Wings of Desire (1987)

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The only thing that the angels in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire have in common with those found in the writings and worldviews of the world’s most prominent religions is that they are eternal beings. They don’t intervene with world affairs. They aren’t relationally connected to any deity. They have no sense of purpose or duty in their existence. They just observe humanity. They are able to hear the innermost thoughts of people, but they can’t do anything about what they learn. They just keep hearing, and they just keep existing.

Like many of my other favorite foreign films (including Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7) and two of my favorite American movies (Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terrance Mallick’s The Tree of Life), Wings of Desire is not as much of a story as it is a meditation. Wings of Desire is a meditation on loneliness, of being a spectator of life rather than a person who fully lives and engages with reality. There was an American remake of the film in 1998 starring Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan called City of Angels that I never saw, but based on the two very popular songs from the movie’s soundtrack, it’s obvious that the filmmakers completely Americanized it, gave it a story, and missed the remarkable feel of this great film. That’s not to say the remake is bad, I haven’t seen it, so I won’t do that, but I do know that it is definitely a completely different artistic vision and a complete different experience for viewers.

The Goo Goo Dolls song “Iris” is the romantic story of willingness to sacrifice eternity for the woman he’s in love with. But the angel in Wings of Desire doesn’t give up his immortality for a woman. He does experience romance after becoming human, but he gives up his immortality to experience anything, to drink a cup of coffee, to feel the sun, he even mentions wanting to feel pain, not just to experience romance. He gives up his mortality so he can feel and experience and be far removed from the isolated role of inactive observer that he has held for eternity past.

The Alanis Morisette song “Uninvited” is a very dark song about the horrendous price to be paid if the character makes the decision to sacrifice his immortality. But the angel in Wings of Desire doesn’t have to make a sacrifice at all. It’s obviously a difficult decision, if it wasn’t it wouldn’t have taken him millennia to make it. But he decides that knowing that he will die some day is a good price to pay for having the opportunity to live. That’s a very rational decision. The Alanis Morisette song suggests that the remake probably added a Judeo-Christian idea of angels to the story, bringing the sacrificial part of the story in making it so that becoming human would not be a rational decision for its character.

Wings of Desire creates its own world where angels just exist and observe. These angels are a metaphor for the tendency so many of us have to watch the lives of others, to compare ourselves to others, and to seek what we observe in others so intently that we miss out on living the lives we were created to live. We get so busy with things that don’t matter that we miss the miracles in simplest things of life. Watching the angel shake a man’s hand and enjoy his first cup of coffee are reminders of how the simplest of joys can be ways that we learn to really live.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

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We learn right away that Cleo has a doctor’s appointment in two hours where she’ll receive the results of tests that will tell whether or not she has cancer and the prognosis if she does. The movie does just exactly what the title tells us it will. We follow Cleo for those two hours leading up to the appointment.

We see moments of excitement where she’s convinced she’s going to get good news, and even though she doesn’t have any good reason to anticipate any of the potential answers (only the tests can answer those question), she convinces us that she’s going to be okay and we share in her joy. We also see moments where she’s convinced she’s dying. Again, she’s so convinced that she convinces us, and we feel her despair.

Then there are the moments where she just tries to live her life. She’s a professional singer, and the time she spends in the studio is filled with conflict that we realize isn’t normal. She usually gets along well with her band and the songwriter she works with, but everything’s different this day. She doesn’t express any of what she’s going through personally to her co-workers, but we can tell exactly what she’s thinking and feeling every second that she’s physically at work but mentally at that appointment that hasn’t come yet.

Corinne Marchand plays Cleo, and through most of the movie Cleo doesn’t do very much. The world goes on around her. We hear conversations going on that aren’t relevant to Cleo and therefore aren’t important to the story or to us. What matters is what’s going on inside of Cleo as the world goes on around her, while she’s going through the most anguish and anxiety she’s ever experienced in her life. Corinne Marchand makes us able to understand what’s going on inside of Cleo every second of the movie because of how expressive she is as an actor when she doesn’t speak.

