Bright Lights Film Journal

“I Used My Imagination”: Old Genres, New Jerusalems

Bruno Ganz in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987)

What I find in Wim Wenders I find in William Blake (and all interesting artists): a desire for a better world that does not underestimate the difficulties of achieving it and which, even more importantly, longs to move away from violence as a way of “getting ahead” or “going to heaven.”

 * * *

Peter Ackroyd’s Blake (1995) is – for a long moment I’m tempted to leave the sentence there, simply italicising the “is.” In such absolute sympathy with its subject, this work of ceaseless mental strife is a true and fitting biography for – of all artists and writers – William Blake.

With hindsight it’s possible to say that, ever since Charles White’s The Life and Times of Little Richard (1984), biographers have been risking a more immersive sense of identity with their subjects. And the best of the “new” genre doesn’t simply swamp readers in cubic tonnes of internet-gathered, lifeless detail. On the contrary, it embraces – and imitates – its human subjects so closely that they really do seem alive and in the room with us. As a result, the New Biography can take us into some very old, very mystical territories, ultimately abolishing the boundaries of human personality altogether. It could be called “Love.”

In doing a job usually reserved for crazy visionaries, these authors have been known to suffer not just the odd publishing disaster but “nervous breakdowns.” Worse. For some of these new “seers” there is no asylum in “mental illness” – no brilliantly analytical doctors, no angelic nurses, no visits from George Bailey’s Clarence, who obviously thinks his work here is done; thus the heavenly innocence of human unity continues to fall into the hellish experience of real social isolation. Mad and cold, then, just like Poor Tom.

Of course, this need not mean the end of the world for true visionaries or, indeed, their less intense counterparts. Old or young, wild-eyed or droopy-lidded, all artists have the right, for example, simply to lay down their tools – and without feeling they have become traitors either to themselves or humanity. Persons are more important than artists. However, when at the Edinburgh Film Festival a few years ago Béla Tarr announced his retirement, I was there and – though we all knew what was coming – the shock was palpable. Irrational guilt – “what have we done to our hero?” – was followed, at the back of the room, by sarcastic anger. (Well, actually, Tarr’s ultimate vision never looked beyond the coffee-table retrospective!)

Coming late to his work, however, I was – still am – smitten by a vision that slowly removes the more glossy packagings of genre to reveal complex yearnings for something more liberated and liberating, in the process voicing often unvoiced anxieties – personal and social, idiosyncratic and polemical. This is one reason why, despite their strangeness, Tarr’s films seldom feel irritatingly narcissistic or “auteurish.” But perhaps the list of “frequent collaborators” is all that’s needed to understand the point; and among these I’d single out the folksy-yet-weirdly-otherworldly music of Mihaly Vig.

As a Hungarian, Béla Tarr can scarcely help exhibiting “wide philosophic interests” which – simple contingency or not – owe much to Hungary’s biggest neighbour, Germany. Strong German influences – and even stronger feelings for music – also leave deep traces on the two closest of Tarr’s artistic cousins: Wim Wenders (of course) and – only a little less expectedly – Jim Jarmusch, some of whose later work has been made in European settings with German technical support, if not with huge amounts of German euros.

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2014), shot in Germany, Detroit, and Tangiers with German financing

In fact, with global film funds always at a premium, Jarmusch now seems very much at risk of becoming the last of the new Blakeians left standing. Ignoring the ithyphallic suggestions of “standing,” I can’t easily dismiss problematized definitions of “left” – as in “the liberal left.” Some election-year critics would even claim that, wherever you look, all you see are war zones, brought into being by the naïve democratic urgings of President Barack Obama. So the trio of aforementioned directors can now be exposed as the exhausted cheerleaders of a failed geopolitics.

Meanwhile back on earth, all big states – like the tiniest tribes of hunter-gatherers – tend to universalize their own cultures without the express aim of stirring up unrealisable hopes in any part of “elsewhere.” And this humbling fact of human psychology is enough, I think, to explain why the gap between human aims and human achievements does sometimes feel as wide as ever.

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Dead Man (Jarmusch, 1995) might well be telling lies as it roams an imaginary Old West. With transfixing passivity Johnny Depp plays a young accountant from New York, taking the train west to a town called Machine. His name is William Blake, but he knows nothing of dark satanic mills or self-published poetry and art, all of his hopes resting on well-paid office work.

A picture of otherness in his new surroundings, the bespectacled and besuited Blake is soon drawn into a long series of self-defensive killings, which work as genre cliché and, at the same time, are more “real” than anything in Peckinpah. Helping achieve this effect, Blake is permanently startled by his own enforced aggression.

