Lightning Over Water (1980) Poster

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Beware: two versions exist, first is better
mboedicker-110 January 2003
Two video versions of this film exist, both roughly the same length. The first was released by Pacific Video on VHS in 1987, the second just this month (1/03) by Anchor Bay on DVD. According to Kathe Geist's book "The Cinema of Wim Wenders: From Paris France to Paris Texas," Wenders was so depressed by the filming of "Lightning" and Ray's death that he handed the footage over to his editor, Peter Przygodda, who spent a year fashioning it into a version shown at Cannes; apparently this is also the version released by Pacific Video in 1987 and which I first saw around that time (and have watched many times since). Wenders supposedly found this version obscure and depressing and re-edited, adding a voiceover (his own) and superimposing passages from Ray's diary; this is the version just released on DVD, and is considered by some the definitive edition. But I find Wender's criticism of the initial cut confusing, for it's the LATTER cut (his own) which is murky and depressing. Nick Ray's final scene, for example ("Cut...Don't Cut.") is tortuous (we're watching a man dying), and there are sequences edited so bizarrely as to be almost incomprehensible. The first cut, in contrast, has a narrative flow and progression that make it easier to absorb, though it's still tough going as we witness Nick Ray's suffering. Also, Wender's narration in the 2nd version (absent in the initial cut) actually adds little to the film. The first version is unfortunately out of print but is worth tracking down because it's the superior one.
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See this movie if you love Nicholas Ray
bworthen25 April 2000
This is not a movie for Wenders fans as much as it is for Nick Ray fans. In fact, I wouldn't recommend it unless you felt connected to the director. And I don't mean that you've happened to rent Johnny Guitar, In a Lonely Place or They Live By Night. See it if you saw a theme in Ray's work, one that made you go back and learn about his life. See it if you re-watched his films, trying to understand every cut and what it told you about the man behind the camera. See it if it bothers you that he will never make another film. Because in Lightning over water Nicholas Ray invites you to share his death with him, and, if you see it, you must be prepared to grieve. I saw this movie late one night in my college dorm room (a college with a featured role in the film, but that is merely tangential). I didn't let anyone watch it with me. The previous summer my grandfather had died in the same drawn-out manner. He was surrounded by family from the time of his diagnosis to the time of his death. Wenders and his crew are Nick Ray's family -- a love of the director's work is the blood connecting them. Wenders carries a camera with him because he knows that others -- even those who never heard of Nicholas Ray until he was dead for 18 years -- have the same blood in them. Wenders gives us the chance. But it is Nick Ray who we come to see.
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not a simple film
pyamada3 June 2002
Wenders gives the viewer the impression that this is a simple movie, but it is not. Fans of Wenders will recognize director Nicholas Ray's apartment as a location for the film, American Friend. But not only is Ray simply dying, he dies, and the "documentary" has to change, and so it does, with grace, pain, uncertainty, and a host of other emotions and observations. The music, much of it featuring Ronee Blakley, doing what sounds like an attempt at light punk rock and country-folk rock, with a definite Patti Smith influence, is very effective. Like every film I have seen by Wenders, it looks beautiful and often unusual, and the pacing is leisurely, and by Hollywood standards, slow. However, anyone who likes Wenders and likes Ray--and let's face it, if you say you are a fan of American film, and you neither like nor know Nicholas Ray, you are an ignorant piker, poser--will benefit from screening this movie, and probably be moved like hell by it.
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Bigger than life (and death too)
dbdumonteil15 April 2008
In 1977,Nicholas Ray was part of the cast of "der Amerikanische Freund" as Derwatt,a painter who made forgeries .In this movie,Ray tells the story of a painter who steals the masterpieces in the museums and replaces them with forgeries.

I have always been a Ray fan from "they live by night" to "run for cover" to "party girl" to his final epics which were looked upon by pretty much as failures.I must admit that I do not go much for Wenders' stuff ,which is much too intellectual for me .

Its not a documentary movie,it's cinema verite depicting a man who is dying.The courage the director displays in front of death commands admiration but I wonder whether this movie should have been released:it's an intimate one,which should have been reserved for the circle of family and close friends.And I'm sure that many of these prefer to keep a picture of a healthy man .

If you have seen four or five movies by Ray ("rebel without a cause" "Johnny Guitar" "The savage" ) a piece of advice:try and see the lesser known Ray works:"wind across the everglades "born to be bad" "on dangerous ground" or "knock on any door" .The best homage to an exceptionally gifted director.

There are two good moments in "Lightning over water":

The "lusty men" extract happens to be my favorite in this classic:Mitchum come s back home,an old house where he finds back a comic and a money box:In "Lightning " ,Ray hints at "coming back home,seeing my mother's face" Childhood was an obsession in his work :just remember Dean playing in the gutter ("Rebel) or Cagney trying to make Derek his "son" in "run for cover" .

