Land of Plenty Review
Saddened by the changes brought about by fear, paranoia, erosion of individual liberties and the headlong rush of the US administration to take the country into a dangerous and illegitimate war, Land of Plenty is Wim Wenders’ response to the post 9/11 climate in the adopted country that the German director had come to love and had chosen as a place to make his films. Through two characters, one a humanitarian peace activist, the other a paranoid former soldier, Land of Plenty examines the attitudes of the American people at a difficult time, but it also manages to find humour, compassion and identify the real values and issues that are in danger of being lost or distorted within the climate of fear. Within this balanced viewpoint however, something seems to be lacking from the director’s former approach to exploring the nature of the conflicted individual and his place in the world around him.
Lana (Michelle Williams) is a peace activist who has seen the problems terror, hatred, fear and paranoia first hand while working out on the West Bank. Coming back home to LA after a long time in search of her uncle, she finds work helping out at a mission for the homeless of the city. An idealist, she wants to change the world, or at least play a little part in alerting people to the misery, injustice and poverty in their own country, but finds that the US "War on Terror" has blinded people to the serious social problems closer to home. Her uncle, Paul Jeffries (John Diehl) also wants to make a difference, but he sees the greatest threat to the nation coming from the outside. A former Green Beret, suffering from injuries sustained during the Vietnam War and a little bit paranoid, Paul drives his small van packed with surveillance equipment around the city, keeping an eye out for any suspicious activity, particularly from the local Arab community. When he observes one of the men at the Bread of Life Mission building up stocks of a potentially dangerous chemical, Paul, despite having little in common with his niece, finds he has to pool resources with Lana and draw on their respective strengths to reveal the truth.
You can sense something of the Wim Wenders of old in his fascination for twisted, flawed characters, having undergone a fundamental breakdown that has undermined their view of the world (in this case the events of September 11th), looking to find truth and a way of living again in a world that has changed beyond recognition. Dramaturgically however it’s ...well, turgid, with none of the expressive qualities of the director’s former work. The characters speak their thoughts aloud throughout the film – relating what they think and see into a journal, vocalising their words as they type them on internet messaging services, speaking out-loud their hopes to God in prayer, even speaking to themselves or having their inner thoughts revealed in voice-over. As well as being overly expositional in a manner that you would never have seen in early Wim Wenders films, this also lacks naturalism and feels scripted and read-out. The low-budget nature of the film evidently required that it be shot quickly, but the digital photography by Franz Lustig doesn’t help matters either. It’s competent but uninspired, lacking the edge of grit and soul that the film needs. Even Wenders’ usually reliable ear for music is also lacking here. It’s not through any fault with the music itself – the songs by the Jeff Buckley sounding Thom, David Bowie and Leonard Cohen are outstanding in themselves – but they don’t gel with the film as they should.
Where Wenders is on stronger ground is in his use of locations, revisiting the downtown LA streets of Million Dollar Hotel and getting back out on the road in the latter half of the film when his characters made a journey to Trona, the Mojave Desert industrial setting of his Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet short Twelve Minutes to Trona, the vast open spaces recalling the power of the desert landscapes of Paris, Texas. In both locations Wenders successfully finds a deeper expression of what it means to be American at that point in time, as well as summarising the respective positions of each of his characters as representations of American public opinion when confronted by the post 9/11 dilemma. Lana is the Christian conscience that pushes towards humanitarian aid, while Paul’s paranoid delusions see him rooting through a desert in search of elusive weapons of mass destruction.
Seeking to reconcile such disparate views however seems rather naïve on the part of Wim Wenders, as does his attempt to rehabilitate the tarnished image of the American flag with the values that it ought to be associated with – liberty, justice and equality for all its people rather than jingoism, patriotism and war. In the end, just like that impressive American landscape that so preoccupies the director, the vastness of the subject ultimately defeats him, the complexity of the American position and its people failing to fit into the simplistic, reductionist view of it expressed in characters that are too much of an abstraction. Wim Wenders is certainly well placed to confront those issues as a European director with a strong connection to America, and there is no doubting his courage in taking a Christian, humanitarian position at a time when it was not a popular position to hold in America, but need to express those views and wrap them up neatly in a narrative form tends to take away from any impact that Land of Plenty could have achieved.
Land of Plenty is released in the UK by Axiom Films. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only.
The lighting, colouration and clarity of the transfer are fine, although the digital nature of the photography is quite evident, giving the film quite a sterile look and feel. Blacks in the dark opening half of the film consequently look rather flat, but the film, colours and tone start to breathe a little more in the open-air sequences in the Mojave Desert. Really, it’s hard to fault the transfer, since this presumably as close as possible to how the film is intended to look. In the press notes, Wenders claims that the film was shot on DV at a 25p frame rate, but the specifications on IMDb of 480/24 would seem to be more likely since the running time suggests PAL speed-up. In any case the image is stable and runs very smoothly indeed.
I’m less sure about the aspect ratio, the film being shot on DVCam at full-frame, but reportedly being shown theatrically at 2.35:1. The clips shown in the ‘Making of’ would seem to bear this out, showing that the DVD presentation has been opened out to 1.78:1 by revealing more of the bottom of the frame. An example of the difference in framing is shown below, the first shot taken from the ‘Making Of’, the second from the feature as it is presented on the DVD. I think the film undoubtedly looks much better in the scope ratio, but it is entirely possible that the director and cinematographer agreed on a different home viewing ratio.
Two audio options are provided, a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix and a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround option. I found the stereo option to be inadequate for the demands of the film, the mixing making some of the dialogue difficult to make out. The surround option is the one to go for, channelling the dialogue to the centre speaker and separating it from the sound effects and the sometimes intrusive music score. The tone is reasonably good with adequate tone, clarity and depth.
The film is in English throughout, but optional hard of hearing English subtitles are very considerately provided in a solid white font.
There is no commentary track provided, but the long Interview with Wim Wenders (29:00) is undoubtedly just as informative and better suited to the director’s delivery. Wenders talks about the film indeed being born out of anger at the stupid war in Iraq and at how the American people were deceived and had their values and liberties were taken from them. He discusses in depth how the film was quickly written and made, with filming taking only 16 days. He explains how the characters were developed and how the casting was done for the film. It’s a full and informative interview.
The Making of Land of Plenty (5:42) is little more than a standard EPK featurette featuring snippets of interviews with the director and cast, giving an overview of the film’s themes and treatment.
Nine Deleted Scenes (16:50) are included, two of them showing more of the homeless situation in downtown LA, an extended scene at the Mission, Paul doing further surveillance, Lana in a webcam conversation with Yael, a scene out at Trona, Paul confronting the owners of the LA chemical factory, and a random scene of Lana watching a garage band rehearsing. The deleted scenes are presented letterboxed at 1.78:1.
A Trailer (2:13) for the film and a Photo Gallery of twenty stills are also included.
Land of Plenty is a curious film from Wim Wenders. An attempt to explore the state of mind of the people of America at a significant point in time, post-9/11 during the "War on Terror", it strikes a strange balance between paranoid thriller, comedy and heartfelt filmmaking with a social conscience. It doesn’t manage to come up with any profound insight, but it’s entertaining and competently played with a few – but only a few – hints of the Wim Wenders of old. Dramatised awkwardly and filmed fairly plainly on handheld DV with few moments of inspiration, Land of Plenty never really comes together and certainly never achieves the impact this serious subject should. Axiom’s presentation of the film on DVD however is excellent, gathering some good extra features to go along with the high spec transfer.