Anchor Bay // 1980 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // February 25th, 2003
Lightning Over Water is one of three titles that comprise the first wave of The Wim Wenders Collection from Anchor Bay. Featuring a good transfer and a surprising 5.1 audio track, the disc also satisfies with an informative commentary track and additional footage of its main subject.
Born on August 7, 1911, Nicholas Ray was the director of Rebel Without A Cause, Johnny Guitar, and King of Kings. A bit of a maverick, Ray made films like few others in his day. Following years of hard living, the director found himself exiled from Hollywood and bounced his way around Europe, and eventually settled once more in New York City. Ray died of lung cancer on June 16, 1979; Lightning Over Water was his final work.
Getting a film project up and running in Hollywood can be an odd thing. Only on the left coast could a filmmaker make one movie while working on another project. During a long preproduction for the film Hammett, director Wim Wenders found himself with quite a bit of free time. Having befriended Nicholas Ray a few years earlier on the set of The American Friend, the two directors had discussed working on a project together. Time had moved forward and Ray had become gravely ill, so if a movie was going to get done, then the window in Wender's schedule provided the only opening both men would have; for time was the one thing neither had much of.
More a labor of love than traditional film, Lightning Over Water exists as a testament to a man whose greatest desire was to leave this world with his self esteem intact, while also functioning as a way for another man to say goodbye to a friend. Lightning Over Water defies genres and conventional expectations; part fiction and part documentary, it utilizes its entire crew as its cast. Less experimental film and more controlled chaos, Lightning Over Water is shot on two different mediums. Most of the movie is on film, which gives the characters and situations a natural warmth, which is in stark contrast to the rest of the movie shot on videotape. The garish and stark realism of the video brings the true degree of Ray's illness into painful focus. This switching back and forth gives Lightning Over Water an almost surreal quality and blur the lines of fantasy and reality.
Sitting down to watch Lightning Over Water, it is quickly apparent that it's a film unlike any other. First off, the entire structure of the movie is kind of a non-structure. The film has no beginning, and while its ending is obvious, there is no true feeling of resolution. The movie exists almost as a challenge, asking a lot of its audience and offering little traditional cinematic payoff. Yet, its depth of purpose is clearly on display. Pain and anger runs through it, but also warmth and humor.
It is pretty clear that when Ray and Wenders began the project, there was a rough framework in place, yet as Ray's condition rapidly deteriorated, the movie grew in different directions and became even more free-form in nature. The story of Lightning Over Water takes place in everyday life in various locales such as Ray's Soho loft, Vassar College, a theater, Ray's hospital room, and the boat that would eventually carry his ashes to sea. Yet, within these real world settings there is an almost mystical artifice that helps illuminate and underscore the stark realism of the situations. Then when the movie switches to its few purely artificial settings, there is another strange kind of reality at play. The film is an unlikely combination of elements and events weaving in, out, and around themselves. What on the surface would seem to be disjointed and confusing melds together into a whole that makes perfect sense. The film manages to be painful and joyous almost at the same time. Its tone is difficult and maddening, but in the barrage of images and emotions quiet truth shines through. With Lightning Over Water, it's as if Wenders and Ray were creating some mad new form of cinematic shorthand, with the result being both emotional and intellectual admiration.
For a director such as Ray who always pushed the limits of the form, this movie shows that, even when faced with his own death, he never lost his talent or his edge. I suppose it's not out of bounds to view the movie as a journey that is both unclear and unknown. Knowing where we are going is not the same thing as getting there, and the paths we often take are full of surprises and detours. Lightning Over Water is Nicholas Ray's journey to the other side, but also a quest for a man to reclaim his name and his reputation. There is an incredibly fitting scene toward of the end of the film that recalls King Lear. Here is Nicholas Ray, a man, who for a brief period was king of his world, and like Shakespeare's fallen monarch, he managed to push almost everything and everyone away. Spending his final years a man in exile, Ray lived a life where drugs and alcohol caused his fall from grace. It was only through the challenge of accepting his own death that he was able to reclaim his dignity and his self-respect. His journey, and the trip made by Wenders and Co., serves as a stark reminder to us all that life is precious and all too fleeting, that at the end of the road we are defined by how well we lived and how well we loved.
