Apr 15, 2015

Wim Wenders at MoMA

Desire. Grief. Sorrow. The films of Wim Wenders possess the unique capacity to channel these human emotions forcing the spectator to face the overarching dilemma of living with hope and despair. In one of the final scenes of Wenders' Paris, Texas, Travis, the lost protagonist, explains his four year disappearance:  

“And for the first time, he wished he were far away. Lost in a deep, vast country where nobody knew him. Somewhere without language, or streets. He dreamed about this place without knowing its name.” 
Travis in the desert. (twi-ny.com)
In a city like New York, subjected to the continual onslaught of snow, sleet, and congestion, Wenders’ films came to the Museum of Modern Art for two weeks and screened for an audience familiar with continuous gray skies or visitors first experiencing them.

From March 2 through 17, MoMA screened a program encompassing 20 of Wenders’ early works and shorts, music videos, and feature films. In collaboration with the Berlin International Film Festival and Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen, the program exhibits the breadth of Wenders’ cinematic contribution from his early 16mm experimental works to his feature films to his recent nonfiction works. During the first week, Wenders introduced the featured retrospective films and take part in post-film discussions with his longtime collaborator and writer, Peter Handke. The following week consisted of a second run of some of the feature films as well as shorts, providing another opportunity to catch one of his works on a theater screen. 

Discussion at MoMA (photo from MoMA website)

The variety of films screened during MoMA's program are what make it truly special, separating it from other retrospectives which might only offer the chance to see feature films thus neglecting the artist's early or experimental works which may have impacted the more popular films audiences have come to know. Programs that explore and exhibit the less popular or unknown works of an artist are enticing and allow curators to venture outside the expected programming and take chances. Paolo Cherchi Usai argues in his article “A Charter of Curatorial Values” for the NFSA Journal that “There are successful artists who have occasionally produced works generally dismissed by contemporary audiences: these are the works the curator should aim at first, because the likelihood that they will be lost is comparatively high.”While Wenders' less notable or respected films might not seem the best choice for gathering an audience, it is the responsible decision for a curator when it comes to preservation to raise awareness of the films so that preservation is not based solely on popularity and acceptance from the contemporary audience but rather maintaining access to the films for future generations.  

I attended the screening the new digital restoration of the 1984 Cannes International Film Festival Palme d’Or winning film, Paris, Texas.  The curators describe Paris, Texas as 

“a meditation on the American West and a road movie like no other, with stark, spare dialogue written by Sam Shepard, a haunting slide-guitar score by Ry Cooder, and cinematography by Robby Müller that recalls the paintings of Edward Hopper and the 1970s New Topographics photography of Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz. Harry Dean Stanton plays a distant stranger trying to make right as he travels across the unforgiving Texas desert to reconnect in Los Angeles with a son he hasn’t seen in years, and then on to Houston in search of his estranged wife. The film culminates in a set of iconic monologues between the erstwhile lovers that take place on either side of a peepshow booth.”

New York has many opportunities for people to attend special programs that feature artists in person, and while these screenings are often crowded or sold out there is always another screening and another artist. In a time when society seeks entertainment and art through avenues such as the internet, it is increasingly hard to hold interest in visiting a theater or museum. In the collaborative article by Robert Cargni-Mitchell, Bruce Goldstein, Gary Meyer, James Quandt, and Jackie Raynal, “Repertory Film Programming: A Web Exclusive Supplement to a Critical Symposium”, they argue that “if viewing a movie on video or a computer screen means experiencing an approximation of the work of art but not the work of art itself, then the world’s cinematheques and the men and women who program them play an indispensable role in keeping cinema’s heritage alive.” This statement confirms the importance of exhibiting a film in its original form and presentation setting, underlining the increasingly difficult and evolving responsibility of both the archivist, who preserves the film, and the curator, who exhibits the film. 
The screening began with an introduction from the MoMA film curator , Joshua Siegel, who gave a brief description of Wenders' background and many achievements, such as his most notable films and awards including the 2015 Honorary Golden Bear award for lifetime achievement. Siegel continued by describing the rest of the program and explained how it had been divided into three sections: early works, documentaries, and feature films. Following, Wenders introduced Paris, Texas , stating that the film and soundtrack were inspired by the blues gospel song written by Blind Willie Johnson, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”. Not wanting to spoil the film for members of the audience seeing it for the first time, Wenders refrained from describing the plot. Instead he referred to the script writing process of the film and his close collaboration with Sam Shepard, explaining that at first he wanted Shepard to play the role of Travis. However, Shepard rejected the offer saying that he knew too much about the part which eventually led Wenders to cast Harry Dean Stanton. Wenders continued to describe Stanton as the ideal actor for the part and his many achievements and prior work in his career from the beginning to the present. After Wenders' introduction, the screening of the new 4K digital restoration began for a full theater. 

