04 October 2009

Down and out in America

land_of_plenty In German director Wim WendersLand of Plenty (2004), a film written and shot in a matter of three months, depictions of society’s hard luck cases mingle with an analysis of post 9/11 paranoia in a nation gripped by fear.  But ultimately the film is a slighter work than the considerable reputation of its director would normally suggest. 

Paul (John Diehl), a Vietnam vet gripped with the possibilities of further terrorist attacks on the US, has set up his battered old van as a mobile surveillance centre, and trawls the streets of Los Angeles looking for the next atrocity.  Paul hasn’t seen Lana (Michelle Williams), his niece, since she was a baby, but now she flies back to LA after a lifetime spent with her missionary parents in Africa and working on the West Bank.  She returns to find her uncle and pass on an important message from her mother, and finds refuge with a friend who runs a downtown mission shelter where LA’s homeless find food and shelter.  Paul is initially reluctant to meet Lana, seeing it as an unwelcome distraction from his important anti-terrorist mission, but when they both witness a shocking drive-by murder of Hassan, one of the shelter’s homeless people, they are driven together: Paul because he suspects Hassan was involved with a terrorist plot, and Lana because she had spoken to Hassan before he was murdered and wants to find his relatives out of compassion.

It is these two intertwined themes that drive the film.  Paul’s hyper-tense security paranoia in which boxes of chemicals are invariably destined for terrorist bomb-making plots, leads him to suspect the turban-wearing foreigner Hassan of a criminal conspiracy.  Lana’s diametrically opposed socially-conscious worldview, leads her to empathise with the murdered Hassan and see the human story behind the stereotypes.  Together, Paul and Lana journey to return Hassan’s body to his brother in a desolate provincial town; Lana as an act of human charity, and Paul because he’s certain there’s a dark plot at the heart of it all.

These are solid ideas on which to base a film, and Land of Plenty manages to portray the homelessness situation in downtown Los Angeles with commendable accuracy.  The New York Times’ A.O. Scott argued that the film ‘is like a clumsy, well-meaning intervention in a family quarrel. Mr. Wenders may not have the power to heal the rifts his movie acknowledges - and his account of them may not always be persuasive - but there is nonetheless something touching about his heartfelt concern’.

But ultimately the speed with with the film was created detracted from its ability to handle the complex issue of Paul’s post-9/11 paranoia.  The script feels underworked and doesn’t offer the viewers any particularly profound insights into the characters’ individual philosophies.  It’s as if the writers (Wenders and colleague Michael Meredith) knew where they wanted the story to go and filled in the gaps around that objective, but lacked the time to fine-tune the script into something more significant. The man who created the hugely influential Paris, Texas and the beautiful Wings of Desire could have achieved better results with more time. As it stands there’s nothing memorable about the dialogue, which from a director of Wenders’ calibre is unusual.  There are also several small but noticeable plot holes. 

Diehl and Williams do their best with the material, and their performances are commendable considering the relatively sparse resources they have to draw on.  Land of Plenty was made for under a million dollars, shot in 16 days, and the whole film was written and produced in about three months. 

Perhaps the circumstances in which the film was made dictated the approach Wenders took.  Fitting the project into a few spare months meant that quick-fire methods had to be adopted.  In keeping with the social justice themes being portrayed in the homeless shelter scenes, Wenders also approached his cast and crew remuneration in an egalitarian manner.  According to IMDB, cast and crew were all paid the same US$100 daily rate, including the lead actors.

Land of Plenty wears its European sensibilities on its sleeve.  Making a film about anti-terrorist paranoia in America in 2004, when the invasion and occupation of Iraq was still in its early stages, would have been controversial if any American backing had been required.  Its critique of the American psyche may be somewhat scattershot, but given the climate of the time, it was a brave move – particularly from its American lead actors.   

The talented Michelle Williams has shown her commitment to such small projects in her career, recently having appeared in the excellent Wendy and Lucy (2008), one of the films I particularly admired at the recent New Zealand Film Festival.  A sensitive performance from Williams in that film depicted the travails of poverty in recession-hit America.  The quality of Wendy and Lucy shows that independent films with strong messages of social justice can be made on small budgets.  Perhaps Land of Plenty could have benefitted from another month or two of production time to produce a work of more lasting authority, rather than a project with considerable promise that was only partially fulfilled.   

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