As part of their Summer Nights/Cool Cinema series, the Walker Art Center recently showed Wim Wender’s poetic masterpiece Wings of Desire, a movie I loved when it was released in the late 80s. For some reason, I hadn’t seen it in about twenty years, so I was excited to see it again on the big screen. It didn’t disappoint.
At least, it didn’t disappoint me. The women occupying the seats immediately to my right clearly had a different opinion. When the closing credits announced, “Dedicated to all the former angels, but especially to Yasujiro [Ozu], Francois [Truffaut] and Andrej [Tarkovsky],” one of them guffawed dismissively. There was a pause before one of them—the same woman?—said, with irritation, “That movie was soooo long … slow … and BORING!” Soon the women launched into a litany of complaints about their experience: the movie had started late and then the plot hadn’t kicked in until about the hour and a half mark … I stopped listening. It wasn’t very interesting.
Granted, if they didn’t like the movie, they didn’t like the movie. But I wondered what they were expecting. First, it’s not like Wings of Desire hasn’t been written about. They could have read reviews of the film online to determine if it would be their kind of thing, though not if they only looked at the Tomatometer or Metacritic ratings. [I address what I think of those impoverished ways of assessing movies in the comment section of my post Bad Review! BAD Review!.] And second, it was showing at the Walker Art Center, a contemporary art museum that for the average viewer elicits responses like this one from Yelp!: “I’m an artist. Ive [sic] been in all types of Art [sic] galleries in the US and abroad. This was the worst. Just a bunch of conceptual crap. By no means art.” So it’s unrealistic to expect that something along the lines of a Hollywood blockbuster would be screened there.
What were they expecting? It’s a Wonderful Life? When I asked myself that, I suddenly remembered that I used to think of Wings of Desire as an antidote to the melodramatic treacle of It’s a Wonderful Life. More specifically, I thought the examples Wings of Desire gave when extolling life were more compelling and touching than the claptrap proffered in It’s a Wonderful Life about why George Bailey shouldn’t commit suicide. Clarence, George’s guardian angel, reveals that had George not existed, life in Bedford Falls would have been awful, and everyone whom George loves would have suffered miserably.
Even when I was in my teens that struck me as nonsense. It’s not that the world wouldn’t be different if I, or anybody or anything else, hadn’t existed. Of course it would. But does the world have to go to hell because I don’t exist? Is that the only compelling reason for living? What if it didn’t? What if one wasn’t as good a man as George Bailey? I’m certainly not.
But one doesn’t have to be extraordinary to have reason to live. The joy of life is far more mundane and moving. It is expressed in a memorable scene in Wings of Desire, when Peter Falk speaks to Damiel, the angel played by Bruno Ganz, who, invisible to all but children, has watched over Falk while the actor is in Berlin for a movie shoot. Falk tells the surprised Damiel:
“I can’t see you, but I know you’re here. I feel it. You’ve been hanging around since I got here. I wish I could see your face. Just look into your eyes and tell you how good it is to be here. Just to touch something. See that’s cold; that feels good. Or to smoke. Have coffee. Or if you do it together, that’s fantastic. Or to draw. You know, you take a pencil and you make a dark line, then you make a light line and together it’s a good line. Or when your hands are cold and you rub them together. See that’s good, that feels good. There’s so many good things, but you’re not here. I’m here. I wish you were here. I wish you could talk to me…cuz I’m a friend.”
Looking into a friend’s eyes, touching something cold, having coffee. It is in these everyday gestures and experiences that life is experienced and enjoyed, that life is lived. This isn’t solipsism, though. Falk makes that clear, stressing the superiority of sharing these gestures and experiences with another. It is fantastic to smoke or have coffee together, the dark and light lines together make a good line, hands rubbed together feel good. None of this is extraordinary. It is very, very ordinary, and it is more than reason enough to live.