Wings not desired
Simply assuming that human goodness will triumph over its opposite is — as everybody knows — an immature stance. It makes us easy targets for scoundrels of all stripes; and so we train naiveté out of our children and discourage it in ourselves. But — as everybody also knows — becoming stuck in red-alert mode provokes as many ugly crises as it’s meant to head off.
Crunching into cinematic gear, we are now up Shawshank Creek without a Redemptive Paddle. While the body count rises, we see our moral compass disappearing into the same black hole as the road — never mind the map; and as the desperate days go by, we know with more and more certainty that anyone claiming to have had even the ghostliest sighting of these missing items is probably a child, an idiot, or the UN Secretary General.
Or it might just be a film director, auditioning for one of the above parts and, in the meantime, driving his or her producers to ever-greater depths of substance-and-process abuse. On behalf of troubled film entrepreneurs everywhere I’d therefore like to nominate D. W. Griffith as the One Who Started It All with Broken Blossoms (right, 1919).
I became interested in this movie because it happens to be in the personal top ten of Aki Kaurismäki, director of The Man Without a Past (Finland, 2002). The latter is now definitely in my own list of all-time favourites; and though the two films have no obvious connections, central to both is the subject of idealism — cruelly defeated in a Tragedy set in post World War I London, defiantly triumphant in a Comedy set in modern Helsinki.
After the horrors of 1914-1918, Griffith goes East to rediscover positive notions of civilization. More daringly than the average orientalist, he also goes right out to suggest that international harmony might be enhanced by the unprejudiced power of love. Without a hint of the doctrinaire, Griffiths is here relying on something not over-frequently acknowledged: that Sex and Spirituality are manifestations of the same underlying human impulse.
The director rightly assumes that — since Daphnis and Chloe and no doubt way before — all true lovers have understood this phenomenon perfectly well. Griffiths is also aware that, unhappily, they have also had some experience of the initially baffling and finally crushing rejection of such ideals.
The Yellow Man and the Girl (as Broken Blossoms is also known) moves boldly and sensitively through this territory, which is enough in itself to ensure surviving interest in the film. Among its other achievements are some dramatic lighting effects from cinematographer Billy Bitzer. Even so I confess that, without Kaurismäki’s encouragement, I doubt if I could have seen past the traces of melodrama which, at times, hang heavily over this old silent. My own worst difficulty was with the “brutality” of the heroine’s father. Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is much too bluff a cove to convince me of his “dark” side, though Lillian Gish certainly does full justice to The Girl’s utterly anguishing vulnerability.
Kaurismäki’s story-telling is as daring as that of Griffith’s and it, too, courts disaster in its rather abstract, Bildungsroman approach to character; but, as part of its main purpose, The Man Without a Past treats the whole issue of Identity as a mere starting point for a much wider discussion of ideas.
After a savage assault by a gang of thieves, M (Markku Peltola) suffers total amnesia. But when the hero ups and leaves hospital soon after admission, it becomes clear that this isn’t going to be just another plodding tour of a “fascinating” former existence. A “Past” which only ties people too closely to fixed ideas about “Personality” is — for this writer/director — pretty uninteresting stuff; indeed, for Kaurismäki life only gets exciting when a blindly robotic “I” gives way to a more adaptive/creative “We.”
Meanwhile, M soon finds himself among the broken bits of humanity kept alive by the Salvation Army in the remoter regions of Helsinki’s dockland. Home, if you’re one of the lucky ones, is now a disused freight container, though this doesn’t stop the local “estate” manager from making a nuisance of himself with his little scams. Whatever they were before, M’s circumstances are therefore a long way below anything that could be called “bourgeois.” In fact, it turns out that M used to be a metal worker; but — remembering that this is a Scandinavian film — no damning class nuances are derived from that quarter. On the contrary, amnesia frees M to be a metal-worker plus anything else he might now choose to become.
On this logic, a generally lowered material expectancy is seen as an opportunity for spiritual progress; and the clearest sign of this is in his growing and finally requited love for Salvation Army worker Irma (Kati Outinen). En route, we also see M take on the role of agent for the Sally Army pop-group. There’s some great retro-rock here, by the way; and not only is the Devil denied possession of all the best tunes, Rock and Gospel are as freely mixed as in the marvellous Ray Charles biopic, Ray (Taylor Hackford,2004).
Along M’s way, a loveless previous marriage is discovered and by mutual agreement quickly jettisoned; and — oh yes — the human flotsam and jetsam around the docks, encouraged by M, stand together bravely enough to see off that original gang of robbers. I went along with pretty much all of this, because — funny though the film often is — Kaurismäki is more than a social satirist: here, at any rate, he is a wonderfully enchanting fabulist.
