Tag Archives: Wim Wenders

The Salt of the Earth


The headlines today–or any day–reinforce the tragedy of life on this planet. Hundreds Feared Dead After Boat Filled With Migrants Capsizes. Video Purports to Show ISIS Killing Ethiopian Christians. There are ample reminders of the world’s calamity, horror and heartache in our daily social media feeds.

The ubiquitous reporting of tragedy can sometimes desensitize us to it. Art, with its audacious capacity to bring meaning out of the meaningless and (sometimes) beauty out of the ugliness, can re-sensitize us. “The role of an artist is to not look away”-Akira Kurosawa one said. And though what their cameras or brushstrokes capture may not make us comfortable, the artist’s gaze is crucial for the building of humanity’s awareness and empathy.

The Salt of the Earth, a new documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado, powerfully shows this. Directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son, Juliano, the film chronicles the journeys of Salgado to capture the struggle of humans in the midst of war, disease, poverty, famine, industry, migration and more. Over his four decade career, Salgado’s images brought him much acclaim but they also brought awareness to the plights of many. His gaze definitely manifests a “not looking away” boldness but also a humane compassion. There are lessons here in how to see, and why seeing well matters.

As I finished the film I kept thinking of the Matthew 9:36 verse where it says of Jesus that, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them.” Had Jesus been given a camera in the 1st century, I imagine his portraits would look not dissimilar from Salgado’s. Salt of the Earth sees a lot of horrific things but it always sees them through a lens of compassion and, ultimately, hope.

As chroniclers of reality and human suffering, artists are often prone to falling into despair and giving up on people. Salgado certainly is tempted by this, especially after his time in Rwanda in the mid-90s, photographing unspeakable evil in the midst of the genocide. Following this, his career turned toward nature and animal photography, capturing the beauty of the earth and its Edenic majesty, apart from the hellish wars and struggles of mankind. Yet ultimately the beauty of the natural earth and that of mankind are inextricable; humans are the caretakers of the Garden, after all, the stewards of creation for good or ill.

Recognizing this, Salgado decides do his part as a human steward and preserver of God’s creation (“Salt of the Earth” is a metaphor that implies a preserving function). He re-plants a rainforest in his Brazilian hometown, a forest that had thrived in his childhood but a half century later had been decimated by famine and industry. Salt of the Earth–so much a film about decay, inertia and fallenness–ends on a beautifully hopeful note as the “garden” of Salgado’s upbringing is replenished and brought to new life. Resurrection.

Among its many merits, Salt of the Earth is a beautiful reminder that having eyes to see the evil and deprivation of our world should not lead us to apathy and despair, nor complaining and rage. Our response should rather be to recover our original Edenic calling: to bring order out of the chaos, to combat evil through love, to plant seeds of new life in every sphere, to be the salt we were created to be, agents of preservation in a world stricken by decay.

My Blueberry Nights

Wong Kar Wai makes beautiful films. If you saw In the Mood for Love, 2046, or Days of Being Wild, you know how sensuous and luxuriant the Hong Kong filmmaker’s visual style is. His penchant for slow-mo sequences with 50s American pop/soul music playing in the background creates some truly breathtaking cinema.

My Blueberry Nights—the director’s first English-language feature—is just as remarkable from an artistic point of view. However, compared to his other films, Nights never quite feels as special or real or… something. Perhaps because it’s in English and we don’t quite give actors as much grace when they perform in our native language, but I really didn’t connect with the actors that much in this film (with the exception of Chan Marshall in a brief cameo).

Norah Jones is the star (in her first screen role), and though she’s not terrible, she’s just not equipped to give the role the depth it deserves. Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn and Natalie Portman round out the cast, and each has a few good moments, but on the whole they never quite embody the sort of sensual mystery that Wong Kar Wai’s films are so apt to capture. Then again, this may also be my limited western perspective on what Wong Kar Wai is visioning through eastern eyes. And herein lies the film’s biggest strength and biggest weakness.

Wong Kar Wai’s films have always excelled at navigating the dialectical tensions—visually, tonally, thematically—between east and west. When one lives in Hong Kong (a longtime British colony), I suppose this tension is borne into you. In Nights, Wong Kar Wai aims to make a deeply American film, though it features the sort of non-linear, mystical time-warp structure that his Hong Kong films often follow. The result is a bit messy and boozy and surreal, with moments that hit and some that definitely miss.

The film encompasses a vision of America that one would expect from a non-American artist. The understanding of America here is thoroughly mediated by postcard imagery, iconography, and pop-cultural exports that have long defined this country for the rest of the world. This includes a Hopper-esque New York City (dingy cafes under the train tracks, noir-ish wet streets, flickering neon signs), an Elvis-haunted Memphis (full of stilted lovers, drunks, and barroom brawls), and a desolate Nevada desert (full of casinos and highways made for muscle car convertibles). The imagery of Americana is also heavily defined by food—blueberry pie ala mode, steak and potatoes, cheeseburgers and fries, etc., which is interesting at a time when films (Ratatouille, Waitress, Bella), seem to be exploring the cinematic joys of food like never before.

Of course, the vision of America Nights envisages is also defined through the story. It’s a story in which each character is ending some relationship but then starting a new one—forgetting the past and taking a new path, as it were. It’s about movement and possibility and second chances, fully in keeping with the popular literary mythos of “open road America.” Indeed, the film toys with “road-movie” as its genre (Norah Jones’ character begins in NY and gradually makes her way out to Nevada by the end of the film), and the final scene brings it all back to the beginning—providing a semblance of T.S. Eliot (“to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”) to chew on, along with a big juicy slice of blueberry pie.

In the end, Nights is an imperfect though respectably ambitious ode to America from an outsider voice. I enjoyed the film in the way that I enjoyed German director Wim Wenders’ last film, Don’t Come Knocking, which was also a road movie that heavily invoked pop mythologies of Americana. It’s nostalgic more than prescient, lyrical more than challenging. Good bits of cinema… just not great.