At the Cannes Film Festival of 2008, the closing night film was Wim Wenders' Palermo Shooting, a pictorially extravagant botch that had most critics, including the group that I had dinner with after the screening, gasping with appalled derision. I had a hard time joining in the laughter. Not because I'm a better person than any of my colleagues. And certainly not because I hold Wenders as anything like sacred. I have no problem hooting at the ghastly, numb-skulled Don't Come Knockin', or standing up for an underappreciated (albeit slightly schmaltzy) valentine such as Land of Plenty.
What saddened me about Palermo Shooting was that it was such a thoroughly transparent effort to recapture what Wenders achieved with what, I venture to guess, will always be his greatest film, 1987's Wings of Desire. And watching Wings today, you get the feeling that its own particular magic was effortless. Of course that can't be the case. If Wenders and co-scenarist Peter Handke weren't self-consciously swinging for the fences when they concocted the picture's scenario—gloomy angels hovering over a mostly black-and-white Berlin, one of them unhappy with his ethereal state and eager to return to the physical world, and this divided city with all its present cares and past sorrows—well, they were certainly up to something ambitious. But the film that Wenders shot and edited unwinds with what seems to be the greatest of ease; its beauty, poetry, and spiritual purity are qualities the viewer intuits right away, and they never let up. Even the film's occasional missteps—the overdrawn paean to heterosexual love that constitutes its coda, for instance—seem somehow blessed. Wenders dedicates the picture to two then-recently departed angels, Truffaut and Tarkovsky. Unlike Von Trier's recent Tarkovsky dedication, Wenders' note doesn't elicit laughter or hisses, but seems absolutely apt and moving. And I remember how the film was so inspiring to other artists—to Tony Kushner of course (he wrote about its influence on his Angels In America for Premiere in 1996), and to the great Caetano Veloso, whose song "Os Outros Romanticos" has these lines: "Anjos sobre Berlin/'O mundo desde o fim'/E no entato era un SIM/E foi e era e é será sim" ("Angels over Berlin/'The world since the end'/And all the while it was a YES/It has been, it was, it is, and will be yes"). It really seemed to capture lightning not over water but in a bottle. And Palermo Shooting, in every particular, showed such strain, as if Wenders was now just running around carrying his bottle, no real storm in sight.
I never count an artist out; by the same token, I look at Wings and I see something like an irreproducible result. The upcoming DVD from Criterion, from which the above screen grab of Nick Cave was taken (he, like Peter Falk, plays himself here; how's that for unique/inspired casting?) is a beauty and is out on November 3, as is the Blu-ray.