms of the felt experiences of material existence in the developed world, it is: the texture of everyday life from the 1970s was very different. Researching the trip to Wuppertal, I looked for the locations using various maps online - and also Google StreetView. This appeared to show a cafe that displayed such strongly consistent architectural features that it must be the one used in Alice in the Cities. This seemed remarkable in a way that the continuing function of the Schwebebahn does not, for example, or the continuing needs that the road network serves. On the opposite side of the road there is a neon sign "Seit 1907" which also remains.

On Sunday morning, I visited the Eis-Cafe Gardasee. Alighting at Sonnborner Strasse, I was pleased to find it open on an otherwise quiet street. I was the only customer. The interior decor has changed, hardly a surprise, and the jukebox has gone (one would imagine that the jukebox was originally part of the cafe's furniture, not set dressing for the film). I ordered a glass of tea (the unceasing rain meant an ice cream seemed less apt), and sat in the window, at a table in the same position as Alice and Philip do in the film. Although the proprietor did not speak much English, my German was sufficient to ask if she knew Alice in the Cities. She smiled at this and said that she did. When she brought the tea to my table, she saw the stills that I had taken from the DVD for reference. This opened up more conversation. She was fascinated to see the image of the cafe from the outside, and the presence of the roadworks caused used some comment, although I could not entirely follow what she said. She did not look too much older than me, and I did not get a sense of whether she had been around when the film was made, but she cannot have been any older than Alice, if that. She said something about Wim Wenders returning to Wuppertal after thirty years to make Pina. As the conversation seemed to be faltering, or entering a natural break at that point, I asked the woman her name. Smiling, she said it was "Pina", before pausing to say, "Josepina".

She left me to my tea, but I could hear her talking to the chef in the kitchen - I was referred to by the kind if not entirely accurate epithet "young man" - and the chef came out to meet me. He wanted to see the stills, and was quite talkative; I only caught the general gist of what he said, and he had less English than Pina, but he did point out the photograph on the wall behind me- of the Schwebebahn above Sonnborner Strasse in the 1970s.

Wim Wenders has explained his motivations as a film maker in a number of writings and interviews which contain sentiments along broadly similar themes as the quote that begins this post (another is: "Things are disappearing; if you want to see them you have to be quick"). This is undoubtedly true for many aspects of everyday life, but the past can be tenaciously persistent in its ability to exist in a continuity with the present.

Alice's Gaze

"And then the camera, filming from what has been Alice's point of view, cuts to a shot of a young boy, riding a bicycle along the sidewalk, moving from right to left as he pedals to the centre of the frame, slips back to the right, and begins to pedal steadily to keep up with the car. He looks about seven years old. He has blond hair, and is wearing black shorts. When we first see him he is riding in front of an expanse of brick wall between two doors. [...] The boy is looking at someone inside the car, but we don't know for certain if it is Alice or Philip, for the reverse shot that would confirm the object of his gaze doesn't appear. And then it strikes me that the only person he could be looking at is me, us, the viewers. He is looking too directly, too steadily into the camera to be part of the fiction any longer. We have been seen. The shock of being recognized by the film connects us to this boy. The car is still moving through this city, but someone living here has arrested our attention and has also noticed us."
Brenda Austin-Smith, 'The Uses of Disorientation'
The description of this scene from Alice In The Cities, like the "pure contemplation" of the bird coming into the shot from the telescope earlier in the film, is a perfect example of the use of the contingent image in Wim Wenders' open, loosely-structured, road movies. It is also an example of how Wenders makes the viewer see with Alice's gaze: by use of editing and reverse angles we 'understand' Alice is looking at the boy on the bike, through the simple language of film, sufficiently assimilated as to rarely require explanation. Earlier, in Wuppertal, we see Alice looking at children leaving school, remarking that school must be out, and then in a cafe, where a boy is sat by a jukebox, singing. These scenes in the film where Alice's gaze is shown to be directed at other children demonstrate a form of double revelation: firstly, each instance appears to underline how Alice's current peripatetic life, the life of the road movie, is divorced from the certainties of place (the boy on the bike, or the boy in the cafe) or routine (the children leaving school) and is held in suspension; secondly, these scenes, one could argue by extension (and inference), show Alice to be developing a sense of empathy and understanding in that, being divorced from these certainties that she sees other children being secure in, Alice is perhaps better able to see others as they might see her, and is beginning to escape the solipsism of a child's view on the world.

As Alice eats her ice cream in the cafe, she watches the boy sat by the jukebox absently half-singing, half-humming along to Canned Heat's 'On the Road Again' while he licks an ice cream cone (the mirroring of the ice cream links the two, otherwise separated, children). This scene has a typical use of diegetic music in the film: it is cut to take exactly as long as the song on the jukebox, including revelations that Alice's grandmother did not live in Wuppertal as first supposed (Alice says, "Grandmother never lived in Wuppertal", and this is followed by the repeated line in the song, "And my dear mother left me when I was quite young"). Here Philip leaves to go to the bathroom, and Alice is then left to watch the boy. When Philip returns, after a bad tempered exchange, ("All you ever do is scribble in your notebook"), he announces that he is taking Alice to the police. Alice leaves the rest of her ice cream uneaten. As the song on the jukebox fades out, we hear its coda over the cut to the interior of the police station.

