Thursday, May 26, 2011

In Defense Of: City of Angels

"I can't see you... but I know you're there."

This movie surprised the hell out of me.

Imagine knowing only these nuggets of information prior to viewing: Meg Ryan falls in love with an angel, played by Nicolas Cage. It's a "Hollywoodized" remake of a German classic (Wings of Desire). And its director, Brad Silberling, had only one film under his belt: Casper.

There's no way this film can be any good, right?

Well, let's just say that I love being wrong.

City of Angels (1998) is a pure joy and a wonderful surprise. Silberling had created something very special here: he took a cerebral, whimsical drama from Wim Wenders and gave it a glossy Hollywood makeover without losing the original's appeal. Audiences did not know how to embrace it. Critics were torn. But me... I fell deeply in love with it. It's spiritual candy for the mainstream. It's a beautiful melding of art and commerce.

City of Angels is more than just a romantic drama about an angel falling in love with a human. It's about an angel falling in love with life. It's so rare to see a major Hollywood production in this genre as joyously life-affirming as this one. The screenplay, by Dana Stevens, is essentially a love letter to life, a series of poems that lovingly reflect the beauty of feeling, tasting, touching. The actors speak in hushed tones, almost like whispers. It's like they are questioning themselves as they speak of their feelings. Could this be happening? Could it be possible to feel this way?

Seth: Let's go somewhere.
Maggie: Where?
Seth: I don't care.
Maggie: What do you wanna do?
Seth: Anything.


Seth is an angel. He does not know what it's like to be human. He's never experienced the pleasures of food or the human touch or the feeling of wind flowing through his hair. As he escorts a deceased man into his new plane of existence, Seth sees Maggie, a doctor trying so desperately to save the deceased man's life. There's something in Maggie that intrigues Seth. A fire, a spark, a strong desire to give this poor man his life back. When she fails, she's resigned, hopeless, beaten. Seth hears her thoughts and wonders what it must feel like to go through all of these emotions. He's compelled to find out so he does something only few angels do: he asks her.

Seth: What's that like? What's it taste like? Describe it like Hemingway.
Maggie: Well, it tastes like a pear. You don't know what a pear tastes like?
Seth: I don't know what a pear tastes like to you.
Maggie: Sweet... juicy... soft on your tongue, grainy like... a sugary sand that dissolves in your mouth. How's that?
Seth: It's perfect.


In the narrative sense, City of Angels is a romantic film where two beings fall in love. But at its core, the film is about loving life. It's about appreciating the finer details that we all take for granted. I'm hard-pressed to find a film of a grand scale as this one that simply takes its time to show us what makes life so special. No one knows why we are here or what purpose we serve, but if we look at what we have and what we can achieve as humans, the possibilities are endless.

Dennis Franz plays Nathan, a human who knows one or two things about Seth and where he comes from. That's because Nathan used to be just like him. When Nathan was an angel, he used to be curious and intrigued by the life humans live. He had a strong desire to feel, to eat, to love as if tomorrow were the last day on earth. So he jumped... and became flesh. Franz is extraordinary here, a beautiful performance that's unlike anything he's ever done. Silberling cast him completely against type and it worked like gangbusters. When Nathan is running in the ocean naked without a care in the world, you can't help but smile at his spirited attitude.

Silberling -- who used to direct procedurals like NYPD Blue and LA Law -- not only plucked Franz from the tube but also Andre Braugher of Homicide fame. Braugher plays Cassiel, a fellow angel who regularly converses with Seth about the intricacies of the human spirit while sitting on skyscrapers and street signs. I love how City of Angels doesn't move quickly to advance the narrative. The film pauses every now and then to listen to these two guys share some thoughtful dialogue.

Seth: The little girl asked me if she could be an angel.
Cassiel: They all want wings.
Seth: I never know what to say.
Cassiel: Tell them the truth. Angels aren't human. We were never human.
Seth: What if I just make her a little pair of wings out of paper?


Most people were really let down by the ending and I can see why. Read no further if you wish to be unspoiled! Like I said earlier, you can view the film as narrative or as a poetic journey about humanity. In the narrative sense, Maggie's surprising death in the end is heartbreaking because Seth made an extremely difficult journey to be with her for as long as fate will let them. He got a taste of beauty and then beauty was snatched away from him.

But the message is clear. There is no life without death. Seth wanted to experience everything, and he did.

"I would rather have had one breath of her hair, one kiss of her mouth, one touch of her hand, than eternity without it. One."

Take another look at City of Angels, and this time listen to the words. Look into their eyes. Don't worry too much about plotting and storytelling. This movie is about feeling. Now, isn't that refreshing?

10 comments:

Brent said...

City of Angels is a fine and lovely film. I think comparing it to "Wings of Desire" is a bit unfair and doesn't do it any favors. The two films may as well be in different worlds with a similarity of concept perhaps. Viewed as its own film, City of Angels works just fine!

Dave said...

That's a good point, Brent, but "Wings of Desire" has to be mentioned whenever you're discussing "City of Angels." But I made sure not to really compare the two films and just focus on how strong Silberling's film on its own merits. Glad to hear you're a fan!

Brent said...

definitely Dave. You treated it perfectly. I only mention it because it's so often done.

hanes132 said...

To this day, I can still remember the experience of seeing this film in theaters-- because the audience began cracking up during the sex scene when she's explaining to him how it all "fits"!

&she was one stupid b*tch when it came to bicycling!

hanes132 said...

PS- nice write up tho!
(of course I only relent to saying this as an afterthought)

Dave said...

Thank you, Jenn, for both the memory and the afterthought. Love has a tendency to make some people do stupid things, doesn't it?

Andrew Green said...

I saw this one with a special lady friend back when it was in theaters....
It left her feeling quite romantic...although, to tell you the truth, it sort of creeped me out.

Dave said...

What's so creepy about making love to someone who wasn't a human before yesterday? :-)

Paul S said...

Well said Dave.
I love City Of Angels, mind you I'd have given up everything in a heartbeat for the 1998 vintage Meg Ryan!

Dave said...

Thanks Paul. Yeah, 90's Meg Ryan is certainly dreamy. (sigh). I miss her.

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