I really did like this movie, as it eschews so much of what 'makes a film' yet comes out no less great. After I wrote this, I had the opportunity to watch Jacques Tati's Playtime, which eliminates a plot altogether, which pretty much blows this out of the water in that regard, but I'd still watch it again. And I recommend you watch the film rather than read the horrible paper I wrote about it.

something (untitled) about Kings of the Road

copyright 20 May 2002 by Mike Lietz

For its three hours of screen time, Kings of the Road by Wim Wenders contains surprisingly few significant events. The plot could be summarized simply: Two men meet. They go on a road trip, following one's repair route, until they part ways. Compared to contemporary Hollywood films, and with its lack of such standard elements as suspense and dramatic tension, Kings would seem a failure if not for its great success. It is Wenders's embrace of a rebellion against conventional cinema, and the result is a striking and memorable film, if not story. He uses some conventional techniques and elements but surrounds them with unexpected and unconventional scenes to create an altogether different form of the 'road film'.

Opening with a conversation between Bruno and a former movie accompanist turned cinema owner, Wenders sets the tone and theme for his film. It is apparently a bleak time for German cinema culture. Then the titles are shown and the cross-cutting next shots are alternatively Bruno relaxing and shaving in his truck by the shore and Robert speeding in a rage, ready to commit suicide there. His half-hearted attempt failed, Robert joins Bruno and begins their journey which will comprise the rest of the film. When the two of them meet, they converse but only superficially, confusing the viewer as to their relationship. Until half an hour into the film they do not even know each other's name, but when they introduce themselves it is apparent that they had just met. Such ambiguity is uncommon in mainstream films and quite jarring for the viewer expecting it to be one. This lack of exposition would more likely be provided for with a voiceover narration revealing motivations or at least some information about the principal characters, something along the lines of a "I had just ended my marriage in a messy way and I was ready to end my life as well, speeding my old VW as far from my wife as I could get ..." and so on, but no storytelling is there and the viewer is left to piece together Robert's past as the film progresses. Other unconventional characteristics of Kings involve Wenders's depiction of phenomena usually considered taboo for the screen. Just after the opening title cards we are exposed to Bruno, napping stark naked in his truck. Male full-frontal nudity has never been a staple of conventional filmmaking and Wenders uses it in an opening scene, at the same time as he is exploiting conventional tracking shots of Robert in the VW. The viewer later sees Bruno defecating in plain view, foreground to an otherwise pleasant if unremarkable landscape. Popular films as a general rule do not show the seedier aspects of the characters' lives, including bathroom episodes, especially not in such a graphic manner. As if to further degrade the medium, Wenders later has Bruno encounter a masturbating projectionist, whose actions are clearly shown onscreen in a rather murky and indistinct shot. It is these scenes that contribute greatly to the widespread acceptance of Kings of the Road as an art film and its ensuing cult status.

Some of the film is recognizably mainstream and derivative from Hollywood, however, particularly in similarity to American Westerns. Though they travel in a truck and not on horses, and wear coveralls and a suit, not spurs and gun belts, Bruno and Robert are recognizably cowboys transposed into the 1970s border zone. They, particularly Bruno, have many typical cowboy characteristics. He is a skilled specialist able to do a job that no one else in the towns he visits is capable of: fixing projectors. He is an outsider, isolated in self-imposed solitude from society, called on by the townsfolk to do his job. Once finished, he drifts on, headed to the next job. These elements are typical of many movie cowboys. Robert also, as a man with a murky, under-described past and who is an outsider as well, fits much of the mold of the Hollywood gunslinger. Even in light of that, though, Kings of the Road is no Western, missing several crucial elements to the traditional structure. First, there is no villain, no force to be reckoned with or protect the requisite villagers from. There is an evident decline in German cinema culture, but intangible concepts do not comprise a nemesis for the cowboys. Even if it did fill the villain role, this downturn is not overcome by Bruno and Robert, and is just as evident in the beginning of the film as at the end, book-ended as it is by interviews with woeful theater operators. Another Western staple Kings is lacking is much interaction with the townspeople. Though about cinema culture and the theater itself, the only large audience shown is the schoolchildren entertained not by a film but by shadowplay performed by Robert and Bruno. The rest of the theaters shown are either only vaguely alluded to or shown empty. Wenders himself plays the entire visible audience in one theater. Working as they do in the projectionist's booths, Robert and Bruno retain their separation from society at large since the booth is likewise isolated from the audience in the theater. One significant interaction missing from the film is a credible love interest. Despite the presence of cashier Pauline, Bruno is not enamored with her nor she with him and by the end of the film she is all but forgotten, as Bruno describes his love for all women and his inability to be attached to any one. This is not the manner of Westerns, which usually end with at least one cowboy in love with a farmer's daughter or some other pretty villager. Bruno leaves Pauline without breaking his or her heart, and apparently without much second thought.

Regarding the film's ending, no clear resolution is reached. There is no climax nor a denouement to nicely 'wrap up' the preceding three hours. The film ends with the two men again separated, recognizing that their paths need to diverge but not revealing where either is headed. Except for films anticipation sequels, such is not evident in Hollywood, where endings are clear and follow a relatively traditional story arc, with exposition, building action, a climax and denouement. The entirety of Kings of the Road could only be considered building action out of those four for lack of commonality to any other. Choosing often not to film what would be expected and at other times that which traditionally would not be filmed, Wenders conveys his rebellious approach to conventional cinema in both Germany and America, and produces a strikingly engaging film in Kings of the Road.

I have to admit, "The viewer later sees Bruno defecating in plain view, foreground to an otherwise pleasant if unremarkable landscape." is one of my absolute favorite sentences I've ever turned in to a college professor. Seriously.

And if you want to find a little more information as well as some full soundtrack, er, tracks, click here.

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