To trip the urban fantastic

Roma and Tokyo-ga

I’m a military brat. Growing up, I lived in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest and Europe, and the constant discontinuity made me swear I’d find a place and stay there forever once I turned 18. It was not to be. Perhaps so often coming to grips with a new set of faces, streets, landmarks — a new composite of the fuzzy picture each person has of home — made it constitutionally impossible for me to stay put. Since I reached the age of majority, I’ve lived in San Diego, Ohio, Austin, the Twin Cities, Fort Lauderdale, New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. I’m 33.

I don’t settle down with cities. I get to know them in heart-hammering rushes of exploration and infatuation. I can say that there’s nothing more beautiful than the clear-eye blue sky over the Mississippi and the pristine waterfront buildings of downtown St. Paul. I’ll say the same thing with equal fervor about walking past the lions guarding the New York Public Library, on to the sunset noir facade and towncar grandeur of Grand Central Station. You can’t paint a picture of a city with a travel guide or an earnest documentary. You need to sing it with an aching and joyful heart, dance it to the wildest beat, draw it with your truest attention to grace and proportion. You need to bring it to art.

Two films stand out not for how cities are depicted as backdrops for telling stories, but how in each the city itself lumbers its massive foundations to center stage in its own dramatized life. In Federico Fellini’s Roma, the director’s home is treated to a genre beyond memoir or documentary, featuring no candid footage at all as actors play the roles of documentarians and their subjects. Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-ga morphs a cinematic essay overtly about the process of trying to make one kind of film and getting sidetracked, into a reflection on a city insinuating itself into a director’s frame of attention.


Going from writing fiction and the occasional pop culture review to discussing Fellini’s Roma is the experiential equivalent of going straight to compounding antibiotics after giving my daughter tiny plastic cups of Children’s Motrin. Roma is an impassioned aria to the spectacle, historical density, egotism, luridness, vulnerability, charisma, and the limitless propagation of Fellini’s Rome. I won’t even go near what are for me the biggest moments; the ecclesiastical fashion show and the conclusion of the film, one of the most traumatizing and awesome finishes I’ve ever seen. It would take volumes to do it justice, or nothing at all.

Precisely structured and timed, even and especially during the “film of the film” meta-cinematic scenes, the portrait of the city moves with a taut dramatic tension. The first part, tracking the varying views of Rome from Fellini’s rural childhood to his first day in the city, tells as much about the concomitant personalities of the city as how one young boy was conditioned to adore it. The second part shifts dramatically in style and tone. The action becomes the filming of the film, and the fictional crew approaches the city with the camera sheeted against the rain and craning awkwardly through traffic. Fellini segues back and forth between the two plots with voiceover narration at first, dropping it as the action progresses and the viewer becomes fluent in its structure.

As the filmed documentary crew gathers eager and opinionated interviews from Romans about the city, a group of hippies engages the director in an argument about their concerns with getting yet another caricature of “colorful” Rome. It’s a mid-distance shot, Fellini is almost pocketed in the corner, and his is the least secure of all the voices: “I just think you have to be true to your own nature.” Cut to a stage show, and the voiceover, serene and back in control: “Barafonda Theatre at the start of the war, that’s what I’d like to see.”

It’s his film, after all. His Rome. There is no pretense of objectivity, no attempt to catalog, itemize, quantify. The artifice is unfettered by any sense of aesthetic propriety or journalistic credibility, and the penultimate scene of the film underlines how clearly he understood his own unorthodoxy. Anna Magnani, actor and icon, is allegedly caught for an impromptu interview as she returns to her home at night. Magnani’s screen death in Rome, Open City is arguably the most identifiable cinematic moment of the Neorealist movement. Fellini began his career in Italian cinema working with the neorealists, and it is against that context he developed as a decidedly non-realist auteur. In Roma, Magnani refuses an interview, explaining, “Federico, I don’t trust you.” It is a silky and slightly sullen pronouncement, the embodied legacies of Rossellini and de Sica chastising the maverick for his turn from authenticity.

But is the Rome of Fellini a false Rome because of its artifice? It’s an architecturally glorious Rome, and at the opposite end of the urban spectrum from Wenders’ Tokyo, a chatty and inclusive Rome. In the tale of the boy raised to have a complicated and intensely personal relationship with the city, its cacaphony and moral uneasiness make narrative sense. In Samuel Coleridge’s formulation it is in this suspension of disbelief that we find the sublime, and how in Roma, Fellini exceeded the accurate with the authentic.


