2019 Film Essays

Sharing the Cinematic Bathwater: From Wim to Jim

Stranger Than Paradise Movie Film

The film flickers before an audience, and an actor’s glance radiates onscreen. Few people think about what sort of lens the cinematographer used or what film stock was running through the camera. Fuji? Kodak? Negative or reversal?

Allow me to indulge in a rather big what-if: can Wim Wenders’ The State of Things (Der Stand der Dinge) and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise essentially be called part of the same film? Wenders gave Jarmusch his unused film stock so that the novice director could begin production on the film that would become his first big arthouse sensation. The twisty path that brought these two lauded writer/directors together stretches from long takes to short ends.

“Short ends” are leftover spools of 35mm film that a crew collects during a shoot and are generally considered not ideal for a cinematographer to start out with, because they are less than a full magazine of film. But for a scrappy (read: desperate) up-and-comer like Jarmusch, dozens of assembled short ends make for a perfect way to shoot a 20-minute proof of concept film. So with Wenders’ gift, the silver-haired filmmaker from Akron, Ohio filmed what would become the first 20 minutes of Stranger Than Paradise; 20 minutes that would win funding to finish the entire picture.

The way the light passes through veteran cinematographer Henri Alekan’s lens gives The State of Things its sweeping splendor, from the Iberian rocky coast of the film’s beginning to its palm-laden Hollywood denouement. After all, Alekan shot Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and Wenders enlisted him to realize this reflexive drama about cinema itself. Wenders had already made eight films, and in multiple languages. It begs the question: did Jarmusch inherit his directing style from Wenders along with the motion picture film? The gift between the two Yasujirō Ozu-loving auteurs may never have happened if they didn’t already have some things in common.

The State of Things Movie Film

Jarmusch and Wenders met in the late 70s through legendary filmmaker Nicholas Ray. At the time, Jarmusch was a film student at NYU and Ray was his professor. Wenders had previously cast the director in a small role in The American Friend, and now tackled the portentous documentary Lightning Over Water, which was intended to immortalize Ray’s onscreen experience succumbing to incurable cancer.

Ray looks scraggly and disheveled as he submits himself to Wenders’ particular brand of poetic interrogation. The elder director is under a microscope for the whole production, yet he is complicit in this document of a filmmaker slowly dying for his art. Ray’s final wish was to pass on while making a film; he gave his life over to Wenders, a gift between directors. It was The American Friend that won Wenders the opportunity to direct Hammett for Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Productions in San Francisco. After Lightning Over Water and Ray’s departure from this world, Wenders had a new dream project.

Unfortunately for Wenders, that dream became a nightmare: Coppola was unhappy with Wenders’ directing. As the producer, Coppola ordered the entire film to be re-shot on Zoetrope soundstages. After having creative control over his smaller-budgeted German films, Wenders was not used to the American hierarchy of the powerful producer that sets standards for everyone else. People have speculated that Hammett, as it exists today, was actually directed by Coppola, with credit given to the German filmmaker. Wenders narrates in his film Reverse Angle: “I have the feeling that the story and the images don’t belong to me. Here, the story and the images belong to the studio, to the producer.” Despite the failure of Hammett, Wenders did rebound and make future masterpieces, starting with The State of Things.

In retrospect, a film can seem so intentional, with every artistic choice so deliberate, that you can’t imagine it being any other way. But these movies that last for generations are often shaped by whims and circumstance. During an eight-month lull in production of Hammett in San Francisco, Wenders suddenly had another film in him, and he flew to Portugal to quickly shoot a thinly veiled adaption of his own struggles dealing with the American film industry. The director Raúl Ruiz was in Portugal shooting a horror film (The Territory), and Wenders poached the entire cast and crew (including the cinematographer, Alekan).

