Alice in the Cities
A Moment of True Feeling
Alice in the Cities is a great film not least because it captures the malaise of modern relationships without at the same time denying the importance of "a moment of true feeling". The latter phrase is a title from a story by Peter Handke, Wim Wenders' occasional screenwriter, and of course major playwright and novelist. The moment of true feeling comes in the form of a young girl, whose mother decides that she must stay in the States to be with her partner, leaving her child to travel back to Germany with a man she barely knows, namely Rudiger Vogler's journalist, a man going through a crisis of his own after failing to deliver a story to a magazine. He's been crossing the States not putting words down on the page as he was supposed to do, but instead taking pictures. Philip's crisis doesn't seem as deeply entrenched as the same actor's character in Wenders' later The Kings of the Road, but they seem to share existential solitude as a given, even if they can also allow others into their lives. In Kings of the Road it is a suicidal stranger the central character meets; in Alice... it is the young girl, Alice, but also briefly her mother in a role played by Liza Kreuzer, who would also have a minor part in Kings of the Road, playing the woman for whom Vogler momentarily has feelings
But what is important about the sort of cinema Wenders is interested in making is that two things do not develop. One is the story; the other, the values that would underpin the telling of it. If we take into account Wenders' claim on Kings of the Road "that I couldn't see how I could make a more optimistic movie", it is a statement about social values in relation to narrative development. How can one have the confidence to tell a story, when the character remains entrenched in his own search for a value system he can believe in?
However, Alice in the Cities manages to find that moment of true feeling, arrives at the epiphanic possibility of human contact, without at all surrendering to it the sense of its difficulty: that human interaction is a struggle, and maybe even more so when social values cannot readily be assumed. In a scene where Philip stays over at a woman's place with Alice (Yella Rottlander), Philip and the woman discuss the problem of relationships. He wants to stay the night; she says that he shouldn't. Yet she also says she would like to comfort him. It is the sort of moment in another film where disclosure would be weak next to the new feeling's strength. In another film, or in another era, it would signal the need and the capacity to move on, as a bit of back story revelation that could arrive at an emotional pay off: the characters would express their doubts about relationships based chiefly on being hurt in previous ones, and then try and make the one they are embarking on work. One of the many elements of optimism in a mainstream film is the capacity for the back story to be weak against the present one; so that when a couple of soon-to-be lovers talk of their past experiences, they remain finally insignificant next to the one that they are now having. It is often so that a partner from the past resurfaces to create a complicating action, create a small crisis between the characters, but the faith in the notion of the relationship, of the capacity for two people to make a meaningful and long-lasting commitment to each other, is unlikely to be questioned. In a film like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Andie McDowell's re-entrance at the end of the film signals that Hugh Grant should marry her and not the woman with whom he is preparing to traipse down the aisle. In My Best Friend's Girlfriend, the Julia Roberts character will do all she can to ruin her best male friend's engagement, but at no stage does the film call relationships themselves into question. A ghost from the past remains a singular problem, not an existential one.
Wenders is interested in presenting the relationship as exactly the latter, which is why we differentiate from the moment of true feeling in Alice in the Cities, and what we might call the moment of generic feeling in a more mainstream piece. We could do worse than think through the problem by looking at a film that is a romantic comedy and also interested in the question of a man's increasingly sentimental feelings towards a child: About a Boy with Hugh Grant, the actor par excellence of generic feeling. What happens is Grant's selfish character becomes increasingly open to the young child he befriends, and increasingly open to commitment and to a relationship of his own. The film moves towards the inevitability of the conventional. Now in Alice in the Cities, Wenders draws out the problem and sees if he can find a real feeling in it. The mainstream film is more inclined to take the inevitability of the emotional pay off as a given. As Wenders says in his book, The Logic of Images, in an essay called 'Impossible Stories', "for myself - and hence my problems with story - I incline to believe in chaos, in the inexplicable complexity of events around me. Basically, I think that individual situations are unrelated to each other, and my experience seems to consist entirely of individual situations". We can contrast this with David Bordwell's comments on contemporary Hollywood in The Way Hollywood Tells It. "The deft economy of Jerry Maguire is wholly grounded in the precepts of orthodox filmmaking. The movie reminds us that the conventions of the classical tradition, from the goal-oriented protagonist and summary montages, to dialogue hooks, appointments, and evocative motifs, are inexhaustible resources in the hands of gifted filmmakers." In Jerry Maguire there is the titular character's problem with commitment, but there is no problem with relationships as such. When in Alice in the Cities Philip talks with the lover they explain to each other not their feelings for each other, but their feelings about the world, their anxieties and tensions that are so much greater and deeper than the relationship itself. "You really are out of touch" she says as Philip starts to undress, adding "I don't want you to stay." Afterwards, she also reckons she doesn't know how to live but says "I can't help you, but I'd like to comfort you." There is no lovers' tiff where the tension is underpinned by resentment, where normative values are assumed, and where Winter has deviated from them.
