Wings to attempt to land
We often hope the same thing will happen to movies as to planes: that they take off. But when we see them on television, on a background of wallpaper, we worry that they fall onto us like peeled off paper, disappointing and even sticky. We should change our metaphors and, to stick with aerial ones, hope that movies land well and touch down elegantly on the grey runway of the small television screen. Movies made for the cinema land on television as coming from above, from a screen high up or from the sky, from a real sky with black and white clouds and rains of fallen angels, like in a Wim Wenders’ film, one of the first to have made the sky return as one of the objects of cinema (1).Published in Libération on November 3rd, 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à mains, Aléas éditeur, Lyon, 1991. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar.
How to make a movie take off when its characters have only one goal: landing? That’s the impossible equation that Wenders has laid down, if not solved, in Wings of desire (1987). A strange and unique film, yet laborious, whose ideal spectator would be a floating Cartesian devil searching, between the boredom of the sky (Himmel) and the prison that is Earth (Berlin), a ‘strange place’ (über), to witness the aerial encounter between Damiel the angel and Marion the trapeze artist.
For the movie to function in the weightlessness of suspended desire, Wenders must navigate between two nostalgias: of the sky (and the era when silent cinema wasn’t afraid to film the sky) and of the Earth (and the era when talking cinema wasn’t afraid to lay down everything at man-level). A professional melancholic, Wenders knows he needs an increasingly heavy and complex machine (as heavy as Peter Handke’s pretentious texts and as complex as Henri Alkan’s beautiful light) “to be able, at each step, at each gust of wind, to say: Now”. What happens to the hic et nunc when nunc is jetzt and that’s the snag?
Wings of desire has something akin to Mission: Impossible: a desire for a desire which gets lost in a theory of wings; wing beats which get lost in a theory of desire. As if, to dare advance one step in the world above, we had to make the whole world below parade one last time. That’s the common fate of today’s (good) filmmakers: the present (jetzt) in their films is just the mystical short-circuit between a past and a future which are equally anterior. Among the filmmakers that Wenders admires – Ford and Ozu –, past and future were not yet anterior. Their films told stories. It was before fiction regressed towards the fictitious and the fictitious returned to the virtual, i.e. the programmable.
Something cruel happens to Wings of desire which is confirmed when seen on television. The film is never as beautiful and moving as at the beginning, when angels are doing for us a fantastic scouting of locations over the city of Berlin, this magnificent microcosm. Why? Because we don’t know yet who is who and who wants what. The desire is still on our side. When it swings over to the other side – Damiel’s – we no longer know how to make this desire ours and we start, before the film, our descent towards the ending (even if the director finishes the movie with “to be continued”).
It’s not that the movie lack emotions, it’s just that, in this movie, Wenders has managed to invent a world without contradictions, with no hate nor desire, solitary and reconciled. The erroneous French title mentions desire when it’s really about pleasure [jouissance]: pleasure to be here, neither to take off nor to land, with a bleeding body who knows the taste of coffee and who can feel “his framework advance when walking” (2).
This is why this fascinating and overestimated movie is essentially exotic. True exoticism (and Wenders, as a great traveller, knows it well) doesn’t mean opening wide eyes like a stupid tourist simply because he feels dépaysé, it means entering an unknown world as if we’ve always lived in it, less to see it than to feel with one’s body the effect it has on those who are not born in it. And if exoticism is the truth of this film, it is logical that the spectator experience it with the angels, and that he finds it more absorbing than the experience angels have with him.
Wenders may well never think evil but there is nonetheless a minimal threshold of voyeurism below which cinema is no longer worth it.
(1) The sky has become again an object of cinema in the 80s. Two moments: the beginning of Passion (Godard) and of Ran (Kurosawa).
(2) Something doesn’t work in these subtle and sensitive movies that are Woody Allen’s The purple rose of Cairo and Wings of desire. Why? Why is the return to Earth betrayed by cinema?