PoMo Desire?: Authorship and Agency in Wim Wenders Der Himmel über Berlin [1987] (Wings of Desire) - PDF

PoMo Desire?: Authorship and Agency in Wim Wenders Der Himmel über Berlin [1987] (Wings of Desire) Nathan Wolfson 1 And that's really the only thing I have to say about stories: they are one huge, impossible

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PoMo Desire?: Authorship and Agency in Wim Wenders Der Himmel über Berlin [1987] (Wings of Desire) Nathan Wolfson 1 And that's really the only thing I have to say about stories: they are one huge, impossible paradox! I totally reject stories, because for me they only bring out lies, nothing but lies, and the biggest lie is that they show coherence where there is none. Then again, our need for these lies is so consuming that it's completely pointless to fight them and to put together a sequence of images without a story -- without the lie of a story. Stories are impossible, but it's impossible to live without them. --Wim Wenders 2 For the first quarter of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, the viewer lives within the monochrome world of angels in the sky, and on the streets, of 1980s Berlin. 3 The viewer is introduced to a set of angels -- timeless, body-less beings who act as silent witnesses to the history of humanity and to the individuals that inhabit Berlin. The angels re-appear consistently 2002 by Nathan Wolfson page 1 of 17 enough that two (Damiel and Cassiel) emerge as characters within the narrative that begins to emerge from the seemingly endless, random encounters between these otherworldly beings and a ceaseless parade of living humans, whose thoughts the angels (and viewer) can hear. By the latter half of Wings of Desire, three humans have emerged as significant characters within the narrative: A former angel (played by Peter Falk), who became human before the film's action began; a circus performer named Marion (played by the director s wife, Solveig Dommartin); and one of the angels introduced early on, who chooses to become human, ostensibly to be with Dommartin. This angelic portion of Wings of Desire deliberately invokes in the viewer a set of specific responses. These responses provide the foundation for the transformation that Damiel and Marion participate in. The film prepares the viewer for an analogous transformation, and invites the viewer to participate in this process, through an exploration of authorship and agency. * * * Roland Barthes's work -- especially S/Z -- provides a useful reference point in this context for processes involving agency and interaction. Wenders appears to model his ideal viewer's interaction with Wings on the relationship he depicts between Damiel and Marion, itself a metaphor for the relationship between a person and the world around her. Barthes speaks of texts (Wenders' film is one) residing along a continuum between the writerly (scriptible) and the readerly (lisible). 4 The writerly text lacks a narrative structure, a grammar or a logic and is open to many types of construction by the reader (or, in the case of film, the viewer). The readerly text offers a definitive meaning for itself by fulfilling the conventional viewer's expectations regarding classical (Hollywood) cinema and its narrative. Wings attempts to position itself as more of a writerly text. This happens in the film's earlier angelic portions, where largely non-narrative techniques are employed. The viewer is invited to engage in active interpretation. As the film moves to an apparently more readerly mode (as the love story becomes salient), two reactions are likely. First, the viewer may instinctively cling to the readerly exposition. At the same time, however, the viewer is still in the mindset of a writerly text -- meaning that the viewer is inclined to adopt a more writerly stance than might otherwise be applied to a conventional narrative film. This writerly stance towards the readerly love story is necessary. On one level, much of the dialog in the bar is simply too weird to be a taken realistically at a narrative level. Having primed the viewer to approach Wings as a writerly text, the viewer is sensitized to uncover meta-textual content in Marion's speech in the bar. The tool being proposed, and the tool needed to understand the proposal, become synonymous: Life can be most fruitfully engaged when doing so as if in a loving relationship with a 2002 by Nathan Wolfson page 2 of 17 writerly text. That is, one's process of writing one's own life story is heralded. Succinctly stated, the means of communicating one of the key meanings within Wings (actively engaging in a relationship between viewer and film) is also one of the key meanings one can ferret out from the film itself (actively engaging in a relationship between oneself and the world). The discussion between lovers in the bar implies that writing one's own life, while an act of self-definition, should be engaged in as if participating in a relationship -- as if in love with the world, with the other in which one is engaged in the process of creating