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Although it’s not mentioned specifically, the ads and trailers for City of Angels indicate that it’s a dire remake of Wings of Desire. But critics and audiences aren’t pretending to be fooled. Then again, the trailers could pass as a parody of the out-of-control remake frenzy: Nicolas Cage is the soulful angel, mooning about the operating room of the kewpie heart surgeon Meg Ryan; he and his partner (Homicide’s Andre Braugher) discuss the possibility of “falling,” or becoming human, but wait until they meet the fiesty, life-loving ex-angel who actually did it (NYPD Blue’s Dennis Franz)! And it’s all set in Los Angeles, so guess what they’re calling it?
As it turns out, the piece of marshmallowy Harlequin Romance mysticism is the farthest thing in tone, complexity, and, finally, even story from Wim Wenders’ elegiac paean to the eternal souls that swing between earth and heaven in the ever-shifting landscape of Berlin. But the filmmakers’ and marketers’ coyness suggests City of Angels owes its existence to very different motives to begin with. Like, say, “Hey, it’s not too late to jump on this ‘angel’ wheeze—we could make a damn fortune.”
City of Angels borrows its populist trappings from familiar sources so as to bring believability to the angels-are-everywhere premise without requiring any of those pesky explanations. A chaste modern bodice-ripper gussied up like an hourlong cop or lawyer drama, the script posits angels atop such stunning L.A. landmarks as a sign above the 110 freeway and the Marlboro man billboard above Sunset. Since these scenes of the many moods of L.A.—congested, smog-orange at sunset, downtown sparkling under clear skies—are the same stock-footage shots that set the scene on bang-bang TV shows, they don’t quite have the poignant historical oomph of the Wender’s deployment of the Strasse 17 Juni Victory Column.
As Seth, Cage is perhaps the most annoying angel in history—and angels have been around a long time. He beams, he turns his face beatifically to the sun, he smiles smugly down on the antlike little humans. His thick, Valley-inflected voice trails off benevolently at the end of each sentence. Braugher fares better, partly because he has less to do, as befits the traditional black-guy sidekick. Ryan plays Dr. Maggie Rice, a heart surgeon at a major L.A. hospital; she’s one of those weepy, hysterical surgeons who shouldn’t be trusted with prescribing aspirin and bed rest, let alone fistfuls of heinously sharp instruments.
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When Seth appears in her operating room to “take” a patient, she locks eyes with the unseen presence. Soon he’s stalking her—manifesting himself in the stairwell where she mourns the loss of what should have been a savable patient. He’s in her bathroom watching her bathe, in her bedroom watching her change, hovering behind kitchen cabinets when she closes them; I found his serial-killer prowess terrifying, but context leads the day, I guess. The angels in their floor-length black coats are menacing presences, especially in bulk. The library is crawling with them, as is the beach at sunrise, where they gather like huge, eerily still roaches to listen to the celestial music of the sun.
Also in residence at the hospital (which is calm and light-filled and beautifully kept up; perhaps Seth should head over to USC-County General, where he’s needed) is the fat, supposedly endearing slobbo Nathan Messenger (cringe, wince), played with hedonistic but nauseating flair by Franz. He’s already taken the plunge, so he can do a little intermediary matchmaking between the doubting angel and the love-starved human. It’s hard to see Nathan as a convincing case for making the angel-to-human transition; watching him messily shovel in forkfuls of scrambled eggs while discussing free will is not exactly a celestial sight.
But Seth wants to make a move across mortal boundaries anyway—because he’s in love, and because Maggie’s beseiged by doubts about her own role in the lifesaving game. She comes over to his side, absorbing his ridiculous epigrams (“Some things are true whether you believe in them or not”—same goes for science, pal) and realizing finally that it’s the Big Guy who makes the life-or-death decisions, regardless of all the efforts of all the shiny, well-funded hospitals in the world. Great message: Have faith and eat Ben & Jerry’s for breakfast.
Seth’s mind-meld seduction of his prey is a cheat, like Bill Murray’s in Groundhog Day. Given the angelic underpinnings of his nature, his come-on should be soulful, not sneaky, but he keeps asking what it’s like to cry, to taste fruit, to feel someone’s touch. When Maggie admits she’s “full of crap,” you expect him to ask what that feels like, too. Helpful pop musical interludes by the squishy likes of Sarah McLachlan inform us of the mood with a literalness that is positively Teutonic (although Wenders let Nick Cave do the musical narration and eschewed such subtextual maunderings as “In the arms of an angel” and “I would give up heaven just to touch you”). If City of Angels is supposed to be a Ghost for the thinking woman, she’d better not think too hard.
Maybe it’s inevitable—in America, the concept of angelic intervention is beholden to fuzzy-puppy diluted-Christer claptrap, appealingly New Age-y and safely de-Godded. I’m no fan of what passes for Christianity these days, nor of the scorched-earth methods of evangelism that have led to the cult’s widespread “acceptance.” But something in my dour Scottish Presbyterian soul rears up against the sight of these moon-eyed angels and their meddling ways. Idol worship! A godless cult of sexualized seraphim! City of Angels is Wings of Desire with a big-issues bypass; it’s just about Seth’s desire to swim in the ocean, have sex, and take a hot shower, with or without the participation of his human friend. You’d think serving as a sacerdotal errand boy for Himself would fill up somebody as shallow as Cage’s character, but the flesh—incorporeal or not—is weak.
The trifling doesn’t end with the innermost needs of City’s earthly angels. Berlin has had terrible things happen to it, but L.A. is a self-made hellhole; the idea that angels, and helpless ones at that, are a city’s one constant diminishes in power exponentially in the relocation. When the Los Angeles angels tune in on motorists’ thoughts, the selfishness and pedestrian quality of their musings may or may not be a comment on the perceived shallowness of Angelenos. (One rather hopes they are: “I’m not asking for it every day, just twice a week,” thinks one frustrated driver.) But the blocked writer, the fussy children, the woeful workers of Wings of Desire were both archetypes and tenderly human. Their undilineated pain and joy and resignation resonated so strongly from the film that it finally became about these feelings, not about envy; it is still watched today because it champions the unique experience of mortality, not the shadowy purgatory of angels.
Last month in Berlin, I met a lovely, intelligent, vivacious lady who works at the state library. She told me that in addition to the occasional weirdos, she once was approached by a young French student who earnestly asked her, in German, where the angels were. “What did you say?” I asked. (I would have told him to go soak his head.) “What would anyone say?” she laughed. “They’re everywhere. Look around you. Can’t you see them?”