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A long day closes
A UK region 2 DVD review of LIGHTNING OVER WATER from Anchor Bay's Wim Wenders Collection by Slarek
 
"This film is about...a man who wants to bring himself all together before
he dies...a regaining of self-esteem. A once very highly successful man."
Nicholas Ray

 

By the time he had cast him as the enigmatic painter Derwatt in his 1977 thriller The American Friend, Wim Wenders had for many years been a huge fan of the American director Nicholas Ray, the man responsible for such films as In a Lonely Place (1950), The Lusty Men (1952), The Savage Innocents (1960), the cult favourite Johnny Guitar (1954), and, of course, Rebel Without a Cause (1955). During the course of making The American Friend, these two filmmakers from different generations and continents became close friends. Three years later Wenders visited Ray at his New York home so that they could make a final film together, one that turned out to be about their friendship and, more specifically, about the ailing Ray, who was by now in the advanced stages of terminal lung cancer.

Although logic would dictate a straight documentary approach, Wenders and Ray opted for a more formally cinematic interpretation, shooting on 35mm and staging meetings and conversations for the camera, as if playing out their own lives as movie characters in an intimate drama of friendship, art, family and loss. This approach is intriguingly usurped by the incorporation of low band video footage of the process of its own creation, shots that announce their presence with a blast of static and whose grainy fuzziness contrasts markedly with the polished film look of the main feature. As the film unfolds, the already fragile line between the staged elements and the reality behind them begins to crumble, as Ray's health deteriorates and the storyline, such as it is, is forced to go where circumstances lead it.

It shouldn't work. In fact, it should feel awkward and pretentious and should damagingly distance us from its subject. Certainly it feels a little odd at first, stranding us strangely between fact and fiction, but as the film progresses this approach feels completely and uniquely appropriate, the only logical way to capture the final days of a man whose life has been, and even at this late stage is still being, lived through film. What in other hands might be open to charges of exploitation and insensitivity is here an act of kinship, a therapeutic bonding between filmmakers through their chosen and beloved medium of artistic expression. Indeed, from the start it is Wenders who has reservations about the project, at the prospect of dealing with Ray's imminent death on film, something Ray himself assures his younger friend will not be a problem.

But of course it is. How could it not be? Wenders' reticence is still visible and is doubled for an audience that may feel uncomfortable at being this close to someone going through what for most would be a very private suffering. At one point Wenders watches his own footage and remarks that "the camera showed clearly that his time was running out," but adds that this was not visible to the naked eye. Perhaps not, and certainly not with the beautifying effect of 35mm film, but the video camera tells a very different story, its crude directness burrowing beneath the sheen provided by film, and beyond the carefully framed and lit image of how Wenders wants to see his friend to expose with brutal frankness a seriously ill man who is not long for this world. The contrast between the two images is sometimes striking, as when Ray is filmed directing a rehearsal of Kafka's A Report to the Academy in an otherwise empty theatre and is framed almost heroically by Wenders' low-angle film camera, a stark contrast to the sobering video footage taken of him in hospital just a few weeks earlier.

Reality finally conquers the film image in a staged but touchingly honest conversation between Ray and his daughter on what looks for all the world like his death bed, and a final, heart-rending close-up in which he appears to be crumbling before our very eyes, his own, final call of "Cut!" coming almost as a welcome release. Only the seemingly bolted-on epilogue of Wenders and his crew drinking to Ray's memory aboard the Chinese Junk that Ray earlier envisioned as a suitable end for the film feels out of place, an unfocussed attempt to provide an upbeat ending for what is otherwise a bold and remarkably moving epitaph, a final, heartfelt gift from one artist to another.

The version here is essentially a director's cut of the film, reworked by Wenders some time after the event. So depressed was he at Ray's death, which occurred shortly after filming had completed, that he handed the material over to his friend and regular editor Peter Przygodda, who worked for a year to produce the 116 minute edit that was screened at Cannes. Word has it that Wenders disliked what he saw and spent three months working with producer Chris Sievernich to re-edit the film into its present form. I've not seen the original cut, which has its staunch supporters, and it would have been nice to see both side-by-side, but I'm guessing that Wenders' direct involvement in the US release of this DVD set would effectively have squashed any plans to do so.

sound and vision

Framed 1.77:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is another fine transfer in a box set that is full of them. The analogue video images inevitably look a little rough, but provide a very effective contrast to the handsomely reproduced 35mm footage, whose colour, contrast and detail are first rate. Some sources have the original aspect ratio listed as 1.66:1, so it is possible there is some minor cropping here.

As with other films in the set, we have a choice of Dolby 2.0 mono and 5.1 surround, and as with most of the other discs there is previous little difference between them. Both are clear and clean of noise, and that's what counts.

extra features

None. Here we really lose out of the version in the American Wim Wenders Collection, Volume 2 release, also by Anchor Bay. That disc includes a Wenders commentary, a featurette entitled Nicholas Ray: Especially for Pierre and a 38 minute lecture by Ray. If you are a big fan of this film, the lack of extras here could be the deciding factor in which box set to buy.

summary

A welcome inclusion that certainly has its detractors, but a film that I found both moving and sincere, a unique approach to a difficult subject that comes as much from the heart as from the head. The lack of extras here smarts a bit, and I for one would welcome the chance to compare this cut with the one first prepared by Peter Przygodda, but it is clearly not to be.

The Wim Wenders Collection
Lightning Over Water

West Germany / Sweden 1980
86 mins
directors
Nicholas Ray
Wim Wenders

DVD details
region 2
video
1.77:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
German
subtitles
English
extras
none
distributor
Anchor Bay
release date
26 March 2007
review posted
23 March 2007

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See all of Slarek's reviews