Lightning Over Water ... the narrator is Wim Wenders... he is also the film's central character with Nicholas Ray (the maker of Rebel Without a Cause) ... who is moving slowly and painfully towards death ... by cancer. Wenders is faced with the dilemma of showing death on the screen, within the image ... of course, he knows that death cannot be shown ... what can be visible are the effects of death and the aftermath ... its presence/the person’s absence…death on film balances awkwardly between reality and construction, artifice and naturalism....effect and storytelling.
Wim Wenders opens the film by entering Ray's loft in New York ... there is no pretense that this is the present tense of an unfolding narrative ... it is openly constructed ... a filmic entry ... a filmic look....Wenders the narrator, the actor, the director ... Ray, the actor, director, and somehow throughout the entire film both its object and its subject. ...
The narration is in the present tense. Wenders lies down on a couch and in the distance we see Ray lying in bed. He coughs and yells in pain. There is nothing so immediate in a film as the ambivalence of that moment, of the desire to identify with the suffering and to be distant from it, to see the pain, but to know that the sight can and must be avoided.
Wenders closes his eyes and the camera shows him asleep but only for long enough to reveal that he is sleeping for the camera just as Ray was overdoing the sound of his pain. His cries of agony were constructed because we discover that Wenders and Ray are making the film together about each other and are struggling in fact to define for us how they are doing it and why.
They are also trying to give Ray back his self-esteem and dignity and are trying not to portray his cancer-ridden body as an object for pity especially by a distant and unknown audience.
This film is intensely self-reflexive, intensely aware of its struggle to come into being and to visualize the intersections between death and images of death. To highlight this, one of the main characters in the film is another filmmaker who is holding a portable video camera. He circles around the mise-en-scene, around the characters.
Wenders intercuts the video footage, transferred to film ... grainy ... colourless ... jumpy ... the angles and the close-ups are somehow wrong ... they are like bracketed comments on the film ... the video however, also references a challenge to the cinema as a medium. Video records continuously sometimes eliminating the need for a crew and documenting events in a way that foregrounds both verbal discourse and information. Continuous recording on video is the closest we can come to discourse using images.
Video also signals the transformation of film from a discrete time-based medium into a medium that can more properly described as a continuum. It also points backwards to the possible simplicity of filmic production divorced from the trappings of the industry and its requirements.
To Wenders Hollywood's rejection of Nicholas Ray (His abrasive personality and experimental approach to narratives led to his exclusion from the mainstream.) was akin to a cancer that is ravaging mainstream filmmaking and so the story of Ray's death becomes a metaphor for the decline of the cinema, a cinema that barely recognizes its own limitations and cannot see beyond the boundaries of its own financial framework.
The pain, the profound pain of Nicholas Ray comes out to its fullest at a lecture that he gives which Wenders uses in the film. Ray reminisces to a large audience about filmmaking, about creating and telling stories and as he stands against the podium holding on for balance he is filmed by Wenders as if it is a film noir.
The camera suddenly turns to Wenders and his crew on a scaffolding constructing the shot that we have just seen. Suddenly the present tense, the apparent present tense of the filming clashes with the obvious fact that a film always comes to us from the past. And the past is further emphasized by the film that Ray has just shown to the audience, The Lusty Men. In the scene that Wenders lets us see, Robert Mitchum plays a character coming back to what was obviously his childhood home. It is a profoundly moving scene that summarizes the nostalgia of memory and the desperate need to recover one's roots, to gain an understanding of one's personal history.
Ray comments in the following way upon the film: "The closer I get to my ending, the closer I am getting to rewriting my beginning. And certainly by the end, by the last page, the climax has reconditioned the opening and the opening usually changes. However, this film is not a Western. This film is really a film about people who want to own a home of their own. That was the great American search at the time this film was made."
Mainstream film narratives are fascinated by the past and by death and dying. I once came upon an article in a popular magazine where a doctor criticized the film industry for being unrealistic in its depiction of death. To prove his point he quoted extensively from a Hollywood make-up catalogue, which listed a variety of pellets, blood bags, and human looking skins that could be used to portray either a quick or a slow death. The doctor advised filmmakers to check with the medical profession because there were easier ways to represent death. If it can't be done well, he asked, why show it at all?
If Lightning Over Water makes anything clear it is that death can never be represented in the cinema. In one scene Ray re-enacts his last moments days before his actual death. It is obviously shot in a studio. The lighting is a gentle fluorescent blue. He speaks in poetic terms about a life that has confused him. The camera, it seems, almost wants to avert its gaze. This is not an act, the image screams. But of course it is, says Ray. The visible, visibleness of his death, becomes a function of how much the audience wants to add or subtract from the picture. Our eyes cease, simply, to be a function of camera position. We roam through our minds and our imaginations and our fantasies for an explanation. The ease of being the voyeur, of being lost in the contradictory pleasure of death produced by film magic, by carefully placed bags of blood against the skins of well-known actors, that pleasure and the ease with which we experience it, is now disrupted.