oneself. Though he doesn't speak of writerly and readerly texts, Wenders is aware of the tension between the two. I dislike the manipulation that's necessary to press all the images of a film into one story; it's very harmful for the images because it tends to drain them of their 'life'. In the relationship between story and image, I see the story as a kind of vampire, trying to suck all the blood from an image. Images are acutely sensitive; like snails they shrink back when you tough their horns. They don't have it in them to be carthorses: carrying and transporting messages or significance or intention or a moral. But that's precisely what a story wants from them. 5 For Wenders, the notion of images is directly associated with nonnarrative, documentary, and essay films--in opposition to narrative, feature films. Wings of Desire becomes a subversive exercise in that it uses the desire for (born from expectation of) narrative to achieve several goals. In the context of the narrative interlude, the love-story, the viewer is encouraged to approach the film (and the world) as if it were all images (not part of a prepared story) and create of it (in it) the story one wants. Wenders recognizes the essential human desire for stories/narrative. Interestingly, his equation of stories = God is reminiscent of Jacques Derrida, and recalls Nietzsche's Zarathustra's God is dead. So far, everything seems to have spoken out against story, as though it were the enemy. But of course stories are very exciting; they are powerful and important for mankind. They give people what they want, on a very profound level -- more than merely amusement or entertainment or suspense. People's primary requirement is that some kind of coherence be provided. Stories give people the feeling that there is meaning, that there is ultimately an order lurking behind the incredible confusion of appearances and phenomena that surrounds them. This order is what people require more than anything else; yes, I would almost say that the notion of order or story is connected with the godhead. Stories are substitutes for God. Or maybe the other way around. 6 Wenders is not arguing against stories, per se, but placing caveats in front of their celebration. In Wings, this argument becomes more meaningful and moving than elsewhere in Wenders' oeuvre. Wings is a call to the viewer to rend herself from any particular unexamined story and, instead, to engage in the play of crafting her own unique story from the wide 2002 by Nathan Wolfson page 3 of 17 variety of possibilities offered by the world. There is also the latent call to do this in a manner in which the play takes place as if between two lovers -- one's self and the world -- since the conceit the film employs is that of a love story. This call to interaction is deliberate on Wenders' part: If I look at films I really like most, and if I look at myself as a spectator of other films, then I clearly favor movies that let me discover them. There is that sort of movie where you feel excited from the beginning because you realize that it is because you look at it that the movie really exists, and because you can put some strings together, and it is open to a lot of interpretation, and you have to sort of put in your own experiences or associations in order to make it work. 7 This call to action is perhaps the most profound level on which Wings becomes political. There is certainly a political element to the associations with German history that are peppered throughout the film (the Nazi past, the divided Berlin). And, for Wenders, all filmmaking is a political act, in that it is an expression of the filmmaker's attitude toward the world. Speaking with Peter Jansen, Wenders said, Maybe not everyone will want to believe me; but I believe that each 'take' in a film also makes visible the other 'take' on things of the man or woman who is responsible for it. Each 'take' shows you what's in front of the camera but also what's behind it. For me a camera is an instrument that works in two directions. It shows both the object and the subject. That why in the end each 'take' shows the 'take' of the director. 8 But Wings might be considered Wenders most political film, in the sense that it champions choice (which can be a critical component of change). The insistence on exercising human agency could be seen as a call to work against the situation Louis Althusser has described in which individuals are interpellated by society's ideological superstructures. 