Cleo from 5 to 7 is a challenging film because we’re expected to think and feel with the character, not follow a story. We’re expected to build empathy on our own, not because the story has had an emotional impact on us but just because of what she’s going through. That’s precisely what makes it a masterpiece. Corinne Marchand’s acting performance and Agnes Varda’s direction take us inside the soul of Cleo for those two hour leading up to her appointment.

As we focus on Cleo’s mental and emotional state as she awaits the news of her own mortality, we are confronted with our own views on mortality. It allows us to experience what it feels like to wait for that news and asks us to try to keep living in the midst of the waiting, just like Cleo’s forced to. But’s it not the type of living we’re used to. It’s a type of living that focuses on the reality of death, confronting our beliefs about death and what comes after death and also confronting our current life and how we’ll live differently if we get good news. Even though the movie reveals the results of Cleo’s tests at the end of the movie, they really don’t matter to our experience. As we’ve been faced with Cleo’s traumatic wait, we’re forced into our very own traumatic meditation where we ask the same questions Cleo does and we think about the same things Cleo does because they are universal realities that we all must confront but usually don’t until in a situation like Cleo’s. And going through it with Cleo is challenging and painful but ultimately hopeful and rewarding dependent on the conclusions we come to during this meditation on the shortness of life.

Easy Rider (1969)

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So we all know Billy and Wyatt start off on their journey with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” on the soundtrack. But it’s what happens before that and another Steppenwolf song on the soundtrack that makes all of Dennis Hopper’s countercultural masterpiece work. They collect the drugs from their connection that they plan to make their fortune from. They talk about getting to New Orleans in time for Mardis Gras, where they will make their money. They get on their bikes and we hear Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher.”

The song is used as kind of a prayer, very literally asking God to damn the pusher, and this is exactly what we see unfold in the rest of the movie. We see the results of their greed and their willingness to use people for their own gain without any regard for human life. “You know I’ve seen a lot of people walkin’ ’round with tombstones in their eyes, but the pusher don’t care if you live or die.” Every time Billy and Wyatt get off their bikes, we see this disregard in new, more profound ways until in the end the “prayer” is answered.

Along with playing Billy, Dennis Hopper also directed Easy Rider. He and Peter Fonda, who played Wyatt, co-wrote the screenplay. But the story unfolds so naturally, just following them on their bikes, encountering different people, that it would feel more like a travelogue than a movie if it weren’t for the opening with “The Pusher.” The two arranged everything we see in this remarkably strange and brilliant film in a way that is actually a lot like several of the psalms of the Bible. A prayer for vindication against enemies is followed with praise to God for his justice. Throughout Easy Rider, we see the results of an evil that is harming and killing many people and eventually something that looks very much like the divine justice expected in those prayers of the Psalms.

Billy and Wyatt talk a lot about freedom as they hang out with hippies and to some degree see themselves as hippies. But they’re not interested in the communal hippy lifestyle. They have their own countercultural movement that loves drugs and the idea of freedom just as much as the hippy movement did, but their idea of freedom is built on hypocrisy. The more money they get the more free they are, but of course that means that the more free they are, the more bound other people become since they have to get new people hooked on new drugs in order to reach the freedom they’re looking for. They hate corporate America because it’s too scared of freedom and wants to keep people bound, because it’s only interested in its own monetary gain at the expense of all other people. Yet they refuse to admit that their behavior is exactly the same. They refuse to admit it, that is, until they’ve just about made all they’re money. They think they’ve accomplished the point of their trip and are about to get all the money they need to make them free when Wyatt very randomly responds to Billy’s bragging about their gain by saying “Billy, we blew it.” This movie’s most famous line is an admission of hypocrisy, greed, and all types of evil that makes the way for a perfect conclusion to everything that started when they got on their bikes and headed to New Orleans while we listened to “The Pusher.”

 

 

Compulsion (1959)

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Artie (Bradford Dillman) is compelled by dangerous, violent, and perverse whims. Judd (Dean Stockwell) is compelled by Artie. Whatever Artie desires becomes Judd’s goals. Artie has gained so much power over Judd that it’s as if he thinks for him and controls his actions. This makes for a very deadly pair. Artie may think for Judd but his conscience has been completely seared and his emotions have become completely numb. So Judd is left feeling for himself, feeling his own feelings while someone else thinks for him. Because of this, though they’re a deadly pair, they’re not unstoppable. Judd’s fears, hurts, and occasional lapses of conscience hinder Artie’s desire for a completely amoral existence, and it’s also those things that Judd possesses but Artie doesn’t that eventually gets them caught.

Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion is a fictionalized version of a real murder case. The first half of the movie follows the criminal partners. It takes us deeply into Artie’s own world where morality doesn’t really exist and all that matters is what he thinks he wants at any given moment. It takes us even deeper into Judd’s process of being brainwashed into acceptance of and submission to Artie’s beliefs. As he falls deeper in compulsion to Artie’s thinking, he becomes Artie’s pawn, fulfilling Artie’s every demand. Judd does all of Artie’s dirty work until he has one of those lapses of conscience, but after each one he always quickly re-submits to Artie’s massive hold on him.

Artie and Judd are both law school students who have determined themselves above the law. One of their fellow students is suspicious of the viewpoints they express in class but not to the degree that he expected they were capable of the crimes they had already committed. This student is dating a girl who develops feelings for Judd. She has difficulty expressing or even knowing for sure if they are romantic feelings or intense sympathy for Judd. She doesn’t recognize Artie as the source of the problem, but she recognizes that he is in need and not always in control of his actions.

The second half of the movie takes us into the murder trial. The lawyer uses the girl’s sympathy for Judd as the only hope to evoke that same sympathy in the judge who had the power to sentence both boys to death. Orson Welles is credited first in the movie, though he doesn’t show up until the second half, kind of like The Third Man. He plays the boys’ attorney. He knows they’re guilty. He has no evidence to work with to make any kind of plea for them other than a guilty plea with a life sentence. He has successfully prevented previous clients from getting a death sentence, and the second half of the movie hangs entirely on the question of whether or not they will be sentenced to death.

Compulsion is as believable and as gritty as any movie about violent crime could be in 1959. It never softens the reality of what the murderers have done. It allows us to feel the weight of their destruction. We are to feel whatever portion of the victims’ terror, grief, and trauma is possible, never for a second minimizing their suffering. But first through the girl who felt sorry for Judd and secondly through the lawyer, Compulsion also asks us to feel sympathy for the perpetrators. The lawyer’s closing argument is not so much a plea for his clients as it is a very persuasive argument against the death penalty. Wherever we might land on our convictions about that issue, the movie is helps us navigate our own thoughts and beliefs about justice, about the rights (or lack of rights) of criminals, and about the value of all human life. It asks big questions that it’s not willing to answer. We have to make up our own minds, but the movie helps us to weigh both sides of the debate very thoroughly.

12 Angry Men (1957)

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Currently ranked at #5 on IMDB’s list of top 250 films according to its viewers, Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is beloved for its inspiring portrayal of justice defeating racial injustice and the ideals of the American justice system (innocent until proven guilty, guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, etc.). 12 Angry Men is actually even more than these admirable qualities. Because it’s set entirely during the jury’s deliberation, we see plenty of details of the case but all second-hand through the jurors. The movie is about the jurors, not the case or the defendant, as the title says. And being about these jurors, it is also a movie about anger.

12 different types of anger are presented through the 12 angry men. Each juror’s thinking process is influenced, maybe even controlled, by the type of anger prominent for him. The juror played by Ed Begley is controlled by his hateful anger that always refers to the defendant with phrases like “one of those people,” revealing prejudicial anger toward an entire people group that has no basis in reality. The juror played by E.G. Marshall expresses a self-righteous anger, so in love with being right that his anger manifests itself in a suspicious antagonism against anyone who disagrees with him but never in a mad, violent way like Eg Begley’s character. The juror played by Robert Weber shows a passive aggressive type of anger that tries to soften everything with jokes but at the same time uses his humor as a weapon to try to get his way showing his own anger against anyone who tries to upset the way he sees the world. The juror played by Jack Warden has the most selfish anger of the bunch, throwing childish fits whenever it looks like deliberation could prevents his plan of going to the Yankees game later in the day.