Lightning Over Water ends with a celebration. Ray has died. We are now truly in the past and we have helped reconstruct it. His friends and Wim Wenders cluster together to fulfill his final wish, to have his ashes taken out to the ocean on a Chinese Sailboat, which we see moving (through the courtesy of a helicopter shot) past the skyline of New York City.
In some senses the final party for Ray seems disrespectful, almost insensitive. In the bowels of the boat people are joking and drinking. The urn bearing his ashes in a beautiful painted box is just above them. Here too, Wenders does not allow cinematic convention its place. The ritual portrayal of death and grief in the cinema with its desire for realism, is thrown aside. One of the final images that we see is a camera bolted to the top of the boat, carefully revolving in a circular fashion. Its movements are controlled by remote control. We look at a distance of six or seven feet into its viewfinder. We see what it sees, what Ray would have perhaps seen, what Wenders desires us to see. We also see the artifice of the camera and begin to understand the visible as artifice. The viewfinder of the camera becomes another screen, another frame pointing out the contradictions of believing in the truth of the image. The film ends as it began, caught in the double bind of the image, which both tells a story and destroys itself in the telling.
Wenders also examines the contradictions of the narrative cinema which is always seen as very different from the documentary. Yet documentary films also tell a story and in this case, the story of a death lived through a character who sees himself and his life through the fictions of memory and the imagination.
Wenders cannot face Ray's death, so he must imagine it. But he also cannot imagine what he has experienced. So, Ray, coughing, almost vomiting sits as the director of his last scene before death, a moment that in real time is death approaching and in film time is death to be preserved, on celluloid, to be repeated and repeated and repeated for different audiences.
All that remains for Wenders is an image, a fragment, and a structured memory that is neither fact nor fiction. Cinematic memory sits somewhere in-between history, truth and our imaginations. The boundaries that separate death from what we imagine are thin and sometimes invisible as when people imagine their ancestors alive in some other more pleasant universe. The materiality of Ray’s death stands is stark contrast to the romantic transitions that dominate traditional narratives in the cinema.
At a crucial point early in the film, Ray tries to write a scenario. It is about an artist whose name is Nick, who has cancer and whose sole aim in life is to recover his reputation. As Ray recounts his story, it is not clear anymore whether the scene has been set-up, imagined by Ray and Wenders, or spontaneously the result of Ray's search for his own history, and an attempt to defy the pain he is experiencing. Wenders asks Ray why the story is about an artist and not about Nicholas Ray, the filmmaker. "Why are you making the detour of turning into a painter because he's got your name? Why isn't he you? And why isn't he making films instead of painting? It's you, why take the step away?"
But, film always steps away, that is precisely what film is as a medium, a step away into representation. And Wenders’s problem in the film is that he is bound by the contradictions between the closeness he feels both to Ray and his demise and the reality that Ray will be preserved in medium of film.
Ray says the following: "I have one action which is to regain my self-image and my image to the rest of the world and for you, you have to cement your own action and try to find that which is closest to you and work actually from a character whose needs are his greatest needs, greatest personal needs."
And Wenders answers: "My action is going to be defined by yours. My needs are going to be defined by you facing death."
And then Ray says: "Well that would mean that you're stepping on my back, which I don't mind...."
The intersection of narration and narrator, of Wenders as filmmaker, actor and speaker cannot overcome the contraction of being involved in Nick's pain and using it for the purpose of the film. The spiral of double binds governing this film reaches their peak just after Ray says that he doesn't mind being the "object" of the narration. The crew and everyone else on the set starts to clap and this signals quite clearly that the scene had been rehearsed. The irony is that we the spectators look for a lack of control because that will make the scene appear to happen in the real time. It will give it that documentary feel of a transcription.
Ironically, that feeling of an absence of control makes the future seem possible and what throws
Wenders off is that Ray's death is imminent and therefore that the future is actually impossible.
Nick Ray: Why'd you come here, Wim?
Wim Wenders: I wanted to talk to you, Nick.
Nick Ray: About what, dying?
Wim Wenders: I didn't come to talk about dying. I didn't come to talk about dying, Nick, but we might have to.
Nick Ray: But we might have to.
Wim Wenders: I was looking forward to seeing you because I need your advice. You told me over the phone that you wanted to see me, but I was afraid to come. And I'd rather tell you right now, why? I was aware that I had seen you in weakness, and that you might be worried about being seen this way. But I feel it's okay now. There is something else that came to my mind in the plane last night, that I'm actually more afraid of. I thought that I could find myself being attracted to your weakness, your suffering and if I realized I would, I think that I would have to leave now. And I feel like I would be betraying you. That won't happen.”
Wenders does try very hard to avoid turning Ray into an object for voyeurism but it is impossible to avoid. No matter how often Wenders tries to talk about his own anxieties, Nicholas Ray is still in the throes of death and we join with Wenders in being spectators to that process.
Wenders is faced with the same problem that audiences have. He can only look at Ray through the viewfinder. The cinema transforms reality but cannot change the unfolding realities of death.