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Where’s Wenders?

Recollections of the Philadelphia Film Festival and pursuit of an elusive film director.

by Vince Farinaccio

The last film I watched at the Philadelphia Film Festival (PFF) was in April 2007 at the Ritz East one month after Landmark Theatres purchased the esteemed local Ritz movie-house chain. It was the same theater selected several years earlier for the appearance of German director Wim Wenders and the screening of his latest movie, Land of Plenty.

I had first encountered Wenders’ The American Friend at an Atlantic Film Society screening during the 1980s at Atlantic Community College, and it turned out to be a revelation. His subsequent works like Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas increased my appetite for this new non-mainstream style of filmmaking that began in the 1970s and spanned the next 30 years, and I saw the PFF event with Wenders as a rare opportunity to hear him speak about his movies.

The festival usually afforded occasions in which film fans could cross paths with a bit of cinema history for an afternoon or evening. One year, the English director Ken Russell, known for his film version of the Who’s rock opera Tommy and literary adaptations like Women in Love, appeared at the festival with his own personal print of The Devils, introducing the film before it was screened and then sitting with the rest of us, as transfixed as we were by his film, almost as if he wasn’t the creator of this cinematic masterpiece. At its conclusion, he insisted on talking to the audience and taking questions.

That night, Russell received an achievement award prior to screening his latest feature, The Fall of the Louse of Usher, a “home movie” according to the director and an early example of a film shot on digital video, today’s standard.

Alan Rudolph’s explorations of the human condition in movies such as The Moderns, Love at Large and Welcome to L.A. won him a PFF award for his work in independent film that followed a lengthy apprenticeship with maverick director Robert Altman (M*A*S*H). As he was leaving the award ceremony, I asked Rudolph about the problem he was having with distribution of a recent feature, and his passion for his films was evident. “We’ll get it out,” he told me, and it finally saw release on DVD in the U.S. and Europe.

The appearance of Wenders at the PFF might have been the event I anticipated the most in all the years I attended. But as the screening of Land of Plenty commenced, Wenders failed to appear. One of the volunteers who introduced the film simply said, “No, I’m not Wim Wenders,” but we already knew that. The festival never offered any official announcement, correction, apology, retraction or explanation about it, so there was no reason to think he wasn’t coming. Maybe it wouldn’t be that night or that festival or even that year, but I was certain Wenders would eventually be there.

So that brings me to the 2007 festival, which offered a selection of classics (Philadelphia Story, Fantasia and the Philadelphia/South Jersey film noir The Burglar), independent offerings and the final film of my festival sojourn that year, Benoit Jacquot’s The Untouchable, which was screening in the same theater I had expected to see Wenders in several years earlier.

The prospect that Wenders might just finally show up put me in a forgiving mood. I struck up a pleasant conversation with two women while we waited in line, telling them I had been tempted to see a Claude Chabrol comedy playing in the other Ritz East theater but was sticking with Jacquot.

I liked The Untouchable but, alas, no sign of Wenders. After the screening, the two women I had met in line discovered me on their way out and remarked that we all would have been better off with the Chabrol film. I wanted to tell them that Wenders wouldn’t have been at the other theater, but I refrained.

That was the last PFF I attended. Other interests interceded and it became a lot more convenient to rent movies. Since that time, Hollywood managed to co-opt independent film, Ken Russell departed this world, and Alan Rudolph retired from filmmaking. I’d like to think Jacquot continues to have his films screened at the PFF and that he even visited the festival himself, waiting, like the rest of us, for Wenders to arrive.

Jersey Reflections