This week will be at departure from my usual 1000 words series. I usually write about one specific photograph. Instead, this entry will be my reflections on the Wim Wenders film, Palermo Shooting. The film was released in 2008 (apparently garnering a chorus of “boos” when premiered at Cannes) but I only saw it for the first time this week, thanks to my new subscription to Filmstruck. I won’t go into the deep cinema geekdom that pushed my decision to join Filmstruck except to say that having so many great movies at my disposal is an embarrassment of riches.
The story of Palermo Shooting revolves around the main subject named Finn. The character seems based on German photographer Andreas Gursky, as has been noted in several reviews that I read. Fill is played by Die Toten Hosen lead singer, Campino. Finn is a highly successful photographer who is creatively torn between the moneymaking pursuit of fashion photography and the less lucrative but more fulfilling artistic photography route. He is seemingly lost in the void between the two. A near death experience on a highway in Germany causes Finn to reassess his career and in a larger sense, his entire existence. He ends up in this Sicilian capital of Palermo, where his reality and dreams blur, not only before his eyes but before the eyes of the film’s viewer as well.
The reason why I am exploring this film is that photography is an integral part of the storyline. Wenders has always imbued a photographic sensibility into his highly cinematic motion pictures. As evidenced by the current exhibition of his Polaroid photographs now on view in London, one can see that the director’s deep love and devotion to the medium of still photography is obvious. The fact that Palermo Shooting focuses on a main character who is a photographer is more noteworthy when we take deeper into the real subject of the film, which is the confrontation of death
Susan Sontag in her book “On Photography” speaks eloquently of the medium’s connection with death.
"Photographs instigate, confirm, seal legends. Seen through photographs, people become icons of themselves. Photography converts the world itself into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for esthetic appreciation.”
“Photography also converts the whole world into a cemetery. Photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also — wittingly or unwittingly — the recording-angels of death. The photograph-as-photograph shows death. More than that, it shows the sex-appeal of death…All photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
Noted philosopher Roland Barthes also explored this topic in depth in his book “Camera Lucida.”
“All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know they are agents of Death. This is the way in which our time assumes Death… For Death must be somewhere in society; if it is no longer (or less intently) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print.”
In Palermo shooting, Wenders also addresses this issue. In a particularly powerful moment the character representing Death, played wonderfully by Dennis Hopper, meditates on the intrinsic qualities of death in photography in the following statement.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against photography. I’m actually very fond of that invention. It shows the efforts of my labor better than anything else. “Death at Work.” That’s what most still photographs should be called. I really like the idea of the negative, the reverse side of life. The reverse side of light.”
This moment in the film struck a nerve deep inside of me personally. I have often considered that a photograph is in some way a “memento mori.” Even a simple snapshot, whether viewed in a photo album, as in day’s past, or more likely in today’s world, on a Facebook page, contains elements of sadness, and loss. A photo of smiling family, seen enjoying a candid moment, takes on a darker subtext when considered that this will be evidence of a life that no longer exists once those in the photo have passed away.
In Palermo Shooting, Wenders is overt in this exploration of photography’s intrinsic deference to death. A quick search of movie reviews will yield much evidence of what is almost unanimously considered the directors ham-fisted, obvious, unsuccessful story of a man’s confrontation with his own impending death. However, perhaps it is because of the Sicilian blood that still flows through my veins (thanks to my ancestors) that I felt an affinity with this film.
Some of the most dramatic scenes in the film were the haunting dream sequences. This includes several scenes that were shot in the macabre catacombs underground Palermo. Wenders obviously was using the location of the Sicilian capital as ground aero for the realm of the dead. Some might argue that that title more rightly should go to the city of Naples. But for me these are minor issues.
Another aspect of the film that appeal to me directly, and most likely to you, as a photography enthusiast, is the obvious camera porn on display. The main subject, Finn, is seen throughout the film shooting with a beautiful Japanese medium format camera, the Plaubel Makina 67. There are also several scenes where he is shooting with a 360° panoramic camera, including a pivotal moment in the film where it almost leads to his demise. And perhaps the most touching moment of the film is when Finn crosses paths with noted Palermo photographer Letizia Battaglia. She is seen shooting a Leica and has a heartfelt exchange about the subjects of photography and death with our hero.
Ultimately, Palermo Shooting is far from Wim Wenders’ best work. His pinnacle remains “Wings of Desire,” though one could make a strong argument for “Paris, Texas.” However, if you have the desire to watch one man’s journey towards the acceptance of his own demise, shown through the viewfinder of photographic expression, devoting two hours of your time to this movie is well worth the investment.