9 In Wenders' construction, entertainment in film is what props up the status quo (by implicitly not challenging it): As far as politics goes, the most political decision you make is where you direct people's eyes. In other words: what you show people, day in day out, is political. Explicit political content in cinema is about the least political side of it, as far as I'm concerned. Entertainment is the height [most extreme form] of politics: The most politically indoctrinating thing you can do to a human being is to show him, every day, that there can be no change. But by showing that something is open to change, you keep the idea of change alive. And that for me is the only political act of which cinema is capable: keeping the idea of change going. Not by calling for change. You achieve very little by that, I find. Maybe you need to do that sometimes, to call for change. But the really political act that cinema is capable of is making change possible, by implication, by not gumming up people's brains and eyes. 10 Of course, Wenders does sometimes seek a particular kind of change, in his roundabout manner wanting to offer a vision of a better world: 2002 by Nathan Wolfson page 4 of 17 Auch in der letzten Vergangenheit, Anfang der 80er Jahre mit Tschernobyl und all den Kriegsherden überall, ist das apokalyptische Bild ja auch das vorherrschende und das bekanntere als das friedliche Bild. Deswegen finde ich es auch fruchtbarer und tatsächlich auch reizvoller und einfach wichtiger, positive Utopien zu entwe rfen. (Also in the recent past, at the beginning of the 80's with Chernobyl and all the war zones everywhere, there is the picture of the apocalypse which is both prevalent and more well-known than the picture of peace. Therefore I find it also more fruitful and, in fact, also more delightful -- and simply more important -- to sketch positive utopias.) 11 * * * Looking beyond the textual evidence in the film itself to discussions with the filmmakers, one finds agreement with the inference that Wenders went to great effort to cast the viewer into the angels' point of view. 12 The result of this effort is to remove the viewer from reality in a number of manners or to reshape what the viewer thinks of the world. The fact that the viewer is at first manipulated, and then asked to assert her agency, speaks to the quandary at heart of Wings of Desire, so a more detailed explication of that process is in order. The contemporary perception of color photography being more realistic than black-and-white photography works to take the viewer out of her complacency with regard to experiencing a movie. Any film not shot in color is something new or different. This sense of the new or different disarms the viewer by thwarting expectations. This destabilization enables the viewer's eventual mesmerization. Save for a few short shot-reverse-shot episodes that establish the cosmological place of the angels in Wender's world view, the entire depiction of the angel's point-of-view proceeds with little classical (Hollywood) cinematic technique. Key exceptions serve to highlight the rule. For example, there are five situations in which children and Damiel are shown to share in a shot-reverse-shot encounter. These sparse interludes draw attention to the absence of such constructions occurring on a regular basis elsewhere during the angelic portions of the film. Sometimes the viewer sees the angels as if she is a child in the film's diegetic space. Often the viewer sees the angelic world as if from the point of view of another angel. But a conventional exposition is withheld. The fragmentary nature of the experience takes the viewer through three stages during the angelic phase of the film, further destabilizing the viewer accustomed to classical narrative. First, there is the expectation that the narrative will not necessarily be clear at the outset. Then, there is the confusion that results when, even after half an hour, the narrative does not seem to appear. Finally, there is the acceptance of this mode of (nonnarrative) cinematic expression by Nathan Wolfson page 5 of 17 A critical transition occurs when Wenders elicits in the viewer an acceptance of the lack of a narrative structure. This state makes the viewer more of a tabula rasa--or, more appropriately for the film's conceits, more child-like--than when the viewer walked into the theater. The desire to return to a child-like state resonates with the way children are privileged in the film. They are the only ones who can readily perceive the angels and the few key exceptions to this trope re-enforce the sentiment behind it. Adults who are themselves fallen angels can sense the presence of an angel in their midst (as Falk demonstrates twice at the coffee stand), because a fallen angel is, in many ways, essentially a child in the world. Marion can see an angel, but only in her dreams. For an adult, the dream state is where the lucidity and creativity of childhood are most likely to manifest themselves. Childhood is given primacy in other, formal manners. In particular, the framing of the film within the poem about childhood, being written by Damiel, emphasizes a focus on the psychic state of childhood by both the angel and the filmmaker. Finding the attitude of an angel in the filmmaker seems even more justified since the film is dedicated to what Wenders calls three fallen angels, the filmmakers Tarkovsky, Truffaut, and Ozu. In conversation with Taja Gut, Wenders spoke of the centrality of the child's mode of perception in his work: In my films, children are present as the film's own fantasy, the eyes the film would like to see with. A view of the world that isn't opinionated, a purely ontological gaze. And only children really have that gaze. Sometimes in a film you can manage a gaze like a child's Children have a sort of admonitory function in my films: to remind you with what curiosity and lack of prejudice it is possible to look at the world. 