P.O.V. No.8 - Articles

The City is More Than Skin Deep:
On Translating Wenders in America

Darrell Varga

The making-over of Wim Wenders’ masterful Wings of Desire (1987) into City of Angels (Dir. Brad Silberling, 1998) while on the one hand another chapter in the late twentieth century’s long-running saga of American cultural imperialism, offers a useful view of the possibilities and limits of translation in Benjaminian terms. In his "The Task of the Translator," Walter Benjamin posits the act of translation as a striving toward a true language, to that which is concealed in the original. Metaphors of a labyrinth are well-known throughout Benjamin’s writings and the act of translation is similarly described in terms that are a movement of continual unfolding:

Though one may gleam as much of that subject matter as one can from a translation, and translate that, the element with which the efforts of the real translation were concerned remains at a quite inaccessible remove, because the relationship between content and language is quite different in the original and the translation. Whereas content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds.[1]

The metaphor of the labyrinth must, following Simmel, be understood simultaneously as a matrix of hidden paths as well as the potential to form new networks of connection.[2] Benjamin declares emphatically that a translation should never merely communicate the original for the sake of those who do not understand it, but that it must evoke the essential quality of the work of art in poetic rather than simply communicative terms in order to serve the original through renewal, through the creation of what he refers to as an "afterlife"[3] for the work of art, a striving for revelation. While the content of the original is, immodestly, the ruins of European history, City of Angels is at a necessary distance from these fragments of empire, yet both films take the city itself as subject as well as setting. The notion of "afterlife" invites this brief sketch of these angel films and their translation from the spaces of Berlin to those of Los Angeles.

If there are so many angels in the Los Angeles of City of Angels, it is because they are angels of death–not merely gazing at the passing of history from a free-floating perspective, but stalking the living to the end of mortality where they take possession of the body and, unlike the original, intervene in temporal affairs. These Americanized angels have been literalized as Christian (the angel Seth declares: "I am a messenger of God") and the film emphasizes belief which is signified as superior to the scientific rationality of the main female character, Dr. Maggie Rice (Meg Ryan)–her faith in medical-technological rationality collapses as she falls in love with a (soon-to-be fallen) angel named Seth (Nicholas Cage). The American angels are not mere witness to history, here they give signification to that which they see, an act of naming which is a striving for redemption, for a return to the garden, realized in mortal-sensual experience, as Richard Wolin explains of Benjamin’s project: "The lost paradisiac language of names contains within itself the hidden script of redeemed life, [this] becomes the focal point of Benjamin’s critical energies."[4]

The angels of Wings of Desire are witness to history, assuming the perspective of Paul Klee’s "Angelus Novus" upon which Benjamin projected despair at the culmination of materialist history as horror:

The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[5]

Angels are preservers and preservations. Images of flight as well as of loss and destruction, reminding us that memory is already framed by other accounts of memory. The gaze of this angel of history extends outward, beyond the frame of its own materiality, gazing toward the past while being forced into the future and is no longer able to intervene in the trajectory of its flight. To look at the Klee angel is to look away, to enact a reversal in order to see what the angel sees. We are forced to look both ways, the Klee angel is looking out at us, for we are, according to Benjamin, the catastrophe of history.[6] In contrast, the trajectory of City of Angels is away from material history, toward a mythologization which, for Benjamin, is a freezing still of emancipatory potential. Here history is not made by humans, even the seemingly "progressive" Doctor (she rides a bicycle in car-obsessed Los Angeles!) is helpless against the forces of myth. The angel’s muse is a trapeze artist in Wenders’ original and the fallen angel Damiel becomes an assistant to her creativity while the latter film concludes tragically, without art and outside of the city–away from that site of medical rationality and corporeal control, the hospital, to a country road where Maggie, while riding her bicycle, spreads her arms outward as if they are wings and dies after being hit by a logging truck.

As in the original, the angels of Los Angeles spend the day circulating through and looking over the shoulders of the readers in a grand old public library. What speaks extra-diegetic volumes is that the production had to move to San Francisco for these scenes as there is no suitable library in Los Angeles. This is a city of surfaces over which the angels glide. Fredric Jameson contrasts American and European understandings of space and history as follows:

Our relationship to our past as Americans must necessarily be very different and far more problematical than for Europeans whose national histories...remain alive within their contemporary political and ideological struggles. I think a case could be made for the peculiar disappearance of the American past in general, which comes before us in unreal costumes and by way of the spurious images of nostalgia art [7].

While the free-floating movement of the angels is similar to that in the sky over Berlin, in Los Angeles there is no weight of history pulling the angels down to, or beneath, the surface. In fact, the literalization of a Christian belief in angels facilitates a further pull away from material history even as the angels intervene in life on earth (Seth provides the answer to a medical diagnostic problem, allowing Maggie to perform surgery on a suffering child).