THe diary which Wenders reads is in German which makes sense since it's his first language;the shots of the wings of the plane are fascinating.
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Stagnant Mess Warning: Spoilers
Neither of the two protagonists in this pseudo documentary were served well here - Wem Wender and Nicholas Ray but shame particularly on Wender who was filming the last few months of Ray's life.

Surely there was more to Mr. Ray than what was portrayed here? Could he not have had him commenting more on his vast body of work, his marriages, his children?

It all felt highly exploitive and downright contrived but perhaps Mr. Ray had put restraints on Mr. Wender's access to his thoughts and feelings.

But all I'm taking away from this is the nightmarish chain-smoking of Mr. Ray (everywhere, hospitals, Vassar, cabs - yeah it was 1979!) and the endless, hacking, breath-gulping, rasping sounds of his coughing from lung cancer.

1 out of 10. To see a wonderful documentary on death and dying watch "Dying at Grace".
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Cosmoeticadotcom14 September 2008
Warning: Spoilers
The more that I watch of the 1970s New German Cinema (Das Neue Kino) the more manifest it becomes that, despite the usual namedropping of Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Werner Herzog as a trio, it truly was only a one man movement, and Herzog is and was so far above and cinematically dominant over his two rivals that to speak of the lesser two in the same breath as Herzog is like mentioning the Gawain poet whilst going on of John Donne's or William Shakespeare's poetic skills.

This is abundantly clear in lightweight films like the 1980 pseudo-documentary Lightning Over Water, directed by Wenders- with a meaningless co-credit to his idol Nicholas Ray, whose death is central to the film, and who, along with Wenders, is credited as a co-writer. In a sense this equivalence is apropos, since Wenders and Ray are both, at best, second tier filmic talents. After Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without A Cause- the James Dean teenaged sudser, are there any real films of note that Ray directed? And, neither of the two films mentioned is anywhere near greatness. The only reason that this misshapen mess of a film was made was because Ray was something of an idol to Wenders, and dying of cancer, not long after the two men met filming The American Friend a few years earlier.

Yet, none of this camaraderie nor artistic affinity comes through in the film for we see only one brief movie clip, from Ray's Lusty Men, we get no background on Ray's life, and all we are subjected to, during the film's VERY LONG ninety minutes, is Ray's wheezing, hacking, spitting, whining, and assorted other bodily noises as he lies about, waiting to die, as Wenders narrates that this or that moment made him feel bad. Add to that conversations that are supposed to be 'real' yet are clearly not a part of the 'internal documentary,' and some poorly acted and staged scenes that are meant to illuminate the tale of Wenders' trip to Ray's bedside, while also trying and failing to break down narrative conventions, and you have a genuine disaster…. The film was shot both in film and video, but this mixed media adds nothing of consequence to the meaning nor import of what it captures. I guess the video adds a bit of realism to Ray's decline, but the fact is that there really is nothing here besides such a minor addition. Let me sum up the film this way: imagine sitting at a funeral home and listening to strangers ramble on about the neighbors and old friends of a loved one that you know nothing about. And to top it off, the storytellers are dreadful at their craft, and furthermore never complete any of the tales. Worse, there is no connection to the audience for they are telling tales only they know anything about. Thus the viewer feels no empathy for Ray nor Wenders. Even more annoyingly, there are some shots that are so amateurish and badly composed that one has to wonder if Wenders deliberately screwed up his film to try to 'show' that he was so upset that he could not do his job properly; in a sense employing faux amateurism to try to cynically manipulate viewers into jerking tears over his dead friend.

Regardless of whether or not this is the case, in the end, all the manifestly feigned experimentalism is just dull. Not even some well composed shots of the bygone Twin Towers can elicit genuine emotional responses. Then comes the penultimate scene of Ray, near death, lecturing Wenders, who inexplicably is lying in bed in a fake hospital scene. This scene is just painful to watch, for Ray's out of his mind and merely rambling. Wenders shows this for seven minutes and the result is borderline pornography, full exploitation, and plain old sadistic, because nothing is gained. I felt a minor anger and contempt for Wenders during this, but it passed, as all else in this empty vessel does.