I remember, for example, the quality of the afternoon sunlight in the scene where M gardens on a scratch of land outside his “home.” Cinematographer Timo Salminen stands in for Billy Bitzer here with a scene that recalls Kaurismäki’s interest in early cinema; but it is the light of fable rather than any academic point of interest that really stays in the mind. It also helps explain why some of us end up with a great yen to go and live in a dockside freight container, happily hitched to a plain but devoted Sally Army gal. Tom Sawyer whitewashing that fence had a similarly improbable effect on Ben Rogers; and indeed we’re talking about a quality of writing which — at the formal level — is often associated with young audiences.
A writer/director who makes very recognisable use of fable is Tim Burton. Unsurprisingly to its admirers, Edward Scissorhands (1990) seems set to go on and on winning new audiences; and if I had to single out only one factor to explain this it would be the sublime acting of Johnny Depp and, indeed, the entire cast. Alan Arkin’s under-exuberant head of the family especially comes to mind. His alternatives about what a well-brought-up young person should do if he suddenly finds a lot of money has surrogate-son Edward — and his surrogate siblings — going for the “nice” option: “give it to your friends.” But as Dad patiently explains: “This isn’t about nice. This is about right and wrong.”
There’s no serious question about the correct choice — handing the money over to the authorities. But, as fairy-tales are so good at reminding us, real-world decisions often involve us in much weirder stuff than we’d like. When asked about proportionality in Israel’s attempts to defend herself from Hezbollah’s rockets, former Prime Minister Barak recently explained that: “This isn’t about proportionality; this is about principle.” With a bloody war still being fought, I quickly add that any humour here depends on acknowledging the frequent bizarrerie of all human logic, irrespective of nation or creed.
Edward Scissorhands is an important movie precisely because it explores this area of human vulnerability so carefully. More positively, it’s also an example of Sex and Spirituality teaming up again — in this case to provide lasting, inspirational memories for Boy and Girl. In time-honoured fairy-tale tradition, Sex is spiritualised essentially by not happening. Forever anticipatory, it remains forever cherished and, again, lovers, young and old, would be the last to deny this view of reality.
Less reassuringly, the circumstances of Edward’s final exile suggest that, when sexual rivalry makes its presence felt, violence is inevitable — even for the most innocent of us. But in Burton’s fable, even this biological fatefulness is somehow mitigated by an ability to stick with our creative potential. More important still is the film’s central thesis — that our strengths and weaknesses come in the same inseparable bundle of sense and nonsense that makes us whatever we are. Burton’s writing is very strong here; and anyone who’s had to part with a “difficult” friend or relative knows, with painful clarity, that they’ve also lost access to some irreplaceable gifts.
Under the theme Sex-and-Spirituality in cinema, I’m somewhat uncomfortable mentioning the amazing work of another writer/director — Studio Ghibli’s master-magician, Hayao Miyazaki. The worldview of ten-year-old girls has probably never been better explored; but this means that Miyazaki’s typical product is more about spirituality than about sex. Helping to make the point, the early piece Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1985) looks increasingly exceptional with its frankly nubile heroine.
As is sometimes almost too apparent, what’s emerged over the years is that quintessential Miyazaki trademark, Green Spirituality. At the pictorial level, this has resulted in some of the most literally amazing effects ever seen on screen. Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001) have both more than deserved to triumph in the West in the way that they have. Interestingly enough, however, both these “green” stories are told with what, for Miyazaki, is an unusually generous sprinkling of distinctly Japanese ideas, especially those of Shinto. For me, it’s more than a coincidence that this unapologetic “alien” material is associated with such a positive increase in awareness of Miyazaki’s work.
As for sexual love, Princess Mononoke, like Edward Scissorhands, offers a vision of something at least half-anticipated, never enacted, and therefore always inspiring. In most of his films, though, Miyazaki’s real forte seems to be extremely accurate psychological portraits of late childhood. This, too, is part of his Japanese endowment, which can be traced in many cultural products, ancient and modern. To take only one example, I think of the films of mid-20th-century director Yazujiro Ozu — especially,Good Morning (1959); oddly enough, this also has the timeless quality associated with fable, though it derives here from a strictly realistic faithfulness to childhood experience.
In Miyazaki’s work this latter focus is best displayed, I think, in My Neighbour Totoro(1988).
Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete (1946) remains for me the supreme illustration of Sex-and-Spirituality as expressed in cinematic terms. That it was made in so short a time at such comparatively small expense only adds to my sense of wonder. Wim Wenders is obviously among those who have felt the same way; but in Wings of Desire(1987) not only did he make his own homage to the ’40s film, he also managed to lure Cocteau’s hugely gifted original cinematographer, Henri Alekan, onto his team.
