Friday, September 24, 2010

"City of Angels": finally seen

Out of sheer monkey curiosity, I DVR'ed "City of Angels," the 1998 American remake of a 1987 German film, "Der Himmel über Berlin"-- "Heaven over Berlin," directed by Wim Wenders, and unnecessarily retitled "Wings of Desire" in English. For those who don't know the story, both films are a modern rehash of an ancient idea: that a divine being might look upon a human and be filled with the desire to experience love and the world as we mortals do, enfleshed and subject to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. In global folklore, the divine being is often male and the human is female; the divine/human interaction varies anywhere from celestial prankishness to outright rape.* "City of Angels" settles for benevolent stalking and consensual sex.

Not having seen the Wim Wenders original, I'm unable to compare the two versions, but I can say for sure that the US version, starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan, would have played better as a made-for-TV movie than as the theatrical release it was. It wasn't horrible, but it often seemed trite, too frequently understated, and not nearly metaphysical enough. The ontological status of angels is never satisfactorily explored (that whole question of what angels can touch or otherwise sense, for example), and the ending-- Jesus, the ending was horrible. I assume most of my readers have seen this film, so it shouldn't come as a spoiler for you to know that Meg Ryan's character, a surgeon who falls in love with an angel, ends up crashing her bike into a lumber truck while biking along a forest road with her eyes closed in romantic reverie (well... they open just before the crash, so we can get that look of horror). Far from exploring the implications and problems of immortal/mortal relationships, the film neatly resolves the issue by nipping the relationship in the bud.

As with many Hollywood productions, insufficient care is taken to describe the physics of the film's universe. The aforementioned ontological problem translates into a plot problem at the end: why are Cage and fellow angel-turned-mortal Dennis Franz able to teleport magically onto skyscrapers and other unreachable perches earlier in the film, but unable to teleport to anyone's rescue at the end? Why couldn't Cage have poofed right next to Meg Ryan and saved the day, instead of being forced to run for miles through the woods, only to arrive too late? The film is unclear as to how many divine powers a mortalized angel retains. Such lack of clarity always makes my buttocks squirm angrily.

I'm also unsettled by the film's direction. Cage and Ryan are both talented performers, but Cage's hangdog presence throughout the first reel struck me as creepy and stalker-ish every time he appeared next to his darling Meg. Even after she begins to see him (angels are invisible to most of us, unless they want to be seen), the angel's appearances seem more unnerving than comforting. The script, however, makes it clear that we're supposed to see a deep connection between Ryan and Cage; far from being frightened by her stalker, the surgeon seems almost to be expecting him. The script, then, pulls us one way; the visuals pull us another. The unintended contrast diminishes whatever effect director Brad Silberling was going for. (Female viewers seduced by Cage's unconventional looks might argue differently. Ladies...?)

Its flaws aside, I think the movie was trying to say something meaningful. Cage's third-reel conversation with fellow angel Andre Braugher (most memorable in recent months as the psychiatrist treating Dr. House in Season 6) was about whether Cage's transition into mortality was worth it, despite the heartache. Cage's answer is a predictable but still significant yes: this moment, though fleeting, is better than any vaunted eternity. The experience of time and the world, emblematized in the film by the sensations of touch and (to a lesser degree) taste, is a precious thing, a fragile glory out of the reach of aloof divine beings who choose not to "fall" into the mortal realm.

Despite my gripes about the Meg-meets-wrong-kind-of-wood plot twist at the end, I did enjoy the idea that Cage's angel may have started a heavenly revolution: his companion, Braugher, sees Cage-- still in mourning over his surgeon-- cavorting in the morning surf, and begins laughing. Throughout most of the film, the angels we see appear silent, somber, and detached. Braugher's laughter implies that he's been touched by the transformation he's witnessed in Cage, and that other angels, beginning with Braugher, might soon begin to "fall" as well.

The movie's idea of fallenness is rather benign. In this universe, to be fallen is to undergo a self-willed incarnatio. Dennis Franz, who plays such an angel (significantly named Messenger), is one of an earlier wave of the Fallen. He enjoys spatiotemporal existence, has a wife, kids, and grandkids, and is eminently at peace. It's almost as if the film turns Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" on its head: in that movie, Jesus' final temptation is domesticity, i.e., a rejection of his messianic role. In "City of Angels," domesticity is a consummation devoutly to be wished. The transcendent seeks immanence. Emptiness coalesces into form. Unfortunately, as with the Cage/Ryan romance, little is done to explore what it means over the long term for a fallen angel to live a normal human life.

The movie's soundtrack is worthy of note. I enjoyed the instrumental moments but had forgotten that "City of Angels" contained all those damn Top 40 hits: Alanis Morissette's "Uninvited," Sarah MacLachlan's "Angel," and the Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris" come immediately to mind. I remember hearing these songs on the radio years ago, and somehow failed to make the connection with this movie. That was quite the pop assault.

For the past few years, I've been slowly compiling a list of religion-related movies, but I'm not sure whether "City of Angels" merits inclusion. I think I need to see the Wim Wenders version, and part of me regrets that I didn't see the 1987 film first. "City of Angels" isn't a horrible movie, but because it left too many implications unexplored, because it was metaphysically incoherent, and because it suffered from ham-handed direction, I can't actively recommend it to anyone.

*Sometimes the gender roles are reversed. I seem to remember a Korean folk tale about a farmer woodcutter who ensnares a beautiful nymph fairy by stealing and hiding her clothing while she bathes with fellow nymphs fairies. In Hindu mythology (though once again with the divine being male), Krsna is a prankster who, according to tradition, did the same thing to some mortal women (gopis).



  1. I haven't seen the film, but I had and still have no intention of ever seeing it, so I'm not too bothered by the spoiler. I must admit that the image of your buttocks squirming angrily was far more disturbing.

    As for the Korean folktale, the male character is a woodcutter, which makes sense--farmers spend their time in open fields and populated areas, while woodcutters are the ones heading out into isolated mountainous regions.

    I'm not sure about the translation of "seonnyeo" as "nymph." Nymphs are generally associated with nature and live on earth; seonnyeo live in the heavens and only come down to earth to bathe (apparently they don't have running water up there). The term is often translated as "fairy," which is not ideal but better, as fairies inhabit a world of their own but cross over into the world of humanity often.

  2. I stand corrected. My only point of reference is a half-remembered story out of Suzanne Crowder-Han's book of translated Korean folk tales. She may actually have said the protag was a woodcutter, and that the woman in question was a fairy. I'll have to dig out the book and check. (Though I think my copy may still be in Korea.)

    Focus not upon the byoo-tox.

  3. One of these days (a phrase I now use to mean "at some point after I finish the diss") I am going to publish my own book of translated Korean folk tales, except they are all going to be trickster tales, so now gentle woodcutters and fairies for me!

    (Byoo-tox... ignored!)



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