Thursday, May 26, 2011
In Defense Of: City of Angels
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.
Seth: I don't care.
Maggie: What do you wanna do?
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.
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?