Approaching death in Wim Wenders ‘Lightning over Water’ and Tamara Jenkins ‘The Savages’

At an early point in Wim Wenders experimental documentary on the death of Nicholas Ray Lightning over Water Wenders puts forward the idea that one should confront one’s fears head on. Wenders perpetual paralysis when confronted with his visibly failing friend, and cinematic mentor, Nicholas Ray, establishes his motivation for coming to Ray’s New York apartment armed with a camera and flanked by a small film crew. Wenders is undoubtedly confronting his own fear. The uncomfortable opening exchanges between the iconic Hollywood maverick and his European protégé, are partly a result of Wenders placing a physical barrier – in the form of a partition wall – between himself and the coughing and spluttering, cancer-ridden, walking corpse that Ray has become. Ray here is a wraith-like spectre, almost always caught with his cigarette coolly dangling between skeletal fingers, or hanging louche (just like Jimmy Dean) from his wafer thin lips. The partition wall allows Wenders to remain blind to the physical decay of his idol. Yet the camera he deploys so mercilessly does not waver in its depiction of Ray’s deterioration – in looking over the day’s rushes Wenders ruminates over the exposing nature of the camera, as it insinuates itself into every rigid muscle and protuberant bone of Ray’s cracking carapace.

What is it that keeps Wenders film stock rolling? Continually, Wenders refers to the inability to find a film among all of the material, or simply the fact that he must carry on making the film. Yet as the fear grows closer and Ray’s vitality ebbs ever further away from the camera’s inquisition, what prevents Wenders from turning away, turning the camera away and thereby turning us – the audience – away from this process of dying? In amongst the chopping between aesthetic film (the cinema quality scene-setting) and guerrilla film (the revealing process shots of the film crew working the set) Wenders asks Ray what he wants from this film. Ray is bent on realising a dream-story he has had involving an art-dealer forging his masterworks and deriving his greatest pleasure from trying to place his own forgeries into the revered public spaces that have canonised the works in which he deals. Wenders calls Ray on his narrative idealisation. Why a painter Nick, why painting? We know it’s you, why not film. Nicholas Ray then verbalises the burden he is placing upon Wenders. He is asking Wenders to assist him in completing one last film – this film Lightning over Water (in itself a beautiful visual metaphor from the credit sequences). Wenders keeps filming because Ray needs to complete this film, as he says while addressing the Vasser College students, he needs to bring himself back to a sense of the whole man, he needs to feel whole again. Trying to bring Ray out complete and intact from the midst of his own deterioration is then Wenders’ task, his promise and is what fuels the films intense final third, in which Ray fragments before the unflinching lens of the camera allowing Wenders to discover the ‘wholeness’ demanded of him by his co-auteur, a dying man’s ‘final cut’.

The degree to which Wenders goes deep into that reservoir of fear and captures the death of a man and thus the life of a man, is partly because of his resistance to the cathartic emotional release, most often supplied to the viewer through a play of grief, or the shock of a moment of comedy. In Tamara Jenkins recent release The Savages the neurotic middle-class mores of a dysfunctional family triumvirate (erstwhile father, cerebral brother and extrovert sister) are the alienating glaze that deflects the penetrating stare of the camera just enough to keep the death process apart from the life process. The living, in dying, will not yield up to the quiet distancing and necessary erasure that allows them to move seamlessly into memory and away from the residue of ownership over the self.

Lenny Savage is becoming consumed by dementia and he wears the haunted mask of confusion and horror that is the mark of his disease and its brutal propensity for emptying. Philip Bosco is acting, but inhabits that messily defined area, previously inhabited by Henry Fonda (On Golden Pond), Jason Robards (Magnolia) and Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story), where life’s completion is closing in fast and he appears at that finely balanced moment before the inexorable decline. Having alienated himself from his children, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney), when his long-term girlfriend dies, he finds himself exiled from their Sun City retirement bungalow and suddenly in need of the support of two strangers. Jon, a theatre Professor, and Wendy, a wannabe writer, exhibit two different manifestations of the fear of death, suddenly thrust upon them by their father’s mouldering presence. Jon retreats from his father mentally, while keeping a constant physical proximity. His response is akin to that of Wenders when confronted by Ray, a glacial rationalism, poorly masking the palpable fear bubbling away just below the surface of that pale white flesh. Wendy on the other hand attempts to delude herself into an intimacy with the father she never really had, that she has never really known. She compensates for their lack of a sense of deep kinship by throwing herself into a strange attempt at proving her love. Her fear is bought away from her in the little knick-knacks (such as the red pillow) she festoons her befuddled father with.

