In April of 1979, Wim Wenders takes a few weeks off from pre-production on his film HAMMETT (1983) to go to New York to visit his dying friend Nicholas Ray, who has recently had several operations for cancer. Ray tells Wenders that he's ready to start working again and proposes that they make a
film together. Wenders is initially reluctant, stating that he doesn't want to exploit Ray's suffering, but Ray tells him "that won't happen" and they discuss various ideas. Ray tries to edit his unfinished 1973 film WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN, and Wenders accompanies him to Vassar college, where Ray
gives a lecture following a screening of his 1952 film THE LUSTY MEN. After Ray is taken to the hospital again, Wenders visits him and then has to go to California for a while. When Wenders returns, Ray seems better and is working on a stage production of a Kafka play, but on June 16, he dies.
Wenders and some other friends discuss Ray and make a toast to him as they sail around Manhattan on a Chinese junk which Ray had often fantasized would take him to the Far East in search of a ginseng cure for his cancer.
Like all of Wenders's unique "nonfiction" films, LIGHTNING OVER WATER is hard to categorize, being many things, including a quasi-documentary with staged sequences in which Wenders pretends to be collaborating with Ray, and an attempt at closure, in which Wenders and friends try to come to terms
with Ray's death as they sail on the Chinese junk. But mostly it's a touching excuse for the student/son Wenders to fulfill the teacher/father Ray's last wish to "bring himself together" before he dies, and to go out working. Ray, who never finished another film after he quit during the making of
55 DAYS AT PEKING (1963), desperately wanted to work again, but apart from the uncompleted underground project WE CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN, never got the chance (partly because of his own admitted intransigence). Because of Ray's illness, it's impossible to judge from LIGHTNING OVER WATER whether or
not he still possessed the brilliant talent displayed in THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1949), THE LUSTY MEN (1952), JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956), and others, but that's not really the point, since Wenders obviously was responsible for shooting and editing the
footage. (The recurring poetic shots of the sailboat drifting along the water with an unmanned camera and a moviola on the deck are patented Wenders.) And though Wenders is extremely sensitive about not wanting to exploit Ray's condition, it's nevertheless extremely difficult and uncomfortable to
see the cancer-ravaged Ray looking so weak and sickly. Still, by gathering together a group of Ray's friends and collaborators, the film does become a fitting testament to him as it takes on one of the key themes of his films, which is the desire to have a family and the search for one's own home.
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Wim Wenders pays homage to Nicholas Ray, one of his filmmaking idols, in LIGHTNING OVER WATER, a poignant and often painful film in which Wenders and the terminally ill Ray attempt to make a film together in the last days before Ray's death in 1979.