From Wednesday January 24, 2008
Directed by Wim Winders, featuring Steven Spielberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Susan Seidelman, Monte Hellman & Michaelangelo Antonioni.
During the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, Wim Wenders rented out a hotel room and set up a camera inside. He invited a crowd of directors to go into the room one at a time and ponder the question “What is the future of cinema?” For each guest, one reel of film was in the camera, giving them about 8 minutes to answer. It was a neat idea in 1982, and it’s more fun now a generation later, to see who came closest to reality.
Wenders is as well known for documentaries (BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, LIGHTNING OVER WATER) as he is for narrative films (WINGS OF DESIRE, UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD). Not much “film making” going on here, but the idea to do this experiment almost in the manner of a Confessional booth is pretty cool.
It’ll finish Friday,
AFTER THOUGHT from 7.31.11
As intriguing as this film continues to be, watching the 2006 Anchor Bay DVD affords the benefit of Wenders’ own commentary, which itself has already become something of a look into past expectations of the future. The term “visionary” gets tossed around by any critic who admires a director’s pretty compositions. Wenders’ brief list of questions becomes a litmus test for artists truly worthy of “visionary” praise, versus those who have made themselves a perfectly respectable career, but who have not yet reflected on that career and their place in the film medium.
We see for ourselves why certain directors who visit Room 666 do not fall into the visionary category through their limited stumbling answers; in a few cases Wenders corroborates that assessment by expressing his own disappointment on the DVD commentary track. There are directors whom he had clearly hoped would offer greater insight, though in fairness to those less eloquent, Wenders acknowledges difficulty sitting alone in a room pondering the questions he himself posed.
Wenders comments on his calculated design for the experiment, not only in his sheet of questions, but his preparation of the room. He left the TV on in case its presence might spur conversation, and provided a chair and table, yet set the camera far enough back to allow one to pace the room should they choose. The more interesting directors react with at least one aspect of Wenders preparations.
Jean-Luc Godard opens the conversation with a philosophical bang. He almost immediately notes the television in the room, on which a tennis match is being played, and pouts that the position of his chair impedes his ability to watch the match. He does not bemoan this issue, but rather quickly launches into a matter of fact comparison of the film aesthetic versus the television aesthetic, without ever again acknowledging the TV. Wenders notes with awe and some affection that as stream of conscious as Godard’s thoughts seemed to be, he was instinctually cognizant of how much time he had to answer. Godard ties his spider web of an answer up with enough time to light a cigar, rise, and limp on an injured left leg out of the frame.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder gives a similar but far more succinct answer compared to Godard’s. On a personal note, I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the original enfant terrible of 70’s European cinema answering questions posed by a fellow German, while the goofy Filmation animated TARZAN Saturday morning cartoon plays on TV behind him. Fassbinder’s answer does not expand much beyond Godard’s, however being as this was among Fassbinder’s final interviews before his untimely death by overdose, Wenders reveals a hint of soul within this intellectual exercise by including all of Fassbinder’s comments. We continue to hear Fassbinder’s voice and read his subtitles as Wenders fades to a Lebanon cedar tree near the Paris airport and then back to room 666. That tree, which also opens and closes the film, is presented to us as a reminder of humanity’s existence long before and hopefully long after film’s relevance as an artistic medium. Wenders’ treatment of Fassbinder’s answer, including his commentary on the relentless and reckless pace under which Fassbinder worked, suggest that an artist purely giving their absolute best for as long as they are physically capable may prove a detriment to the artist and the medium if that artist burns out before his or her time.
Werner Herzog’s interview is a personal delight for me. Before responding to Wenders’ list, Herzog says that one must take their shoes off to answer these sort of questions. He not only takes off his shoes, but his socks, and also is the only director to turn off the TV. Before Herzog even begins to answer, he alters factors of the experiment to suit himself.
This is a visionary. If making himself comfortable regarding his shoes and socks are not enough evidence of his uniqueness, Herzog’s observations take two transcending steps, one of which was too far sighted to even be acknowledged by Wenders in 2006. Herzog presages the rise of the internet, which Wenders addresses by commenting to the effect that Herzog in ’82 would be impressed by how far technology had advanced by 2006. But here’s where Herzog’s vision goes a step beyond: he even suggests that we will be shopping for vegetables with our phones. Herzog foresaw 4G smartphones in 1982, which as recently as 2006 was not yet assumed to be the next phase beyond the internet. Herzog also ruminates on how film itself as a medium may soon come to pass, but he regards the tools of filmmaking as vital to whichever of these new media will drive the final nail in film’s coffin. If you know Herzog, you know this is about as close as he comes to being optimistic.
The rental on Room 666 wraps up with Michelangelo Antonioni. We hear from the tone of Wenders’ commentary that he has as great affection of Antonioni as he does Godard. It is easy to see why. Antonioni is equally as profound as Godard, but focused in an entirely different direction; where Godard’s concern is the evolution of his chosen means of expression, Antonioni considers his responsibility to an audience to be of primary concern. Antonioni was also among the few who did not feel threated by TV and video, even suggesting the rise of “high definition video,” a foresight so ahead of its time yet so casually delivered that it barely registers in 1982. Antonioni is such a warm and intelligent gent that watching him here makes me want to re-watch all of his films immediately.
ROOM 666 concludes with Wenders reading a prepared statement from Yilmaz Güney. Güney was a Turkish writer/director whose film YOL won the Cannes Film Festival that year, but who remained in hiding outside of Cannes throughout the festival, as he was wanted in Turkey as an escaped political prisoner. This vital conclusion reminds us that even as film changes to video, and then to hi-def internet, the true visionaries of the form will always find a way to get into trouble with their stories. That’s a lot to pack a 46 minute running time, huh?