Reviews

Wings of Desire

If you Google the phrase “Criterion has done it again”, you will get 37,500 hits. I have a hunch that now that Wings of Desire is back on the streets, this number is going to increase significantly.


Wings of Desire

Director: Wim Wenders
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, Peter Falk
Distributor: Criterion
Release Date: 2009-11-03
“With the angels, I was so flexible. I could just incorporate it all”. – Wim Wenders

That Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) was Hollywood-ized as City of Angels (1998), with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, directed by Brad Silberling (Land of the Lost), is no surprise; the wonder is that it took so long. After all, a distilled synopsis of Wenders’ masterpiece reveals all the trappings of a conventional Hollywood romance.

The movie follows an angel, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), who wants to disavow his angel-hood so he can experience the sensations of the physical world. The physical world is here embodied by Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a waitress who flies like an angel when she is on the trapeze. Thus, at its heart, Wings of Desire is a boy-get-girl story, one that is not so unlike the romances that are cluttering your multiplex at this very moment.

The complication is that one lover resides in the material world, the other in the spiritual. Typically, this would be quite the complication indeed, but in Wenders’ Berlin, boundaries are fluid, and, as is the case with any exceptional romance, the question is never “if” these two will fall in love; rather, it’s really just a matter of “when”.

But this oversimplified summary is the only thing about this movie that adheres to conventions. In fact, the emphasis on Damiel and Marion accounts for less than half of this two-plus hour film. Wenders and his writing partner Peter Handke fail to even introduce their heroine until 25-minutes in, a choice that surely would have been reversed if they would have subjected their work to the normal process of workshop and conform. Marion then appears only intermittently—at the 55th minute and again at the 1:10 mark—before she becomes an actual focal point for the final quarter of the film. She doesn’t even know that she wants her knight in tarnished armor until they unite in the movie’s closing minutes.

Normally, in a story in which the lovers are destined for one another in the end, the filmmaker stretches things out by including a best friend who has problems of his or her own, or by contriving reason after reason why the lovers can’t be together (he has to focus less on his work; she must give up someone who is all wrong for her, to name but two of the more hackneyed examples). Thankfully, Wenders resorts to no such methods. Rather than stringing the audience along by devising ways to keep Damiel and Marion apart, he instead fills the space between their encounters with—gasp—ideas! Not that ideas and romance somehow cancel one another out, but they rarely coexist to the degree that they do in Wings of Desire.

One such idea is that the lives of angels may not be so heavenly after all. Or at least the lives of these angels aren’t. These angels look more like gangsters than cherubim, what with their knee-length coats, their slicked back hair, and their steely gaze. They pass each other in the library and acknowledge one another with unfeeling nods. They sit on tops of buildings, not clouds, and as they look down, you will be forgiven if you think that they look like they might want to jump.

But their greatest curse is that they are subjected to every thought by every person below. The thoughts are communicated via voiceover (italicized subtitles for those of you who, like me, don’t know German), and they are accompanied by scene after scene of silence and implication: a man walks through an unkempt room and thinks “Still smells the same, only dustier”, as a picture of a stern-looking woman hangs on the wall; another man picks his teeth as he wonders what will come of his rock 'n' roll obsessed son; “Blackie, I think I’m lost”, says a woman to her dog as she speeds down the motorway. (The scenes of people in cars reminded me that REM borrowed this device for their video, “Everybody Hurts”.)

The images are shot in stunning black and white by renowned Director of Photography Henri Alekan, and the text is drawn from a series of monologues that Handke provided for Wenders. The grace of Wenders’ camera movements creates nothing less than a kind of cinematic poetry, and, yes, I am aware how pretentious that sounds. But consider even a stationary scene in which Damiel and his angel-comrade Cassiel (Otto Sander) visit in the front seat of a BMW convertible, the showroom lights above reflecting in a full quarter of the windshield.

They are checking in with one another, a familiar ritual of going over their notes from the previous day, and Damiel says, “It’s wonderful to live as spirit and testify for all eternity to only what is spiritual in people’s minds. But sometimes I get fed up with this spiritual existence. I don’t want to always hover above. I’d rather feel a weight within, casting off this boundless freedom and tying me to the earth. At every step, every gust of wind, I’d like to be able to say ‘Now’ and ‘now’ and ‘now’”. Otto listens patiently as Damiel holds forth for a full two and a half minutes, an eternity in movie time. But this isn’t movie speak. This is literature.

