Anchor Bay // 1989 // 81 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // August 11th, 2003
A meditation on the commonalities between filmmaking and fashion design
What is fashion? World-renowned Japanese designer Yohiji Yamamoto sees it as something that allows the individual to express himself or herself and be comfortable in one's own body. But isn't that a contradiction? Doesn't fashion exist only in a mass context? If something is fashionable doesn't that require mass adoption, and isn't it inherently antithetical to individuality? These are some of the questions that German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, The American Friend) tries to answer in this intimate examination of Yamamoto's creations and insights.
Wenders followed Yamamoto through his preparations for a Paris show and the opening of a new store in Tokyo. The character of these two cities is reflected throughout the film, as Wenders mixes images from each location in an attempt to give a complete picture of Yamamoto. Acting for the most part as a one-man film crew, Wenders shot on a variety of media, including Hi-8 video and an old wind-up 35mm camera that could only run for 30 seconds at a time and could only hold one minute of film. With these simple, almost primitive filmmaking tools he captures a portrait of Yohiji Yamamoto as a human being, rather than just a creator of clothing.
The strength of Notebook on Cities and Clothes is Wenders's philosophical bent and his eye for the nature of his own art form as well as Yamamoto's. It's a good thing, too, because without his comments and observations, Yamamoto's scenes would be even more soporific than they already are. Make no mistake, Yamamoto is a brilliant man and a deep thinker, but his musings on camera are rambling and mostly unengaging.
Wenders departed from any sort of conventional filmmaking style, with mixed results. The result is at times disorienting -- a bit of Yamamoto and his assistants working in Tokyo, maybe a bit of them in Paris, with superimposed footage from a different location superimposed over part of the image. There are seemingly endless shots of driving through the streets of Tokyo while a video monitor on the dashboard shows footage of Paris, and similar footage of Paris where the monitor shows the streets of Tokyo. Wenders uses video footage in a lot of interesting ways, often filming playback seen on an LCD screen or even through the tiny viewfinder of his video camera. There are a lot of neat tricks and clever editing, but these serve to hinder the film, rather than furthering its purposes. These devices increase the distance between Yamamoto and the audience, making him more inaccessible than if Wenders had just shot two hours of standard, unexciting talking head style interview.
The choices in filming lead to some pretty unappetizing results in terms of picture quality. The segments shot on video are soft and grainy as a bowl of oatmeal; remember, this is not digital video footage, as it was shot in 1988. Even the 35mm shots are a bit fuzzy at times. Worse yet are the scenes that Wenders transferred from video to film by simply filming a playback monitor. Large blue distortions dominate these scenes, and all manner of halos and motion trails fill the image. There aren't any problems that look like DVD transfer issues; on the contrary, it seems that this film looks exactly as it must have on its initial release. In this case, that's not necessarily a good thing.
The main audio flavor is a Dolby 5.1 track. It does a good job of bringing the bizarre, sometimes haunting, sometimes hypnotic score through all the speakers. Spoken dialogue echoes a lot, but given Wenders's other stylistic choices and the nature of the source material, this may very well be intentional.
Anchor Bay generally doesn't skimp on special features, and this disc is no exception. The problem is that the features aren't even as interesting as the film, and that's saying something. There are 14 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes, with optional commentary by Wenders. To a viewer who is not enthralled by the film, these will be just more of the same. There is a seven-minute featurette entitled "Twelve Years Later." This focuses on Yamamoto's Spring 2000 show at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Mostly it is just an excuse for Yamamoto and Wenders to reaffirm their mutual respect and get together to shoot some pool. Probably the best insights come from the feature-length commentary by Wenders. This is probably more interesting than the film itself, as Wenders talks about what he wanted to accomplish with the film and the techniques he used in the process. Wenders is quite philosophical, and his thoughts, whether just about filmmaking or about filmmaking as it relates to fashion, would have been more interesting than his finished movie.
Rounding out the extra content is a lengthy text bio of Wenders.
Yes, I know, condemning a film because it's boring is probably the weakest, most irrelevant judgment a critic can render. I'm sure there are people out there that find Notebook on Cities and Clothes to be a beautiful and fascinating film. I found the idea intriguing, but in the end it might have worked better as a book than a movie.
Guilty! Making a film about the philosophy of film and fashion is an interesting and worthwhile project, but it is perhaps better in theory than in execution. Anchor Bay is acquitted for creating a solid DVD package rather than just writing this film off the way many studios might.
We stand adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2003 Erick Harper; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary with Director Wim Wenders
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by Wenders
* "Twelve Years Later" Featurette
* Wim Wenders Biography