A mystical journey
If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing. (J.M. Barrie, “The Mermaids’ Lagoon.” Peter Pan)
Many of Wenders’s films give us a glimpse into this “one heavenly moment,” when another world opens up in front of our eyes, a moment that you might be lucky to sense – maybe even as an adult. Sometimes there is a need to distance ourselves from familiar spaces in order to reach the pinnacle of this ecstatic feeling: we experience it when flying above the train in Alice in the Cities, or wandering, along with a protagonist, around a strange house full of unknown passages, with sublime music coming out of its depths (Lisbon Story); or looking at the divided city of Berlin through a gaze that transcends all borders and walls (Wings of Desire). Or following two strangers on a journey without any material goal – just moving, living through space and time, overcoming grief, or facing your demons. Wenders’s Kings of the Road is a three-hour meditation, an endless ride through the forlorn and shattered towns, featuring abandoned movie theaters as well as passersby in different stages of desperation.
Throughout the film, Wenders spills a few hints that somehow make us question the deceptive realism of this story: is it a special lighting, a twilight view of Bruno’s truck, or a quick glimpse of the clouds seen through the sunroof? Or are we suspecting something when meeting Bruno, an enigmatic man, always on a go, always suspended in time, devoid of any personal history? One of the keys lies in a poignant scene when the heroes take a motorcycle ride to the site of Bruno’s childhood: his house turns out to be completely empty and abandoned, stranded on an island, with dark windows – just like in one of the dream sequences in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. And so Bruno is a King of the Road, or more precisely, a genius loci, roaming freely, without any ties, goals, or agenda. Robert, on the other hand, is very real and ordinary; but he abandons his old life and the earthly belongings: his car, his things, his clothes in “a move that may be either a botched suicide attempt or a dramatic jettison from his old life using his Volkswagen Beetle as an escape pod.” (*) Robert joins Bruno, who clearly becomes his guide in this new reality; following the logic of a myth or a magic tale, the travelers endure various trials, such as a descent into hell that takes a form of a derelict coal mine, with looming and scary silhouettes of pipes and metal constructions. There, Robert, who was seeking death in the beginning, has to face it again, when meeting a distraught man, crushed by grief.
Kings of the Road resists the usual conventions of film narrative – watching an action-packed 3-hour film can be a challenge but here it feels natural; it is a flow of time, a glimpse into someone’s life, a window into another world, where the feelings are conveyed by glances and music, rather than words and events. To appreciate and experience this movie to the full extent you need to watch it with a certain degree of unfocused attention – and hopefully, you will be able to feel its rhythm, to live through these days and nights, along with Bruno and Robert. Enchanted, amazed by these landscapes, we are surrounded by light and silence, the elements that tell us more about the heroes than their dialogues. “It’s an almost alchemical thing, this accrued intensity of feeling, and it’s one Wenders harnesses so effectively that by the end of the three hours the viewer spends with Bruno and Robert, the simple way each uses their body while singing along to a song as they drive <…> can seem transcendent.” (*)
So, why combine Wenders’s film and Bowie’s Low? Because in my opinion, both of these pieces require a special viewing or listening technique that makes you live through them, to be immersed as deeply as their creators meant them to be. It took me twenty years to appreciate Kings of the Road in full; with Bowie, I also spend many years knowing about him, being curious and somehow avoiding his music. I heard about Low before, loved “Sound And Vision,” and was really curious about this album; needless to say, my first attempts were completely unsuccessful, I could not grasp the meaning of these harsh short song fragments and abandoned it without even getting to the second half. When I finally listened to Low properly, without distractions, it felt like a revelation, breathtaking and completely incomprehensible. But even before I descended into the depths of this album, I knew that it was a portal, a door into a different musical dimension, where all meanings were conveyed in a new language (as both Bowie and Eno admitted). I knew I witnessed Barrie’s lagoon, this was it, or, as David sang on his other mystical album, “one magical moment…. from where dreams are woven.”
To be continued…
Katya Neklyudova, May 2021