Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day Double Feature: Wings of Desire (1987) and City of Angels (1998)

As a child, I had a strong belief in guardian angels. This became especially prominent after one night when I thought I saw a ghost sitting next to my bed. The description I gave to my parents vaguely aligned with that of my dad's brother, Stephen, who died at the age of eight. My dad floated two possibilities about the sighting: (1) I was having a dream and thought it was real, or (2) Stephen was watching over me. I believe the former now, but the latter gave me great comfort. This childhood belief and sense of comfort reemerged while watching Wim Wenders' West German celestial romance Wings of Desire. While my response to the film was immensely personal, the film's highly revered place in the cinematic canon affirms that it's a pretty universally engrossing and thought-provoking experience.

The film's greatest strength is its patience. It is a romance, but it takes its time before introducing the love story and only revisits it sporadically throughout, with the two central lovers sharing very little screentime together. It is a color film eventually, but apart from a few brief snatches of color, the first hour and a half are shot in gorgeous black and white by veteran cinematographer Henri Alekan. All the necessary information about how angels interact with the human world and vice versa is revealed, but it is always revealed organically, never with rushed exposition. While much of the action revolves around angel Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz, probably best known for his turn as Hitler in Downfall and the great many YouTube clips the performance spawned), the central role of the film belongs to West Berlin, as Wenders lets the camera float freely around the city, capturing its diverse inhabitants in the midst of their daily lives. One bit of information revealed early on is that these peoples' thoughts can be heard by angels nearby, and the angels may offer a comforting hand on their shoulder. Wenders revels in this connection between and angels and humans, devoting many scenes, including this bravura sequence in a library, to simply capturing it in passing. The film also intermittently follows Peter Falk playing himself during a film shoot in Berlin and the sideplot pays off tremendously in a touching and hilarious scene.

I don't want to say too much about the romance because it would verge into spoiler territory for a film so rewarding in its delay of information, but this is a Valentine's Day article and it's a crucial point of comparison between Wings of Desire and its Hollywood remake, City of Angels. During one of Damiel's excursions around Berlin, he encounters trapeze artist Marion and is instantly smitten, and hearing her thoughts, responds deeply to her sadness. They share a clear connection, with Marion even conjuring Damiel in a dream. While the film otherwise seems to champion humanity's free will, with Damiel and Marion's connection it throws in a bit of destiny as well (and, in the scene preceding it, an incendiary performance from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds).

For City of Angels, the American remake of Wings of Desire, this romance is made the central focus of the film and despite the title, its Los Angeles setting barely matters. Some of the initial scenes present Nicolas Cage and Andre Braugher as angels overlooking a typical L.A. traffic jam and overhearing the thoughts of the drivers. However, once the romance plot sets in quite early on, most of the action takes place in the hospital as it follows Dr. Maggie Rice, a surgeon played by Meg Ryan, through her workday, with some extra scenes in Rice's house and eventually Lake Tahoe. In an homage to the original film, there are a library scenes, but they barely spend a minute focusing on its inhabitants and it instead becomes another place where Cage and Ryan can have dull conversations.

I realize it's somewhat unfair to be so hard on City of Angels because of an unfaithfulness to the original film, especially since a remake being too faithful to its source is a near-certain recipe for disaster, or at best, pointlessness. To its credit, the film does take a step in the right direction in its survey of the city-dwellers' thoughts. The fact that everyone, even babies, thought so philosophically or experienced such profound sadness certainly added to the other-worldly beauty of Wings of Desire, but City of Angels smartly suggests that there'd be a lot more people thinking about sex or trying to get commercial jingles out of their head. This is only a small portion of the film, though, as its main goal is to take the concept of angels that were established in Wings of Desire and apply those to a Kleenex-ready Hollywood romance. Because of this, City of Angels forgoes the atmosphere of the original and instead lays down its rules of angeldom through exposition-heavy exchanges of dialogue. This would be forgivable if the film managed to deliver on the romance front, but unfortunately, it comes up short.

The main flaw of the romance is the decision to have Seth, the angel played by Nicolas Cage, make himself visible to Rice after he falls in love with her. Instead of a spiritual connection, the relationship plays out like a standard courtship. The angel aspect certainly put things on a different level, with Seth unable to touch Rice, but able to hear whenever she thinks about how cute he is. Beyond that, though, the film does little to shake up romantic convention, even throwing in the obstacle boyfriend that must be dropped, who without even knowing about Rice's celestial suitor offers the sound argument, “We belong together. We're the same species.” The way that character is so poorly developed, that's also his biggest selling point. Unfortunately, as an angel, Cage does not have much to show in the personality department either, delivering quite possibly his dullest performance. The magnetic strangeness that usually shows through in his films does pop up near the end, but by that point, it's too little, too late.

The ending of the film is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of City of Angels. Had the film allowed itself more room to breathe instead of adopting a narrow focus on its central romance, the ending could have been life-affirming. Before its conclusion, the film fails to highlight the diverse joys and sensations of living, save for the opportunity to satisfy Cage's raging angel boner, so the end comes off as more of a cosmic joke. It's a far cry from the transcendent sense of romantic destiny that Wings of Desire provides.

Wings of Desire Rating: ***** (out of 5)
City of Angels Rating: ** (out of 5)

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