They say when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In that way, it makes sense that when film director Nicholas Ray (“Rebel Without a Cause”, “King of Kings”) learned he had terminal cancer, he decided to make a movie about it. He asked his friend, German film director Wim Wenders (“Wings of Desire”, “The Buena Vista Social Club”) to assist him.
Together, they do make a film, “Lightening Over Water” (1980).
Ray wants to make a fictional film about a painter. A painter with cancer without much time left to live. This painter achieved great fame and wealth with his early paintings, but the painting he made in his later years would not sell. So the painter robs his own paintings from museums and replaces them with “forgeries”, his own paintings recreated. Really, the artist is trying to recapture his youth, his early acclaim, and his self-esteem.
Wenders assesses the physical condition of his friend, and knows that such a project would be impossible. He agrees to make a film with him, a documentary of Ray’s last days. But it is not a pure documentary. Along with footage of Ray’s day to day health struggles, conversations between the directors and such outings as a lecture about film that Ray gives at Vassar University, there are fictional vignettes added (such as Ray playing a scene as a modern King Lear.) Some of the ‘documentary footage’ seems staged as well.
As Ray approaches death, he seems concerned about proving that his life and work had significance. It’s something that many of us wonder about.
Wenders wonders if he is helping or hurting his friend with the draining work of writing, directing and ‘acting’ in a film when his strength is depleted. He wonders if he is putting the film itself before his friend. (I don’t think that dilemma is unique. I think there is often a danger in ministry of designing programs to help people, and then we become more concerned with the programs than with the people they were designed to help.)
There are humorous and tender moments in the film. But ultimately, it made me sad. For Ray faced death without reference to the hope from in Jesus Christ. It could be that Ray did have some kind of religious faith; but it that is so, it was not a part of the film.
Ray seemed to face death with no assurance that there was meaning to his life, or more to hope for after death.
Recently, the great theologian and writer, John Stott passed away. And I was struck watching the film how different this man’s passing would have been. I just finished reading John Stott’s book, “Why I Am A Christian” (Inter Varsity Press, 2003). Stott argues that the very human needs of significance and transcendence can only be met in a relationship to Jesus Christ.
Stott argues that all of us fear death (he quotes Woody Allen who said, “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”) Further, Stott argues that no one who is in fear, is truly free; only in Christ, in His resurrection, can be found hope of overcoming death and ultimate extinction.
(“Lightening Over Water” is not rated, but it does include strong language and brief nudity.)