The juror played by Lee J. Cobb has the most violent outbursts of any juror in the movie. His character is also the one most developed. His anger works against him and is more effective at changing votes from guilty to not guilty than Henry Fonda’s direct attempts to do that. We learn that his anger is mostly against himself, and he takes that anger out on the defendant who reminds him his son. His anger, like all the others I’ve mentioned, threatens to stand in the way of justice being accomplished. They hinder justice because their anger hinders them from sound thinking and judgment. They’re all so bound by their prejudices and selfish ambitions that they’re unable to clearly see the facts they’re presented with.

The other jurors are all more open-minded than the others. Even though 11 initially vote guilty, the others are willing to listen to the juror played by Henry Fonda when he shares what he believes to be plenty of reasonable doubts in favor of the defendant. But that doesn’t mean that they’re any less angry than the jurors I’ve already mentioned. These all have types of anger that enhance their abilities to think well, to feel for other people, and  to do the jobs they’re there to do. Because of the relationship between anger and thinking, 12 Angry Men is just as much about critical thinking as it is about justice.

One is motivated by the anger related to his own childhood similar to that of the defendant. This anger motivates him towards beliefs that no one should have to grow up that way, it motivates him towards sympathy with the defendant, and it will not stand for the ignorance spouted by the other jurors. Another juror’s anger is about being an old man who feels ignored and disrespected. When a few of the jurors blatantly disregard him, that anger motivates him to stand up for himself and for those who are at that point in the minority in favor of acquittal. I could go on like this for all of them, but I will stop here.

Yes, that means I’m not going to talk about Henry Fonda’s anger, but that’s just because his is the easiest, he’s angry at injustice. He’s the reason the movie is so well loved, because he is the center of the movie’s view of justice. That’s great and reason enough for the movie to be as well loved as it is. There’s just a lot more to the anger than anyone ever seems to talk about, and I think it’s about time we listen to the title of the movie and learn from it, because the movie is a profound portrayal of both healthy vs. unhealthy anger. Anger affects our thinking whether for good or for bad, and this movie is about the necessity to check ourselves and our anger, is it serving our thinking as it does for the jurors I mentioned last, or is our thinking serving it like those I mentioned first?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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Shadow of a Doubt is one of the prime reasons Alfred Hitchock is considered the “master of suspense.” It’s odd, though, because the movie is an anti-mystery. In the opening scene we hear the “Merry Widow Waltz” being played and we see Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) acting very cagey as he avoids two men coming to see him. It only takes a few minutes for the viewers to realize that Charles is the merry widow murderer. This knowledge never prevents the movie from being suspenseful, because all that matters for the suspense is that his niece Charlie Oakley (Theresa Wright) doesn’t know what we know.

Charlie idolizes her uncle. I don’t mean that in a normal, healthy way that many kids and teens look up to elders as role models. I mean that she believes the world revolves around her uncle. When she experiences a crisis, she thinks that he is the only one who can make things right. She has expectations of him that no person could live up to. When she thinks her family is stuck in a rut, she turns to him assuming that he can single-handedly get them out and bring new life to the family. She has very literally made him her idol.

Charlie’s sick beliefs about her uncle were inherited from her mother Emma who is played by Patricia Collinge with so much vulnerability, compassion, tenderness, and naive trust, that we can see how her life has been shaped by her devotion to her brother and that when others say that an investigation on Charles for murder would kill her, we believe it. Emma made sure that Charlie, her first child, was named after her beloved brother. She made sure that her daughter’s life was as shaped by her idolatry of her brother as her own has been.

Charlie is a teenager and hasn’t had the time to become quite as overcome by Charles’ deception as her mother has, but she’s definitely blinded to the possibility that he has committed unspeakable evils. After repeated viewings of Shadow of a Doubt, it becomes obvious that those who do not know Charles, including Charlie’s much-younger siblings, have a lot of suspicion about Charles when he comes to “visit” (he’s actually hiding and plotting his next murder/robbery). Charlie is a very smart girl, much smarter than some of the characters who had instant suspicion that turned out to be right. The movie shows how when deception takes over in people’s lives, smart people can believe very stupid things. This was the case with her mother for years, and has become the case for Charlie throughout her whole life.

Uncle Charles’ visit includes many twists and turns where he wonders how much Charlie knows. Her life depends on how she handles the information she discovers. The suspense in the movie comes from whether or not she will be willing to face the truth as she is confronted with it that shakes the core of who she is. If she’s willing to face it, it means her own life is at risk. If she’s not willing to face it, it means many other lives are at risk.

