Knock, Knock, Knocking on America's Door
By Fernando F. Croce

Over sixty now, Wim Wenders searches still. For beauty? Connection? America? A way back to 1970s glory days past the recent waffling haze of Million Dollar Hotel and Land of Plenty? In any case, the gentlest of German New Wavers has in Don't Come Knocking plunked fellow menopausal wanderer Sam Shepard back in the saddle and out in the wide open spaces again, more than two decades after Paris, Texas, for another bout of soul-searching amid jukeboxes and roadside barrooms. The opener, like The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is a rediscovery of the West, vast orange, dusty expanses stretched by the lenses; the spacious Fordian frontier is no more, of course, so its shards must be assembled by Wenders' camera or, taking the lead of the film-within-the-film, George Kennedy's, who cameos as the grizzled helmer of the Hollywood oater starring aging cowboy star Shepard, who has one booze-drug-groupie scandal after another behind him. The actor one day just rides off the Utah set and, before you can say The Last Movie, sodden self-reflexivity gets traded in for the rueful glow of regret, Shepard hiding with his mom (Eva Marie Saint) in Nevada to escape the rest of the world and catch up with the past -- an album bulging with bad-boy tabloid snippets illustrates a wasted life, but Ma's got another surprise, the son he never knew he had from a forgotten liaison.

Off he goes to look up Jessica Lange, the waitress he once upon a time banged while shooting a Western around her diner. The actress, Shepard's real-life squeeze, clinches the personal aspect of Shepard's screenplay, not to mention the connection to Broken Flowers, though Wenders resolves the mystery straight away -- the son is Gabriel Mann, a nightclub singer who wants nothing to do with the weathered "worn-out cowboy" suddenly in town claiming to be his daddy. Time isn't noticed until it has passed, and the heft of the past is starting to weight down on Shepard, who can still try to lose himself in splashy casino neon yet no longer finds any taste in the gambling, drinking, and brawling. Instead, he settles down in a couch, angrily tossed in the middle of the street by Mann, and slouches, reflects and sobs, while a cloud scuttles overhead and the director lets out a parade of dissolving, circular pans. Earlier on, escorted home to Saint by the sheriff after a night of "too much fun," he is a lanky kid; later, attempting to compress a whole lifetime of missed opportunities by making up with Lange, he looks older but hardly wiser. Meanwhile, studio-hired company agent Tim Roth follows the AWOL thesp's trail with robotic implacability, and Sarah Polley ambles through with an urn containing the ashes of her late mother, who may have been another one of Shepard's various flings.

The usual Shepard forlorn self-pity is spread wide by Wenders, the bitterness of the playwright's vision expanded by the director's fascinated fondness for American culture. Velvety lounges and rock 'n' roll, Monument Valley and aerobic centers, James Gammon on horseback and Fairuza Balk shimmering to guitar tones -- the nation viewed by the Teutonic humanist who just had to shoot a cowboy rearing back his steed in the grandest Roy Rogers manner. A gaze as generously flabbergasted by human variety as Demme's, and, indeed, Don't Come Knocking reveals, with Neil Young: Heart of Gold, the year's most iridescent account of aged (thus lived) life; incidentally, scrupulous color and music figure prominently in both, here luminously photographed by Franz Lustig and scored by T-Bone Burnett. Wenders still has in him the alienation of The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and Kings of the Road, yet he's long tempered his angst with the pursuit of beauty -- the visual beauty of the lenses' expressionism, and the emotional beauty of fleeting moments, of Shepard meeting Saint at the bus station, or the trio of youngsters, Polley, Mann, and Balk, creating impromptu music out of familial dislocation. Polley contemplates life and movies, and prefers movies; Wenders, who understands the difference between easy "realism" and the power of the artistic image, seconds the notion, and grants her an ethereal final close-up. Shepard spots the reality of the connection, and feels the emotion. Audiences should share it.

*

There's one sharp joke in Thank You for Smoking -- the concept of the soulless tobacco lobbyist as Mr. Smith Going to Washington, illustrating the values of "moral flexibility" of capitalism and the artistry of bullshit "spinning" to the Supreme Court. But the joke fizzles because the lobbyist isn't soulless after all, despite being played by fist-chinned Aaron Eckhart, nicely lubricated with the smarm he's cultivated since In the Company of Men. No, Eckhart's cigarette-industry go-getter warrior is a defanged mastiff with an adoring son that assures everybody (including the supposedly skewered industrial targets) that he is a good soul, and that no one is really getting "satirized" for anything. When not hanging out with Merchants of Death pals Maria Bello (alcohol) and David Koechner (firearms), Eckhart is laying reporter Katie Holmes, meeting with Tinseltown mandarin Rob Lowe, or tranquilizing dying, pissed Marlboro Man Sam Elliott with a valise of dough. America is a great nation due to "our endless appeal system," he tells his son, and then goes off to battle anti-smoking politician William H. Macy, one of the many clashes of caricatures robbed of sting by director Jason Reitman, who, being Ivan's son, knows all about faking effrontery while keeping things zippy, tidy, and dull-edged. An adaptation of Christopher Buckley's bestseller should have more lit butts than Good Night, and Good Luck; Reitman is afraid of including even one puff of smoke, lest anyone get offended. A slashing satire? Right. And V for Vendetta is a radical political statement.

*

A few weeks back, I tagged Joyeux NoŽl this year's Motorcycle Diaries. Now there's Tsotsi, channeling City of God's deplorably juiced-up exploitation of another country's misery for the complacent toasts of the international market. If anything, Gavin Hood's slick jaunt through writhing South African shantytowns is actually more corrupt than Fernando Meirelles' reductive pinball-shilling of Brazilian slums, dodging as it does the nation's post-apartheid cultural boils for hoary, audience-flattering, thugs-are-people-too condescension. The title is local patois for "criminal," and that's how Presley Chweneyagae, a glowering, not quite twenty petty gangster, is known by the other Johannesburg dwellers. He icily stabs a rotund passenger in the subway, turns to pulp a partner who raises moral qualms, then shoots a woman point-blank before rushing off in her car. Whaaat? A baby in the backseat? Presto -- Instant Redemption. The rest is baby-bringing hijinks (don't miss the ants-on-infant gag, folks!) and Madonna-imagery at gunpoint, with Chweneyagae revealing more of a pussycat under his hardened exterior than even Eckhart through a child's moist gaze. Fraudulent, patronizing, and empty -- it's no surprise that it won the Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar, for it's the perfect, subtitled companion piece for Crash.


Reviewed March 30, 2006.

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