Timeless rather than ancient or modern, the film’s philosophy hovers – in a felt as much as in a schematic way – between casual violence and more nature-friendly survivalism. Blake is a “stupid fuckin’ white man” screwing up, however inadvertently, the visionary universe of Native Americans, where the long-hunted elk will eventually sacrifice itself to the hungry but patient hunter. Certainly that’s the view of “Nobody,” played with huge physical energy and even greater spiritual presence by native Canadian Indian actor Gary Farmer.

‘Nobody,” understandably enough, prefers that name to the one given by his tribe – He Who Runs From A Fight! So he’s a reluctant friend to the trouble-prone Blake, though he can never quite shake off the idea that this is the Blake whose poetry he first learned to admire as a young boy during an unlikely visit to England. (‘Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to endless night.”)

Johnny Depp (William Blake) and Gary Farmer (Nobody) in Dead Man (1995)

Through most of the film, then, Nobody combines the roles of visionary and survivor. (Exactly. Nobody manages that for long!) But finally, after launching the dying Blake in a dug-out canoe out onto wild waters, thence, we’re told, to the place where all spirits go, Nobody is killed in the very act of killing Blake’s most recent would-be killer.

Convoluted and surreal? Maybe. But nowhere near as compressed as such a brief summary implies; and, as in all Jarmusch’s films, slow rhythms – here it’s horses plodding through forests – are stressed by the musical soundtrack to lend a sense of unrushed momentum.

Nevertheless, “surreal” is often a favourite tone for Jarmusch, Wenders, and Tarr. And if this makes them sound like a 19th-century firm of solicitors, there is an almost Dickensian slant to their social satire – that is, when it is “social” and “satirical.” On the other hand, each of these directors can twist funny-bone surrealism into something so pure and strange that critics, particularly those with a literary background, have been driven to speak of the “irreal” – that rarely dredged-up third choice when “unreal” and “surreal” have been examined and found wanting. The usually preferred terms can, I suppose, lead too quickly to gothic and ghosts, or drug and alcohol misuse and, generally, suggest too much drily self-conscious artiness. For whatever reason, though, there are times when they simply don’t signpost clearly enough the regions of The Strange into which we’re being led.

To try illustrating the irreal I have to give some context to the scene which, in my case, dragged this word out of its swampy hiding place. It’s an early moment in Dead Man and Blake has just met John Dickinson, elderly owner of Machine’s one and only factory and with whom Blake fondly imagines he has a binding employment contract. With no explanation, Dickinson threatens to shoot Blake unless he leaves. Despite the dignity – and good sense – with which Blake departs, we know that his troubles have barely begun. We know it from the cast of mean-looking eccentrics he’s already been meeting, but most of all, perhaps, from Neil Young’s sombre guitar sounds, echoing Ry Cooder’s soundtrack for Paris Texas (Wenders, 1984).

Robert Mitchum (John Dickinson) in Dead Man

Sure enough, Blake is soon on the run carrying a nasty bullet wound: Dickinson’s son, in all fairness, did apologise before killing his estranged girlfriend with whom Blake was in bed. The bullet passed through her into his chest, though not deep enough to prevent his firing back, killing the boyfriend with the girl’s own six-shooter. (“This is America,” as she has already explained. “19th-century America” would only have been a confusing if slightly more accurate line.)

Jarmusch now follows William Blake into the forested wilderness where the fugitive meets “Nobody” and learns the truth about himself: yes, he’s a “stupid fuckin’ white man.” Not that this information will be able to cure Blake’s condition, or do much about that chest wound.

All this being established, Jarmusch, with a born storyteller’s assurance, now brings us back to Machine and the scene which, I’m sure, took many of us to the limits of our critical vocabulary.

We’re in old man Dickinson’s office, waiting for him to make his entry and proceed to interview the three assassins hired to track Blake down. They, meanwhile, fidget on their little chairs facing us. Then, announced by his chief clerk (played with deep unctuousness by John Hurt), Dickinson marches in from behind the interviewees and toward us. In fact, he holds a diagonal line left and, in the next shot, has his back to everyone, the better to speak to a very tall stuffed grizzly which adorns the room.

The bear has its right arm raised, and, with its head pointing off in the direction of the arm, it seems to be addressing its own immediate future. Dickinson, a tall man with a commanding presence, has to crane his neck to look into the bear’s face and, just as surprisingly, he’s using tones that could almost be mistaken for supplication.

The speech itself is a simple litany of recent losses: son killed, son’s fiancée too, and – spoken with most emotion – a beautiful pinto horse stolen by that dread murderer, “Bill Blake.” At this point, one of the hired assassins makes a quibble about the difference between “pinto” and “palomino” and we’re immediately back in more familiar surroundings, with “stupid fuckin’ white men” placing their own oracular insights on a higher plain than any stuffed bear.