Yet, did Wenders really think that this sequence would illumine death- Ray's or any others? Apparently so, which only demands that the flaw of pretension be added to this film's artistic sins, which include treacly sermonizing, such as when Wenders asks, in all apparent seriousness, such banal queries as whether or not telling the truth is dull or exciting. All in all, Lightning Over Water is a bad film, an inconsequential and failed extension of the documentary form, a weak statement on art and/or death, and not even a good record of the late 1970s fashion nor culture. It is basically a pointless vanity project that never coheres, for it has no narrative nor emotional cement to hold its flimsy structure together. This fact provokes only two real questions- who was more vain, Ray or Wenders? And did the right filmmaker die?
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still waiting for air
Eyeblood25 November 1998
this is a film i forced myself to watch in order to complete a speech in german about wim wender's amerkiabild. it is all about the death of a cancer ridden man. that is about all of the plot i could figure out.

the images, as is usual with wender's films, are striking and pungent to the hollywood-movie-goer senses. the scenes in this movie are about the slowest i have ever seen. i did find a few rewarding scenes here and there scattered throughout the chaos. the graduate monkey, the speech at vassar college, and the alarm clock scene to mention a few.

that is about all i know on this one.

i give it two riders of the apocalypse.
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A painful homage to a film maker and to a friend
Klaus Ming2 March 2013
Lightning Over Water began as a collaborative idea to tell the story of a dying painter who steals art from museums and replaces them with his own forgeries. Suffering from terminal cancer himself, Ray's health quickly deteriorates during the project. The film eventually ceases to be a work of fiction and becomes a documentary of Ray's finals days in which he fittingly spends making film. In reflecting over his career and life, Ray ponders his successes and failures as a film maker who is best known for Rebel Without a Cause (1955). A poignant and often disturbing film, Lighting Over Water is ultimately a painful homage to a film maker and to a friend (Klaus Ming March 2013).
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A Final Tribute to a Film Director!
Syl17 April 2011
In this film documentary, Wim Wenders comes to New York City to visit film director, Nicholas Ray, who directed classics like Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean. Ray lives in a Soho loft with his younger wife, Susan Ray. You could see the twin towers that once stood at the foot of Manhattan long before it's destruction in 2001. Nick Ray is stubborn and determined to make a final film. In some ways, it's his last chance in the cinema. Wim Wenders knows time is of the essence sine Ray is dying of cancer. There are candid moments of Ray dying but not letting his cancer destroy him. Wenders is a friend and film director. This documentary is really more of a tribute than anything else to a fine film director even though we didn't get to really know him. I haven't seen any of his films to date. The documentary might be dated but it's important to recognize a man who was really a genius in the film industry even thirty years later. He didn't live like a millionaire. He lived quite modestly and on his own terms which is how he died.
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Interesting at least for Ray fans
funkyfry1 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Halfway through the movie, I told my girlfriend who wasn't watching it, "this movie could be called 'Watch Nick Ray smoke'". What is this movie about? That's the question, which is the subject of this movie. One man, the legendary Hollywood director Nick Ray, is dying and the other, up-and-coming German director Wim Wenders, is trying to help him make a movie. They can't seem to figure out what the movie should be about. Ray thinks it should be about an elderly painter, unable to recapture past success, who robs his masterpieces from museums and replaces them with his own forgeries. The artist has a wife who is 40 years younger than he is, and he's dying from cancer. Wenders urges him to drop the fictional facade, since the character is obviously Nick Ray himself. Watching it, we're not sure if Ray and Wenders are genuinely disagreeing about the film's subject, or if this is all scripted and actually the film itself.

And so the subject of the film is the idea of the fictional barrier or the artist's personal incentive and responsibility towards the art. It's a great statement about Ray's method of work as a director, the impulsive nature of it and his great insight into working with what he calls the "high caliber" talents of Hollywood, and we can't really disagree with him seeing the names -- Bogart, Mitchum, Dean. Ray offers that the personal investment and connection of the actor to the character and the situation is what anchors the performance and makes it great. In a standard narrative film, the separation between the actor and his/her role could thus be seen as even more the trick than it first appears to be, and much on the same order of trickery as this film itself, with its obvious "documentary" overtures and its real documentary value existing in an uneasy middle ground. As we watch Nick Ray basically die before the camera, Wenders offers that the merciless eye of the camera may capture more of the process of disintegration than the eye itself. That's what makes watching this film such a sad experience, particularly for myself and others who are fans of Ray but I'm sure for Ray's family in a totally different way, and for those who might never have heard of him in yet another way.

Wenders' film touches upon very big questions and feels like it's getting closer to some very vital territory, but it never really takes off and soars. There's no moment of clarity or consciousness. Instead the very lack of clarity becomes the subject of the film even to its conclusion with a (probably faked) confrontation between the crew with some urging to burn (Ray's?) boat so that it would provide a fitting climax for the film. Ray wanted to make a film about self-examination, but Wender's "Lightning Over Water" ends up feeling like a sad and perversely voyeuristic experience with plenty of self-examination and no self-realization. I have to say that it sobered me up quite a bit, and it's quite an experience of a film for me, but I'm dubious about whether it's really the film that Ray and Wenders hoped that they were making.
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