Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders / West Germany, 1974):
(Alice in den Städten)

Modern life per Wim Wenders, on a note paraphrased from Groucho Marx: "A child could understand it! Now find me a child, I can’t make heads or tails of it." The camera tilts down from cloudy skies to reveal the German journalist (Rüdiger Vogler) under the boardwalk, paralyzed by angst and with only "empty pictures" to show for his trip across America. The wide-open vistas have become pockmarked with blocky signs ("SODA," "TEXACO," "GAS"), commercialism is the main deforming machine, "no one image now leaves you in peace, they all want something from you." (Young Mr. Lincoln plays on the motel TV so that Henry Fonda playing the jaw harp briefly fills the screen, a newspaper later pronounces Ford dead.) Intersections in the city are "like clearings in the woods," he meets nine-year-old Alice (Yella Rottländer) at one such junction, the airport where her mother (Lisa Kreuzer) asks him to escort them to Amsterdam. The doleful voyager soon finds himself stuck with the deadpan sprite as they trek through a Netherlands of suspended monorails and "house-graves." Antonioni’s Il Grido is the clear model, though perhaps this should be seen more as Wenders’ own head-clearing travelogue after Scarlet Letter, with the existential weight of notebooks and Polaroid snapshots yielding to the spaciousness of the road. His New York is not a modernist void but a collection of fresh perspectives: The Shea Stadium from an organist's vantage point, the Empire State Building in the back of a Harry Callahan composition, the World Trade Center towers glimpsed from a moving cab. The sad spectacle of old Europe vanishing through a windshield is mitigated by the artist’s continuous pursuit of the right image, by one generation’s disenchantment grudgingly buoyed by another’s hopes and appetites, by the magical sight of Chuck Berry rocking on stage. The closing ascending view of the train is not from Ozu but from Ray’s Pather Panchali, a literally uplifting vision. Cinematography by Robby Müller. With Edda Köchl, Ernest Boehm, and Hans Hirschmüller. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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