New York

“Asphalt Night”

The notion of independently produced American films remains just that, a notion. With few exceptions there is no financial support for cinema produced outside the Hollywood construct. And when independent films finally do get made (through the existing and limited grant system) they remain unseen in many cases, thanks to the lack of any distributive network besides those that service conventional commercial product. In Germany, however, film funding is somewhat more generous, encouraging a kind of quirky gathering of independent productions. Supported by ZDF (Second German Television Network), ARD (First German Television, a consortium of regional television networks), and private production setups, these films comprise over a decade’s worth of so-called New German Cinema and represent what might be labeled “progressive” film activity. Unfortunately, in some cases the “progress” involved is merely the transformation of sweet and trendy film ideas into actual product. Nevertheless, this availability of funds is far removed from the meandering phantasms of American independent filmmakers, their brains chock full of baroque fabulations of big deals in L.A. and lately, because of the futility of dealing with the mostly brain-dead American film industry, of big deals in Berlin.

And as the Americans look for movie money in Germany, so the flirtation with the American “scene” has been a constant in recent German film: from the rangey use of street slang to the incessant play of stateside rock ’n’ roll. Like a pack of Lucky Strikes in wartime Europe, these “commodities” have become the vectors of a suspiciously irresistible fixation.

The latest entry in the “I love America and rock ’n’ roll” sweepstakes is Asphalt Night, which was written, directed, and edited by Peter Fratszcher, and produced in collaboration with ZDF. The recognition and mimicry of cultural “otherness” that saturates this film connects it to the work of Wim Wenders (in those of his projects that do not involve Peter Handke), in that one seems to be waiting for Rudiger Vogler to appear and drawl “Hey, bebe, I take your peecture mit my Polaroid ant ye go for a ride in mine Cutlass.” This, surprisingly, does not occur, but oodles of other homages to the U.S. of A. do: from characters named L.A. to a chorus of “Oh yeah man.” But this entry of American cultural imperialism into the scenario does not function critically, and, worse yet, seems to carry a nervous claim to franchise.

Angel (Gerd Udo Heinemann) is a record producer, a veteran of 1968 who is nostalgic about political “action” and the pop music of the ’60s and early ’70s. While his coworkers float around the recording studio, smoothly ironing out the blips in the disco-rhythm machine, Angel pouts, slouches on the sofa, plays with his glasses, and bleats out his very own rock ’n’ roll anthem, “No welcome, no place, no chance, no choice,” a maudlinly saccharine dose of MOR. This is the kind of music he, shall we say, believes in, and it is this belief that charts his alienation from the rest of the unsavory creeps in the record biz. How is this alienation pictured? Angel repeatedly storms out of the studio, indulges in blustery but adorable rampages, climbs into his Mustang (What! no Cutlass?), on which is emblazoned “Born To Run,” and cruises the city with the radio/tape deck blaring. On one of these picaresque jaunts he meets up with Johnny (Thomas Davis), a young man in a punk outfit. From here on the film reads as a cute boy-bonding tale, with the motley couple stalking Berlin like an unholy alliance of Rolling Stone and the New Musical Express. Angel plays the liberal, tweed-sport-jacketed sage to Johnny’s leatherette cynic; their opposition is defined almost totally through their colliding musical tastes, with Angel patronizingly allowing for Johnny’s self-portrait of the cool-cat musician/street urchin and Johnny facetiously grimacing at Angel’s powerless liberalism and love-rock proclivities. But both can agree (in their own fashion) on what they refer to as the 11th Commandment: Let It Rock.

For over three decades rock ’n’ roll music has functioned as a cathartic, a seductive escape from the specificity of daily life into an elaborately Edenic cushioning of desire, conspicuous fun, and, sometimes, pleasure. It is the rebellion that staves off “adulthood.” But while this rebellion skirts the specter of the fully grown, it never escapes the law of the father and its inscription within the phallic arena of rock. That fans regard the music with an avid religiosity is not to be ignored. But the notion of rock ’n’ roll as a vehicle of dominant economic and social determinants is not dealt with in Asphalt Night. Conflict arises not through the directives of power relations but simply through some messy misconstruing of the fabric and feel of the everyday—it is a minor disruption of the seamless fashion show of life. Fratszcher never gropes behind the drapery to grasp at the constructions of power.

And unlike other rock ’n’ roll movies (from The Girl Can’t Help It to Diner, with many between) Asphalt Night presents its music in strangely weak fashion.. Perhaps with the exception of the MC5 group we hear nothing but heavily corn-modified rock, far removed from a music of powerful noise and narrative. And here, this deadening effect is not to be confused with any conscious distancing process.

Asphalt Night shares its fall to the thrall of Americanism with some of Wenders’ films, but its unpleasurable complicity and unsubverted stereotyping connects it more to Smithereens, Susan Seidelman’s attempt to convince the audience that the transgressions and gender play of punk’s female figures gel not into an Adele Bertei, but into Seidelman’s heroine Wren, a simulacrum of Pat Benatar. So punk displacement fades into a corporately hewn “New Wave,” which is further elevated, ironically, by a supposedly “independent” movie. While independent film practice deserves increasing support, it might be helpful to keep in mind just what this independence could mean. Does it mean scrounging around for money until a studio decides to let you become what you want to be—the next Paul Mazursky? Or could it mean a joining of the ingratiation of narrative-film conventions with any number of possible displacements: the recognition of the spectator as subject, a critical look at the market and at power relations, a puncturing of stereotypical fictions, or perhaps merely the suggestion that the things that make Angel mope and give Wren headaches about money are not natural disasters, but old familiar riffs? Listen to the words. It’s not the singer, it’s the song.

Barbara Kruger