Nicolas Cage ≠ Bruno Ganz

Wings of Desire

Flicking through the movie channels last night I stumbled upon City of Angels, that purest example of the pop-rock chick flick, and it caused me great discomfort. It was less than a month ago that after many years of hoping to see it that I finally caught Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire at the Irish Film Institute during their Wenders season, choosing only to book tickets at the last minute as I collected mine for Paris, Texas.

Wings of Desire had a huge effect on me, as it has on so many for the last twenty years. Part art movie, part historiography, part dramatic love story, it was one of the most spellbinding films I had ever seen. The ten minutes I saw of City of Angels only affirmed my passion for Wenders’s film more so.

Here in the place of Bruno Ganz, quiet, calm, restrained, and transfixed by the world around him, is Nicolas Cage, one of a number of actors, and perhaps the best example of them, for whom acting emotional is shown through elongating the face, flailing limbs and raising the voice to a shout.

Meg Ryan, playing the Solveig Dommartin role, is pictured as the perfect girl, one worth giving up immortality for, not because of her lost and challenged soul as in the original film, but because she’s pretty, played by someone famous and cures babies for a living.

Some references to Wings of Desire are worthy in their attempt to live up to the original. The scenes in the library for example are directly borrowed, and have some of the style, but none of the artistry of those from Wings, which cannot be rivalled in terms of cinematography nor subtly.

What is troubling rather is the nods to Wings of Desire with which director Brad Silberling has failed to follow through. Occasional flashes of black and white through Seth’s eyes are only shadows of the beautiful but haunting mono-coloured eternity in Wings. When Seth elects to become mortal, his “fall” is embarrassingly literal. Damiel elects to become human and simply is; he breaks the heart of his friend and counterpart Cassiel in mid-conversation with his conversion. Both Seth and Damiel awaken as mortals and experience everything human as a joy, but Ganz and Wenders have Damiel take things in; his confusion and joy almost rob him of his attention to his goal, to find the woman he loves. Cage’s Seth, now human, flaps about dementedly like a drunken schoolgirl.

The differences between the two films can be summed up in the characters’ introduction to a colourful world. Seth discovers blood is red, symbolising lazily that human existence is both beautiful and hard. Damiel learns his colours from graffiti adorning the Berlin Wall, spectacularly summarising some of the worst and greatest aspects of human existence in a manner made so poignant given that the Wall would fall only two years later.

Surprisingly, I learn from a combination of Wikipedia and YouTube that Meg Ryan’s character dies in City of Angels, leaving Seth alone to discover life as a mortal man. Certainly this allows for a good hard weep from the audience, and people can question whether Seth’s sacrifice was worth it… or they can see Wings of Desire, and see that the purpose of the story is not about whether they get together or not (they very nearly miss one another at the Nick Cave gig), but about the experiences of mortality versus immortality (barely summed up in the American film by “he can touch her, and have sex with her, therefore mortality is awesome” – not a direct quote).

If any moment in Wings of Desire are truly touching, they are not those in which Damiel longs for Marion, but in the inner thoughts of the characters. The young girl escaping school for prostitution, the old man determined to tell the story of his people, Peter Falk’s ponderings on the effects of WWII and his art work. The sequence with the suicide is overwhelming to watch but has a profound effect.

The popularity of City of Angels amongst the average audience testifies not only to the pulling power of its stars and its shiny pop-rock soundtrack, but also to Wenders and Peter Handke’s story, that given the intellectuality and artistic competence that fill the film are unlikely to allow Wings of Desire appeal to many international audiences.

Those who have seen it however, will likely be touched to the core of their being. Those who see City of Angels will likely be entertained for two hours, and might even get a little teary eyed, but they should be looking for more.

Oh, and no matter how hard he wishes, Dennis Franz ≠ Peter Falk.

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