On A Wim

The searcher: Director Wim Wenders on the set of 'Don't Come Knocking'
Sony Pictures Classics

Like many other European filmmakers to emerge in the '60s and '70s, Wim Wenders, born in Düsseldorf in the last year of WWII, was weaned on American cinema. Now 60 years of age, the director of Paris, Texas (and a former film critic) still hasn't gotten our movies--the Western in particular--out of his system. Wenders's new film, Don't Come Knocking--gorgeously shot in a desolate-looking Butte, Montana, from a screenplay by his Texas ranch hand Sam Shepard--is a typically eccentric elegy for vanished traditions: Shepard himself plays Howard Spence, an aging Western star who's belatedly compelled to search for the son he may have sired two decades earlier.

A wanderer himself, Wenders had visited Minnesota many times even before he and Shepard began to work on the Knocking screenplay in Stillwater. Almost 30 years ago, the director was escorted by then-budding indie rep John Pierson on a cross-country tour that included a stop at Al Milgrom's University Film Society: According to Pierson's 1995 book, Wenders dined alone with Milgrom in Minneapolis while Pierson was "left waiting." In March of '06, in town to promote Knocking, Wenders once again dined with Milgrom, who's still the Midwest cowboy in charge of lassoing foreign cinema. At least there's one thing that hasn't changed.


City Pages: Last night you said the "independent [film] world is shrinking." Indeed, a lot is being said right now about the state of the industry relative to new technologies and audience habits. Do you think the [film] industry is in crisis?

Wim Wenders: Actually, I'd say the digital revolution is going to cure the crisis. Right now, insane amounts of money are being spent on just a few films, with huge gambles and huge risks--that's the crisis. [Jean-Luc] Godard said a funny thing about 20 years ago. He said the Hollywood studios were working toward a future where all of them would end up making one movie that everyone on the planet would have to see. Sort of a visionary prediction, don't you think? And yet what's lucky is that the digital revolution happened, so now we can make millions of movies again instead of one.

CP: Don't Come Knocking was actually shot in widescreen 35mm, which seems to suit its nostalgia for the old Westerns.

Wenders: After making four digital films in a row, I thought it was fabulous to rediscover the beauty of film. I had all but forgotten how it is to work for three hours on every setup. And yes, we were referencing the old Westerns. But the other thing is that it sucks to try to get a wide shot in the desert on digital; you want to throw the [DV] camera away. And Don't Come Knocking is nothing but big, wide shots.

CP: The cinematography helps convey a sense of vacancy.

Wenders: Howard Spence is an obsolete character, like the cowboy hero. And Howard is not even a real cowboy--he's a cowboy actor, so he's really a pretender. Howard is a man who realizes too late that he has actually missed his own life--by doing movies. If you think about it, that's the story of all Westerns: people who roam around, trying to find out where they belong, trying to find a home. And they never find it. They're destined to continue looking.

CP: Did you ever feel that life had passed you by? You've been roaming, too, making movies all over the world for a long time.

Wenders: With me, it worked the other way around: Making movies got me in touch with my life. I feel like I'm slowly working my way toward making a comedy.

CP: If the character was so different [from you], what was necessary for you to understand him?

Wenders: I know a few people like [Howard]. Sam knows a few people. There are a lot of people like [Howard], really. It's scary how many people do not know their father or grow up without one. The story of the disappearing father is a big story--otherwise there wouldn't be so many movies about it. Transamerica, Broken Flowers, L'Enfant, and [my film] are all about that.

CP: Paternity aside, don't you think those stories are popular now because they tap into our current anxieties about responsibility in a general sense? The whole Western world is anxious about its responsibility for the state of the planet--as well it should be.

Wenders: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Think about it: Howard Spence is a man who hasn't grown up, a man who doesn't know how to deal with conflict. If you want to see a political metaphor in the character of a reckless cowboy who's ruining the world, go right ahead. I leave it to you.

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