September 24, 2003

City of Angels; Film Review

When a movie is made concerning the afterlife or angels you can almost hear the evangelical community raise a collective groan. And with films like “Michael” and “The Preacher’s Wife” they have every reason to groan. Angel films are dangerous territory. It is virtually impossible to construct a theologically adequate angel scenario and still have time for a story. City of Angels finds itself entangled in the metaphysics of angel movies, but miraculously, this is the films only flaw.
The concept is a simple one. Seth (Nicolas Cage) is an angel. Maggie (Meg Ryan) is a human. Seth falls in love with Maggie. When he learns that angels have “free will” to “fall” he must decide what course of action he will take. As much as this sounds like The Preacher’s Wife, it is as far from every other angel movie as it could possibly be. The first notable difference is the complete lack of angel clich├ęs. All of the angels wear black. They don’t have wings. There are no halos. In fact, the word “angel” is never used in the dialogue. There is no walking through walls or floating objects. The angels wander the Earth with tasks such as keeping air traffic controllers alert and escorting the souls of the dying to . . . (we assume) heaven. At the end of every day, they gather at the beach at sunset to hear “the music.” I appreciated this refreshing take on angelic metaphysics.
City of Angels is, in short, an exploration of man’s divinity. Humanity is depraved, but the experience of life is a perfect gift from God. Pain, joy, sex, food, sleep, hot showers and death are part of a perfect plan. Seth, and his closest angel pal, often discuss their curiosity about the experience of being human. One of Seth’s favorite hobbies, while escorting souls to the hereafter, is to ask “What was your favorite part?” -- as though, they were coming away from a roller coaster ride. One young girl answers Seth’s inquiry very simply. “Pajamas.”
This movie is one of the finest examples of using media to convey message. For example, the entire film is extremely textured. The cinematography shows a very tactile world. This is a perfect companion to Seth’s fascination with human senses. Angels can’t taste, smell, sense touch or feel pain. They can only see in black and white and they, of course, don’t have sex. They have only what they need to fill out their purpose in the universe. Which, in turn, may mean that humans, with their vast array of senses and feelings have as their purpose, life. There are several extreme close ups of Maggie’s face, that show the pores of her skin. It’s as though the director is telling us that the complexity of her and the wonder that lies in every cell is what makes her human and what makes her divine. Seth, in one scene, is asking Maggie about the pear she is eating. She looks a little confused and says, “You know what a pear tastes like.” And he replies, “I don’t know what a pear tastes like to you.” This is a legitimate question for an angel to ask, but the truth is it would be a fine question for anyone. Part of the beauty of humanity is the myriad of ways we experience the world around us.
Ryan, Cage and Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue) could give As Good As It Gets a run for its money for “Best Ensemble Cast.” The soundtrack is the best compilation I have seen in years. Not only for the strength of the musicians, but also for the appropriateness of the songs. When Sarah McLachan’s “Angel” started playing, I was putty in the director’s hands. The editing and cinematography are superb.
Ultimately, any Christian viewer will walk away from this film asking a dozen different questions about the theological ramifications of the universe as seen in City of Angels. I encourage such conversations. However, I hope and pray that Christians will be able to cut through the doctrinal red tape that any film of this nature will have, and see the power of the best movie of 1998 thus far.


Sheila West said...

Dan Buck said:

"It is virtually impossible to construct a theologically adequate angel scenario and still have time for a story."

I saw this film just a few months ago for the very first time. I was awed at the hyper-control it exercised over every nuance of the film's tone, striving for a super-streamlined minimalism of motion, texture, sound, and scale. By limited these elements, it caused us to focus inward with a longing for more. The entire movie carried with it a hushed silence from start to finish. Even the moments of trauma and pain (the little girl's death, the patient's death, etc) were very "quiet."

As for your comment about the difficulty in achieving angelic accuracy and story viability, I'd have to think about that for a while.

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