1988 Ebert Cup | Preliminary Round | (7) Wings of Desire v. (10) Running on Empty
Alright, I'm a little late, but that okay. Let's get this party started.
Wings of Desire was the first movie I ever close-read. It was my first week of college, and in one of my film classes, students were tasked with breaking down the first few minutes of Wim Wenders' urban fantasia into its smallest moving parts. In hindsight, this may have been a form of culling: are you here to watch movies or are you here to really watch movies? Our notes were exhaustive but did nothing to dull the magic of that opening. I had seen Wings of Desire again between that exercise and my rewatch for this project, but the little details of that opening never left me. The shot of an opening eye fading into a flapping ivory wing, the sweeping helicopter shots of 80s Berlin, the subtle droning organ on the soundtrack, the overlapping internal monologues. And weaving through it all is the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, all warm eyes, pronounce widow's peak, and ill-advised ponytail.
Ganz plays Damiel, an angel who watches over all Berliners, privy to even the most mundane of thoughts, joyful or otherwise. Their job, as per fellow angel Cassiel (the late German actor Otto Sander) is to “assemble, testify, [and] preserve” the goings-on of the humans, which they've been doing since time immemorial. Interfering, and thus experiencing, is forbidden. But Damiel wants to feel, dammit! There's an entire two-hander where Ganz and Sander are sitting in a convertible, most of which consists of Ganz waxing rhapsodic about the tiniest of gestures, like wriggling your toes under the table or feeding the cat “like Philip Marlowe.” Human love shoots to the top of the list after he becomes infatuated with Marion (the late Solveig Dommartin), a trapeze artist whose circus company has shuttered its doors.
Visually, thematically, formally, Wings of Desire is the kind of movie a layperson would probably conjure if asked to describe a poetic European art film. The use of black-and-white, the musings about Life, the oblique storytelling, the melancholy, world-weary tone. But the film is great because of this, not in spite of it. Wenders managed to wrest these individual components from the grips of chiche by turning them into an oneiric layercake, and placing the whole metaphyiscal fantasia inside a city symphony about Berlin. Hell, even Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds show up, because why the hell not? It's a great movie to see in a film class at 17, because it's so deliberate and enrapturing in the way it moves, and since you're 17, you're the most attuned to how the sensory and the melancholic are inextricably linked. Being able to feel joy means risking feeling pain.
There's a decidedly more grounded pain permeating Running on Empty, Sidney Lumet's family drama about a couple (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) on the run from the FBI after a protest bombing gone awry in the 1970s, and their son (River Phoenix) who yearns for a little more stability. This viewing was the first time I had seen this movie, in part because it's so easy for a movie like this—that is to say mid-budget “adult” dramas—to fall through the cracks because of their unassuming nature. In that way, Lumet is the perfect director for the job. He's not a flashy director, but that doesn't keep him from sitting at the big boys' table. Even in the quietest moments, his films brim with energy and power. He came up in the Golden Age of Television, and his unfussy sense of pace and rhythm reflect that. Running on Empty is a simple story told expertly; there are no extraneous moving parts. The movie's wildest choice occurs in the last 30 seconds of the film, and it's not even that wild a choice. It just puts a neat, melancholy bow on the story. No, this isn't that kind of movie. If Wings of Desire's melancholy drew from its mise-en-scene, its more “filmic” aspects, then Running on Empty's came from its actors. Lumet was a magnificent director of actors. Just look at this list: Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepbern, Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman, Al Pacino. And this was before stuff like Network and The Verdict and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.
So of course the actors shine here. It's a film that brims with warmth and empathy. Lahti and Hirsch are great as the ex-radical hippies trying to stay one step ahead of the law, and Phoenix, only 18 here and already a disarming cinematic presence, shines as a young piano prodigy who's sick of the nomadic lifestyle that's been forced upon him. He broods, he plays piano, he falls in love with Martha Plimpton (who also is only 18 here and already a disarming cinematic presence). There's an effortlessness on display that never ceases to be enthralling, as if Phoenix were some kind of emotion elemental. Look at him play piano. Look at him contort at his desk when he gets called on to answer a question in music class. Look at his eyes, his hands. Well, Hollywood brass certainly did, as he got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his trouble, as did Naomi Foner's solid, moving screenplay.
I can see why tournament namesake Roger Ebert gave the full four stars to both of these movies. They're both top-tier examples of their respective cinematic idioms. As I mentioned earlier, I feel like the deck is stacked against small, naturalistic dramas like Running on Empty by dint of the fact that they're not showy. But I'm of the opinion that there are more perfect films in this idiom, that are just as warm and simple but more idiosyncratic, and at least one of which starts River Phoenix (1991's sorely slept-on Dogfight, for example). Lumet has a deep catalogue of gems to explore, but barring any kind of prior familiarity with his work and his style, a neophyte might watch a sweet, unobtrusive film like Running on Empty and wonder what the hubbub is all about (I will use this admittedly tenuous link to plug Lumet's 1996 book Making Movies, by all accounts one of the great books about movies out there). But Wings of Desire is an immediately thrilling piece of filmmaking. Wenders has a sense of romance that endears him to budding cinephile, and Wings of Desire, a movie tailor-made to amke you fall in love with what great movies can offer, deserves to be rewarded here.
The winner: Wings of Desire