Joseph Cotten plays the villain with such a cold, calculated demeanor that a smile or a look from him can be terrifying. He represents all the things we believe in life that are not as they seem. The character is written in such a way to reflect the reality that when trust is misplaced, the results are always disappointing and sometimes devastating for the one who chose to trust the one unworthy. Because of the idolatry shown of two family members toward Charles, there is a strong spiritual dimension to that theme of trust. As Charlie learns the truth about her uncle, she is faced with the choice of whether she will renounce her worship of him and treat him as the murderous criminal he is by cooperating the police or protect him, refusing to let go of her nearly-divine opinion of him. Whether she will be a hero, a victim, or a co-conspiriator in her uncle’s crimes is the question we ask throughout the movie. So much for every character depends on Charlie’s decisions. All the suspense that Hitchcock brought so brilliantly depends on this question. Is Charlie too completely lost in her idolatry of her uncle to help others, or does she still have enough conscience to make sure that his next plans do not succeed?

 

Also directed by Hitchcock: Psycho (1960); Rebecca (1940); Saboteur (1942)

The Great Dictator (1940)

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After the movie world transitioned to sound, Charles Chaplin continued making silent films through the 1930s with City Lights and Modern Times. Not until 1940 did he make his first talkie. Playing both an unnamed Jewish barber who fought in the first world war and the dictator of Tomania, Adenoid Hynkel. This was the right time, the right way, and the right subject matter for his first talkie. Some of the funniest moments involve Chaplin’s voice (the barber’s confused murmurs when caught in a mist as a soldier, unwittingly finding himself on the other side of the battle and the mock German he uses for the dictator involving mostly food and scatological words, an influence on the language of the Despicable Me minions). Chaplin wrote the story, directed the film, and played both of the leading roles all with the point of leading up a speech he would give, one of the most electrifying scenes in film history.

Though the sound is an important way that Chaplin achieved his goals, he never abandoned the physical humor that made him so successful. He cuts hair and shaves a customer in rhythm to one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. He resists storm troopers through a hilarious choreographed routine. Most importantly, Chaplin uses techniques of physical comedy to have the impact he wanted his movie to have. In the scene pictured above, Chaplin literally walks on walls and dances with a giant balloon globe. Although he’s doing things that are common in the silent physical comedy of his earlier years, there is nothing at all funny about this scene. Showing the depths of the dictator’s self-delusion and all-consuming desire for world domination, the scene is more terrifying than anything horror movies could ever dream of delivering.

What makes every scene of the movie work is the fact that Chaplin plays both of the main characters. He mocks and uses to his advantage the strange fact that he (a person of Jewish descent) and Adolph Hitler looked so much alike. He used his comedy, his physical agility, his personal convictions, and even his voice to try to change the world. In 1940, America didn’t have much understanding of what was happening in Germany, and it showed little interest in intervention until it was attacked itself. But Chaplin used this movie to try to convince the country that there was reason to get involved, to fight for democracy, peace, and equity. Several scenes in the movie show a very limited understanding of what concentration camps look like so that today’s viewers may be put off at how much it minimizes the atrocity. This is exactly why it’s important for us to know and to remember that this movie was made two years before the U.S. entered WWII. Chaplin used whatever knowledge he had to make his case and a brilliant movie. Limited as it was, he did everything in his power to fight the Nazis through The Great Dictator.

The powerful speech that closes the movie is not so much a speech to the Nazis of the world though the context of the movie places it there. It is a speech to Americans and to others who at least had the pretense of desire to help others. He called for people to embrace humanity and to fight for what is right in a way that breaks through past the brainwashing and demoralization of both tyrants and of the inner tyranny of fear that he thought was keeping Americans inactive. In hindsight, I think Chaplin would say that had America intervened earlier than they did, the results of WWII would have been more like those in the movie. Whether or not there is any truth to that, watching The Great Dictator is much more than watching a great movie. It is watching the passion of a man using everything he has to make the world he knows a better place.

 

Also directed by Charles Chaplin:

The Gold Rush (1925)

Modern Times (1936)

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