Friday, August 19, 2022

#2,802. Lightning Over Water (1980) - Biopic Documentaries


The opening image is of a lonely street in New York City, the date: April 8, 1979. A cab pulls up to the sidewalk, and a man exits the taxi. It is filmmaker Wim Wenders, recently arrived from California, on his way to visit his good friend Nicholas Ray, director of Rebel Without a Cause, Johnny Guitar, and a slew of others. Ray, it seems, is dying of cancer, and has very little time left.

Lightning Over Water is a collaboration between Wenders and Ray, a documentary in part because it chronicles the final days of a Hollywood legend, but also a carefully crafted drama in that it explores, via staged scenes, the greater question of life and death.

The ultimate goal of Lightning Over Water was to capture Nicholas Ray’s final days, yet as with many of Ray’s films, the approach is never straightforward or predictable. There are sequences throughout this 1980 film that blend reality with fiction, like when Wenders and Ray, along with Ray’s wife Susan and good friend Tom Noonan, attend a screening of The Lusty Men at Vassar. Shots are presented throughout this sequence of Wenders and his crew setting up the camera, and at one point during the screening, Wenders leaves the theater to talk with Ray, who is lying on a couch in the lobby (their exchange, though interesting, feels scripted). Noonan also contributes to the film via his video camera, which is always with him. His footage is occasionally edited into the movie, serving as a behind-the-scenes account of its development (he sometimes eavesdrops as Ray and Wenders set up shots and discuss what they will be doing next).

In a way, the addition of Noonan’s footage to Lightning Over Water reminded me of Ray’s own experimental film We Can’t Go Home Again, a project he and his students shot in 1973 while Ray was teaching at Vassar. Like that movie, Lightning Over Water features a number of intriguing bells and whistles: video and film combined; dream sequences; special camera effects; distorted images, etc.

Yet through it all, Lightning Over Water never loses sight of its objective: a cinematic diary covering the final days of a great director. Ray appears drawn and sickly through most of the film, and at one point, shortly after Wenders’ arrival, the camera looms over Ray as he awakens from a nap, coughing and rubbing his head, moaning and groaning as he shaves with an electric razor. At times, Ray’s mind is sharp, and he and Wenders have some fascinating chats about what it means to reach the end of your life, and the feelings that overtake you as you watch someone you love and respect slip away.

There are moments, especially later in the film, when Ray stumbles, forgetting a line or just staring off into the distance. Lightning Over Water is indeed a fascinating motion picture, but is can also be quite heartbreaking, making it an experimental film that is always evolving, yet can only have one possible conclusion.

I don’t consider it a spoiler to reveal that this “conclusion” does eventually arrive, and is presented in such a way that Wenders, Ray, and even the audience knows it’s about to happen, an uninterrupted shot of a man whose body has no more fight left in it. Nicholas Ray spent his life working tirelessly behind the camera, and it seems somehow fitting that, when the end came, he found himself on the other side of it.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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