Saturday, August 13, 2011

Angels, Monsters, Replicants--We All Need Someone to Lean On

Peter Falk's recent death prompted me recall him in a memorable film, Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987, written by Wenders, Richard Reitlinger, and Peter Handke).  In it, Falk plays himself--an actor in Berlin to make a movie about its Nazi past.  But he is also a former angel who has traded immortality and a world of black and white for one of color and sensation...and death.  In the scene below he reveals his former incarnation to an angel played by Bruno Ganz, who in the course of the film falls in love with a trapeze artist, a symbolic angel who will induce  him to turn in his wings as well.

Wings of Desire is Wordsworthian in the sense that the angels are visible only to children; the angels are on earth to  "testify, verify, preserve"-- but never to participate.  They can't literally feel, although they are figures of empathy.

Which brings to mind what is probably my favorite film of all, 1982's Blade Runner (directed by Ridley Scott, written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples).  In that movie, the "replicants" who have escaped to Earth are not equipped for empathy,  since they are bio-engineered clones made to work in off-world colonies.  They are hunted by "blade runners" like Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), and the authorities have devised an interrogation tool, the Voight-Kampff, to measure eye movement in connection with emotionally provocative questions, as demonstrated in the stunning opening scene with Leon (Brion James) and Mr. Holden (Morgan Paull).

Yet the replicants do have empathy for each other, and perhaps even love:  Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) are coupled by more than survival.  If the two angels in Wings of Desire embraced life and, with it, death, the replicants' quest is to extend their lives--they rail against the dying of the light until, at last, Roy acquiesces in the gorgeous "Tears in Rain" speech:

Both films are essentially about the human condition, informed as it is by Death.

("Oh Death" rendition by Camper Van Beethoven, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, 1988; painting by Jan Toorop.)

In Blade Runner as well as Wings of Desire, the two species connect in a romance--in Blade Runner it's Deckard and Rachael (Sean Young), a new generation replicant who believes she's human, but she's simply been enhanced with the memories of her maker's niece.  (I should also mention that, in one version of the film, it is suggested that Deckard might be a replicant himself.)  

Rachael's so advanced a replicant that she can pass the standard Voight-Kampff.  In the version of the film I heretically prefer, which is the one with the voice-over narration (I like its noir quality), Deckard and Rachael wing away together.  It's not altogether the happy ending the studio thought, since, as Deckard tells us, he and Rachael didn't know how much time they'd have together, but, then,  who ever does?  Life and love are both the repudiation of Negative Capability and the ultimate embracing of it.

Which brings me to Another Earth (directed by Mike Cahill, written by Cahill and Brit Marling), a current low-fi film in which a young woman, "Rhoda"  (Marling), is driving drunk the night that a parallel or second Earth appears in the sky; she looks out at it and ends up crashing into and  killing the family of John Burroughs (William Mapother). When she's released from prison she attempts restitution by working as his maid (she was a minor when the accident happened, hence her identity was never disclosed).  The course of their relationship is both improbable and expected, as both of them are living a kind of death-in-life; together they wonder about their parallel selves or doppelgangers on the second Earth, and about possible second chances at life.

Like some of the endings of Blade Runner, Another Earth's is ambiguous, but it's also a revelation.  Or, as Anthony Lane described its final shot in The New Yorker, "mind-ripping."   I'm not about to spoil it for you here.  

P. B. Shelley believed that the key to life lay in death, in what was behind the "painted veil" of nature, which hinted at yet ultimately hid the secrets of the universe from us.  And of course in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the doctor creates life from death:  he scours the charnel and slaughter houses for his creation.  But then Dr. Frankenstein is repulsed by his wretched creation and abandons him.  The forsaken monster yearns for a kindred spirit who will accept him, and he pursues Frankenstein and forces him to make another being who will embrace the monster.  As we all know, it doesn't work out.  

We are all terminal cases, as Garp said; and to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, there ain't no cure for the search for love.

"So we beat on, boats against the current...."  --F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

1 comment:

  1. Well done as usual Sharon! I must admit, and I'm embarrassed to do so, that I have never seen Blade Runner! Perhaps for our movie club?