Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Wim Wenders' WINGS OF DESIRE
The angel hears everyone, whether he wants to or not. In all truth, he loves to hear them speak, to hear their joy, their philosophy, their deep sorrows, their contemplation on the little things and the bigger-world things that are out of reach, their loves. This angel, Damiel, played by Bruno Ganz, has been an angel for a very long time, so long that he can recall back to when Napoleon's troops went over territory that was a river and became a road and so on over time. He also sees a woman, Marion, a trapeze artist, who enchants him completely. He keeps going back to see her perform in her twisting and turning up in the air as it were, and he is surrounded by children who are equally enchanted. He mentions in his voice-over that children do and thing in a certain way, perhaps that adults can't do, or might want to do. He also visits her in her trailer, and becomes further enchanted just watching her listening to music, and contemplating more. He wants more, too, ultimately. He wants the simple joys of life- to eat an apple or to, more complex existentially, die. And he wants to feel love, to feel the connection with other beings.
Wings of Desire is mesmerizing as a poetic take on the world as being human. That's what I saw Wenders as focusing on as his real aim here, to shine a light in a "City Symphony" style (only not in the way Berlin Symphony or other takes on a city from the 1920's silent-era might do, not as much montage). When Damiel and his co-Angel in the game of life, Cassiel (the sad but stern and welcoming face Otto Sander), are up above on the statues of buildings up high, or down on the street with people on subways, in pain after a car crash, in a library looking at photos of the holocaust, eating a sandwich on a movie set, they're always keyed into the human experience. They see it, they can feel it if they try. The drawback, no participation. It's a world that has to be seen in black and white, with even the humor of people kept at a distance. And Wenders puts this to a cinematic test as well.
The film is an intense, visually appetizing experiment in style, with its cinematographer, Henri Alekan, shooting for the stars but all on Earth. I'm sure their collaboration was close, but for any fan of cinematography in movies its one of the real must-sees to behold. Rich and crisp whites, grays and blacks, the days bright but not too bright, the nights filled with the dark corridors of the human experience. Faces given a luminous light. And then when it slips into color every so often it feels like it's unreal, a hallucination or something, and then it slips right back into place for a moment, such as when Marion gets dressed in her trailer. It's also a masterpiece of camera movement, as it takes on the character of an angel being invisible in rooms and in the sky, going across libraries with an innocent but authoritative air. You have to move around when you're an angel, I suppose: so many people, so... much time. Old, young, women, men, movie stars, they're all there.
Wenders is so in love with the voices that he almost, for me, gets things a little too much into artistic aspirations. The movie is about 90% voice-over narrated, from dozens of characters, and they all have something interesting to say to one degree or another. Not necessarily a problem I had but just a little irk was the nature of how much poetry there was. It's almost an overabundance, where the poetry overtakes the storytelling. This is an approach I definitely appreciated, and the words being spoken were often very moving and philosophically complex. But there's so much of it, all looping around and about (that is until Damiel takes his "plunge" in the last act to become one of "us") that I started to get lost in the film. This might be fine if I was sure where Wenders would be going. It's not until halfway through that is much clearer.
Maybe my expectations weren't adjusted as it went along. Or it's like what one of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, Ken Hanke of Mountain Xpress, says: Depending on your tastes, you'll find the film either a beautiful, moving experience, or a slow and pretentious one." I found both of these tastes coming up during the film. Wenders clearly sees this film as an important take on humanity, and through his perserverence to get all of the shots and all of the intended actors he wants in this pre-Berlin-Wall-Fall in 1986, he gets so much that is beautiful and enlightening and even thrilling in its patience of shots taken. It can also be... a little slow, and a little pretentious, and characters will start to speak until it becomes a little redundant. (I'm even reminded, up to a point, of the kind of filmmaking I affectionately parodied in a short film I collaborated on, which I'll include a clip of below).
So much of Wings of Desire is incredible to watch as romance, with individuals and the "better angels of out nature" (yeah I went there). And, surprisingly, some fun too. Peter Falk is one of the only actors that to me felt really natural as an actor (maybe because he is one and *plays* one to a point of his own name), and any scene he's in the film picks up as he's the "one" who can really feel Damiel on Earth... because (hint) he *was* one. The filmmaking almost brightens up with him on screen, trying on hats, contemplating what to eat for dinner, or reaching out to shake Damiel's hand even as he has to make guess work for it there.
Another personally cool thing was to see he fantastically brooding band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform in the film. Why did Wenders have them in the middle of this narrative? Why not? If you're going to embrace humanity in its conflicts and joys and hardships, have one that chillingly makes rock out of it.
In closing, George Carlin might sum this classic of cinematic technique and stylistic prose best ;)