Als das Kind Kind war...
Recently, I revisited the “City of Angels” soundtrack, a real basket of gems with one each among the best tunes by Sarah McLachlan, U2, and Alanis, plus a great prog-rocky piece by Peter Gabriel and some classic Hendrix. It’s a hard album to just leave on in the background, jumping between styles with what can feel like the speed of channel surfing. But, moving on...
I think I’ve nailed down my reasons for increasing dislike of the American remake of Wim Wenders’ colossal “Himmel ueber Berlin”. Plenty of people on the IMDb have bashed CoA as boring, as heavy-handed, as “horrible, sentimental garbage”, and it is certainly all of that, although not unworthy enough of a spiteful “1” vote. But, no, the real reason it’s so terrible is that it has taken the profound, pervasive theme of the original and swapped it out for lame cliches. In the process, it bears witness against typical (late 20th) American palettes of desire and loss. And by looking just a little deeper, the filmmakers had every opportunity to avoid this insult.
The theme of “Himmel ueber Berlin” is foreignness. It takes place, of course, in a divided city, whose halves simultaneously face societal unity and division, where a physical symbol of disconnect looms large. The central human characters are: a French acrobat with a traveling circus, disconnected as a foreigner and as a performer; and Peter Falk, whom nobody can help seeing as Columbo. And then there are the disconnects of time and memory: an old man visits Potsdamerplatz, in his mind a bustling center, now a weed-choked lot. A poem runs throughout the film, concerning the loss of childlike virtues in the adult. Foreignness goes down to the smallest detail, as when Nick Cave’s inner monologue reassures himself that he’s “not gonna tell you about the girl”, just before he takes the mike and introduces a number with, “I’m gonna tell ya about a girl.” And, of course, there are the angels who want to be human, and the human who wants to be an angel.
What then, is the comparable theme of “City of Angels”, in a city not devastated by change or separation (and seemingly chosen only on account of its name), where all of the principals seem to be true blue Americans? What jumps out at me is: death and sex. Looking back, it’s striking how little death per se is present in HuB. The suicide witnessed by Cassiel, of course, but even there, the death seems less significant than the despair. But in CoA, death is everywhere. The acrobat has been replaced by a surgeon, whose chief source of despair is children passing on “before their time”. Peter Falk is replaced by Dennis Franz, whose character is introduced as suffering from serious health problems. And, of course, the ending, and the realization that when one “takes the good with the bad” as a human, death is the Big Bad.
And the Big Good is sex. Not the notch-in-your-belt kind, of course, or the sixties love-in kind, but the cheesy chick flic kind. One reviewer nailed in, writing that in the post-“Top Secret” era, he couldn’t believe anyone would try to play a fireside sex scene straight. In a cabin, mind you, on a quiet wooded lagoon up at Tahoe. For anyone with any ironic sense whatsoever, it’s a far cry from the rich erotica in Berlin clubs or outside a performer’s trailer at night.
What’s makes CoA so disappointing, even insulting, is that the United States, and particularly Southern California, has more than its share of foreignness, personal displacement, and roles that disguise the real person. The characters could have been a Guatemalan immigrant, a tabloid-hunted sitcom star, a “VH1 Where Are They Now?” aging rocker, a newly-imported Yao Ming type playing for the Lakers, or a bazillion other interesting things that would Americanize the theme of HuB as well as being more inherently interesting than a generic “cute lady doctor” or a generic “very sick man”. There could have been some real feel for the rich local culture, instead of some generic muggers, a generic homeless dude, and, you get the picture. And, yes, I like the soundtrack, but jeez, somebody really decided to remake “Himmel ueber Berlin” in L.A. and not have any scenes of real musicians performing in local clubs? The fallen angel could have been Gwen Stefani; that would have been fucking awesome.
What I’m particularly looking for response on is: whether the mass American audience is really so incapable of artistic appreciation for themes as rich as displacement or isolation, such that it demands a explicit payoff of sex, death, or close escape from death, to keep engaged. That’s the question that continues to emerge from contrast of this great film with this mediocre one.