Millennial Malaise 48: Until the End of the World

In Which The End is Something Like a Dream

There is a feeling among those entrenched with art and media that is both rare and elusive; evocative and powerful. It is the moment where something thought long gone fully comes to bare. That an item that seemed no more than illustrious rumor has tangible existence, that a work exists outside the hushed tones of forum pages and biographical footnotes and blossoms into a fleshed out being.

This experience is both singular enough and frequent enough that it becomes the drug of choice for many an enthusiast, and the history of film is replete with such findings. But in our modern world the uncovering of such works like The Passion of Joan of Arc can feel a little distant, it’s something even greater when what is brought back to the screen involves many artists still beloved and active.

Such is the aura of Wim Wenders’ mammoth sci-fi epic Until the End of the World. A movie whose scale, artistic involvement, and lost to time nature rivals probably few things in the medium. The most direct comparison might be Jodorowsky’s unfinished version of Dune, the main difference is that Wim’s film actually, tangibly exists. It’s a flick that was the highest budgeted film in Europe’s history, the Director’s Cut ran close to five hours, it was shot in over nine countries, and was able to pull together a soundtrack that re-united the Talking Heads for one last song. So is the “ultimate road movie,” as Wenders’ described it, worth the hype in its final complete format, absolutely, but not without a few caveats.

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Until the End of the World  follows Claire (Solveig Dommartin also getting a co-writing credit) a listless woman who accidentally stumbles upon a group of bank robbers and is entrusted with a bag a cash. She then bumps into the mysterious Sam Farber (William Hurt). Entranced by Sam’s appearance she chases him across the globe with the help of her ex boyfriend Eugene (Sam Neil). Eventually all roads lead to Australia as Sam tries to help his father (Max Von Sydow) invent a machine that will let his blind mother (Jeanne Moreau) see. Entwined with all this is the threat of imminent annihilation as a nuclear satellite spins out of control through the earth’s atmosphere, and in classic Millennial Malaise fashion the film is set at the turn of century to boot.

The short paragraph above barely even scrapes the surface of the maniacally digressive and excessively weird film that is on display. Wenders’ has created a titanic ode to his filmic fetishes and obsessive aesthethism, along the way hitting upon poignant predictions for the future and blundering into bizarre and inauthentic storytelling. End of the World is a movie mostly obsessed with the textures: the look, feel, and sound of the world that it creates. It’s an ecology of a dream, a place of searing neon hues, early test run digital video, and a soundtrack blessed with the  biggest artists of the past and present. It’s a movie that draws from the history of noir and fantasy to gaze into the future of science fiction and probability,

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So from a certain angle the film works best, as the kids say, a vibe. It’s swirling imagery mixed with grand jukebox score transcends almost all thematic and storytelling concerns at hand. In a way End of the World epitomizes the “one perfect shot” fixations of the internet film obsessive. A massive canvas from which one can easily snip gifs and bits to create a glorious tumblr post or Pinterest board. And honestly this may be the best away to access the many pleasures of the picture. Cinematographer Robby Muller lavishes each frame with startling hues of every type, and the production design in each and every country is lush and elaborate. Hell even some of the chintzy digital effects kick in those buttons of yearning for a non-existent era.

But the vast and prismatic textures of the light on screen is a hard sell for a feature that creeps close to the five hour mark (I watched it in two sittings which makes the whole thing manageable), and here is where the proposition becomes a little dicier. From a storytelling level Until the End of World is hardly terrible, but it feels a little tossed off and uncertain at many moments. For much of the run time the engine that drives this story is a fumbled “and then, and then, and then.” Claire’s attraction to Sam fits comfortably in the arthouse fair of pretty girls giving up everything for the mystery that lies ahead. That framework is viable, but boy does it strain under the weight of the run time.

The other big problem is unfortunately the actors. For such a grand scope Wenders made the decision to have most (but certainly not all) the dialog in English. And while old hands at multilingual production acquit themselves well (von Sydow for example) others (like Dommartin) strain to provide the emotional palette to sell the whole thing.

But all is not lost, for Wenders recoups his hiccups with some fascinating and prescient piece of worldbuilding and storytelling. In his lush future world people are interconnected, through computers and machines, and the work of detective has been reduced. Everyone leaves a digital footprint, so no matter how hard a person tries they never disappear completely. And then there’s the film’s final hour, a sad and melancholic descent into the screens before us. The promise that technology will turn us the away from the world and focus on only reflective things. Images from our heads repeated again and again. It’s not a far step away from the finger wagging of “kids and their phones” but here it works because of the bold imagery that accompanies the descent.

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So what to make Until the End of the World. It is the place of dreams, the yearning of the cinephile who always wanted to see a great artists biggest work, the dream of a filmmaker combining everything he has to imagine the world ahead of us, and the dream of the watcher, catching moments of glory and confusion in the screen. It’s a dream of dreams as well, the place of legendary work tarnished, grand but still unsatisfying, and like the decade it presages one can’t help but feel a want, for the greater, the broader, the beyond.

Odds and Ends

  • Other interesting bits from this fake future: teleconferencing is the norm, but out of old timey looking consoles, Europe has been united in some fashion, the Soviet Union still exists, but is broadly open, and all computer programs must have funny CG characters talking to people.
  • The full movie is available to stream on the Criterion Channel, set aside an afternoon to enjoy.
  • That song that the Talking Heads got together to make is pretty good.

As always, twitterletterboxd, and I Chews You (the podcast about cooking and eating Pokemon).

Next week we lighten up and head back to school with Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.