Any film that has Dennis Hopper playing Death (AKA Frank – in reference to Blue Velvet) can’t be all bad. He’s certainly a much more chummy and interesting guy than Bengt Ekerot, who played the most iconic version in The Seventh Seal. Wenders’ nods to the cinema of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, to whom Palermo Shooting is dedicated to, lie at the heart of his 2008 opus, just now opening in Japan. Palermo Shooting has been derided for its earnestness and pretentiousness, but even looking at Wenders acknowledged masterpieces (i.e. The American Friend or Wings of Desire), he’s always had the earnest bone, right near the pretentious one. Palermo Shooting, though not a masterpiece, shows Wenders at what he does best – exploring ideas through images, delighting in and questioning the modern world and taking chances and risking failure – which is much more than most lesser directors would even attempt. Never really being much of an actor’s director, Wenders has always managed to populate his films with archetypes, who more often than not, are good actors too. The central character in Palermo shooting is a disaffected art damaged photographer, Finn. He has one foot at the top of the food chain in the high art world and another in the realm of fashion. A literal brush with death sends him on a journey of escape from Germany to Palermo, where he finds himself face to face with Death. Finn, played by ruggedly handsome German rocker, Campino, transforms from something like David Hemmings’ hollow player in Blowup to a sensitive searcher who finds a bit of redemption in eyes of a beautiful art restorer, Flavia (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). The first half of the film moves quickly through a post-modern Germany of concrete and flash along the Rhine. Finn even lives and works in a contemporary architectural monument designed by SANAA. After nearly being run off the road by Death, meeting the specter of Lou Reed in a bar and chatting about life with a kindly banker slumming as a shepherd, he impulsively takes off to Palermo where he indulges in just getting much needed sleep and dream-time, though death keeps shooting arrows his way. He end up meeting Flavia who helps him navigate the mystery. Palermo Shooting goes into a bit of Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole where some of the dream images seem to go overboard in symbolic intent. By the time Finn meets up with Frank – his reckoning with Death – the conversation turns to not only trying to him trying to make a deal for his life, but a meditation on photography, cinema, life and death. It’s here where Wenders’ walks the tightrope between something nearly ridiculous and something sublime and pulls it off. Palermo Shooting ultimately rewards with stunning images and cogent questions about cinema, art and rock and roll from Wenders’ ever-inquisitive soul.
Originally published in EL Magazine, September 2011