Wim Wenders is a filmmaker who has made some of the best films about the art of filmmaking. I’m speaking of Room 666, Tokyo-Ga, and Lightning Over Water. The first two of these selections feature a number of different filmmakers discussing the cinema or another filmmaker very intimately. However, these “sit-down” interviews lack the personal investment and poetry of the third film I mentioned above, Lightning Over Water.
Co-directed by Nicholas Ray in 1979, and released in 1980, Lightning Over Water excels more as a piece of poetry than a conventional documentary. The film itself has for its subject matter the question of death, and all the ramifications death entails. The death in question is of course Nicholas Ray’s, who was dying of cancer at the time and agreed to allow Wenders to document his final days.
In the film, Ray speaks candidly about his life’s work (which includes such masterpieces as Johnny Guitar, In A Lonely Place, Bitter Victory, and Rebel Without A Cause), his love affairs, his anxieties, etc. And each subject Ray discusses is colored by his inevitable demise. Ray behaves like a man, and I’m sure he was such a man, who had accepted his fate, took his life into account, and has decided to impart some of his knowledge onto those who will survive him.
Throughout the film, Wenders cuts between his own cinema verite’ footage of the director to excerpts of Ray’s final film We Can’t Go Home Again. By doing so, Wenders presents us with the Nicholas Ray he knew, and the Nicholas Ray manufactured by Nicholas Ray for the screen. This presents two persona of Ray’s, and by analyzing both simultaneously, we as an audience may begin to approximate the man as he actually was. Such a dilemma of character was intrinsic to the cinema of Nicholas Ray as well, which may even further illuminate Wenders device.
Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) in In A Lonely Place was a character that seemed to manufacture personas to suit every social situation Ray manufactured around him. In Lightning Over Water, Wenders becomes the manufacturer of these “situations”, and Ray of the personas.
By employing Ray’s own device in a film of which he is the primary subject, Wenders makes the film reflexive of Nicholas Ray’s cinematic style. This development provides the third portrait Wenders gives his audience in addition to the two mentioned above. Lightning Over Water presents Nicholas Ray as Wenders friend and mentor, as an actor, and as a constructor of film art.
It now seems important to discuss Ray’s influence on Wenders films that without a doubt, is responsible for the tactics Wenders has employed in Lightning Over Water. Like the protagonists in Ray’s films, Wenders characters adapt their personalities to suit the environment of the narrative at any given moment. For instance, Zimmerman (played by Bruno Ganz) in The American Friend (1976) has to manufacture various styles of himself based upon the situations Ripley (Dennis Hopper) has forced him into.
As with Ray’s protagonists, this adaptation does not involve the invention of self, but a variation of an exaggerated aspect of the character. Such an adaptation is exhausting, and the characters in both directors films buckle under the weight, and in the case of Zimmerman in The American Friend, destroy themselves.
Nicholas Ray in Lightning Over Water suffers from the same stress of variation and adaptation. As he becomes closer and closer to death, the toll becomes greater and greater. At various times in the film, Ray will shed the self he has manufactured for Wenders film, reverting to his organic self (meaning that he adopts the behavior he is accustomed to when the cameras are not rolling). This occurs during the first hospital scene. Ray is at his most vulnerable, unable to project himself for the film. Wenders uses this, though not too much, to juxtapose the Nicholas Ray who fights and yells about the troubles of the cinema, creating a dramatic sense of impending doom, thus grounding the audience into his own perspective.
All of these formalist devices that Wim Wenders and Nicholas Ray invent or employ in the film makes the film one of the most complex portraits of a filmmaker I have ever seen.
Most cinematic portraiture is not reflexive of its subject in style and formal execution. Through this reflexivity, Wenders pushes the portraiture of his friend into every nook and cranny of the film, giving an organic illusion to the film. This is why I don’t see Lightning Over Water as straight documentary filmmaking; it has no clear genre. I prefer to think of it as Wim Wenders poetic eulogy for Nicholas Ray, one of the great American film directors.