AFED #39: The State of Things [Der Stand der Dinge] (West Germany/Portugal/US, 1982); Dir. Wim Wenders

Coincidence is a strange thing. I only read about the death of John Paul Getty III this morning and was completely ignorant that he had a small role in today's film, The State of Things , until I saw his name in the closing credits.

Getty, who presumably knew director Wim Wenders through his German wife Gisela Zacher, shot the part of a troubled screenwriter not long before the overdose and stroke that left him paralysed. In truth he doesn't seem entirely compos mentis and it could be little acting was required.

Fortunately there's rather more to recommend Wenders' film than that, although had I been asked to draw any conclusions after the first hour it wouldn't have been nearly so favourable. It's one of the most schizophrenic films I've ever seen but so skillfully accomplished that at the end I wished I had time to sit through it all over again.

Just as Fellini had and Truffaut Day For Night, The State of Things is Wenders' film about film-making. Like a number of the director's films it also explores the contrast between European and American values, art and commerce; the message being that in cinema one cannot exist without the other.

It commences with ten minutes of a film within the film; a ponderous b&w remake of Roger Corman's Day the World Ended with characters forlornly wandering through a hostile post-apocalyptic landscape. Abruptly it's revealed to be a film set in Portugal, where German director Friedrich (Patrick Bauchau) is about to discover there's a major problem; his American cinematographer Joe (none other than Sam Fuller) tells him they've run out of film.

Without the funds to acquire further stock production is suspended, anticipating that the producer, Gordon, will shortly return from LA after securing the necessary financing. The cast and crew then spend the best part of the next hour of the killing time; idling around chatting about nothing in particular at the hotel, pairing off into couples to get better acquainted, and getting drunk in the bars of Lisbon.

These scenes have a heavily improvised feel but might almost be a parody of the worst navel-gazing, self-reflexive excesses of European art cinema. While there are pearls of insight it seems interminable and directionless; the frustration of the crew become our own as we wait for some kind of progress to be made. This might be real life but it sure as hell ain't a story.

Finally Friedrich has no alternative but to head to LA in search of his producer and some answers, marking a change of pace. After coming up against a brick wall in the form of his lawyer (Roger Corman himself), Friedrich eventually tracks George (Allen Garfield) down and gets a harsh dose of the truth. It transpires that the film was being funded with laundered Mafia money, but the mob aren't too impressed with the director's vision and have decided to recall the debt, leaving George in dire straits. After spending the night driving through the city, musing on the life as only Wenders characters can, Friedrich and George's careers come to a violent end.

It's a hugely cynical view of Hollywood borne of the director's own frustrations in working there. Still, while being an indictment of Tinseltown's seamier side I don't share the view that Wenders' is an unequivocal condemnation of Hollywood.

What he appears to be saying is that a personal vision doesn't have to come at the sake of narrative; you can have both and not just settle for regurgitation of the same old tired formulas. As such it anticipates Wenders' shift to a somewhat more populist approach with Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire.


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