Alice in the Cities
Viewing all these movies makes one thing clear there are two different types of art house movie. One kind, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Age of the Medici, aims squarely at the intellect. These can be appreciated or even admired but they probably won't move the audience. The other kind is aimed squarely at the emotions. These can be popular entertainments like Zatoichi or heart felt expressions like 400 Blows. These movies can just be enjoyed as movies and they can please more than just the usual art house film lover. But the public image of the artistic movie is the drier kind that caters to the intellect. Which is a shame. Everyone can enjoy 400 Blows or Alambrista! and everyone should see them.
I bring this up because this film Alice in the Cities directed by Wim Wenders seems to take on the notion of art films directly. The story is about Philip Winter, a German photojournalist who begins the movie driving across America's coast and doing research for a book on the American landscape. Philip is the typical dry intellectual. He spends his time taking photos of empty beaches and buildings. He complains about the sameness of American motels, restaurants and television. He even attacks his motel television at one point. He returns to his publisher in New York and tells him he can't write the book. He's promptly fired and has no choice to return to Germany. Philip is low on funds and ends up sharing a hotel room with a German woman and her eight year old daughter Alice. Through a series of events Philip and Alioe end up on a plane together headed for Denmark. Philip agrees to look after Alice until the mother arrives. When the mother fails to show up he gets roped into helping Alice locate her Grandmother somewhere in Germany.
It's here that the formerly overly intellectual Phillip starts to loosen up. Earlier in the movie a former lover said he was cold and indifferent to people. During the scene Philip is so busy with his tirade on American consumerism that he fails to register that his ex is kicking him out of her apartment. But that slowly changes as he continues to spend time with Alice. He tells her stories to get her to sleep. He spends time with her. As their search continues the less important the search becomes. They go to the park. They go swimming. They bond. And Philip is finally able to write the book. The implication being that he finally sees the people and not just the landscape. By the end, when they are finally forced to separate it is a very tender moment between them. Bascially Wenders has taken the audience on a trip through art house tropes. The film starts with a cold intellectual hero and breaks him down to where he is a caring and sympathetic individual. It's pretty clear which side of argument Wenders favors.
The film is shot in black and white. The stock may be grainy but the camera work is excellent. There are several tracking shots in the film. In one a car pulls off the street, rolls past several buildings and stops in front of a crowded beach. Another great shot makes use a monorail. The final shot is spectacular. The frame starts out tight on Philip and Alice as they lean out the window of a moving train. The camera pulls back and back until the train itself is just one detail in the landscape. There are also several film references. The movie playing on the television is Young Mr. Lincoln one of John Ford's masterpieces. This is what Philip is attacking when he smashes the TV set. Towards the end Philip reads a newspaper article about the death of John Ford perhaps symbolizing he's not as judgmental as before.
This film is a great template for a beginning director or writer. The budget is ultra low but that was no impediment to Wim Wenders. There's plenty of style but it never gets in the way of the great story. This is a fine story. It's a small, intimate drama that works. Like Lost in Translation it makes the smallness of the story an asset. There's always something happening in this story. And events don't have to be earth shaking in order to be dramatic.