 Ry Cooder covering Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground"

The program was organized in collaboration by Joshua Siegel, Curator, Department of Film, with Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film, MoMA, and Thomas Beard, an independent curator. The MoMA film calendar provided detailed and helpful information for those interested in the screening. On the website, there is a description for the entire program underlining the three sections and their major works, the filmmaker himself, additional features of the program such as Q & A sessions, introductions, and discussions, and recent preservation work completed on the screened films. Additionally, MoMA created a trailer for the program that includes clips from all of the films, a description of Wenders and the importance of his work, how the program was built, and MoMA’s collaborators. Each film screening is described, accompanied by a film still and the showtimes directly beneath it. The description includes the date, director, screenplay, actors, and synopsis, language, and running time. The format is not indicated although the program notes the films for which MoMA will screen 4K digital restoration. Further, since the program has now run for about 1 week, one of the special features of the program, “An Evening with Wim Wenders and Peter Handke”, a Q&A session held after one of the screenings, can be viewed online. 
MoMA's curated film program utilizes its Celeste Bartos International Film Study Center and Preservation Center to present archival materials creating a bridge between the responsibilities of archivist and curator. In reference to the curator-archivist relationship, Jan-Christopher Horak writes in his review on the book, Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace edited by Paolo Cherchi Usai, David Francis, Alexander Horwath and Michael Loebenstein that “in fact, cinémathèques, film museums, and even film archives have long curated film programs and exhibitions. But the issue seems to be selection. Given that no institution can collect everything, due to budget and organizational issues, it’s no surprise that regardless of its stated policy, archives actually do make curatorial decisions about what is to be saved and what isn’t.” Horak points to an issue often raised within archives community about how much an institution can preserve with the resources available and the ethical question of making unbiased decisions on priority. It is immensely valuable when a collecting institution, such as an archive, library, or museum, has the resources and space for exhibition because it provides the opportunity to screen the works and simultaneously gain attention from the public, professionals, and funding organizations towards preservation projects and initiatives taking place at the institution. 

In New York, and around the world, MoMA has a highly respected reputation for its collections and exhibitions which benefits the care and management of its collections and captures the attention of archivists, donors, other funding parties, and even people outside the museum or archives field to support preservation efforts. Holding an event such as the Wim Wenders retrospective at MoMA supports the filmmaker, institution, and field of preservation underlining the importance of curated programs and their relationship with archives and archival practices.

1Paolo Cherchi Usai, “A Charter of Curatorial Values,” NFSA Journal, Volume 1, No. 1 (2006).
2MoMA Department of Communications, “MoMA Celebrates German Filmmaker Wim Wenders with a Major Career Retrospective,”MoMA Press Reslease (2015).
3 Robert Cargni-Mitchell, Bruce Goldstein, Gary Meyer, James Quandt, and Jackie Raynal, “ Repertory Film Programming: A Web Exclusive Supplement to a Critical Symposium,” Cineaste,Vol.XXXV No.2 (2010).
4 Jan-Christopher Horak, book review on Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace, edited by Paolo Cherchi Usai, DavidFrancis, Alexander Horwath and Michael Loebenstein, Senses of Cinema, (2010).

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