“We live in the cities. The cities live in us … time passes. We move from one city to another, we change languages, we change habits, we change opinions, we change clothes, we change everything. Everything changes. And fast. Images above all change faster and faster and they have been multiplying at a hellish rate ever since the explosion that released the electronic images—the very images that are now replacing photography.” So speaks filmmaker Wim Wenders in the meditation on identity that opens this ostensible documentary released in 1989 on fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. I say “ostensible documentary” because Wenders is someone who can never do anything the simple way. Yes, this 81-minute film is a documentary on Yamamoto, but Wenders isn’t content to leave it there. In his broader view, A Notebook on Cities and Clothes is about considerably more than that. Wenders has insisted on using the documentary to explore the nature of identity—the identity foisted on us by our surroundings, our choice in clothing, our choice in what we watch.
More, he attempts to tackle the idea of two arts—fashion design and filmmaking—as works that are never completely in the control of the person who made them. In the case of fashion, for example, the clothes become the expression of the person wearing them—an expression apart from that of their creator. In the case of film, the images and the meaning become the property of the viewer—assimilated and interpreted apart from the filmmaker. The question arises as to how successful Wenders is in his aims. The answer, I believe, is that it doesn’t matter. The resulting film is, as its title asserts, a “notebook.” It’s less a polished, formal work than a series of personal musings on the topics being covered. Whether Wenders completely makes his cases is secondary. The film’s raison d’être is simply to pose the questions that it raises for the filmmaker—proving once again that art needn’t be conclusive. It simply needs to raise the “right” issues and questions with style.