Skip to main content

The present will look after itself. But it’s our duty to realise the future with our imagination.

Until the End of the World
(1991)

(SPOILERS) With the current order devolving into what looks inevitably like a passively endorsed dystopia, a brave new chipped and tracked vision variously in line with cinema’s warnings (or its predictive programming, depending on where your cynicism lands), I’ve been revisiting a few of these futuristic visions. That I picked the very Euro-pudding Until the End of the World is perhaps entirely antagonistic to such reasoning, seeing as how it is, at heart, a warm and fuzzy, upbeat, humanist musing on where we are all going.

Director Wim Wenders’ “ultimate road movie” certainly has a claim to that title, especially in its Trilogy Cut form (280 minutes’ worth – I’ve yet to see the seven-minutes-longer Director’s Cut). If you labelled it indulgent, I doubt very much Wenders would dispute the charge. Its sprawling content and accompanying untidiness is part of its appeal, as is the not-really-very-original attempt at retro-noir fashions (all the men wear hats), as if Wenders and Stephen Hopkins determined Until the End of the World and Predator 2 exist in a shared universe. Some of the technology appears laughably quaint (anything featuring in-computer graphics), but the central gizmo, of which more shortly, represents a strong core concept, if one lacking a sufficiently versatile visualisation. And the soundtrack, which in many ways is the film, lends it a supremely atmospheric and informing spine, including as it does the titular U2 track but also the much more evocative (I’ll Love You) Til the End of the World from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. And Graeme Revell’s score is a career best.

The emphasis on the music underlines the lyrical, meditative nature of the picture, which in the three-chapter form of the Trilogy Cut sometimes can tend to the somewhat aimless, but never offputtingly so. There’s a languorous charm to Wenders’ idea of a can-do future where the worst thing to worry about is a nuclear satellite. Which may not really seem like much of a potential powder keg for sparking global unrest, but then, unwanted EMF can have a very undesirable effect, or side effects, especially if it’s put down to something else entirely. Plus, there's the devastating combination of nuclear power and satellite technology... providing you believe either exist in the first place to weave their dark magic spell.

Sam Farber: I am neither a spy nor a jewel thief.

Wenders developed the idea with then-muse Solveig Dommartin (Dommartin died in 2007 at only 45), star of his previous, possibly career-best Wings of Desire, and there’s something of a precursor to a manic pixie dream girl in her presentation. Claire Tourneur is an ever-elusive, unpinnable-down object of desire to many of those she encounters. Most notably her former boyfriend Sam Neill, on account of his narration (he’s an author) going on and on and on about it; it’s the kind of obsessive ex thing that becomes a bit irritating after a while (Neill’s really good, though, as you’d expect). In turn, she repeatedly gets the brush off from Hurt’s initially mysterious fugitive Sam Farber, which only goes to fuel her obsessiveness (the difference here being that, when Sam does have time for her, he is amenable).

This mismatch of characters crossing paths and weaving in and out of minor altercations and each other’s lives takes up a good half of the picture. Less central characters include Rudiger Volger’s PI Philip Winter and a pair of bank robbers, the fate of whose appropriated funds is inextricably tied to Claire.

Despite the nominal threat established as a backdrop, this is not a frightening then near-future. And it isn’t one where tech overshadows life and liberty, or one where decay and pollution advance inexorably (despite the very ‘80s radiation count). Instead, dystopian demons are very much interiorised, and the emphasis is as much on the road trip of the mind, something the narration continually returns to (Neill’s Eugene Fitzpatrick has a very pedestrian imagination, so all he can do is follow his muse).

There are sequences here that flat-out don’t work. An attempt at screwball slapstick during a Tokyo episode rather falls on its face; Wenders is out of his element, but you appreciate his willingness to try it for size. There’s a very “World Music” attempt to impress upon us natural healing and knowledge versus the tunnel vision of the materialist, allopathic western model. As commendable as that may be, the results rather whiff of patronisation; Sam first has his eyes treated by wise Japanese ancient healing wisdom. Later, he is cured of his dreamtime issues by Aboriginal Australians, whom Sam’s father Henry (Max von Sydow) has helped immeasurably, we are told, in some sort of white-saviour way.

If Wenders is in danger of letting the material drift that bit too much, he gradually reels the focus back in during Part 2, subsequent to revealing Sam’s mission. Sam has a camera that takes pictures blind people can see, and he intends to return the footage he has been collecting to mother Jeanne Moreau (Lois Chiles pops up as his sister). Everyone arrives in the Outback, an ideal spot for cheap science fiction (all that desert) and an EM pulse goes off, leaving radio silence across the world as the characters pursue their respective obsessions uninterrupted. Von Sydow is an enormous boon to the picture, nursing curmudgeonly gruffness towards his offspring but genuine affection towards his wife. Hurt clearly relishes acting against him in their father-son friction; everyone raises their game.

Henry Farber: You’re now looking at the human soul. Singing to itself. To its own god.

It’s in Part 3 that Until the End of the World really comes into its own, however, doubling down on its key science-fiction concept. The camera can also be used to record and play back one’s own dreams, leading to addiction on the parts of Claire and Sam, gluttons for their own subconscious flights.

There’s something rather endearing about Wenders’ vision of an Outback community. Essentially, it’s a small-scale Womad, cosmopolitan in nature and presided over by a spirit of traditional (local) mores (David Gulpilil inevitably appears). The festival spirit is at its most self-conscious in the characters’ increasingly popular jamming sessions; this ought to be irritating and not a little embarrassing, but Wenders somehow achieves an alchemy and makes it work. It feels both seems seamless and germane (“The purpose of our journey had been so this music might blossom at the edge of what was possibly the end of the world”).

Something of Until the End of the World’s VR concept was used a few years later, to much grislier and queasier effect, in another millennial SF movie, Strange Days. Its dangers are occasionally voiced in on-the-nose fashion (“You think we want you walking through our dreams with your fancy cameras”), just as Neill’s voiceover can be a tad deadly (“Their dreams became black holes of isolation. Complete loss of reality”).

Nevertheless, the idea of grasping one’s elusive, ephemeral dream state and replaying it has considerable cachet, and Wenders weaves a hypnotic spell during this section of the picture. If there’s a failing, it’s that the renderings we see, in intentionally scrappy, grainy high-def video, suggest no reason for those involved to be quite so entranced. They’re almost wilfully mundane. But perhaps that has its own merit; dreams can only be entirely personal in intrinsic value, so seriously attempting to depict them, with all the CGI budget and the bizarreness of dream logic, and fluctuations of space and time, would be self-defeating (you’d have to go off at a complete tangent, à la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

I must admit, I’d forgotten how ripe the “Green Space” coda is; Claire, through “her extraordinary vision”, has found herself “a place on a space observatory watching the oceans for pollution crimes”. Little Greta would be so proud! The weightlessness effects are every bit as convincing as NASA footage, though. And such rosy optimism definitely makes for an antidote to future doomsaying.

Man in Bar: Look at them! We’re on the eve of destruction and all they care about is laughing, drinking, carousing!

Of course, with thirty years hindsight, we know much better than to indulge such silly daydreams as Wim’s. Until the End of the World wasn’t so rapturously received and sort of drew a line under Wenders’ growing international reputation just as it had fully blossomed. He has continued to work prodigiously, across genres and forms, yet never quite finding the same audiences or feting as he received during his ‘80s zenith. As such, there might be good reason for regarding Until the End of the World as the end of his peak period. It’s certainly one that more than overcomes its occasional lapses to warrant the mantle of a classic.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).