More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
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Looked at again many years on, City of Angels (1998) is very well put together : imagery, locations, composition, atmosphere, score...
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) November 28, 2014
Appearing just before The Matrix (1999), City of Angels (1998) somehow inhabits a benign version of its city of also black-costumed guardians : there, Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo enter it from their reality, based in a submarine-like craft*, beyond The Matrix itself** – and are effectively (in the sense of an immune system) infections that Agents Smith, Brown and others (the guardians of that system) seek to locate and destroy. In City of Angels, Seth, unseen with his fellows, is a guardian of the angel variety (hence Los Angeles).
However, the idea of being watched over might not yet be counter to the spirit of enjoyment that is willing to entertain the framing-story of Capra’s now-classic It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), with Clarence (Henry Travers) ‘getting his wings’ (against a divine backdrop) through the saving of George Bailey and family (James Stewart, Donna Reed (Mary Bailey) and Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy)). It’s A Wonderful Life supposedly was a failure on its release, but is part of Christmas for many***. After the opening sequence, the God perspective, which is present throughout Meg Ryan’s (Dr Rice’s) involvement with Seth (Nicolas Cage), is downplayed in, and into, some moments of comedy (or fun).
Even so, when we have George, surveying the world that there would have been without him – a befuddled, slow-to-comprehend George**** (partly under the influence of cheap booze) – the mood, of course, is dismal, stark, chilling. And, for some, seeing how George has been put upon, disappointed, and ended up making sacrifices is too much to be balanced by how the film eventually closes : cruel vignette after vignette that show the optimism and hope of youth turned to 'service' and 'duty'*****.
Which brings us back to the angels, and whether contemplating them is a help to us : Messenger (Dennis Franz) and Cassiel (Andre Braugher) are the ones whom we come to know (alongside, and in relation to, Seth). Some of us, in a God-empty universe, might revolt at the notion that, in a lapse of attention, an air-traffic controller could, by the unfelt touch of an invisible angel, be brought back down to ground (pun not intended, but still included) – from thoughts of domestic matters to a flight on his screen that he has overlooked.
For some have to rejoice instead in asserting a post-Nietzschean world – preferring that to what are viewed as the empty comforts of religion (and ignoring the force of logic in Pascal’s Wager ?). In this film, Maggie Rice is seen, seeking to be rationalistic about the world and mortality (and even talking to herself, trying to get herself to believe it), but hurting with the fact of ‘losing’ her patient (Mr Balford) on the operating-table – whom Seth was, in parallel, tasked with taking to eternal realms.
Only a little licence that Maggie should take it so personally, because cardiac surgeons may well be bound, at times, both to examine themselves for what they may have done wrong, and to feel solely responsible for battling against death. Seth says that he has been struck by how hard Maggie fights, and believes that she could see him, ready to take Mr Balford away. From there on, and with Messenger’s help, their appreciation of the realities of their positions occupies the bulk of the film, with Seth (as does Neo) needing to test his powers to find out who he is.
It is a film infused by the theology and iconography of Milton in Paradise Lost, and, if considered in the context of the Matrix trilogy as a whole, it also ends with reconciliation, telling a story of loss and love : Seth, who had not even been heeding his own needs, ends up affirming the positive that there is in life by plunging into the sea, as Messenger earlier showed him how…
The New Testament’s First Letter of Peter seems to speak of the curiosity of the angels in desiring to know what will happen to mankind, and there is the same sense of the angels Seth and Cassiel, existing on the outside of their own experience – sitting together, as buddies, high above the city (on a sign or a statue), and marvelling at the nature and order of things :
Wonder not then, what God for you saw good
If I refuse not, but convert, as you,
To proper substance; time may come when men
With Angels may participate, and find
No inconvenient Diet, nor too light Fare:
And from these corporal nutriments perhaps
Your bodies may at last turn all to Spirit
Improv'd by tract of time, and wingd ascend
Ethereal, as wee, or may at choice
Here or in Heav'nly Paradises dwell;
If ye be found obedient, and retain
Unalterably firm his love entire
Whose progenie you are. Mean while enjoy
Your fill what happiness this happie state
Can comprehend, incapable of more.
* Thankfully, the Nebuchadnezzar is not a yellow craft.
** Unlike The Wachowskis’ machine-city, where the only outside (at least in the first part of the trilogy) is that of the rebels’ quasi-submarine, the final section of City of Angels takes us beyond LA (and even Drive (2011), with its similarly impressive noctilucent cityscapes, has a brief interlude of respite).
*** Though there are interesting, lesser-known alternatives such as The Bishop’s Wife (1947) (Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven), or even Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) (Judy Garland).
**** One is almost reminded of Macduff, feelingly denying the acceptance that all my pretty chickens and their dam have been lost.
***** Pot o’ Gold (1941) (later known as The Golden Hour) has Stewart as a character (Jimmy Haskel) who seems to move in the opposite direction from the battles with Potter (Lionel Barrymore) that embroil George Bailey :
Jimmy gives up the happy, but parlous, mayhem of the music shop that he runs to go to work for his music-hating uncle, Charley Haskel (a CJ decades before that of David Nobbs’ Perrin). Music then becomes the symbol around which the warm-hearted unite, and which the bigoted CJ despises (largely to comic effect, as when he is obliged to try to sing by Jimmy’s former cell-mates, and ends up – thanks to Charles Winninger’s skill – amusingly hoarse).
Gabriel Yared certainly deserved a Grammy for City of Angels (1998) - and Alanis Morissette didn't do so badly either.
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) November 28, 2014
Have ended up watching two films scored by Gabriel Yaredrecently, City of Angels (1998) and The English Patient (1996) - both done well
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) November 27, 2014
In a plot that makes no / few pretensions to hang together (except through music, and centred for no very obvious reason on Ma McCorkle’s orderly yet anarchic boarding-house), Pot o’ Gold still revolves entertainingly around chucking a rotten tomato, gratuitous off-screen violence, proud lovers, and just as stubborn neighbours…
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)