The two films are completely antithetical and yet when viewed in close proximity begin to migrate toward each other. Wenders film can be viewed as a careful fostering of a father-figure’s failing energies for one last exhibition of mastery. Yet the stress inherent within Wenders’ and Ray’s relationship also at times gives way to a struggle for ownership of the movie. Wenders brings out the key elements of Ray’s back catalogue, his work with actors (almost theatrical and given theatrical voice in the Kafka sequence), the sense of Homecoming that follows Robert Mitchum’s return home in The Lusty Men (as commented on in his Vasser lecture) and the radical fracturing of film narrative and form that was the hallmark of Ray’s return to directorial duties after a decade-long hiatus, in his SUNY Binghamton student project We Can’t go Home Again (which both features in and heavily informs the style of Wenders’ own film). Yet the centre focus of the production itself is Ray and despite his deteriorating condition he seems reluctant to go quietly into the night, forgetting lines, trying to force awkward narrative projections onto the movie’s structure and attempting to make a sentimental death-bed sequence that sends Wenders to sleep.

With no such film-within-a-film framing the straighter narrative concerns of The Savages plays brother and sister off one another for ownership of the estranged father neither of them can now hope to know. What is so successful within the narrative contrivances and distancing devices (all so very Brechtian) of The Savages is the sparing use of back story, the deliberate manner in which the exact details of these three people’s familial relations are withheld. We never get to know how bad a father Lenny was, or what was the cause of the split from his wife. All we have are the poor, and deeply individual, memories of the adult-children, like the brace-removal incident, or their mother’s sudden flight. At the centre of the movie is Philip Bosco’s dispensed Lenny Savage, a porous cipher figure that eludes the misplaced struggle of his children by making himself disappear in all but physical frame. A poignant scene in which Jon and Wendy’s antagonism towards their relative coping methods overspills into an all out slanging match sees the camera carefully pull away from the interior of the vehicle and drift across to the passenger seat, where Lenny sits with a suggestion of rage struggling to break through his otherwise confused countenance. He is framed behind the frosted passenger-side window pane and mutes their squabbling by pulling the hood of his ridiculous Parker raincoat (an inappropriate purchase by Jon) up over his head, encasing himself in yet another protective layer, removing himself a little more from the movie.

The Savages manages to leaven its despairing look at the human inability to cope with the dying process by placing an emphasis on the barbed wit of its protagonists, or their awkwardness within certain social contexts that they deem inappropriate (the sequence in which Larry requests the 1927 version of The Jazz Singer as his film in the respite home, staffed, as it is, by an almost exclusively African-American group of nurses and carers is a perfect example of the comedy of anxiety that the likes of Ricky Gervais and Larry David have mined so well in recent years). It also deploys pointed truths as one of its many distancing devices, so that when Jon rails against the hypocrisy of a society that makes profit from people’s descent into old age, it is concluded by the punchline of him offending the family members who are walking their loved ones in the grounds of the retirement home. Within the limitations of its conventional narrative framework The Savages goes a long way down that road that Wenders is driving in Lightning over Water, in fact if you take Jenkins, as director and writer, and place her in the Wenders role then in her own circuitous fashion she is approaching that primitive fear. The seeming benignity of her final throwaway epilogue sequence proves to have a great deal more resonance when you consider how much easier it is to give up on a human being, particularly when they will not play ball, than it is to give up on a beloved pet.

Wenders also deals with an epilogue as the conclusion to his (or Ray’s) film and there is once more a sense of ambivalence in the seeming triteness of this closing sequence. Having wrapped the film, having ventured to the harrowing point of human completion that is death (or in this case Ray’s ‘Final Cut’) Wenders and his crew dig up the dirt and gossip of the shoot and have a Saki infused wake onboard a yacht, replete with the kind of self-obsessed narcissism of a party for ‘creatives’. Gradually the stories and snippets begin to move onto Ray’s volcanic and electric personality and a wonderful cinematic metaphor is presented to the camera when one of the crew performs a trick in which he burns a match down to his finger and thumb, then wetting the finger and thumb on his other hand inverts the match and lets the flame consume what remains of the matchstick and in the process extinguish itself. Amidst all of the discussion Wenders sits beatifically smiling, having carried the burden of another’s death successfully and thus assumed the mantle of the mentor, facing down his fear.

This essay was originally published on May 25th 2010 on my now defunct ‘Imposturous’ blog.