Where Fellini speaks to the audience with dense intimation and allusion, Wenders’ intentions with Tokyo-ga are worn quite plainly, so to speak, on his sleeve. It’s an incredibly verbal film, with Wenders’ accented English narrating both the images as sewn together and reflecting on his emotional experience with them. He declares early on that his entire relationship with the city is mediated, that he has no direct memories of Tokyo during the making of the film and relies on the photographic record as evidence of his experience there.

Roma is the love song of a citizen: Tokyo-ga is the quizzical stare of an outsider. Wenders feels not just that he is personally excluded from civic life but that the coordinated impulse of the city is to segregate, isolate, mechanize. The most telling line of narration is “I could not help but be impressed by Tokyo,” as if admiration in this case were a subversive response. This tension, possibly troublesome and racist from the perspective of Japanese natives and international admirers of the city, is what makes the film such a beautiful mess.

Wenders fails to follow through in the story of the boy conditioned to love a city. He sets out to find the Tokyo of Yasujiro Ozu, declaring that not only were Ozu’s films some of the most important in cinematic history, they were the most important moments of the 20th century. For Wenders, they were sacred, and he set out to find Tokyo as Ozu portrayed it. He insists it’s not a pilgrimage, though it is with a tone of great disappointment throughout the film that he notes the discord between his and Ozu’s Tokyo.

Time and again Wenders returns to the isolating effects of technology, from the rudimentary and mechanical solitaire of the Pachinko parlors to the channel-skipping television in his taxi cab. Often the citizenry is filmed as a mass, ascending and descending on escalators, lining up to take swings on a high-rise golf range, parroting American sock-hop culture with a assiduousness that seems wooden and decidedly less reckless than the rock’n’roll original. But it’s unclear whether the scenes of humans acting as individuals are intended to be uncharacteristic outliers, or exceptions giving lie to the rule. A child refuses to walk in a train station, creating a pocket of space requiring wide berth from the fast-moving crowd. An elderly woman in the park beams placidly at the camera.

The composition of the images is breathtaking, almost too precious, too concerned with the Aristotelian elements. But any weakness in substance is offset by the strident and emphatic score, further layered with Wenders’ almost ceaseless philosophizing. Here is he is in his hotel room watching the end of a John Wayne movie on TV:

When John Wayne left it wasn’t the stars and stripes that appeared, but rather the red ball of the Japanese flag. And while I was falling asleep I had the craziest thought: where I am now is the center of the world. Every shitty television set no matter where is the center of the world. The center has become a ludicrous idea and the world as well; an image of the world a ludicrous idea, on all the TV sets there are on the globe. And here I am in the country that builds them all for the whole world, so that the whole world can watch the American images.

Try shaking yourself loose from that one fast. Or breaking free from the prolonged image of the woman sitting on the train watching the train running on parallel tracks, her image reflected in the near window, the shot then switched to an outside perspective of the train pulling away, then cutting right to an interview with one of Ozu’s principal actors.

If anything, the portions of the film successfully devoted to Ozu’s work are hiccups in Tokyo-ga’s mesmerizing flow and noncompliant plot. Two lengthy interviews — one with the actor and one with Ozu’s cameraman — stretch on with what seems scant and inadequate editing. As the images of the city as experienced overtake the city as Wenders wanted to experience it, the issue of intent becomes less a problem than a by-product of Wenders’ relationship with a real city, featuring real people, real rhythms, and real industry. In the narration, he mourns not being allowed to film workers at the artificial food factory eating lunch amidst their identical creations. Wenders wants neither the authentic nor the accurate, idealizing and therefore creating a beautiful fake.

A preoccupation shared by Fellini in Roma and Wenders in Tokyo-ga is with the camera as an intervening point of view. In Roma, the camera moves about as both the third person omniscient and second person familiar, the inclusion of both perspectives emphasizing its role. Not only does Wenders hold forth about only experiencing Tokyo with a camera, several images of other photographers are taken from behind, and the screen as regurgitation of the eye of the camera appears ubiquitously. In language, Wenders takes the matter of interpretation one step farther — everything is verbalized except when he interviews Werner Herzog in untranslated German.

In a fictional narrative, the director stands quite clearly outside the story. Until the recent rise of solution journalism, documentarians generally strove for a transparency in content, allegedly more true to the spirit of discovery than explication. The Rome of Fellini and the Tokyo of Wenders interpose the directors in a hazy and artistically lush middle ground, and it is with that synthetic way of seeing that a crowd can be a comma, an alley a question, and a subway ride the beginning of a whole new paragraph.

It’s not, after all, the way the shadows fall on a certain building that make a city the subject of great passion. It’s something lyrical and silent, abstract and tangible, practical and impossible. It’s art.