DVD Review Of Lightning Over Water

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/7/07


  The more that I watch of the 1970s New German Cinema (Das Neue Kino) the more manifest it becomes that, despite the usual namedropping of Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Werner Herzog as a trio, it truly was only a one man movement, and Herzog is and was so far above and cinematically dominant over his two rivals that to speak of the lesser two in the same breath as Herzog is like mentioning the Gawain poet whilst going on of John Donne’s or William Shakespeare’s poetic skills.

  This is abundantly clear in lightweight films like the 1980 pseudo-documentary Lightning Over Water, directed by Wenders- with a meaningless co-credit to his idol Nicholas Ray, whose death is central to the film, and who, along with Wenders, is credited as a co-writer. In a sense this equivalence is apropos, since Wenders and Ray are both, at best, second tier filmic talents. After Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without A Cause- the James Dean teenaged sudser, are there any real films of note that Ray directed? And, neither of the two films mentioned is anywhere near greatness. The only reason that this misshapen mess of a film was made was because Ray was something of an idol to Wenders, and dying of cancer, not long after the two men met filming The American Friend a few years earlier.

  Yet, none of this camaraderie nor artistic affinity comes through in the film for we see only one brief movie clip, from Ray’s Lusty Men, we get no background on Ray’s life, and all we are subjected to, during the film’s VERY LONG ninety minutes, is Ray’s wheezing, hacking, spitting, whining, and assorted other bodily noises as he lies about, waiting to die, as Wenders narrates that this or that moment made him feel bad. Add to that conversations that are supposed to be ‘real’ yet are clearly not a part of the ‘internal documentary,’ and some poorly acted and staged scenes that are meant to illuminate the tale of Wenders’ trip to Ray’s bedside, while also trying and failing to break down narrative conventions, and you have a genuine disaster.

  That said, nothing at all is added by filming the filming process, nor is there is a grand meditation on death within. I contrast this film to the quasi-documentary form Wenders’ rival, Herzog, has perfected, and it’s clear Wenders is no Herzog. Too many scenes are done as badly acted possible reconstructions, and there is not enough reality for this to even really be considered a documentary. It’s as if Wenders felt that the sickly Ray’s presence, alone, was enough reality for viewers to handle. Wrong. Add to that the fact that Ray is not a particularly nice nor engaging subject matter and when the film ends, with scenes of Wenders and his crew tossing Ray’s ashes out to sea, then kicking back with booze and anecdotes, the viewer really does not care about them nor their dead pal; which contrasts sharply with Wenders’ own real (or feigned?) emotions. This lack of empathy is especially striking to me since the images of carcinogenic rot are very familiar to me, from the death of my father a few years later than Ray’s death. That I did not care whether the old man lived nor died is the easiest, yet most striking, indictment of Wenders’ failure with this film.

  The DVD is part of Anchor Bay’s The Wim Wenders Collection, which also includes 1989’s Notebook On Cities & Clothes, and 1977’s The American Friend- an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game. This film, shot at a 1.77:1 aspect ratio, comes with a commentary by Wenders, yet it is not at all illuminating, for Wenders still seems to be down over Ray’s death, although a quarter century has passed. He rambles incessantly, and there are long pauses where nothing is added. Why Anchor Bay did not let someone like Norman Hill, who aptly prodded Werner Herzog in their DVD commentaries on his films, do a similar thing here, is a mystery. Especially since Herzog never needs prompting whilst Wenders clearly does. Worse, what little Wenders does say is just a recapitulation of most of the information that the actual film’s voiceovers by Wenders tell us. The only interesting tidbits gleaned are some anecdotes about Ray’s alcoholism, and a brief shot of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch- before he started his own career, who helped on the editing of this film. There is no theatrical trailer, and, other than talent bios on Wenders and Ray, there is merely the extra of a bizarre 38 minute video of a lecture Ray gave at Vassar College, which is briefly seen in Lightning Over Water, called Nicholas Ray: Especially For Pierre- dedicated to the film’s producer Pierre Cottrell. The old man is mainly incoherent and rambling, as well as clearly not in his right mind. As example, he states that the only things verboten in the Q & A session with the students are queries about James Dean. The next clip shows that he is answering questions on Dean, then saying it wears him out. Huh?

  The film was shot both in film and video, but this mixed media adds nothing of consequence to the meaning nor import of what it captures. I guess the video adds a bit of realism to Ray’s decline, but the fact is that there really is nothing here besides such a minor addition. Let me sum up the film this way: imagine sitting at a funeral home and listening to strangers ramble on about the neighbors and old friends of a loved one that you know nothing about. And to top it off, the storytellers are dreadful at their craft, and furthermore never complete any of the tales. Worse, there is no connection to the audience for they are telling tales only they know anything about. Thus the viewer feels no empathy for Ray nor Wenders. Even more annoyingly, there are some shots that are so amateurish  and badly composed that one has to wonder if Wenders deliberately screwed up his film to try to ‘show’ that he was so upset that he could not do his job properly; in a sense employing faux amateurism to try to cynically manipulate viewers into jerking tears over his dead friend.

  Regardless of whether or not this is the case, in the end, all the manifestly feigned experimentalism is just dull. Not even some well composed shots of the bygone Twin Towers can elicit genuine emotional responses. Then comes the  penultimate scene of Ray, near death, lecturing Wenders, who inexplicably is lying in bed in a fake hospital scene. This scene is just painful to watch, for Ray’s out of his mind and merely rambling. Wenders shows this for seven minutes and the result is borderline pornography, full exploitation, and plain old sadistic, because nothing is gained. I felt a minor anger and contempt for Wenders during this, but it passed, as all else in this empty vessel does.

  Yet, did Wenders really think that this sequence would illumine death- Ray’s or any others? Apparently so, which only demands that the flaw of pretension be added to this film’s artistic sins, which include treacly sermonizing, such as when Wenders asks, in all apparent seriousness, such banal queries as whether or not telling the truth is dull or exciting. All in all, Lightning Over Water is a bad film, an inconsequential and failed extension of the documentary form, a weak statement on art and/or death, and not even a good record of the late 1970s fashion nor culture. It is basically a pointless vanity project that never coheres, for it has no narrative nor emotional cement to hold its flimsy structure together. This fact provokes only two real questions- who was more vain, Ray or Wenders? And did the right filmmaker die?

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]

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