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Friday, Nov. 4, 2005

Going underground in the U.S.

Land of Plenty

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Wim Wenders
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The latest Wim Wenders film shows the German auteur doing what he does best: being a tourist in America. "Land of Plenty" is a departure from the the introverted, angst-ridden world of his last movie "Million Dollar Hotel," to a feeling-his-way-back to the magic of "Paris, Texas" or even "The State of Things."

News photo
Michelle Williams in "Land of Plenty"

Wenders has always demonstrated a deep affection for cities/places and "Land of Plenty" shows his lens lingering with an almost sensual rapture on architecture and terrain -- the arc and spiral of skyscrapers, dusty streets under a brilliant California sky, huge, 10-lane highways -- all the things that, for him, epitomize the American landscape.

His excitement over such sights hasn't waned over the years and the opening sequence is about a young emigre from Israel about to land in LAX, offering up a prayer of thanks to God that she was able to "come back to my homeland" as the camera cuts to the L.A. skyline -- all chrome and metal, with sleek, glamorous lines.

But, then this is Wenders, so he doesn't stoop to shooting the Hollywood sign or other familiarities; he's been here before, is fully aware of the realities of this nation and would like us to know it as the real deal. So he wastes no time in depositing the emigre in a homeless mission in downtown L.A. (run by an old friend of the family) and introducing her long-estranged uncle into the story: a fanatical Vietnam vet who is convinced his country is being overrun by terrorists and has fashioned a fully-rigged surveillance van so he can apprehend all "suspects" before they "take the innocent lives of civilians."

So there's plenty of potential here for a genuine reality OD (the goings-on in the homeless shelter alone must yield enough material for two features), but Wenders, for better or for worse, remains a tourist.

Shot in digital over the course of two weeks, there's a sort of blase carefree-ness to the story that belies the supposed gravity of its subject. These days, it's pretty difficult for a filmmaker (and a non-American one at that) to come out with a private response to 9/11 and expect audiences (or producers) to pay much attention. You can almost hear the conversations between Wenders and his cast (who, by the way, turn in relaxed, but excellent performances) that run along the lines of: "Well, we're not making any money with this, so let's just have fun." Indeed, the film didn't even get a U.S. distribution apart from a few art-house theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and Wenders reputedly did not make a nickel.

Reality is evaded as he shifts the stage from Los Angeles to a desert town called Torna, and then finally Ground Zero in New York.

There's also a curious sense of theatrical phoniness to the dialogue between the two main protagonists, Lana (Michelle Williams from "Dawson's Creek") and her uncle Paul (John Diehl). Lana had returned to the States after 10 years of living in Africa and Israel as a missionary's daughter and she had come to Los Angeles mostly to give a letter to Paul from her deceased mother.

Paul is unresponsive at first (he can't respond to anything that is not a combat/surveillance kind of situation) and the conversation is almost funny as he keeps shouting "That's a negative" and "Don't talk, this place hasn't been secured" to his niece who, gosh, only wants to be his relative. But when a homeless Arab is killed in a drive-by shooting outside Lana's shelter the pair opt to take the body back to a brother living in a trailer home in Torna, and on the way Paul softens enough to ask Lana about what she was doing when 9/11 happened. She tells him that the street outside her house was inundated by people cheering, which leaves Paul baffled. "Why were they cheering?" he asks incredulously, and she answers: "It was because they hated us and hated America." Paul can't digest this chunk of information, and sinks back into his seat in disbelief.

Uh, hello? One feels like asking Paul where the hell he was all this time or perhaps, like Wenders, he's a tourist too.

And that's the overall feeling you get from "Land of Plenty" -- that everyone in the story has come from someplace else and is traveling through, even the purposeful Lana, whose personal mission (of finding her uncle and giving him the letter) becomes replaced by a sudden need to drive to New York and "listen to the voices" of the victims at Ground Zero.

Once Wenders loses sight of the personal and intimate, the story loses steam and becomes just another exercise in cinematic pacifist rah-rahing. At this point, isn't this just a shade self-indulgent and even . . . self-congratulatory?

"The pains of peace are better than the agonies of war," says a banner outside the homeless shelter. As it is, that message is the most complex and honest one in the film.

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