Said cities being New York, Amsterdam, Wuppertal, Essen, Duisburg, Oberhausen and Gelsenkirchen – and maybe back to Duisburg again. This is the itinerary followed by 9-year-old Alice (Yella Röttlander), in the company of 31-year-old writer/photographer Philip Winter (Rûdiger Vogler), during the summer of 1973 – the chronology being identifiable when, at the end of the film, Winter is seen reading a newspaper obituary of John Ford (d. 31st Aug. 1973)..
Ford is one of the presiding spirits of Alice in the Cities – which begins by following Winter from California to New York as he researches a magazine-article and engages with a variety of American landscapes. When cash runs short he's forced to return to Europe – and, with Alice, finds a whole new set of surroundings to be examined in transit.
The circumstances by which Philip and Alice come together are vague, mysterious, implausible. Alice has been travelling with her mother (Elisabeth 'Lisa' Kreuzer), and in Manhattan the latter goes off to help an (unseen) old flame, Hans. Philip and Alice take the aeroplane over the Atlantic, with the expectation that the mother will follow on the next jet. But when she fails to materialise, Philip and Alice go in search of the kid's grandmother: a rather low-key, listless adventure that takes them round various obscure corners of (the then West) Germany.
Plot takes a back seat to mood and character in Alice in the Cities - shot in atmospheric black and white by cinematographer Robby Mûller, with a slightly thriller-like score from Can. When we're first introduced to Philip, he seems to be in the middle of a minor existential crisis – defining himself via travel, via obsessive photography and note-taking. It's pure chance that brings him into contact with Alice and her mother – and while it would be exaggeration to say that Alice awakens paternal instincts, he does belatedly break loose of his cosy solipsism.
That said, the search for Alice's grandmother becomes just another excuse to experience new environments – indeed, the backwaters of Winter's own nation prove, to us, just as alluring as the wide-open spaces of Winter/Wenders' beloved America. Winter is evidently, to some degree, a surrogate for director/co-writer Wenders, who gives himself a Hitchcock-style cameo at one early stage and later has his name read out over an airport tannoy.
The film is very much a compendium of Wenders' own interests and fascinations, an excuse to potter around a United States already familiar from countless photographs, movie, books and songs. Alice in the Cities is thus a casual scrapbook of a movie, an episodic series of fragments – punctuated by frequent fades to black – that may not, in the end, add up to a great deal, but allow us to share in and explore a film-maker's distinctive, idiosyncratic aesthetic. It's hard to say exactly where Wenders and Winter's limitations and character-flaws begin and end – or, indeed, whether the former is critiquing the latter's bland self-absorption or tacitly endorsing it.
Alice in den Städten
West Germany (1974; copyright-dated 1973)
112m (BBFC timing)
director : Wim Wenders (The American Friend, Paris Texas, Wings of Desire, etc)
editor : Peter Przygodda (-"-)
seen 27.Feb.08 Gateshead (Tyneside Cinema : £6.50)
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