The result is a film that has you thinking about Cocteau from the opening titles onwards. This is just as well, perhaps, because Wenders’ complex ambitions throw few other lifelines our way. The original title, Heaven over Berlin/Der Himmel uber Berlin, compared with the one chosen, helps reveal the seemingly impossible stretch Wenders is trying to perform here. Plot there is none, nor any concessions to glamorous youth in the choice of heroes. Everything depends on the slow evocation of mood and atmosphere and — yes — on a deeply philosophical statement about Sex-and-Spirituality.
Two angels — we know they’re angels because, as well as sombre trench coats, they also sport wings — mingle invisibly and impassively with ordinary Berliners. Having the power to overhear the troubled thoughts of these good citizens, their job seems to be to make discrete but helpful interventions. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that Damiel (Bruno Gang) is displaying a less than totally disinterested concern for Marion (Solveig Dommartin). She works at the Cirque Alekan as a trapeze artist; and when scenes start shifting from black-and-white to colour and at the same time Damien starts becoming visible to people — especially to Marion — we know that love is in the air.
Through the character played by Peter Falk (Der Filmstar), Damiel gets to see that, even for angels, becoming more completely human is not only desirable but actually realisable. Falk was an angel once himself; but he has not only woken up and smelt the coffee, he’s acquired a healthy taste for excellent tobacco as well. What’s more, if you can’t feel the cold, how can you enjoy simple pleasures like rubbing your hands together for warmth?
At this point you’d be right in guessing that I was less than totally convinced by the mechanics of this fable; but it would nevertheless be wrong to say that I found the whole thing a self-indulgent — even “bourgeois” — mess. Apart from Alekan’s cinematography, there is something genuinely absorbing going on here; and — “bourgeois” phenomenon or not — it’s probably best described as a dream of hope. The specific hope in question surrounds love and guilt: is it possible that our desires can be earthy enough to be true and yet spiritual enough to be guilt-free? Wenders’ answer is “Watch this space” — or, in the words of the film’s closing caption, “To be continued.”
Damiel and Marion are left on the very cusp of consummated desire — that awkward presexual position which we’ve seen in so many other fairy-tales and fables. But fables are “true” only as they seem relevant to actual experience; and though it is indeed quite a migratory haul, riding on the Wings of Desire we finally make a successful landfall.
For obvious reasons, perhaps, the guilt and gloom associated with being “too good,” as opposed to its opposite, is certainly not an easy subject to bring to life. That it can be done convincingly is therefore less remarkable than that it should be done at all. But at least one other film of my acquaintance manages the job — albeit without the apparatus of fairy-tale.
Flavour of Green Tea over Rice (Yasujiro Ozu, 1952) posits a couple whose relationship has gone stale, but not for want of “correct” behaviour by either partner. The title of the film refers to the belated rediscovery of simple, spontaneous pleasures: described by the husband in Ozu’s film as “comfortable, primitive, and relaxing,” one such moment — in the form of a midnight raid on the kitchen — has just saved his marriage.
But too much social correctness can’t carry all the blame for guilt and gloom; and, for me, the deepest connection between Wenders and Ozu — in this context at any rate — is more to do with yearnings for release from a national sense of war guilt than any other factor. No censure of mine on mid-20th-century Germany and Japan is implied here; on the contrary, I can only sympathise with those who — often innocent themselves of any special wrongdoing — have had to live with undiscriminating, collective shame.
Though one sees, perhaps, why the film had such a special impact on Wenders, a much more personal shame — and release from it — is at the heart of La Belle et la Bete. Here, Cocteau’s notoriously self-conscious literary style is brought under the control of his much more disciplined visual artistry. The result is a magical tour de force which, among other things, deeply undermines all parochial views of human guilt. This is precisely not about war crimes or even that stalwart of so many mid-20th-century European films — Catholic guilt. In the land of true fables, a Beast is a Beast is a Beast. Being unable to love, except furtively and greedily, is a problem for anyone so afflicted. But the corollary here is that anyone can also be transformed into something more human, especially when the love they feel is both open and patient. By the end of the film, all this is made wonderfully clear.
Improbably enough, it turns out that Cocteau shares with D. W. Griffith an unerring sense of what is universal to human experience. Because of this it’s not enough to see him as, for example, just another misty-eyed orientalist, well versed though he was in Hindu-Buddhist culture. With the help of fairy-tale, La Belle et la Bete enters into a fully-committed view of something much more truly global.
Helping to show that some forms of guilt and self-disgust really are universal — and at least as Buddhist as they are Roman Catholic — I conclude by mentioning Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964). Based on another of those medieval ghost stories which Shindo specialises in, this powerful film seems to show Sex-and-Spirituality finally coalescing around anything but life-affirming values. The terror of being stuck behind a mask of rapaciousness — to remain forever The Beast — is, of course, meant to inspire us to follow wiser paths. But as we’ve just been seeing, this shouldn’t come to mean something so straight and narrow that we end up jumping the queue for our halo and wings and — worse still — making premature angels of everyone else.