If the cinematic marketplace is ever more dominated by “high concept” cinema, I guess I find myself particularly taken by what must be the “low concept” film. High concept is this: “Die Hard on board the President’s plane.” “Jodie Foster meets space aliens.” And a low concept might be this one: “Film soundman travels to Portugal to add soundtrack to silent film, finds director has vanished, wanders streets with mic and tape deck, chases mosquito, listens to music, talks to children, expounds on the nature of cinema.”
And that, in a nutshell, is Lisbon Story, the 1994 film from director Wim Wenders, who cut his teeth as one standard bearer of the “new German cinema” that flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s. After three years, Lisbon Story has finally been picked up for distribution by Fox Lorber and recently enjoyed its U.S. theatrical premiere in New York City. The film is so low-key that in an arid summer of things that go pop, bang, rumble and woosh, it’s absolutely refreshing on its own terms.
Wenders regular Rudiger Vogler plays Philip Winter, seen in the first reel driving across Europe to help salvage a film that his director friend Friedrich has been shooting in Lisbon with an old hand-cranked silent film camera. On his arrival at Friedrich’s house, Philip finds not the director but instead a passle of children carrying video cameras everywhere they go. He also stumbles across a recording session by Portuguese group Madredeus (playing themselves), who are also contributing to the unfinished film. Philip spends much of his time hunched over a Movieola looking at Friedrich’s raw footage and then hitting the streets to record ambient sound on location. Back at the house, he sleeps in Friedrich’s bed and reads animatedly to himself from the director’s library of books (notably poetry by Lisbon native Fernando Pessoa).
It’s sort of a sequel to Wenders’ 1983 The State of Things (which starred Bauchau as a director named Friedrich who traveled to Los Angeles to hunt down his producer), but it shares thematic elements with 1991’s Until the End of the World (in which Vogler portrayed a private investigator also named Philip Winter). Like The State of Things, Lisbon Story is a personal examination of the filmmaking process. And like Until the End of the World, it’s an affirmation of the power of the film image (equated, I believe, with imagination, or “dreams”) and a refutation of the seductive idea that video images — the ultimate “verité,” perhaps — can somehow show us truth. When Winter catches up with Friedrich, he finds that his director friend has lost the faith, discarding his movie camera in favor of a fleet of video cameras that record candid pictures of the city at nominal cost, and that can therefore be deployed at random to capture a “pure” image, unspoiled from being looked upon by human eyes. It then falls on Winter to mount an amiable defense of the act of filmmaking itself, lest Friedrich be forever lost to the world of cinema.
Wenders’ wide-eyed fascination with locations continues — Lisbon Story is a mesmerizing portrait of the Portuguese capital, just as Wings of Desire memorialized a divided Berlin, or Paris, Texas showed us the American west through a European’s eyes. There’s something hypnotic about Wenders’ directorial style, and especially his way with imagery. No matter how trite his dialogue, or how strained his situations, it’s enough to simply gaze upon a Wenders film, and I can gaze over and over again.
The script, however, could have used some work. Wenders had the help of a poet, Peter Handke, when crafting his still-gorgeous Wings of Desire. (The less said about purported non-sequel Faraway, So Close, the better.) Australian novelist Peter Carey was on-hand to help make something resembling a narrative out of the sprawling and problematic Until the End of the World. But on Lisbon Story, Wenders is the sole credited screenwriter, and it seems that his dialogue suffers accordingly. For example, when Philip takes a house key from the lovely singer from Madredeus, he asks her, “Is this the key to your heart, as well?” It’s charming in part because it’s clumsy, but it’s unbecoming of a film that’s mostly assured in its imagery and purpose. A certain heavy-handedness is on display in long scenes where Philip stretches out in bed, leafing through Friedrich’s books and carrying on an imaginary conversation with him. Later, his characters embark on an all-too-literal discussion of the nature of moving images. All in all, Lisbon Story too often violates the cherished literary rule of “show, don’t tell.” Wenders could hardly be more sincere, or more likable, but the dime-store film theory is unnecessary in a movie that works best when it’s least aware of itself.