Wings of Desire: Looking In, Looking Out Festival

New contributor Raluca Petre returns Real|Reel Journal to Conway Hall and the Looking In Looking Out Festival to take a look at Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire and it’s position in the endlessly interesting world of film and philosophy.

The Looking In Looking Out (LiLo) festival of film and philosophy at Conway Hall provided the perfect context for a screening of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987). Discussions, like the talk A Pebble in the Shoe, addressed the extent to which film can detonate “philosophical bombs in audiences’ minds.” Through its impressive range of programming and discussion groups, LiLo brought into focus the full spectrum of interactions between film and philosophy, asking us not just how we can philosophize films, but how we can “pursue wisdom” within them.

“Ultimately, philosophers have used the human’s greatest asset – reason – to shape theories that lead to a better understanding of the self and of our experience of the world around us.”

What academics call ‘Film-Philosophy’ is a highly contemporary approach in both Philosophy and Film Studies; it is an approach helping make sense of how films make us think. On one hand, the Philosophy strand insists that films are useful in playing out philosophical theories by providing extensive, realistic thought experiments, such as Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)or Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001), both shown at LiLo. On the other hand, the Film Studies branch argues that images and sounds themselves ‘think’ independently of plot/script, with Daniel Frampton developing the idea of ‘filmosophy’. Gilles Deleuze’s seminal works Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (1986) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1989) propose a kind of ‘filmosophy’ based on his theory of the thinking-image, or images that are independent of the written word, becoming ‘almost legible, in the sense of being a table of information.’ Andrej Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975), also screened at Lilo,provides a strong example of this approach, and I will return to both Mirror and Deleuze later.

First, and as a broad generalization, what I admire most about philosophy is its inherent logic and structure even when dealing with the abstract and unknown. Ultimately, philosophers ranging from Aristotle to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and Immanuel Kant have used the human’s greatest asset – reason – to shape theories that lead to a better understanding of the self and of our experience of the world around us. Therefore, for me (with the caution of sounding utopian), philosophy is the most sublime celebration of humanity. Wings of Desire has this same humanist quality, most obviously through its plot. The film follows angels Damiel and Cassiel through 1987 West Berlin as they watch over the residents of the city, listen to their thoughts and attempt to alleviate their darkest feelings. It ultimately focuses on the interaction between the angels and three humans – an old existential poet called Homer, Peter Falk’s portrayal of the angel-come-human ‘Der Filmstar’, and Marion, the lonely trapeze artist with whom Damiel falls in love and for whom he decides to renounce his angelic status and become a mortal.

“Wenders depicts both worlds as aesthetically pleasing, inviting us to choose.”

Throughout the film, the angels discuss why they would want to be humans, yearning for banal things that we take for granted in our search for ‘higher’ goals. Damiel declares that:

I’d like, at each step, each gust of wind, to be able to say “Now. Now and now” and no longer “forever” and “for eternity”…it would be rather nice coming home after a long day to feed the cat… to have a fever and blackened fingers from the newspaper, to be excited not only by the mind but, at last, by a meal, by the line of a neck by an ear. To lie!.. At last to guess, instead of always knowing.

Such declarations could be perceived in terms of the existentialist philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus. Existentialist thinking originates from the individual – is informed by the lived experiences of that individual alone – and thus proclaims “the death of God.” Some have argued that Wings of Desire oversimplifies existentialist theories, but looking beyond the dialogue reveals that the film has a much stronger impact than such critics claim, and exists independently of established philosophical theories, such as existentialism. The images speak for themselves. The film is beautifully shot in black and white when depicting the angels’ perspective, whereas human perception is captured in colour. We assimilate this contrast with pre-existing cultural notions we have about the meaning of black and white (such as the asceticism of religion or a clarity incongruent with human ‘reality’) and colour (associations with indulgence, variety and lived ‘reality’) yet we are also given the freedom to question these assumptions and select the ‘reality’ that appeals to us most. Wenders depicts both worlds as aesthetically pleasing, inviting us to choose.

Yet perhaps the most important element of the film is actually the setting that 1987 Berlin provides. Wenders did not just use West Berlin as a backdrop to the plot of the film but actually made this locale a main character, with the intention of raising several philosophical questions. The role of Berlin highlights the idea of lived history, of a past haunting the present, of how histories are created not just by humans but by places and events beyond their individual control. Wenders uses the film’s angels to build on this metaphor, explaining that they “are a metaphor for history and the memory of it.” The angels observe time yet they cannot act within it. Damiel’s timeless quality is suggested through the double exposure technique that depicts his act of reaching out for a pen yet only managing to lift up a spirit-image of it while the physical form of the pen remains unmoved. In the infinite time and space in which he moves, he can only touch the essence of things and of people, yet he cannot physically intervene in any courses of action in the ‘now’.

“The film proposes that history, represented by Wim Wenders’ angels, ought to be accepted as a benevolent force in our journeys.”

The eternal presence of the angels in Berlin and their consistently soothing responses to the anguish and alienation of Berliners in 1987 invites contemplation of the state of the world at a certain moment in history. The film proposes seeing the present social condition as an expression of a continuous strand of human characteristics throughout time that constitutes ‘human nature’. As the character Homer says I’m an old man with a broken voice, but the tale still rises from the depths, and the mouth, slightly opened, repeats it as clearly, as powerfully.” We inherited the work of Homer, the poet, about his hero’s epic journey and we still have much to learn about ourselves by looking back to it. It is through an honest examination of the human nature, both in terms of its core as well as of its development, that we can understand our world.

