The title character in Run Lola Run lives underneath a fibrous growth that in shape resembles a neglected patch of lawn and in color brings to mind a fire engine–or maybe a fire engine crossed with one of those ’59 Fairlanes that flirted with pastel. This isn’t hair; it’s a flickering aura of free associations, which in itself may serve as emblem of Tom Tykwer’s much-praised new picture. Even should Lola pause in her running (and the whole point of the movie is to make sure she doesn’t), suggestions of wildness, speed, calamity and chic would continue to shoot forth from her head.
When first seen, in pop-off-the-screen close-up, Lola is as much at rest as she’s going to be–meaning she’s ajolt in her room at home, shouting down a telephone at her boyfriend, Manni. The big lug has just bungled his attempt to step up from petty crime to middling. Now, as we see through crosscuts, he’s twisting and sweating in a phone booth across town, like a sausage being squeezed in its skin. He’s called to inform Lola that he’s got exactly twenty minutes to restore a large sum of money to a gangster–and in his pocket is nothing, except a gun.
What’s a movie character to do? That’s the big question–because, even though this action takes place in Germany, Lola is most emphatically a creature of Cinemaland. Able to slip back and forth amid formats, Lola can exit a room and immediately reappear in it on TV, or change into a cartoon figure with Fairlane fire-engine hair, or shrink herself to accommodate the demands of a triple-split-screen effect, all while the robo-rock pulse of the soundtrack pounds louder and louder. In these circumstances, a movie character would run.
So off sprints Lola–the blunt-featured actress Franka Potente, in tank top and baggy slacks–pumping her arms, breathing hard, scooting past or bumping into a stock company’s worth of passers-by, all of whom dribble out brief streams of consciousness in her wake. Her immediate destination: the office of her bank-president father.
Knowing she has only minutes to prevent disaster, a character from outside Cinemaland might save time by using the telephone. (A receiver was already at hand.) But Lola runs toward the bank, for the same reason that she Truly Loves Manni, for the same reason that her destiny (temporarily) is to be Shot Through the Heart at High Noon. It’s cool to live in the movies.
Coolness, rather than love, conquers all in Run Lola Run. Coolness precedes love as its precondition and grants Lola power to make the movie turn out as she’d like. I will say no more, since it would be as heartless to reveal the structure of Tykwer’s film as the plot of another director’s. It’s enough to say that Lola dashes through the film like a punked-out Road Runner, pursued not by Wile E. Coyote but by an accident-prone Fate, whose assaults are as reversible as the workings of Acme products.
The popularity of the film–which has been making a triumphal progress through the world’s festivals and into its movie houses–reminds me that audiences, too, long to feel cool. Unfortunately, today’s films rarely include that pleasure in the price of a ticket. Perhaps the most notable recent picture to do so, whatever you thought of it, was Pulp Fiction, which came out five years ago. I believe that gap partly explains the laments of some critics about the demise of movie culture–laments that have been sighed, paradoxically, over the living bodies of any number of vital but less fashionable films. When the movie cult fails to offer vicarious coolness, it no longer recruits young acolytes or renews the dedication of elders who would like to feel young.
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That’s why I welcome Run Lola Run. Its excitement, cheap but harmless, might spur millions to indiscriminate moviegoing, and maybe to the discovery of films that are good but unflashy. Only for the sake of placing Run Lola Run in context will I behave as a spoilsport–the true name for “critic”–by pointing out that European directors before Tykwer have made on-the-run films that trafficked in the coolness of movies, the dangers of True Love and the ne’er-do-well winsomeness of a homely-handsome criminal. With full knowledge that I’m being unfair, I must mention Breathless.
Well, so much for Tykwer. He draws on the allure of movies; but unlike Godard, he has nothing to say about the way that allure works on people. He keeps his film speeding along, mimicking a pace that is often imputed to American films (though seldom achieved by them); but unlike Godard, he never dares to let time stretch, as in the great, long, rambling conversation at the heart of Breathless. Tykwer also kicks around a few pop-philosophical notions, which rise and fall as pleasingly as a soccer ball (to use his own image). But he avoids burdening the audience with any of the substance of German culture–which is why, I suppose, Run Lola Run has won the hearts of certain Americans who ordinarily disdain foreign films. The alien has never been so familiar.
Does any of this matter? Confronted with questions about meaning, a figure at the beginning of Run Lola Run shrugs and says, “The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes.” That’s a good answer, if your head’s filled with the same stuff as the ball. Which is to say: You’ll probably get a kick out of Run Lola Run. Just don’t forget which part of you is getting booted.
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If the young may be blessed with coolness, so too may the old, under the right circumstances. One such occasion came up in 1996, when the American record producer Ry Cooder dropped in on Havana and, to his surprise, brought sudden beatitude to a mixed lot of Cuban musicians, most of whom were upwards of 70 years old. The recording Cooder made with them, Buena Vista Social Club, became an award-winning international hit, renewing and expanding the careers of artists who had fallen into obscurity.
This success led in 1998 to the making of a second recording in Havana, showcasing the vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, and to concert dates for the whole group in Amsterdam and New York. Tagging along for these events was the filmmaker Wim Wenders, with the result that various thin, stooped but mercurial Cubans may now be called film stars as well.
To the subjects of his documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, Wenders brings the sense of hovering, unhurried attention that so often distinguishes his feature films. One after another, the musicians narrate their stories, while sound and image move freely from the concert stage to the recording studio to some location in Havana–an apartment, a park, a railroad spur–where the player of the moment has been posed. Here, grinning behind one of the cigars he’s been smoking “for eighty-five years,” is the nonagenarian singer and guitarist Compay Segundo, cruising the streets in his fifties convertible. Here’s Ibrahim Ferrer, his face as smooth and self-possessed as a Benin bronze, explaining every detail of the household altar he devotes to St. Lazarus, or Babalé-Ayé; here’s the courtly Rubén González in a belle époque rehearsal hall, spinning out one of his piano fantasies for an audience of juvenile dancers and gymnasts. Ry Cooder, too, gets to tell stories; and it’s characteristic of Wenders’s intuitive gestures that while the soundtrack is taken up with a particularly sweet reminiscence from Cooder, the image should drift out to sea.
Buena Vista Social Club is about artists whose work is so old that it’s new; and in keeping with that spirit, Wenders has sought out the elegant dilapidation of Havana, picturing a city from which contemporaneity has been embargoed for the past forty years. Many of his Cuban scenes resemble hand-tinted photographs–an effect that cinematographer Jörg Widmer has achieved with a digital minicam, the most up-to-date of equipment. It’s a nice example of the new in service to the old. By contrast, the film’s climactic scenes, documenting the band’s July 1998 concert at Carnegie Hall, play up the musicians’ delight at Manhattan’s novelty. “Lindo, lindo, lindo,” muses Ibrahim Ferrer, as he strolls at night toward Radio City Music Hall. He’s walking past office towers that are, in the eyes of New Yorkers, the purest feíssimo; but in the presence of his wonder, who wouldn’t love Sixth Avenue?
Buena Vista Social Club is something better than cool. It’s generous.