Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Alice in the Cities (1974)

Review #1,388






THE SCOOP
Director:  Wim Wenders
Cast:  Yella Rottländer, Rüdiger Vogler, Lisa Kreuzer
Plot:  A German journalist is saddled with a nine-year-old girl after encountering her mother at a New York airport.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  -
Runtime:  110min
Rating:  PG
International Sales:  HanWay Films

IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Wim Wenders, one of the trailblazers of the New German Cinema in the 1970s, broke out as a filmmaker of promising repute with his fourth feature, Alice in the Cities.  Now regarded as one of three films that make up his early ‘Road Trilogy’ (the other two films are Wrong Move (1975) and Kings of the Road (1976)), Alice in the Cities sees the then emerging independent filmmaker charting his path, quite literally, via the modality that is the ‘road movie’. 

It is shot in 16mm by Robby Muller, who rose to fame together with Wenders, with their artistic collaboration cumulating in perhaps their magnum opus, Paris, Texas (1984).  Muller would later work with such greats as Jim Jarmusch and Lars von Trier. 

We are introduced to Philip Winter (Rudiger Vogler), a German journalist on a road trip at the heart of New York trying to capture the elusive essence of Americana.  He takes plenty of polaroid, obsessed with how the images don’t often correspond to what he actually sees.  He doesn’t have the inspiration to write—to the chagrin of his editor—and decides to return to Germany. 

Before the trip, he has a chance encounter with a German mother and her nine-year old daughter.  By a stroke of fate, he’s left with Alice the young girl, whom he takes on a poetic journey to find her grandmother’s old house back in their home country.

Alice in the Cities is a film of two halves—we see the sights and sounds of New York, and then Germany.  As they are transiting in Amsterdam, we catch a glimpse of the landscape as well, no doubt represented by a solitary windmill.  It is a picturesque film that pits the self-centered Philip against the maturing Alice. 

One might have believed at the start that the movie is about Philip, when it is actually about Alice.  Wenders’ deft hand at crafting a picture that gives voice to a young female who discovers herself as a person of strength and wholeness is one of cinema’s most empathetic and honest portrayals of a girl’s inner emotions and her experience on the road. 

A sequence that sums up the film's existential search for meaning from the vantage point of a child is an indelible one—Alice sits alone in a boutique cafe, licking her ice-cream (Philip is in the washroom).  She sees a lonely boy, also with an ice-cream, slouching against a jukebox playing ‘On the Road Again’ by Canned Heat, half-knowing the lyrics and humming to it.  It could have been a scene out of a Jarmusch film.

Together with the melancholic and minimalist Japanese-flavoured guitar music by Can, a German experimental rock band, Alice in the Cities is a film that continues to fascinate, even more than forty years later.

Verdict:  Wenders’ breakthrough film is a poetic journey of self-discovery for a young girl and an older man through the landscape of America and Germany, shot in 16mm with a tinge of melancholic naturalism.

GRADE: A-






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