The notion of the relationship here requires ontological underpinning, an understanding not of the norms into which the couple must fit, but the feelings that must be accessed on very provisional, tentative terms because there are no norms to abide by. This could even be why Wenders has a liking for black and white over colour. "For me," he says in an interview in The Logic of Images, "black and white is reality in the cinema: it's the way you describe essences, rather than surfaces. Of course it's perfectly legitimate for films to be about surfaces, but this [The State of Things] film happens to be about essences." The romantic comedy on the other hand, and going as far back to Shakespeare's comedies and Jane Austen, is frequently based on denial, on the problem of surfaces: on a character's inability to see how one ought to live and love, even though everybody else can usually see exactly how they should behave. In this sense the romantic comedy can often be a genre of the reaction shot: the cutaway to people who can see the situation for what it is but accept that the couple have to go through their own emotional hoops before arriving at the conventional. Wenders, though, is a filmmaker who cannot believe in such underpinnings; it is as if each communication starts from the chaos of the person's life. All that can be hoped for is a moment of respite. It is why the lover's comment that she doesn't want him to stay but wants to comfort him is contradictory but strangely consistent: she can offer only the most contingent of feelings.
Yet it is this contingency of feeling that the film searches out, that moment of true feeling it moves towards. Philip seems a man unable to commit to work or to love, but he is someone who finds that he is actually taking care of a child as he tries to get her back home to the child's grandparents in Germany. The film's achievement here is that it arrives at a meaningful underpinning, without assuming that meaningfulness is more than provisional. The German title for Kings of the Road was in the course of time, but it could also be the title of numerous Wenders films (The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Wrong Movement, American Friend) if we think of his comment, "the script isn't the film" (The Logic of Images.) "A film only gets its definitive impulse from the first day of filming..." What interests the director is time working on the nature of situations: Winters looks after the child whilst he looks for her grandparents' house. It becomes a goal-oriented action, but during it, feelings develop between the pair of them. It isn't however narratively driven character change, but temporally driven character development. When we say development, though, we don't want to indicate that a character arc categorically evolves; more that situations work on people. The meaning does not come out of the sense of purpose in the action; more that even the apparently aimless life accumulates meaning.
By the end of the film Alice and Philip are on a train and they have developed a quiet complicity with each other. It is a contingent moment of true feeling, with Philip and Alice clearly connected. Yet this doesn't mean that he will become the adoptive father, that he will start seeing the mother when she returns to Germany. The true feeling exists in a moment of suspension, true to the moment. There is a passage in Handke's A Moment of True Feeling where the main character is with a lover and the narrator says "while still looking at Beatrice, he no longer belonged to her, he could only - indeed, he had to - behave as if he did." "There was", he noticed, "a crackling inside him, then everything went to pieces." Yet it is perhaps that in Alice in the Cities Alice cannot expect anything from Philip, that everything he does is capable of meaning because meaning never sits inside the situation as inevitable.
Let us think again of the romantic comedy and the twofold assumption, both formal and social. As a scene unfolds between two characters on their first date, we start to make certain narrative assumptions that they will get together and become a couple, and the social assumption that this is the normal thing to do. It might be conventional but that isn't quite the same thing as saying it is normal, and certainly not the same as believing it is natural. In another passage from Handke's book the narrator says "When he saw people older than himself, they instantly struck him as obsolete. Why hadn't they gone out of existence long ago? How was it possible that they had survived and were keeping right on? There had to be some trick - routine alone couldn't account for it." Are the very tricks of the romantic comedy not too far removed from the tricks people practise in their own lives; believing that the conventional is the natural?
This sense of refusing the inevitable is vital to Wenders' image making. "I dislike the manipulation that's necessary to press all the images of a film into one story," he says in The Logic of Images, "it's very harmful for the images because it tends to drain them of their 'life'. In the relationship between story and image, I see the story as a kind of vampire, trying to suck all the blood from an image." The first section of Alice in the Cities gives no hint of the story that will tentatively develop. In story terms it could be excised without much narrative damage. It consists of Philip wandering around the States taking pictures and not getting round to writing up his story. Yet in broader thematic terms it proves vital. It gives Wenders the opportunity to capture Philip's loneliness not in montage comprehension, in a "frequentative" approach that would quickly show, in a series of very brief sequences, how isolated and removed from others he happens to be, but in a cinematic long-hand that illustrates the isolation in the very isolated aspect of the images and the looseness of their connections. Wenders shows us shots of the sea, of Philip driving, of TV footage, of Philip sitting under the boardwalk singing; the point of the sequences is partly in their immediate momentariness. Narratively they are almost 'pointless'.
By the end of the film, though, Alice in the Cities, accumulates a certain density of meaning through respecting the arbitrariness of accumulated time. Handke says in A Moment of True Feeling: "When he considered how just this last hour had weighed on him, it was beyond him that he hadn't suffocated long ago. But the time must somehow have passed? Yes, somehow the time had passed. Somehow the time would pass: that was the most hideous part of it." In Wenders' film the time passes though without time proving hideous. At the end of the film Alice and Philip sit on the train, complicitly communicating with each other, as a moment of true feeling has been created, but who knows what that feeling happens to be, Philip liminally caught between an unusual friendship and temporarily adoptive fatherhood. As they get the train south together, Alice asks him what he will do when he gets to Munich. Philip replies he will finish his story. Afterwards the films shows them looking out the train window, with Wenders then cutting to a helicopter shot pulling away from the train and watches it pass through the German landscape, with the music plaintively playing on the soundtrack. The film has achieved its moment of true feeling, but one cannot pretend it is for more than a moment and not for a lifetime. It can only be a moment of contingency, and not the thickening of moments into obsolete routine.
© Tony McKibbin