Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Michael Atkinson: Wings of Desire -- Watch the Skies

Wings of Desire: Watch the Skies


Still, it’s not a pedagogical work but a poetic one, filthy with Keats’s “negative capability.” The film’s revelation of a heaven and earth infrastructure does not absolve mysteries but compounds them. Nevertheless, despite this spirituality, the film’s mysteries turn out to be largely cinematic. Wenders has always been a quintessential Euro movie-lover of the New Wave generation, and Wings of Desire has a rich vein of cinephilic self-reflexivity running through it. After all, although the angels we see can subtly affect human behavior (Damiel steers a suicidal subway rider toward the future, and calms a dying bicyclist after an accident), they, like the moviegoer, are mostly observers.

To watch is to love, as we see in the scene where Damiel, having fallen for Solveig Dommartin’s trapeze artist, Marion, loiters in her trailer, and is galvanized when she begins undressing. He tries to touch her but cannot. Like James Stewart in Rear Window, the angel can only watch, and he is as much defined by his helpless voyeurism as we are in the audience. On one level, the angels are pure-hearted documentarians, bearing witness to life (cinema began as documentary, after all), yet their work is not action but attention. Is there a culpability inherent in the distance of being an observer? (Michael Haneke, among others, has clearly thought so.) Damiel is an idealized surrogate for us and our role, hypnotized and passive and all too human; and if Hitchcock’s film was about the anxiety of viewing, then Wenders’s is about its melancholy, its beauty, its final limitations.

The allegorization of our experience as viewers is bedizened by the spectatorship of the traveling circus (which is regularly breached by the chaos of the active participation of children, something Damiel experiences as rapturous), the film history references (Damiel explains his desire to mix in by saying he wants to be like Philip Marlowe and “come home to a cat”), the news footage of postwar Berlin’s rubble and ruin, and of course the film being shot within the film, some kind of dire concentration camp thriller starring Peter Falk, who senses the angels because, as he explains, he converted to humanity himself “thirty years ago” (and 1957 was indeed when Falk made his first appearance on American television). But Damiel ultimately becomes dissatisfied with his role, and his position as an observer begins to dissolve once he sits beside the costumed Nazi-victim extras, who are “living” in multiple time periods at once, self-observing ruminators as well as subjects, for the film-in-the-film’s cameras, for the angels, for Wenders, and of course for us.

As the angels haunt Berlin, Wings of Desire also has its haunters—the audience, observing the observers. As it dawns that we, at least in the viewing moment, might be closer to the ineffectual angels than to the people they hover over, Damiel edges nearer to surrendering his angelic immortality and omnipotence for a short life of love, books, coffee, wind, children, and urban messiness—in effect, exiting his own private movie house and entering the throng of unaestheticized life. He desires, in a sense, to leave the movie he’s in and join us on our way home. Is the plot arc of Wings of Desire a cry against cinema, even as it equates watching with love? Or does it suggest, to the choir, only a more engaged participation for us, the give-and-take of art film as opposed to the utterly passive experience of Hollywood dross, the Godardian sense that cinema is not an escape from life but life itself? Once Damiel goes human, awakening in the no-man’s-land between the east and west sections of the wall, we as viewers may have an experience akin to Greta Garbo’s after she’d seen the Beast in Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast transform into the clean-shaven Jean Marais: “Give me back my Beast.”

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