Lightning Over Water Review

One strong characteristic of the directors who came to prominence in the 1970s was an intense cinephilia. This was, and is, true of Americans such as Scorsese, Coppola and De Palma as well as Europeans like Bertolucci and, discussed here, Wim Wenders. They were a generation who grew up steeped in classic Hollywood movies – which they usually watched on a big screen if possible rather than on video or DVD – and they made a point of paying tribute to their elders, the men (mostly) who made those films.

Lightning Over Water is Wenders’s tribute to Nicholas Ray, based around Wenders’s stay with the older man in his New York flat in 1979. They had previously met when Wenders had cast Ray in his film The American Friend. Ray is struggling to make one final film, and Wenders (in town to make Hammett) is willing to help him out. But it’s clear that Ray’s health is very precarious: in fact, he’s dying, of lung cancer.

Ray, born in 1911, studied architecture but entered films in the 1940, first as a writer then, from 1948, as a director. Among his films are the classic noirs They Live By Night and In a Lonely Place, the rodeo drama The Lusty Men (which we see extracts from) and the cult western Johnny Guitar. Ray was particularly known for his use of widescreen formats, beginning with the definitive James Dean performance in Rebel Without a Cause. Ray’s two final films were epics made for Samuel Bronston: King of Kings and 55 Days in Peking (which was pretty spectacular in 70mm, when I saw it at the National Film Theatre). A severe heart attack put paid to Ray’s career and he didn’t direct again until the mid 70s, with a contribution to the erotic anthology film Wet Dreams and We Can’t Go Home Again, an experimental feature made with his students. (Extracts from the latter are also shown.)

Lightning Over Water (which is sometimes known as Nick’s Movie) has both men’s names listed as directors. We seem to be in documentary territory, with long takes – albeit in 35mm – and seemingly unscripted “action”. But soon something feels odd: Some of the scenes play out in multiple set-ups, and the 35mm footage is mixed with video material. Often the camera crew appear. How much of this is genuinely spontaneous and how much pre-planned and recreated is hard to say.

The film doesn’t spare Ray: it’s quite clear he’s a dying man from the outset. For this reason some have found Lightning Over Water voyeuristic, but I don’t think it is. Ray is facing his end with considerable dignity and courage, as we see him give an introduction to a film society showing of The Lusty Men. The end of the film is given over entirely to him, as he talks to camera in a long-held close-up.

As an overview of Ray’s life and work, the film fails: Wenders assumes we know who he is, the films he made, and his place in cinema history. As a portrait of an artist at the end of his days, still trying to create but no longer physically able to, the film is much more successful. Ray died on 16 June 1979, while this film was being made, and the film concludes with a short epilogue in tribute to him.

This is Wenders’s preferred cut of Lightning Over Water, twenty-five minutes shorter than the version which was shown at Cannes in 1980. Wenders, depressed by Ray’s death, had not been able to take part in the editing of that version. This shorter version contains more footage of Ray’s wife Susan and also includes Wenders’s reading of Ray’s diary. Lightning Over Water forms part of Anchor Bay’s 10-disc Wim Wenders Collection and is encoded for Region 2 only.

The Internet Movie Database gives the aspect ratio of Lightning Over Water as 1.66:1. The DVD is presented anamorphically in a ratio of 1.78:1. The IMDB is not the most reliable source, particularly with aspect ratios, and it’s quite feasible that the intended ratio is the less-widely-used 1.75:1. The film doesn’t seem unduly cropped, though given its documentary nature it’s not the most precisely composed film you’ll ever see. What is beyond doubt is that the extracts from the Academy Ratio film The Lusty Men are cropped to the wider ratio – and this is noticeable, along with a light mauve tint to the black and white image. Ed Lachman’s colour 35mm work comes over very well, if slightly soft and a little grainy, but the video footage is intentionally very rough and riddled with artefacts.

The sound track is the original mono, presented via a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix which redirects everything to the centre channel in Prologic mode and also a 5.1 remix that does the same thing. Why Anchor Bay persist in pointless remixes of monophonic films like this one when they neglect such basics as English subtitles is a question that has been raised many times on this site and not just by me. There are no extras, though beyond a trailer it’s hard to say what could be included. Commentaries on documentaries risk being redundant, though there of course are exceptions to that. Some further information on Nicholas Ray might have been worth having.

Lightning Over Water is only available as I write as part of the ten-film Wim Wenders Collection boxset. Lighning Over Water isn’t quite so rare – unlike some of the films in the set, it did have a UK cinema release – but will be a must-have for Wenders fans, who will no doubt be buying the box anyway.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 02:48:52

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