With his usual lack of any apparent effort, Robert Mitchum plays Dickinson in what happens to be the actor’s last film; but some of us are seeing, as though for the first time, the classical discipline that prompts words like “irreal.” In context, it somehow stresses a deep love of the arts generally and, especially perhaps, for literature with which he – like Jarmusch – is entirely at home.

Books in Only Lovers Left Alive

Specific literary references abound in Jarmusch – more, perhaps, than any other director! But what’s being celebrated is always performance art: writers, artists, musicians. Again like Jarmusch, Mitchum is/was a keen guitarist/composer. “Is/was?” Doesn’t the “irreal” also hint at the strangest mysteries of all, concerning immortality and resurrection? Doesn’t it suggest – much more than “magic realism” – the original creation myth, a new world coming, as it were, fully-fledged out of the void? Willed by artists (and critics) into being?

To correct for the hint of hubris, “irreal” might sometimes simply refer to the sheer cheek of using one’s imagination to get out of a jam. This is where I get my title: in the last big scene of The Limits of Control (2009), Jarmusch regular Isaach de Bankole (The Lone Man) enacts his revenge (“Some are born to sweet delight”) by garrotting Bill Murray (The American). We don’t meet Murray’s character until very near the end, and then all we know is that he’s so powerful that his security arrangements are impregnable. Unsurprisingly, then, his first words to the Lone Man are, “How the fuck did you get in?” Answer: “I used my imagination.”

Made in Spain and relishing locations like the Museo Reina Maria Sofia, the film is a series of rhythms rather than “scenes.” The Lone Man moves from hotel to hotel, in each repeating simple yoga exercises. At cafés, he orders two espressos – two cups at a time, just for him. (Waiters have to be especially imaginative to get the hang of this.) He meets go-betweens and they exchange boxes of matches. Now and then a helicopter hovers in the distance. Local children suspect that (the Ivorian actor) de Bankole might be an American gangster. A nude young woman manages a discreet seduction. (The Lone Man does like her arse after all.) And just before the end she’s killed. Possibly something to do with The American.

It’s a filmmaker’s film and one that would put many film nuts in mind of the equally revered – and despised – Robbe-Grillet. But “pure” as these artists might be, they are all – like the real William Blake – wedded to populist ways and means. For Blake’s mix of street ballads and book engravings, read “genre” cinema and pop music soundtracks.

But are these artists, with their implied or fully stated alternative universes, standing too akimbo, looking too askance – are they, in fact, hopelessly stubborn seekers after worlds which merely baffle and batter us down with their unrealisability?

It’s an old problem – one constantly enacted in the world’s earliest surviving literature. In the stories of ancient Egypt and Iraq, protagonists anguish bitterly over how things are, trying frequently to the point of self-harm to change them; and then, if they’re wise, they decide to get on with life as it is, even if that seems to involve a retreat from “mental strife.” Béla Tarr’s “retirement”? This inspiring individual has not merely become fed up with being fed up: on the contrary, he remains an active teacher and mentor. His Gilgamesh, his Tale of Sinuhe continues to continue . . . .

Returning to that moment at the EFF, in The Turin Horse, (2011) Tarr’s “America” was a latter-day last hope of European migrants. As such, it made a brief late appearance and was as briefly cut loose: out of reach, forever, of the deeply impoverished father-and-daughter whose life, in one long howling storm, is as Blakeian a hell as one would ever wish to experience.

Back in the “real” moment, meanwhile, “too many” migrants want to get into not out of Europe; and here we blame not Barack Obama but Angela Merkel for the added suffering she’s “caused” with her book of impractical welcome mats.

On that note, I must give another German, Wim Wenders, the last word – though not because his geopolitics in Wings of Desire (1987) teem with practical answers. The truth is that Wenders won me over even before I watched a single frame of what, in my view, is his most interesting movie. It’s that Blakeian note in the title that really gets me; though, as it turns out, his earth-watching angel, unlike Capra’s Clarence, wants to lose his wings, because otherwise he cannot live the life he desires with his earthly beloved.

Bruno Ganz (Damiel) in Wings of Desire (1987)

This movement – this migration – between heaven and earth always moves both ways, exactly like its counterparts in “reality.” And these often jagged polyrhythms don’t seem to offer much hope of better times! Again, though, what I find in Wenders I find in Blake (and all interesting artists): a desire for a better world that does not underestimate the difficulties of achieving it and which, even more importantly, longs to move away from violence as a way of “getting ahead” or “going to heaven.”