Wim Wenders’ Once: Pictures and Stories

Wim Wenders is, of course, a noted filmmaker. His first book, Once, reveals that, just in the photographs themselves: they are, in many respects, akin to movie stills, but not necessarily the ones that a studio would choose to release. The images come with stories, and sometimes the stories come by themselves. After — well, “reading” is not really the right word; perhaps just browsing, or tasting, or . . . you get my drift — one has a sense of a set of works complete in themselves: in most cases, the photographs might stand alone, as might the stories, but together they are something larger than they would be otherwise.

Like the pictures, the stories are sketches. Although cast as verse, I can’t really call them poetry: there’s not that kind of craft to them. Call them fragments, bits of ideas on a page, that sometimes make obvious sense in relation to the pictures, and sometimes don’t. Like the pictures, they come from all sorts of places. Wenders is likely to find himself almost anywhere, from the barrenness of Texas in the winter to a tent city in Moscow, tropical jungles, the Australian Outback, and always a place with a telling detail, be it an airplane upside-down in a desert or a dirty small-town street.

The first impression, leafing through the book, is desolation: there is an Antonioni-like silence to some of these images — a deserted drive-in movie theater, its screen nothing more than tatters of white against a landscape now run to scrub; a shot of his temporary office in San Francisco, with a folding-table desk and not much else; the brand-new downtown Houston, deserted, with that sense of loneliness that only deserted cities can have; two visits to Coober Pedy: the first time he went to the drive-in movie theater there; the second visit found that theater, also, abandoned and gone to tatters.

Then one looks again, and there is a huge amount of life: colorful signs painted on walls in Lisbon, a Balinese boy tending his ducks, and people — Wenders seems to hit two extremes in these photos, either nothing, or people, people talking, people walking, people arguing, even people smiling for the camera, all sorts of people from movie stars to the anonymous in rural America.

I have favorites: the unfixed Polaroids from the location scouting for King of the Road, lost in a drawer for years: they’ve faded, started to decay, and become something rich and haunting, ghostly images of not only what was, but what might have been, what might still be, if we dream hard enough. The story of his encounter, at Musso & Frank’s in Hollywood, with an actor whose agent had just signed a contract for the part he had been waiting for for years, the perfect role: “Mighty Mouse! I’ll be Mighty Mouse!” Alas! no pictures, and the film was never made.

Wender’s aesthetic stance in these photos is extraordinarily sophisticated, which really is not surprising. There is a trained eye at work. I can find traces of Garry Winogrand, Helen Leavitt, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, even Edward Weston and Lewis Baltz, but that’s not to say that Wenders put those references there: he’s working from a very informed, postmodern perspective, that of the author as anonymous. The image is everything. There are a lot of very tough, very beautiful pictures here, in formal terms, and yet I doubt whether Wenders has spent all that much time studying the history of photography from the past fifty years — he’s a filmmaker, although I can’t find anything uniquely cinematic about them. They are discrete images that usually work with the text, but sometimes against it, and stand on their own very well, although the relationship of words to images is much more complex than that.

The text, while it takes the forms of verse, isn’t. It is structured prose that makes use of some of the devices of poetry without lapsing into poetic vision: concrete, uninflected, matter-of-fact, yet there are vivid images, and enjambments and wraps sometimes jerk the reader along, sometimes allow a pause. It is at once both the perfect foil and the perfect partner for the photographs. It builds a context — sometimes. Sometimes the images make the context. If it were music, I’d call it a perfect duet.

This is a hard book to describe, much less explain, but it’s an intriguing experience. Even its physical presence, smallish, about six by eight inches, but substantial, adds a dimension: it’s a very comfortable object, which is actually true of very few books.

Perhaps that’s the best summation: there is a rightness to this whole project, all the parts working together toward one end. And, given that Wenders is who he is, I guess that makes sense, too.

(Distributed Art Publishers (orig. Shirmer-Mosel, 1993), n.d.)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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