Through its emphasis on the historically-charged spaces of Berlin the film proposes that history, represented by Wim Wenders’ angels, ought to be accepted as a benevolent force in our journeys rather than be pushed aside as Germany had been keen to do after 1945. This is represented in the film as a man, overwhelmed by his present anxieties, and having ignored the invisible presence of Cassiel who tried to support him, jumps to his death.

The film is split among three human characters, each one’s story arc revealing an aspect of the human condition: loneliness, contemplation and desire. The characters do not affect each other, but are united by Berlin and its watching angels. Wenders treats time in a similar manner, his plotting and style blurring the distinction between past, present and future, amplifying the sense of eternal time, where history shapes the ‘now’ through which the characters move.

“Time doesn’t have to be padlocked to progression, dragged along from beginning to middle to end. It can be contemplative, orbiting, encompassing.”

This is where bringing in the ideas of aforementioned philosopher Gilles Deleuze enriches our understanding of the ‘philosophical’ qualities of the film. In particular, he has explored the ways in which images and time intersect in cinema, and the ways this impacts on the viewer.

He argues that conventional film is constructed primarily from images of movement, in which actions are prioritised. Consider classical Hollywood narrative cinema, its films being made up a sequence of movements that together form a narrative. It is through these movements that much of a film’s ‘story’ is conveyed to the audience, in iterative small steps or in long sweeps, each moving time forward as the film itself spools out. The same goes for many contemporary films, from action flicks to indie cinema: time is a scaffold around the film’s plot, allowing viewers to make sense of events that follow one after the other.

Deleuze calls this paradigm the “movement-image”, and contrasts it with what he terms the “time-image.” For Deleuze time provides access to thinking: to the very nature of being itself, and the forms it takes through expression on screen. Time doesn’t have to be padlocked to progression, dragged along from beginning to middle to end. It can be contemplative, orbiting, encompassing. We can think outside prescribed timelines, outside an imposed seemingly objective reality, whether it is that presented in the film or that presented to us in our daily lives.

“Absorbed in such lyrical cinema, the viewer becomes more receptive to images and sound.”

Critics have thus used the “time-image” to describe non-linear or ‘shuffled’ narratives, like Pulp Fiction, Groundhog Day, or Memento. Doing so however misses the more profound relevance of the term. In my reading, Deleuze uses the concept of the time-image to unpack films that turn the convention on its head: rather than carrying viewers along with a plot, they invite viewers to step back and contemplate the nature of time, space and thought.

The time-image paradigm encapsulates a form of film that unfetters images from the conventional constraints of movement and progression. Whereas in films driven by the movement-image characters are often subordinate to the narrative – functioning as means of driving the story along, or as hooks from which the story’s events hang – films in the time-image paradigm instead allow their characters to be one step removed from the action, onlookers amid the flow of moments and events. In my interpretation, Deleuze argues that characters thus become ‘seers’, contemplating layers of time and space – just like the angels in Wings of Desire, whose experiences of Berlin through time form much of the matter of the film.

Absorbed in such lyrical cinema, the viewer becomes more receptive to images and sound, perceiving these more textural and sensory aspects over and above the more immediate throb of narrative and plot. Deleuze talks of the “image-in-itself” becoming the subject of such a film. In Wings of Desire, Wenders seems to reflect the uttered contemplation of the characters in images, to depict thought and memory rather than action, and thus to place images and the spoken word on an equal footing.

At its best, Deleuze’s “time-image” arguably conveys a sense of transcendence: of going beyond a prior state or a prior understanding of oneself, bringing up issues of the relationship between the human mind and its temporal and spatial surroundings – issues of what constitutes truth and reality.

“The film provokes a deeper consideration of our own surroundings and of what it means to be human.”

In his introductory talk to the screening of Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Will Self emphasized the unique beauty of such transcendent moments in film, highlighting Mirror as a prime example. Because both Mirror and Wings of Desire share themes of memory and of the intertwining of past and present they are unsurprisingly deemed to be highly philosophical. Wim Wenders himself described his film as his ‘vertical road movie’ as opposed to the horizontal linearity of his previous road movies.

Ultimately, I understood Wings of Desire to be philosophical because through the implementation of dialogue and images it does what philosophers do with language. The film provokes a deeper consideration of our own surroundings and of what it means to be human. In light of this, it seems that naming a festival of film philosophy as “Looking In, Looking Out” is particularly relevant. The films and the related discussions were geared towards opening up new paths for observing and understanding oneself, deeply impacting upon one’s perception of the world and of his or her future actions in it. The differences between the systematic methodology of established philosophers and that of film-philosophers may undoubtedly lead to a reshaping of received philosophical thought in contemporary life. However, the virtues of each strand can co-exist and enrich one another. Fundamentally, it ought to be remembered that both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Wim Wenders aimed at a certain ‘transcendence’ in themselves, their readers and viewers, their societies. Yet, whereas I began by praising the established ‘written’ philosophers’ strengths, I for one know that not even Jean-Jacques has ever pushed me into as deep a personal introspection as Wim has.

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