The way we experience any given film changes over time, sometimes in ways maybe imperceptible to us. Other times, not. A lot depends sometimes on where the film was set and shot, and our own relation to that place at a certain time, and our relation to it now. I'm not going to talk about the entirety of Wim Wenders' still-thrilling Alice in the Cities here. Rather just about the half-hour or so that starts about ten minutes into the film, the New York sojourn of Philip Winter (Rudiger Vogler), a sojourn that introduces him to the film's title character and sets him, and her, off on a journey in their German homeland.
Watching the film in the early to mid-'70s, with the perspective of a young Jerseyite who frequently forayed into Da City, the section was exhilarating, albeit tinged with a patina of what I'll call arty tourism. Which was entirely apt, really, as Winter, a blocked journalist who's been driving across America taking Polaroids instead of writing words, is kind of an arty tourist. "When you drive across America, something happens because of all the images you see," he explains to a colleague in the New York office of his publication. The co-worker's not buying it—"Take your picture postcards with you."
And what could be more picture-postcardish, in an arty tourist way, as a pan across the expanse of Shea Stadium that resolves on the organist of that hallowed field? We young cinephilic natives of the tri-state area were of course at the time convinced of the permanence of what Wenders was depicting.
We were dolts, of course, as is only natural. And so now, 30 years and change later, the New York segment of Alice seems an inexhaustible document of an old New York that is gone forever. Sure, the Gem Spa at St. Mark's Place and Second Avenue still stands, but here it looks a lot more like the joint that the New York Dolls posed in front of for the back cover of...was it their first or second album?...than it does today. Something to do with the punk-bohemia-on-steroids environs now surrounding it...
Downtown in a cab, Winter cranes his head out a taxi window, looking up backwards; are those building he sees the Twin Towers?
Later, atop the Empire State Building, Alice (Yella Rottlander) is looking through one of the standing binoculars at the towers; she then dollies down and changes focus, zeroing in on the Flatiron Building. Her time runs out. She asks Winter if he has another dime. A dime! Later, at the airport terminal, the pair watch one of those crappy standing television you fed coin to. Sure, their picture were garbage, but you had the option of looking at something other than CNN.
Yes, the film even memorializes the local television of that time. Cheesy logos, crappy movie prints.
Have I mentioned the buses?
This portion of the film really is a remarkable Wayback Machine.
Alice is on a Region 2 DVD from Axiom Pictures. The transfer captures the gorgeous grain of Robby Mueller's cinematography but exhibits a little more video noise than we're comfortable with. Extras include an informative booklet and a video interview with Wenders.