18 September 2008

What's It About?


The first question you get about a film from some people is: "what's it about?" As if the sum total of a movie can be delineated by some basic plot points.

Yet if you rave to someone about a song you're unlikely to be asked: "what are the words?"

Basic plot points are all well and good but often are totally insufficient in understanding a movie. Sure you can tell someone what Cabaret (1972) or Breathless (1960) are "about" but in doing so are you really giving them any sense of the artistry of either film?

In some cases "what a movie is about" is in my mind of secondary importance. Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1975) and Chaplin's City Lights (1931) to use to totally unrelated films as examples, are less about their central story lines and much more about mood, scenes and characters.

Movies are both visual and aural experiences and those aspects can seldom be expressed through plot points.

All this came to mind after I watched Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987). I can tell you that it centers around two Berlin based angels and that one of them falls in love and wants to become human. I can add that Peter Falk appears as himself and that the angel's love interest is a trapeze artist. If you're unfamiliar with the movie you then might conclude that this is an awfully silly movie and that I must be joking when I say I love it.

Not silly and I'm not joking.

Der Himmel Uber Berlin, as it is known in Germany, stars Bruno Gansz. Meaning that Gansz has played both an angel and Adolph Hitler (in 2004's The Downfall). Just for variety's sake he was a waiter in the Italian film Bread & tulips (2000) and took on the role of Faust in a German TV epic. His long time friend Otto Sander co starred in Wings of Desire as the co angel.

Wings of Desire is a beautiful film to watch. It was strategically shot in black and white, except, again strategically, for a few scenes in color, by legendary French cinema-photographer Henri Alekan. The score is not beautiful to listen to but is haunting and absolutely appropriate.

Through the faces of the actors, the manner in which the film is shot and scored a mood is created that lasts from start to finish. Maybe that's part of the best answer to the question of what this movie is about. Mood. Thoughts (which we both hear literally and intuit subtly). Meditations on life, eternity, chance and love.

The movie also co stars the city of Berlin. Indeed Wenders’ original intent was to make a film celebrating his favorite german city. Actually he quite succeeded though most of us remember the movie more for its other gifts.

Wings of Desire was in many respects a terribly ambitious film to make. It could quite easily have become maudlin and self indulgent. Instead it won Wenders the best director award at Cannes and went on to be a critical and popular smash.

Surely its appeal is that it takes what is potentially a totally cerebral story and touches our emotions. We are allowed to luxuriate in the free flowing story, following the angels as they follow humans. I could add that it is a totally unpredictable movie but that would suggest that one could conceive to follow the story in a linear fashion.
Wings of Desire is not to be watched but to be experienced.

Don’t ask what its about, ask how it feels. (Quite good.)

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