With Alice no longer in his care, Philip goes to a Chuck Berry concert. A brief scene follows with Philip seated on the ground as part of an audience, and a reverse angle shot (on different film stock, borrowed from D. A. Pennebaker) of Chuck Berry playing 'Memphis Tennessee'. Although aptly chosen, only a short section of the song appears, and, significantly, it leaves out the revelation in the last verse of the song, which entirely changes the reading of the verses preceding it. In the song, the narrator is trying to get in touch with "my Marie", revealed not, as one might expect from a rock and roll song, a lover, but the narrator's estranged daughter. Unlike the cafe scene, as Wenders does not let the entire song play out, only those familiar with the song's lyrics will understand its use as commentary, and not merely as an example of a product of an American culture that Philip Winter (and Wenders) appears fascinated by, but unable to assimilate (Philip is shown drinking Coca-Cola in this scene; while he has been unable to finish his assignment in America, America has followed him back to Europe). Back outside the hotel in Wuppertal, Alice reappears, having run away from the police.

Towards the end of the film, on the ferry across the Rhine, we see Alice looking at a woman singing to herself, accompanied by a boy of similar age to Alice - a scene of which she takes a photograph with Philip's Polaroid camera. Parallel to my reading of Alice's gaze in these scenes, Philip has also been affected by his encounter with Alice and their journey. Alexander Graf describes Philip's difficulties with his assignment as a writer as stemming from his "inability to see his life and his experiences as a cohesive whole that can be told as a story", and that Alice's possible role is to help "him to see and comprehend things more clearly."

At the end of the film, on the train Alice asks Philip: "What are you going do in Munich?"
"I'll finish this story."
"Your scribbling?"
(Philip nods)
"And what'll you do?"

In Stefan Zweig's novella, The Burning Secret‚ a twelve year old boy, Edgar, runs away while on holiday after he is befriended by a baron who uses him as a means to seduce his mother (entirely ignorant of sex, in a contemporary story Edgar would surely be younger). In a parallel to Alice In The Cities, Edgar's destination for his escape from his immediate situation is a train journey to his grandmother's house, entirely reliant on his own devices- and a gold coin kept, fetish like, for emergencies, or for occasions Edgar does not seem to have yet foreseen. During this journey, in a sublime passage, Edgar has a revelation of, for want of a more felicitous phrase, the adult world and it is worth quoting at length:
"But would the ten dollars be enough? He had travelled by train many a time without thinking that one had to pay, and still less how much one paid, whether ten or a hundred dollars. For the first time he got an inkling that there were facts in life upon which he had never reflected, and that all the many things that surrounded him and he had held in his hands and toyed with somehow contained a value of their own, a special importance. An hour before he had thought he knew everything. Now he realized he had passed by a thousand mysteries and problems without noticing them, and was ashamed that his poor little wisdom had stumbled over the first step it took into life. He grew more and more discouraged, and his footsteps lagged as he drew near the station.


It was not until Edgar took his seat in the train that he noticed he had secured only a third-class passage. Having always travelled first class, he was again struck with a sense of difference. He saw there were distinctions that had escaped him. His fellow-passengers were unlike those of his first-class trips, a few Italian laborers, with tough hands and uncouth voices, carrying pickaxes and shovels. They sat directly opposite, dull and disconsolate-eyed, staring into space. They must have been working very hard on the road, for some of them slept in the rattling coach, open-mouthed, leaning against the hard, soiled wood. "They have been working to earn money," came into Edgar's mind, and he set to guessing how much they earned, but could not decide. And so another disturbing fact impressed itself upon him, that money was something one did not always have on hand, but had to be made somehow or other. And for the first time he became conscious of having taken the ease in which he had been lapped as a matter of course and that to the right and the left of him abysms yawned which his eyes had never beheld. It came to him now with the shock of suddenness that there were trades and professions, that his life was hedged about by innumerable secrets, close at hand and tangible, though he had never noticed them. Edgar was learning a good deal in that single hour of aloneness and saw many things as he looked out of his narrow compartment into the great wide world. And for all his dark dread, something began to unfold itself gently within him, not exactly happiness as yet, rather a marvelling at the diversity of life. He had fled, he felt, out of fear and cowardice, yet it was his first independent act, and he had experienced something of the reality that he had passed by, until then, without heeding it. Perhaps he himself was now as much of a mystery to his mother and his father as the world had been to him. It was with different eyes that he looked out of the window. He was now viewing actualities, it seemed to him. A veil had been lifted from all things, and they were showing him the core of their purpose, the secret spring of their actions. Houses flew by as though torn away by the wind, and he pictured to himself the people living in them. Were they rich or poor, happy or unhappy? Were they filled with the same longing as he to know everything? And were there children in those houses like himself who had merely been playing with things? The flagmen who waved the train no longer seemed like scattered dolls, inanimate objects, toys stationed there by indifferent chance. Edgar now understood that the giving of the signal was their fate, their struggle with life."
Stefan Zweig, The Burning Secret