The State of Things Movie Film

The State of Things is about a film crew in Portugal that runs out of money. They run out of film first, which prompts the director, Friedrich (Patrick Bauchau), to ask his cameraman, “What about the short ends?” Interestingly, this presages Wenders’ favor to Jarmusch, while Wenders in turn got favors from Ruiz. When the rogue producer is located in Hollywood, hiding in a trailer from his creditors, Friedrich struggles to do business, and ends up dying by an unseen sniper’s bullet. It’s a bald critique of the difficulty of working with Coppola. There’s even a line of dialogue the producer speaks to Friedrich: “Don’t forget I gave you your first job, alright? I had my pick of 25 directors from Europe.” Certainly, it’s a reference to Wenders’ hiring by Coppola after the success of his recent German film, The American Friend.

Jarmusch’s cinematographer, Tom DiCillo, was working with the same raw material as Alekan, so is it a foregone conclusion that The State of Things and Stranger Than Paradise would end up sharing a similar look and feel? I would argue that the ambience of both films are so similar that it goes into the realm of directorial transference.

When my father used to take baths at night, he would leave the water in the tub for my mother to use after him. Such an intimate exchange happens only when you’re in love or dire straits. “Sharing the bathwater” is the term I use to describe the connection between The State of Things and Stranger Than Paradise — two films born of the same place where film ideas live and thrive. This bathwater includes not just physical celluloid, but also a sensibility about how to photograph people.

Both films regard their actors mostly with emotional detachment. There’s not much in the way of close-ups in The State of Things and absolutely zero in Stranger Than Paradise. The latter is famously composed of unedited master shots separated with frames of black. One wonders what Jarmusch would look for in a first take, and what would make him want to burn precious film to attempt a second one. If movies are life with the boring parts cut out, Jarmusch has given a home to the cut-outs.

Stranger Than Paradise Movie Film

In addition to the common visual latitude of The State of Things and Stranger Than Paradise, they are stories that traverse great cultural and geographic territory. Wenders had explored the road with his German trilogy of films in the mid-70s, and Jarmusch would go on to make films like Night on Earth, where driving is not only a motif but the literal engine of the plot.

Jarmusch received his short ends, and The State of Things was released to festival acclaim. The cinematic bathwater raises all boats. In a peculiar way, Stranger Than Paradise is the phantom limb to The State of Things. The New York apartment where Jarmusch’s characters congregate recalls the abandoned Portuguese hotel with its sequestered rooms. Some shots could nestle into the narrative of either film and find purchase: sunshine reads grey, tropical palms signify the location and driving around is a fascinating pastime for the out-of-towner. The recurring line from Wenders’ masterpiece is “Stories only exist in stories, whereas real life doesn’t need to turn into stories.” If you subtract the story from both films, and soak in the feel of each, you are in effect hearing a song without listening to the lyrics. The similarities are almost subliminal between The State of Things and Stranger Than Paradise.

There is something I see by looking through the image. Perhaps it’s just film grain digitized in high definition. The cinematic bathwater makes an appearance in The State Of Things when a character in an abandoned hotel bathes while listening to a transistor radio. He submerges himself, blowing bubbles from below.

Cinema, to me, is something more than stories. Real cinematic imagery can project human presence in the absence of human beings. It’s when the medium transcends its artificialness and conjures humanity simply from light and shadow. Cinema is still the umbrella term that people use to talk about the phenomenon of persistence of vision and the beauty of movement; a rudimentary quality to any motion picture. But it is increasingly the signifier of an art past its peak, appreciated by connoisseurs the way a baker would make artisanal bread to prove the old methods are still the best.

Knowing the number of the film stock would put an identity upon what it is that unites The State of Things with Stranger Than Paradise. When the visual quality of cinema eludes classification, one relies on the technical to put a name on what appears. Only Jarmusch and Wenders can shed light on the type of the motion picture film that changed their careers back in the early 1980s. I reached out to both of these directors to find the answer, and did get a polite but uncertain response from Wenders’ production company. In this case, the exact name of film stock in question may be lost to history. But the films themselves are history heard and seen. The era of shared film stock between filmmakers has come and gone.

Philip Brubaker (@lens_itself) is a writer-filmmaker and has contributed video essays to Fandor and MUBI.  He lives in Florida where he avoids stepping on lizards daily and draws inspiration from Spanish moss.

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