Notebook on Cities and Clothes: Wim Wenders Takes to the (Inner Ring) Road

'Notebook on Cities and Clothes' (Wim Wenders, 1989)
Thomas Elsaesser reconsiders some of Wim Wenders films through the lens of the city and the essay, discovering new dialogic and self-reflexive qualities within them.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “The Essay Film and The City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Wim Wenders belongs so much to the New German Cinema and to a generation of cinephile European auteurs who looked to Paris for filmic inspiration – at a time when Paris was remembering (and in part regretting) its obsession with Hollywood – that at first glance, one does not think of him as a director of essays films in the mode of Chris Marker or Patrick Keiller. Yet his first major film was Summer in the City (1970)– a peripatetic dérive around the backstreets and seedier parts of Munich in 1970, whose aimless hero pounds the asphalt and hangs out in bars to the music of The Kinks and The Lovin’ Spoonful. Alice in the Cities (1974) also has ‘city’ in the title, and again, the pubescent Alice and her reluctant minder not only wander and meander through New York before they embark on an epiphanic quest through one of Wuppertal’s working class mining company housing districts but they do so across a reflexive, self-referential commentary that fractures the fiction and claims our attention for its value as a documentary on a vanishing world, ‘as seen through the eyes of a child’.

Leaving aside two other Wenders city films – the ruminative-meditative Himmel über Berlin (1987) (Wings of Desire) and the discursive, self-consciously noirish yet highly self-reflexive The American Friend (1977) (where Hamburg and Paris are protagonists in their own right), there is also Tokyo-Ga (1985) and Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989). They most clearly advertise themselves as essay films of a very personal kind: one a quest for the city and sites, invoked and inhabited by the late filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, the other a series of encounters with the tailor and designer Yohji Yamamoto.

I want to take a brief look at Notebook on Cities and Clothes, but from a sideways angle that aligns it with road movies and mirror reflections (Wenders’ trademark motifs), but also brings out the hand-made, try-on, try-out aspect of the essay, which links cinema with clothes as much as it does with movement, mobility and motion.

The first time he wore a Yamamoto shirt, Wim Wenders tells us in voice over, while on screen leaning against a billiard cue, he felt as if the shirt was wearing him. It’s the sort of remark and the sort of setting on which much of Notebook on Cities and Clothes is finely but perilously balanced. A famous German director interviews a famous Japanese fashion designer: it could be the dream ticket for an advertising agency or a lifestyle magazine. Two ‘new men’ discuss their craft, their favourite places, their childhood, their feelings about fame and, surprise-surprise, discover that they have a few things in common.

‘Notebook on Cities and Clothes’ (Wim Wenders, 1989)

It could also be a straight-faced and still self-mocking send-up of that very genre, a disguise, at least for the filmmaker, for posing himself some serious questions at an awkward moment in his career. So Wenders is careful to point out that he was sceptical at first when the idea was put to him by someone from the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou: “the world of fashion – I’m interested in the world, not in fashion”. But from the top of the Beaubourg, its steely structures gleaming in the setting – or is it the rising – sun, one has a spectacular view of Paris as background, against which to conduct an interview that isn’t one. The film is ‘with’ Yohji Yamamoto, rather than ‘about’ him, allowing between these two auteurs and brand-names a deliberate but always understated complicity that gives just enough body to Wenders’ video-filmed, played-back, voiced-over jottings to impart a sense of urgency and involvement, while also proceeding at the leisurely pace of a reflexive and ruminative essay film.

Notebook opens with the camera inside a car driving through Paris along the boulevards periphériques while, on a dashboard-mounted Sony monitor, we see images taken from inside a car on an inner city motorway driving through Tokyo – or is it the other way round? We may not know what city we are in but we definitely know we are in a Wenders film. Windscreen, small screen, wide-screen: reflections of reflections of reflections, as movie, motor and monitor merge with each other in a kind of loop, invoked on several occasions. At one point, Wenders muses in front of two editing tables and a ‘watchman’-type television which gives us the image while the sound seems to be coming from the magnetic tape running on the adjacent Steenbeck, until with the flick of a button, the 35mm reels jerk into action and we cut to the scene we have just seen on the monitor. Such apparent self-reference of the apparatus actually supports an elaborate set of analogies that form the bridge between the two men’s métiers, culminating in Wenders’ wistful remark that Yamamoto and his company putting together a collection is like a film director putting together a film: all that cutting and stitching, the teamwork, that hesitating between the fabric defining the form and the form determining the fabric, the guiding hand on cloth and on body, like the hand that gives directions on the set before settling back in the director’s chair, a chair which the designer is seen endlessly pushing towards some precise spot, at an oblique angle to a full-length mirror. Yamamoto’s ever-present but self-effacing, black-clad but strikingly beautiful entourage of young women must have left a particularly strong impression on Wenders, for he calls them ‘the guardian angels of an author’, serving his vision and keeping it intact, while he is designing one collection after another, as if working on ‘a never-ending film’.

Wenders offers a series of vignettes or ‘takes’: Yamamoto on the eve of a big opening in Paris, polite, but shivering slightly in the chill wind of the Beaubourg balcony; Yamamoto patiently practicing his signature on a black slate mounted outside his new shop in Tokyo; Yamamoto backstage, or at the catwalk ramp, taking the applause, all the while looking like a Russian monk or gypsy violinist, a fire burning in his eyes were it not banked down by engagingly laconic remarks. Notebook on Cities and Clothes is devised as a series of reflecting mirrors, conceptual shortcuts, philosophical commonplaces and thematic metaphors.

What makes the most direct link between cities and clothes? Obviously, the cinema. By constructing a space, creating vistas and views, a world one can inhabit and be inside of, the cinema has clear affinities with architecture. But Wenders wants to get past the cliché: Tokyo at night is for him unlike any other city, because it is the flickering and transient video image, freeze-framed into neon and concrete. At the other end, the link with fashion. Not in the sense of sociological tropes about cities, cinema and fashion living off each other in a consumer culture and relentlessly ‘designed’ environments. Rather, it is an attention to surface detail, a studied transparency disguising structure and giving unmistakable contour to fabric and film that suggest to Wenders an analogy between Yamamoto’s designs and the work of a director, who shapes a skin of images that can envelop and transport an eye/I. ‘Becoming a different person in order to be more oneself’ is for Wenders the common denominator between ‘his’ cinema and Yamamoto’s designer clothes, and in both cases at the first touch or contact, one either knows if it feels right or one is repelled, or indifferent.

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