A potential knock on Wings of Desire is that it is such a fine example of film as high art that it just begs for ridicule: the black and white with purposeful bursts of color, the subtitles, the overly stylized shots and movements, the glacial pace at which the camera moves, the haunting chamber-music-ish soundtrack. If Saturday Night Live were to parody an art film, they would use Wings of Desire as their model.

One aspect of the movie that defends it against such accusations is that, serious though it may be, Wings of Desire does not take itself too seriously. This willingness to “play” is best exemplified by the way it handles the one actor who would be instantly recognizable to American audiences: Peter Falk, Columbo himself. The credits bill Falk as a “Special Appearance by”, and special it is, indeed.

He plays himself, and his movie self is in Berlin shooting a movie about World War II (another aspect rife for ridicule). The reveal of exactly how Falk fits into the story is too much fun for me to spoil here, so I’ll just say that he carries himself with a lightness that permits the audience to smile. A scene in which a group of boys think they see Columbo before denying that he would ever be in a dump like this shows just how good a sport Falk must have been.

Readers of PopMatters might be especially interested to know that Wings of Desire includes another pop-cultural cameo: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play “From Here to Eternity” during the movie’s climactic scene. This is the Nick Cave show you always wanted to see. It takes place in a small, gothic-looking club in Berlin, and, while Wenders isn’t exactly generous with the amount of screen time that he grants the band, there is enough there to make you (1) realize how bad ass they were back then and (2) vow that next time they come through town, you’ll be sure to check them out. This is footage for the vault.

The new Criterion release of Wings of Desire receives the full Criterion treatment. Disc 1 of this two-disc set includes a restored, high-definition digital transfer of the film and a feature-length audio commentary. The commentary is cobbled together from interviews with Wenders and Falk from 1996–97, but it is cut in such a way that it seems as if it were recorded specifically for this edition.

Disc 2 includes a handful of documentaries, an interview with Alekan, deleted scenes and outtakes, and notes and photos by the art directors, to name but a few of its treasures. The 45-minute documentary The Angels Among Us (2003) is especially noteworthy as Wenders, Handke, and others talk about the unique way that the movie came to be (much of this information is repeated in the commentary, which underwhelmed me perhaps because I heard it here first).

For those of you who have seen the movie before, I recommend starting with the documentary as a way of whetting your appetite and enriching your (re)viewing experience. For those of you who are lucky enough to experience Wings of Desire for the first time, just dive right in, and explore disc 2 after the fact. Everyone, however, should be sure to eventually take in the 30-minutes of deleted scenes, if only to witness the alternate ending. One wonders if the reviews would have glowed quite so much if Wenders would have opted to go this route.

In addition to all of these visual goodies, Criterion also throws in a 28-page booklet that includes a poem by Handke that is featured in the film, an essay by Michael Atkinson, and a portion of the first treatment of Wings of Desire, written by Wenders himself. The excerpt is called “An Attempted Description of an Indescribable Film”, and it reads more like a journal than anything that one would present to, say, a studio executive. It starts, “At first it’s not possible to describe anything beyond a wish or a desire. That’s how it begins, making a film, writing a book, painting a picture, composing a tune, generally creating something. You have a wish”. Later he writes, “I’m not after a ‘screenplay’ here. All I can do is go on describing what’s ‘ghosting around’ in my imagination”. It has its moments of analysis and insight, but you get the idea.

I confess that as I re-read this review, I’m experiencing firsthand what Wenders means by “an attempted description of an indescribable film”. I feel like I got it right, for the most part anyway. But there were 40 more lines that I could have quoted directly. And I never did talk about how this is the quintessential “city” film. And somehow I didn’t even mention the documentary that is spliced into the middle (see disc 2). Or the sequel. Heck, I wasn’t even able to work in the line that was originally going to be my lead: “Wings of Desire is a great film that would be a good one if it weren’t so flawed”.

Atkinson begins his essay, “If ever there was a European art film that could be all things to all people, it’s Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire”. I don’t think we need to descend into that kind of relativism, but I do think that much of what makes this film great cannot be explained (not in 2,000 words or less, anyway, not by me). You really have to experience it for yourself.

If you Google the phrase “Criterion has done it again”, you will get 37,500 hits. I have a hunch that now that Wings of Desire is back on the streets, this number is going to increase significantly.

10

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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