Obviously, Lightning Over Water caused me a great many emotions, but how, you may ask, is the disc? All things being equal, pretty good.
Lightning Over Water is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.77:1 with anamorphic enhancement. For a film of its age and budget, things don't look too bad. There is some minor wear and tear present, but overall detail is strong, colors appear natural, and edge enhancement is at a minimum. It's also worth bringing up again that parts of the film were shot with VHS circa 1979. The video portions look as grainy as one would expect, but as noted earlier, these vide taped sections bring into sharp focus just how ill Nicholas Ray was. Is this reference material? No, but in its flaws lie a great deal of its beauty, which I suppose speaks further to Nick Ray's life.
Two audio options are given -- 5.1 and 2.0 surround. Truth be told, it doesn't matter which one you choose, although the 5.1 is the default. If there was any problem with either mix, it was that dialogue was sometimes washed out or too low to be easily heard. Again, we are dealing with source material problems, but it would have been nice if Anchor Bay had included subtitles or close captioning to help out in the rough spots. Those issues aside, sound is generally warm sounding and except for those few areas, easily heard. There is little in the way of bass or directional panning, and it makes me wonder why they wasted the disc space with the 5.1 option.
Besides being home to countless oddball movies and cult classics, Anchor Bay is turning into one of the most reliable homes for the foreign cinema. Based on the strength of its various releases with the Paul Verhoeven and Werner Herzog Collections, I was expecting good things with its newest line, The Wim Wenders Collection. One release in and I'm not disappointed. Extras include a scene-specific commentary by Wenders and a 38 minute lecture by Nicholas Ray entitled "Nicholas Ray: Especially for Pierre." The Pierre is producer Pierre Cottrell, the man who first brought Nicholas Ray and Wim Wenders together for the The American Friend. Bear in mind that the lecture is all videotape, again circa 1979, and the quality is even weaker than the segments that appear in the film. Still, it is a rare chance to listen to one of Hollywood's best directors tell stories and convey thoughts.
The jury is still out on Wenders as a commentary speaker simply because this must be an incredibly difficult film to speak of. To return to something over 20 years later and watch the film you made of your friend dying...I can't imagine getting 10 words out. Still, in spite of all that, or simply because of it, Wenders provides a great deal of information. The background and the work that went into the movie is laid open, and I think a lot of it is fascinating stuff. I'm curious to approach a more traditional film by the director and see if his commentaries flow a little easier.
I suppose it's possible to look over everything I've written previous to this and come to the conclusion that Lightning Over Water is a pretentious, if well meaning mess. Looking at my raw notes for the movie, I might agree with that assessment. Yet, there is something powerful at work here. It's a power that transcends the absence of structure; there is a truth that rings clearly through the din. I find it difficult to imagine someone who approaches this with an open mind and an open heart not being affected or moved by it in some way.
Some movies you watch, content to enjoy their superficial pleasures. Other movies you invest yourself in and allow the experience to wash over you. Lightning Over Water fits in the latter category. It is because of the film's odd and somewhat off putting method of storytelling that I'm giving it a guarded recommendation. I can't say that I enjoyed the film, but it is something that enriched and engaged me on a deeper level than I'm used to. I suppose that is how some people might define art. Still, the film is clearly not for everyone, and that should be something everyone bears in mind. I do think it's an important testament and the most human of films that I've seen in quite some time.
Anchor Bay maintains its usual high standards with this release and I welcome future installments in its Wim Wenders Collection.
Lightning Over Water gives weight to the saying that how we deal with death is equally important as how we deal with life. It's an important lesson and one we all need to be aware of. The film and its presentation by Anchor Bay are acquitted of all charges. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary with Director Wim Wenders
* Nicholas Ray: Especially for Pierre -- a 38 Minute Lecture by Nicholas Ray
* Talent Bios