Thursday, October 15, 2020


In an epigraph, Wim Wenders dedicates Wings of Desire (1987) to Yasujiro Ozu, François Truffaut, and Andrzej Wajda, but in its imagery and tone, his movie has more in common with Fellini (Nights of Cabiria, 1957), Tarkovsky (especially Stalker, 1979), and the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose incandescent Day of Wrath (1943) and Ordet (1955) and Vampyr (1932) glide through dreamlike landscapes of pain and unfulfillment. Wings of Desire might have been called Wings of Longing — the angel Damiel longs to experience the physical connections of space and time that human beings have, while everywhere the human inhabitants of West Berlin, whose thoughts the angels can hear, long for various connections of their own: to parents or children, to spouses or lovers, to the past, and even to the self.

The angels see this earthly realm in monochrome when they’re most removed from human experiences. But the end of the picture explodes in color as Damiel “crosses over” (in an amusing bit, he sells his angelic breastplate in an antiques store). Damiel is obsessed by his attraction to the trapeze artist and the lusty simplicity a group of children take in a circus performance. He longs to feel what they all feel, and his desire has a childlike naïveté; he doesn’t seem to recognize the unfortunate side of earthbound mortality.

Angelic observer. Bruno Ganz
I think the film has a largely warm-hearted appeal, but its unspooling of interior dialogue (which reminds one of café jazz poetry) is intended to create an atmosphere of sweeping stream-of-consciousness — a sort of Jungian collective language of the Shadow — and I think we’re really not supposed to “interpret” or explicate the arcane prose-poetry. Taken individually, each mental utterance sounds like a bromide, and the overall effect can be deadening if, like Damiel, you’re searching for connections. (Rilke apparently inspired much of Peter Handke’s screenplay.)

In a way, the lack of linguistic coherence works in the movie’s favor. The compression of time in traditional narrative is almost entirely abandoned, and you do feel as if you were floating around Berlin with the angels without a sense of beginning, middle, or end — the rising action, climax, and denouement of dramaturgy. You expect temporal and even spatial constructions that just aren’t there, and you may get caught searching for phantoms. The movie might have made a great impact as a silent classic with few title cards, although you’d miss the eerie, evocative score. When the theorists talk of “pure cinema,” they may have something like this in mind. Fairly early on, Wenders gets you to feel cut adrift, like a buoy, from spatiotemporal anchors (the movie subverts your geographic information system). The camerawork is remarkable — it seems unbound by space the way the pacing seems unbound by time. Did the cinematographer (Henri Alekan) use cranes and a Steadicam (which Kubrick used in The Shining in 1980) for all those marvelous aerial tracking shots? Alekan’s work unifies this model of personal filmmaking — it’s transporting. Irrespective of the otherworldly elements, the movie’s experimental spirit takes you right to the core of some timeless human questions.

Sunday, October 4, 2020


Watching Lindsay Anderson’s shameless The Whales of August (1987) is like being in a mausoleum. But the more energetic scenes are akin to rummaging around in the attic of the Haunted Mansion. This mélange of codgers — Lillian Gish and Bette Davis and Vincent Price and Ann Southern and Harry Carey Jr. — is rather ghoulish; the script drones on and on about the past, and before long you’re not entirely sure whether you’re looking at the actors in real time or at newsreel footage of dead movie stars. I kept expecting a Eugene O’Neill play to erupt at some point, with recriminations and accusations and booze late into the night, but the only thing that really happens is that the floors creak.

I don’t remember whether there were any whales, but Vincent Price catches some fish, though God knows how, considering that he doesn’t appear to have the coordination to cast his line into the surf without falling off the rocks. I’ve read that many old stars, from red giants like Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea to white dwarfs like Fred Astaire to black holes like Shirley Booth, were asked to take part but turned it down. Why would an old fart whose movie career is a distant memory return to the screen in this — an adaptation soaking in formaldehyde of a play that embalms its characters before they’re laid out on the coroner’s table?

Silver treasures. Gish and Davis
What is an actor at any stage of life supposed to do with lines like “Photographs fade, but memories live forever”? The dialogue is all mothballs and tea rose: “I have once again been set adrift.” — “Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Maranov.” — “Oh, you needn’t be, my dear. I have often been adrift, but I have always stayed afloat.”

A little later, the on-screen embalming is stiffer than ever: “Do you think one can live too long?” — “Life can never be too long.” — “Even if one outlives one’s time?” — “One’s time is all one’s time, even to the end. You see out there, how the moon casts its silver treasures along the shore? There is a treasure that can never be spent.”

Sic transit Lillian and Bette.