My first encounter with Wim Wenders' film Kings of the Road was seeing the entire film as a physical thing, seeing it as six full reels of 16mm film. This was in the days of campus film societies, which would rent 16mm prints of films and show them in campus lecture halls for a dollar or so on evenings and on weekends. I was on the committee that selected the films and I also wrote the film reviews for the campus paper, so every Tuesday or Wednesday, when the rented films arrived, I would screen them and write about them for Friday's student paper.
My friend Scott and I opened the box that came in the mail and looked at all those reels inside it. Normally a feature was on four or even three reels. This three hour film was on six or so. We were excited to get the film on the projector and start seeing it, not so much because we had already seen many of Wenders' films and wanted to get our eyes and ears on this one, but mostly because of what we had read about him and his position in the New German Cinema movement. Maybe I had seen The American Friend already. Certainly Scott had. He was from Seattle, where there were more opportunities to see films outside the mainstream than there had been in the Montana city that I was from. All I knew is that I couldn't wait to see this film, even though all I knew about it was the cryptic catalog description in the film rental listing.
We tried to thread the first reel, but the sprocket holes were on the wrong side. The film was tails out on all the reels, which meant that the film hadn't been rewound the last time it had screened, and the beginning of each reel was near the core and the end was nearest us. As we started to rewind the first reel we noticed how dusty the film was. We scrambled to find a cloth and then lovingly held the cloth to the strip of film as each reel rewound. By the time we were ready to play the film we had a small mound of dirt on the table and the cloth that we had removed from the long strip of film.
Before the first images of the film flashed on the screen we had had something of a holy encounter with it, feeling the whole movie, getting glimpses of it from its tiny images, seeing them float past us in a blur, our excitement and curiosity building by the minute.
By the time the film was over, we were dazed and it was in the wee hours. I remember it being the middle of winter and a cold walk home but those images were still so solid in my mind and I had no idea what to write about this film.
Cut to thirty years later and I'm going to the Film Society of Minneapolis and St. Paul at St. Anthony Main to see Kings of the Road with my partner Beth and it's an impossibly cold January day. We are going to see a painstakingly restored digital projection of the film. There are no more dancing dust particles and wandering vertical scratches in the German skies in this print of the film, and I'm seeing the film in the full 1:1.66 aspect ratio that it was filmed in and originally intended to be seen in. I'm not sure, but most of the 16mm prints we would show when I was in college had cropped off edges to fit the squarer 4:3 TV shape.
The film is being shown as part of a retrospective of film from Wenders' career. Earlier in the day Beth and I had seen his film Alice in the Cities, and now we were back for a second Wenders.
Kings of the Road begins with its technical specifications spelled out, its aspect ratio, that it is in black and white, the dates and locations of filming, the fact that the sound was recorded on location, a full listing of the cast and crew. The film starts and ends with bookends that are almost documentary scenes of movie theater oldtimers talking about the days of cinema past. The starting speech is by a man who started his career as a theater pianist and talks about the glory days of accompanying Fritz Lang's two part Nibelungen film with other musicians. The film ends with a woman talking about why she keeps her theater running, but shows no films at it. She does not accept the films of today, which are repulsive to her, and thus she does not show them, but keeps her projectors in repair in case the glory days of cinema return. These two are the grandfathers and grandmothers that own the theaters and that are referred to throughout the rest of the film, but we see them only in these scenes that come before and after the main story of the film. The woman at the end says that she believes that movies are "the art of seeing."
Al Milgrim, who is in his 90's, is perhaps the pre-eminent grandparent of the local art cinema scene as the director for years of the University Film Society. Beth and I saw him in the lobby as we were getting our tickets for Kings of the Road and he talked about bringing these Wenders films to town years ago, along with their director, who he had a chance to meet. Milgrom talked the manager of the theater into letting us in without paying. We tried to talk him out of this, but he insisted. If films are the art of seeing, Milgrom has helped so many people in the twin cities see.
In between those interviews with the cinema grandparents lies the rest of the 3 hour Kings of the Road. It is one of those new films that the woman with the closed cinema was talking about. It has a couple scenes that the old timers wouldn't approve of, but mostly it is a slow and steady tale of a friendship that develops over short bursts of dialogue and long stretches of silence, of just being. The original German title literally means "In the Course of Time."
The characters are a motion picture projector repairman who drives from one small town theater to another along the East and West German border, and a linguist who specializes in child language acquisition. The linguist, Robert, recently separated from his wife. He drives his Volkswagon beetle into a river in spectacular fashion, either in a suicide attempt or just grand frustration. The projector repairman is there shaving to laugh at Robert's sinking car.
Some dry clothes for Robert lead to the two of them sticking together, first silent but with looks and then gradually telling each other small parts of their stories. As they go from one town to another to fix theater projectors, they run into other people, a group of unruly kids at one theater who they end up entertaining by making shadow play on the screen; a man whose wife has just driven her car into a tree, killing herself; a young woman who works at her grandmothers theater and bonds fleetingly with the repairman; Robert's father, who sleeps in his equipment-strewn printing shop, and who Robert can only talk to by printing up a special edition newspaper out of all his suppressed rage.
The film is a deep exploration not of theaters, but of theater projection booths, the small rooms way up high over the audience where the gigantic pair of film projectors live and poke their noses out of small windows. These are not room that the public sees - instead of the curtains and chandeliers of the theater auditoriums there is peeling paint, exposed plumbing, and rough plaster. One of the booths featured in the film is so isolated that it is accessible only by walking on the roof of the building next door. The projectionist is like a gargoyle looking down with stillness upon the house and the image on the screen.
In one of the last scenes of the film, the men dismantle the projectors in a theater that has closed, and leave behind a stark empty booth, a room of wires and nothing on the walls but a series of faded 8 x 10 magazine images of movie stars from long long ago. Take away the movie star images and it could be almost any theater projection booth today.
When I was in third grade I did a report about motion picture projectionist as a career. Back then it could be a career, a job for one person to sit up in that booth and watch the single film the theater played so carefully that he could make the reel changes between two projectors without anybody even knowing. Motion theater projectionists were a lonely lot, up in that room, but they had all the people in the theater below them, all those people depending upon them to keep the dream of movie going without interruption, without noticing how smoothly the projectionist is doing his job.
The booths in the theaters that are still around don't even necessarily have to be small rooms - they only need to have enough space for a digital projector and a bank of audio panels. One person can operate all the projectors in a multiplex through a video server on a single computer. You don't have to be a professional projectionist to operate a whole theater, you only need to know how to create and adjust a schedule on a computer screen.
The booth behind me at St. Anthony Main does not look much different than that booth that the travelers emptied out in Kings of the Road. It no longer holds the twin giant projectors that it one held. There is nobody in there when the movie is playing.
I am not advocating a return to the days of celluloid films projected through dust and scratches, and neither is Wenders' film a nostalgia trip. The film is about the theaters as a way to explore the relationships between the people inside and surrounding that booth, that theater, the town and cities in which the theaters are located. It's about the relationships between the people in the film on the screen and what those relationship can do to guide or illumine our own in our own times and cities.