14 Ruth Perlmutter notes that Wenders shares [with Tarkovsky, Truffaut, and Ozu] a pedagogical stance towards cinema -- as a consciousnessvehicle, as a transcendent force of romanticism, as a medium in love with human-'kind,' especially children, because of their innocence. 15 The consciousness-vehicle stance she attributes to Wenders is borne out by the progression in Wings, beginning with the destabilization (or manipulation) I have described. First, the slate is wiped clean. Then, it is filled with a set of suggestions. Wenders further manipulates the viewer by breaking down the viewer's expectation of a distinction between narrative and non-narrative film. The non-narrative stance has a long history in cinema. Two classic examples from the late 1920s come to mind: Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera and Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a [Great] City (Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt). Wenders screened three films for the for cast and crew, prior to production on Wings, one of which was Ruttman's film. 16 Why? Wenders is aware of the tension between narrative and non-narrative film. I dislike the manipulation that's necessary to press all the images of a film into one story; it's very harmful for the images because it tends to 2002 by Nathan Wolfson page 6 of 17 drain them of their 'life'. In the relationship between story and image, I see the story as a kind of vampire, trying to suck all the blood from an image. Images are acutely sensitive; like snails they shrink back when you touch their horns. They don't have it in them to be carthorses: carrying and transporting messages or significance or intention or a moral. But that's precisely what a story wants from them. 17 For Wenders, the notion of images is closely associated with nonnarrative, documentary, or essay films -- in contrast with narrative, feature films. Wings of Desire becomes a subversive exercise in that it uses the desire for (born from an expectation of) narrative to lay the foundation for the transformation at the heart of Wings. Besides being intellectually steeped both in essay films and in narrative, Wenders has made both sorts of films for years. The 1980 essay film, Lightning Over Water, preceded the 1982 feature, Hammett. The 1982 essay, Reverse Angle, preceded the 1984 feature, Paris, Texas. The 1985 essay, Tokyo-Ga, preceded the 1987 feature, Wings of Desire. The 1989 essay, Notebooks on Cities and Clothes, preceded the 1991 feature, Until the End of the World. In many of these pairings one can see something of an artist engaged in studies (via essay films) to move away from one large project (a feature film) and toward another large project (the following feature film). In Wenders' work, the two kinds of exposition interpenetrate. Reverse Angle was a response to troubles surrounding Hammett (where Wenders would not conform to the Hollywood methods dictated to him). The non-narrative Tokyo-Ga laid some of the stylistic foundations of Wings of Desire. In conversation with Reinhold Rauh, Wenders said, If I hadn't made Tokyo-Ga after Paris, Texas, then I wouldn't have dared to do that thing with voices in Wings of Desire. 18 In Wings of Desire, Wenders mixes narrative and non-narrative forms more effectively than elsewhere. For example, he has Peter Falk (whose most famous role is that of a TV detective named Columbo) play an actor in Berlin named Peter Falk (who happens to be a famous American television actor whose character on TV was named Columbo). 19 For those viewers familiar with the manner in which Falk was brought into the project, and the circumstances by which his part grew in scope as the filming progressed, the Falk character s comments when the audience first sees him on the plane are full of foreshadowing. I don't understand this character, Falk the actor/character says in voice-over. It's amazing how little I know about this part. Maybe we'll discover it during the shoot. That's half the battle. The treatment of the Falk character/actor is a logical extension of Wenders' long-standing approach to actors and their characters. In conversation with Peter Jansen, Wenders has said that the actors I work with aren't so much actors as just themselves, in my films. I don't look to them to be actors, so much as to be themselves. In Wings, Wenders places his actors at two extremes in relation to this practice. On the one hand, with Bruno (Ganz) and Otto (Sander) in Wings of Desire it was obviously a bit different. As angels, they weren't able to use their life 2002 by Nathan Wolfson page 7 of 17 stories . 20 On the other hand, Wenders took his actor=character equation to its logical extreme with Falk. Dommartin s Marion falls
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