Lightning Over Water (U.S.-West Germany, 1980):
(Nick's Movie)

Or, perhaps, Art Over Death. Can the cinema transform mortality, or merely record it? Wim Wenders inquires in the most dolorous way with Nicholas Ray, a friend experiencing his own protracted extinction. Wenders arrives at the maverick's Soho apartment in the 1979 prologue, morning comes and Ray wakes up, coughs, hacks, reaches for a cig before muttering about a dream ("A goddamn musical... in Venezuela"); the camera's set near the bed and the pajamas are as red as James Dean's Rebel Without a Cause jacket, yet reality elbows through all self-reflexive paraphernalia, for there's Ray dying, eaten away by cancer under the lenses' scrutiny. Ronee Blakley sings over the credits, "a film by" spread democratically for the entire cast and crew, though Wenders and Ray are the main performers, the older man's suffering inescapably its main subject -- Wenders senses it and confesses his fears of exploiting his friend's frail condition. Ray, an expiring satyr, absolves him and refuses easy incense-burning; as befits the poet laureate of the '50s, his path must be the ultimate romantic gesture, "to experience death without dying." How to leave your will on celluloid? Robert Mitchum, limping through the empty arena in the magnificent clip from The Lusty Men, shows Ray already left a lasting heritage, but one's very death must be a no less personal work of art to the outsider-director. An icky show no matter how you cut it, yet the morbid hero-worship is transcended by leonine Ray's ferocious unsentimentality, the feel of an artist desperately writing his own epitaph. With time running out and film flickering into splotchy video, it's a not long before Lear references take center stage, with Ray seizing his sublime, excruciating final close-up for a monologue straight into the void, fully aware of the link between the end of a take and the end of a life ("cut... don't cut... cut"). A documentary? Grave-robbery? A friend's goodbye? Wenders and the crew toast Ray's ashes in a Chinese junk sailing the New York Bay, as the medium posits its own enlivening view of Heaven -- Nick's Movie, at last.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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