Land of Plenty – Wim Wenders as a friend of America (film review)

It probably wasn’t the best place to begin my march through Wim Wender’s, but DVD rental doesn’t always let me choose the films – sometimes they choose me. Land of Plenty carries many of the trade mark Wender’s moments, particularly his ability to make everyday landscapes seems so beautiful. But this was an odd film for me – a little too preachy and as though something important had been left out.

It’s also a little too cool. There’s something very “indie” about this film, made in 2005.  Neither character represents the beginning of the burst of indie the world was about to experience  and yet they are dressed up in it from Lana (Michelle Williams) grooving out to her tunes on the rooftops looking over the LA skyline, to the hint of cool that pervades a homeless shelter; the film looks a little like Wender’s had ‘cult’ at the top of his mind while he was making it rather than anything else. The soundtrack is a large part of this problem.  For me it didn’t really fit.  That could be the age of the music  – like maybe it looks a little dates – but then Leonard Cohen is in there and there isn’t much that can transcend time like him.

Something that does work well, is the acting and the characterisation. John Diehl plays Paul, uncle to Lana, who suffers from the after effects of Agent Pink attacks in Vietnam, and who brilliantly blends the paranoia of Vietnam into the deep fears post 9/11.  In fact I’d never seen this as clearly before. Wender’s makes no break of time between the events in the life of Paul:  He came home from the war a little damaged and filled with a vehemence to defend his country that goes well beyond the subconscious desire to defend oneself against the horror of ones crimes. His love for his country is absolute – his life’s mission. He never left the war (how could he?) and the 9/11 attacks were in many way’s something he was expecting. When L.A. is pronounced a soft target he is horrified, believing that Americans should have abandoned all their sleepy apathy he saw in them prior to 9/11. This summation of the psyche of Americans is well observed and brings a new slant on the fascination the rest of the world has with these folk as a culture. John Diel makes this rather repulsive character someone we can understand and feel compassion for – something else I had yet to experience.

Lana may be a little too cool to be a missionary’s daughter (trust me- those people AINT cool) but her angelic sweetness is completely believable and endearing. Michelle Williams does a great job with a very difficult character. The way she translates depth of thought into disarming action that is a pure delivery in the moment is clever and lets us see past the “goodness” that is really an attempt to curry favour with god. Given the problems and the blame tossing in the after effects of Katrina, Lana’s observations about the abandoned poor in the United States are apt and current.

Lana is our “world view” against Pauls “American view” of the actions of America and its government and the way each differs from the other. I think this is a brave concept in a film and one I would have like to have seen explored with more power. The film was made in 16 days and almost slapped together between The Soul of a Man and Don’t Come Knocking which is a shame. I mean lets face it, if any director in the world has the power to give the Americans a little information about the dangers of extreme nationalism through a film, it is a German one.

I was in New York City a couple of days after the attacks of 9/11, and I saw the houses everywhere – including all over Brooklyn where I was staying – draped in American flags. I was walking the streets after dark with a German woman, and she said to me “Lets get out of here. All this nationalism scares me.” That was the first time I realised a German saw these sorts of things differently from any other national on earth. A little more of that in Land of Plenty would have been most welcome.