Wings of Desire

I'm loving humans instead...

I’m loving humans instead…

Reviewers always suggest watching a film at least twice and waiting at least a day to fully digest the subject matter. I’m not going to do that: mainly because I don’t have the time, and secondly because the film I’ve just watched compels me to writing through some thoughts right now.

Wings of Desire is a 1987 offering, written by Peter Handke and directed by Wim Wenders (the man behind Paris, Texas). Set in Berlin across various time periods, the film centres on the life of Damiel, an angel who surveys the diverse lives of people milling around the city below. In the movie’s universe, angels exist in a separate realm; able to walk the same streets as the living, but completely invisible and unable to interact with them.

These angels are able to hear humans’ thoughts, a technique that is pulled off excellently through a combination of roaming cinematography and stream-of-conscious voice-overs through the film. For this reason, Damiel is able to have a full understanding of human thought-processes, but has no direct experience of them himself. There is an emotional divide, that in a clever reversal, leaves the omniscient angels feeling profoundly isolated.

Damiel’s voyeuristic mind-reading slows its pace and lingers on a pretty young trapeze artist at a travelling circus. Kitted out in fake wings for her performance, Damiel is immediately drawn to her, and is privy to her most intimate private thoughts; she is lonely and longing to meet someone who can extricate her from her situation.

Try as he might Damiel cannot get through to her and with a growing discontent, sets his mind on a plan: to cast off both his immortality and atemporality and enter the world of mortals…

Wings of Desire is very unique, in that (despite what I’ve just described) it seems to lack a central storyline. This unifying thread emerges gradually, as scenes involving the girl are introduced more frequently. Rather the story mimics Damiel’s omniscience: it goes everywhere.

The camera floats through an apartment block: we hear the thoughts of a young man contemplating suicide, his parents, a man whose mother has recently died, some children playing hide-and-seek, an American journalist, a woman who worries about surviving on her small pension. In a way, one of the central characters of the movie is ‘the city of Berlin’ – as we get a cross-section of all the thoughts and feelings of its inhabitants. For the first half of the film it can be argued that there is no central character, since Damiel is more of a cinematographic device than a human-being who emotions we have access to.

As such, watching Wings of Desire is a rather disjointed experience, and at first I wondered whether I could really be bothered with such a sincerely artistic experience on a lazy Sunday morning. Within thirty minutes however, I was captivated. I suddenly started caring about every little scrap of everyone’s lives – an impressive feat considering these Berliners are only given a couple of lines of interior monologue each.

And this is why Wings of Desire succeeds in its audacious form. It aligns the viewer very closely with Damiel; floating over the city, entering people’s thoughts but leaving you wishing you could turn these snapshots into more. Damiel’s compulsion to get closer to people is passed on to the viewer; we are cast outside by a lack of typical dramatic conventions such as dialogue and plot-development and start longing to flesh these people out into three-dimensional characters. When this does start to happen, it is compelling; we are finally given what we have been denied and it is all the sweeter for it.

There are some strange disjoints to the film including a live performance by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and time-leap back to wartime Berlin where we follow some sheltering Jews, but these are mesmerising in their own weird way. They are necessary to demonstrate both the film’s historical breadth, and its naturalistic contemporariness…an audacious goal for sure.

And does Wings of Desire succeed in its audaciousness? Most definitely. If it didn’t this film would be very pretentious. Many will still call it very pretentious. But this film doesn’t set out to do more than it can achieve. It actually achieves it.

This is bold, bold cinema. Even if you’re not 100% sure about the concept, it is worth watching for the execution alone. I certainly won’t be forgetting this movie any time soon…


Who Wants Eternal Life?

- Death at Intervals, José Saramago

Death at Intervals, José Saramago

Portuguese author José Saramago deals in big concept books. His well-established classic Blindness is about a bout of contagious blindness that sweeps a nation after all. Death at Intervals, a more recent 2008 novel, works in rather the same vein…at least it appears to at first.

There is only one single named character in Saramago’s novel, and they are introduced more than halfway through. So what happens before that? Well, it’s all very macro really.

“The following day, no one died” opens the novel, as miraculously the citizens of an unnamed country seem to have evaded death. People are pulled out of car-wrecks with horrible wounds that nevertheless don’t kill them, and old people on the brink remain forever in a vegetative state.

For all its wonder and whimsy, Saramago’s novel focusses on the immediate social issues that this strange turn of events leads to. It starts with the funeral homes going out of business and having to re-jiggle their business plans, providing elaborate and expensive funeral services for parrots. Soon, the care homes get overfull and need a new strategy. Not the mention the ironic crisis experienced by the church: if people live forever, then God can’t provide eternal life after death. Needless to say, the country finds itself in the grip of some rather serious issues.

I will say no more of the plot, as it has some interesting and innovative departures from convention, and instead dwell on what makes this book great. Mainly, Saramago’s prose style, which will either have people enamoured or throwing their copy out of the window in frustration. Clearly, since I retained my copy long enough to write this post, I fall into the former category.

Saramago writes huge paragraphs that can often span over two pages, and strangely he doesn’t even use speech marks. The wall of text looms. But why does he do this and why should you put up with it? Well, his run-on style feels strangely out-of-control. Like a snowball rolling down a hill and rapidly gaining mass and momentum. This lends itself perfectly to his content, which charts a situation of increasing volatility, careening out of hand.

He also chucks his speech marks out because he’s one of those ‘meta-’ authors. He likes to highlight that his speech isn’t directly reported; it’s all part of his undifferentiated account of events. This often makes you unsure as to who is meant to be speaking a particular sentence, which chimes with the chaos gripping the city.

These sound like horrible impediments to an easy-read, but they work oh-so-well in evoking the muddled panic that the plot describes. Importantly, the prose is hilarious, crammed with digressions that the narrator gets angry with himself for, absurdly unnecessary details and bizarre personifications, which in this case, includes a rather bitchy scythe.

The first half of the novel is impressively wide in scope, assessing all of the fallout effects of mankind’s greatest desire: to live forever. The country is analysed as if from different disciplines: economic, geographic, political, philosophical, spiritual, and televisual.

Then it suddenly changes tack, and we are greeted with a completely different novel. For all its concentration on mass-movements and concepts, we suddenly plunge into the world of a single individual. Saramago’s prose becomes delicate and emotive whilst fleshing out their psychology. What follows couldn’t be simpler…a love story. In the midst of the mad, cerebral clutter so far this is hugely disarming. As if When Harry Met Sally was suddenly cut into the middle of Blade Runner.

This leaves you with a novel of two halves. Of two very refreshing halves. Each amplifying the other by their stark contrast. From the macro, we get the micro, but no further indication of what to do with the tale. It’s up for us to generalise the moral of the story out from the second-half and realise its ramifications in the context of the whole.

And most importantly, it leaves you feeling really nice and squiggly…which is the last thing I was expecting from a book about death by a conceptual author. Saramago takes an abstract concept, and through all his flights of fancy, condenses it into something that we can not only make sense of, but emote with.

Even though I expected this to be a gem, it defied my expectations. A must-read for anyone interested in kooky concepts; yet for all its eccentricities, you’ll leave with a universal message.