Wings of Desire

August 31, 2012

Ganz over Berlin.

In Wings of Desire, director Wim Wenders has created a beautiful visual universe, a unique world that somehow combines the lush black-and-white of such heavenly Hollywood fantasies as Here Comes Mr. Jordan with the more down-to-earth realities of Wenders’ modern Germany. It’s a world both rapturous and unfulfilling, lyrical but also sterile.

Which are exactly the contradictions that Wenders wants. Wings of Desire is Wenders’ most magical film, an unexpected flight into Capraesque fantasy from the director of such angst-ridden modern-day movies as The American Friend and Paris, Texas.

Wenders’ main character here (the screenplay is by Wenders and Peter Handke) is a melancholy angel, played by the superb Bruno Ganz. This angel spends his time watching people, jotting down their behavior in a notebook. He and the other angels, who dress in long overcoats and wear pony tails, pass through Berlin and observe, and are seen only by little children.

These angels are immortal. They move through eternity, but they do not feel anything. One day Ganz commiserates with a pal angel (Otto Sander); “I’d like to feel some weight to me,” he says, and dreams of someday being able to touch and taste things, take off his shoes under a table and stretch out his bare feet. It is possible for these angels to take the plunge into the world of the living, but they would lose their immortality.

Ganz eventually comes to the decision to become human, fueled in part by his infatuation with a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin); while watching her perform, he sees her in a brief, vivid flash of color (the cinematography is by Henri Alekan, who four decades ago photographed Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast). Also on the scene is an American actor (Peter Falk), who is shooting a World War II movie in Berlin. Falk, who is called by his own name in the film and even subject to a couple of “Columbo” jokes, establishes an odd bond with the lonely angel.

At two hours and 10 minutes, Wings of Desire is undoubtedly too long for any conventional telling of this story. But Wenders’ films do not bow to any conventional rules, nor should they. This movie drifts along at its own spellbinding pace, its languid narrative an inextricable part of its impact and meaning.

The opening hour is a dreamlike survey of Ganz’ travels through the angel world. One of the most striking aspects of this existence is the angels’ ability to hear the thoughts of humans; thus the soundtrack is filled with the unspoken fears and dreams and desires of people.

The movie becomes giddy when Ganz finally casts his lot with humans. Yet there’s nothing silly about his eventual encounter with the sad trapeze artist, or his conclusion upon sampling earthly reality that “It happened once, and so it will be forever.” One of the great things that this lovely movie communicates is the sense that eternity is going on right now.

First published in the Herald, June 23, 1988

Must’ve run out of space, or I would’ve mentioned Nick Cave. This movie’s a beaut.


Happy New Year

December 30, 2011

There’s something almost French about the tone and rhythm of Happy New Year, a new movie about a jewelry heist: in the way the narrative pokes along, with more attention to detail than concentration on the big picture. And that’s no accident; this is an adaptation of a French movie of the same title from a few years back, directed by Claude Lelouch.

Hollywood regularly exposes its paucity of imagination by stealing (or buying) foreign vehicles, and French comedies are high on the shopping list. Look for a star-heavy American version of the French hit Three Men and a Cradle later this year.

This translation of Happy New Year doesn’t try to jazz things up. It’s very low-key, almost apologetic, as it plods on in its shapeless way.

Peter Falk takes the lead role, as a congenially crumpled little guy who masterminds the robberies. He recruits an old pal (Charles Durning) to assist in one final job, a trés chic jewelry store in West Palm Beach. They’re an old-fashioned pair—”dated” might be a better world—who talk about “chasing skirts” and old prison memories.

Since the store is physically impenetrable, Falk plots to worm his way in by gaining the trust of the manager (Tom Courtenay) and saleswoman (Wendy Hughes). This he does by applying heavy makeup and pretending to be a doddering old millionaire (and, on alternate visits, the doddering old millionaire’s sister). Eventually, Falk will use the guise to get him in the store after closing time.

Falk also contacts Hughes as himself, and soon finds he’s won over by her charm. So will the audience be: Hughes, a gorgeous, very intelligent actress, who has appeared in many Australian films including Lonely Hearts and Careful, He Might Hear You, brings palpable grace to this movie.

In fact, there are a few bits and pieces of this film that can be enjoyed along the way. John G. Avildsen, who made the first Rocky, clearly is trying to achieve some honestly touching moments, most of which involve Hughes and Falk and the recurrence on the soundtrack of “I Only Have Eyes for You.” These moments don’t add up, unfortunately, because unlike the necklaces and bracelets in the jewelry store, these ornaments lack a complex setting.

First published in the Herald, August 9, 1987

The title of this movie provides a handy send-off for 2011, which was a lively affair. Coincidentally, a send-off to Peter Falk, an actor I liked a lot for Columbo, many other things, but, well, especially Columbo.