Absurdist Western a rough but rewarding ride 

I can imagine a lyric from a country song about Don't Come Knocking, the new film by Wim Wenders: "Hollywood will just go on faking it/And you and I, we'll just keep on taking it." There is a bitter, ironic beauty to the mastery with which Wenders employs the stunning visuals and narrative hopefulness of the Western genre, all the while juxtaposing it to the cruelty and dysfunction of modern life.

The best way to get a handle on Wenders' sprawling Don't Come Knocking is by comparing it to another Wenders film, the seminal 1984 Paris, Texas. Both films were written in collaboration with American playwright Sam Shepard, who also stars in this one, and the two films cover similar ground both thematically and cinematically.

The films focus on the return of a father figure -- in the new film's case, an over-the-hill actor named Howard Spence (Shepard) who is estranged from his family and to a large degree from his own past. In Paris, Texas, Wenders gave us a protagonist who could have wandered out of a Western film; here he gives us Howard, who has literally just escaped on horseback from the set of his latest production.

Martin Scorsese once said that film fills the spiritual need of people to share a common memory. What gives the Wenders/Shepard collaborations their energy is that they begin in a condition of near amnesia. As the estranged characters struggle to reconcile with their long separation, cinema itself functions as a form of memory. In Paris, Texas, it was home footage that tied the characters together. Here the vestiges of Howard's movie stardom serve that purpose, while Wenders uses the landscape of the American Southwest as a tool to comment on the struggle to maintain that reunion.

The dialogue and plot both draw heavily on absurdist theater, which is a powerful but dangerous technique. The exchanges among the film's experienced actors -- Shepard, Jessica Lange as his wife, and the phenomenal Tim Roth as the studio Pinkerton -- work in conjunction with the film's stilted narrative in a weird, wonderful way. When the same kind of dialogue is delivered by Howard's son Earl (Gabriel Mann), on the other hand, it is almost unbearable.

This film is not quite as strong as Paris, Texas. But this is a profound work, principally for the way in which Wenders wields the Western as double-edged sword. Here genre is a lens and a mask, a tool through which the filmmaker can comment and behind which the characters can hide. Sadly, the characters' awareness of their roles makes it harder to be simultaneously enthralled by Don't Come Knocking's layered commentary and immersed in these characters' struggles as well.

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.


Favorite

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
    • Crazy Rich Asians

      Director John Chu does rom com right
    • 2018 Outflix Film Festival

      Memphis' Long Running LBGTQ Film Festival Stresses Community Outreach
    • The Nun

      The latest installment in The Conjuring series is the pumpkin spice latte of horror movies

Blogs

Tiger Blue

Tigers 52, South Alabama 35

Film/TV/Etc. Blog

Let's Do The Time Warp Drive-In With John Waters

Intermission Impossible

Hattiloo Puts the School-to-Prison Pipeline in the Spotlight

News Blog

Female Population On the Rise at Shelby County Jail

Music Blog

Dancing Highlife in Memphis, Obruni Style

Hungry Memphis

Now Open: Nutrition Bar

News Blog

Strickland Asks For Trust On Banks' Shooting

Hungry Memphis

LYFE Kitchen Closed

Hungry Memphis

Sneak Peek at Ronnie Grisanti's

ADVERTISEMENT

More by Ben Popper

Readers also liked…

  • Fifty Shades Darker

    America gets the boundary pushing lifestyle porn it deserves
    • Feb 16, 2017
  • Death Grip

    Memphis filmmaker Sam Bahre talks about his 11-year struggle to create I Filmed Your Death.
    • Apr 19, 2018
  • I Am Not Your Negro

    Raoul Peck’s documentary brings James Baldwin’s words to an America that needs to listen.
    • Feb 24, 2017
ADVERTISEMENT
© 1996-2018

Contemporary Media
460 Tennessee Street, 2nd Floor | Memphis, TN 38103
Visit our other sites: Memphis Magazine | Memphis Parent | Inside Memphis Business
Powered by Foundation