Until the End of the World

Source: Until the End of the World, directed by Wim Wenders

I remember going to see this movie back when it came out in 1991, when it played briefly at Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline, just a short-ish trip on the T from Charlesgate dorm near Kenmore Square. I remember it being a long-ish movie — the US version was apparently two and a half hours — but for some reason I also seem to remember somehow seeing the European cut, which is closer to three hours. It’s visually gorgeous, filmed in eleven different countries.

The director’s cut, however, is closer to five hours, and I sat through it all this past weekend during our flight back from New England. And I enjoyed every single minute.

It’s one of my all-time favorite movies, but I can totally understand why others might question my sanity, as it’s not a movie for everyone’s tastes. From the beginning it has a slow and deliberate pace — not a glacial one, which quite a few European art films tend to suffer from, but a novel one. I say ‘novel’ because that’s what it feels like: reading a novel, playing it out on the screen. It takes place in the final days of 1999 when a nuclear-powered satellite is spinning out of control and threatening to crash somewhere on the planet’s surface. But the story is not about the satellite; that’s just the framework of the more personal stories that unfold. There’s Clare, a young and emotionally lost French woman trying to find meaning and stability in her own life; there’s Sam, an American on the run from the government after stealing top secret hardware; there’s Eugene, Clare’s ex and a writer who still loves her; there’s Henry, Sam’s scientist father who focuses more on his projects than his son. And there are even more secondary and tertiary characters who also have their own storylines. It’s about dreams, love, loss, and hope.

It’s kind of hard to explain everything that goes on with this story, though not because it’s confusing or convoluted; it’s more that what we think is the story is only the surface of a much deeper and more important one that involves every single person on the screen. It goes in quite a few unexpected directions but does so deliberately and always for a reason.

I was first drawn to the movie due to its fantastic soundtrack featuring numerous well-known bands of the early 90s performing songs that, on the request of director Wim Wenders, were to evoke what each band would sound like at the other end of the decade. It features songs by Depeche Mode, U2, Can, Lou Reed, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, REM, Elvis Costello, and more. The soundtrack alone is worth picking up, even if you’re not interested in the film!

I mention the movie here on my writing blog, not just because I’d sat through the marathon five-hour director’s cut (which, to Wenders’ credit, manages not to drag at all), but because one of the reasons it’s my favorite movies is because it was an extremely important influence on my writing. From this movie I learned pacing; I learned that not every story needs to be going at a tangible constant speed, nor does it even have to hit high and low points at specific times within the story. This is a slow-burner that starts off calm and introduces new plot points at a leisurely pace, until we get to a point where we suddenly realize we’ve been going at a pretty damn good clip for the last hour or so. It’s a perfect example of how pacing can help tell the story by way of playing with our emotions and expectations.

Until the End of the World has just been released as a remastered Criterion dvd, and I highly suggest watching it if you have a full weekend afternoon.

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