Actors are bodies with invented histories, just as the fallen angels must invent a past for themselves to fulfil the twin desires of social integration and the production of narrative. Wings of Desire trades on the comic body of Peter Falk as a fallen angel who, like his television detective character ‘Colombo’, is happily dishevelled and haphazard in his current investigations of angels who wish to come out of the closet of immortality. In contrast with Falk’s on-screen amiability, the not-to-be-fallen angel Cassiel in City of Angels is played by André Braugher, known for his role as a detective in the television series Homicide: Life on the Street. In that TV role Braugher is a stern and hyper-rational detective driven by the moralistic homicide department’s mantra: "We speak for the dead." The inter-textual references suggest that mortality cannot be redeemed in the everyday, only by the intervention of an all-seeing myth-figure. That mortality is a sacrifice is stated as such by another TV detective, Dennis Franz (a hard-boiled character on the police drama NYPD Blue), who plays the already-fallen angel Messinger and admits that sensual life, for all its pleasures, amounts to a loss. These television actors participate in the re-making of this film within the American mainstream system of instrumentalization. In contrast, Roger Cook explains that the free-floating perspective of the original undercuts the conventions of suture and the male-defined gaze, as is especially evident in the exchange of looks between Damiel and Marion–both gazing directly into the camera during the climactic barroom love scene [8]. In City of Angels, Seth, as well-intentioned stalker, restores the gaze into the patriarchal conventions of Hollywood. Likewise, an eternity of voyeurism has enabled Seth to perform perfect and prolonged movie-style sexual intercourse – we mortals have only had a hundred or so years of cinematic pedagogy.

The weight of material history comes crashing down onto Damiel’s head when he surrenders eternity for the sake of the sensuous in Wings of Desire – his first day as mortal begins with the crash of a suit of armour onto his head from some unseen overhead perspective. He uses the armour, this emblem of nationalist history, to enter the market economy, pawning it for a change of clothes and some money for the much coveted warm coffee. He is then able to ask for, and even give, street directions and find his love. In contrast, Seth awakens as mortal on the concrete slab of a construction site to the jeers of the work crew. He attempts to ask for directions to the hospital but is ignored or assumed to be a threat (or homeless, which in Los Angeles amounts to the same thing), and is lost on the cold concrete overhead sidewalks connecting office buildings throughout downtown L.A. – structures designed to keep the homeless out of the ‘Kodak memory’ gaze of visiting tourists and away from the efficient steps of local office-workers. Seth’s poverty is magnified when he is mugged and his shoes are stolen – so he suffers as an all-too-literal Christ figure in an unredeemed city. He realizes that he requires money to get to his destination, his love, and he has none. Damiel also requires money, but its absence does not, as with Seth, overdetermine him as undesirable.

Are these differences in the two films an effacement of the original’s poetry or the kind of Benjaminian transformation that, in spite of surface differences, strives toward a (however essentialist) essence? Benjamin evokes the transformative potential thusly:

Fragments of a vessel that are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of initiating the sense of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.[9]

These vessels, Los Angeles and Berlin, distinct in historical origins and materialist construction, are similarly divided. The latter (at the time of production in 1987) by the Berlin wall and the ruins of neighbourhoods made incomplete by this authoritarian fragmentation, while the former is divided by a willed disappearance of public space and the fortress-highways upon which individuals move while frozen within metal cubicles. Where the angels of Berlin exist in public space, atop monuments and in open spaces, those of Los Angeles are overwhelmingly associated with commercial or private spaces–the "city of angels" has few non-commercialized gathering places [10]. Indeed, the scene of Seth’s mugging reinforces the paranoid desire to fragment the city into militarized zones of privation.

Roger Cook explains that the Berlin of Wings of Desire is a spatial link between the past and present, where history is preserved in the flesh of its inhabitants [11], even as the angels remain detached from the everyday [12]. Yet the benevolent scopophilia of the angels heals the fragmenting wounds of history, as Cook suggests: "The story of Berlin, of Der Himmel Über Berlin ("The Sky Over Berlin" [–the film’s literal German title]) that unites a divided city and people, also promises a new beginning in the continuing search for a national identity [13]." City of Angels, set in the epicentre of American myth-making, assumes its own divisions as given and absolute. Images cannot breach its veneer skin. The film’s love story ends in death in the remote countryside–a myth of eternal salvation substitutes for a materialist historical reconciliation.

Recent postmodern spatial theory has characterized Los Angeles as a divided city of surfaces, what Jameson calls a "postmodern hyperspace" in which space is organized so to disorient the individual body, a disjunction which he explains as: "the symbol and analogon of that ever sharper dilemma which is the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects."[14] But it is Wim Wenders himself who understands the geography of America, and of Los Angeles in particular, as likewise physical place and dystopian dream image. In his prose poem "The American Dream" he describes his experience of America through German-dubbed Hollywood movies which, in their surfaces, convey the dream of adventure and freedom while belying the commodification of images as mass tranquilizer. He describes that drive through the Cinemascope landscape, from the extremes of poverty to extreme excess:

And if nothing coheres any more
and if every concept of nature or civilisation
has been washed away
by that all-consuming artificiality
then you start to understand
a graffito in a toilet in Hollywood:
‘people here
have become the people
they’re pretending to be.’[15]

The re-making of the Wenders film in America does not transform this social excess. The original is instead buried under the trash heaps of image-history. The angels can only watch with mouths agape.

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1 Walter Benjamin, "The Task of the Translator," Selected Writings Volume 1: 1913-1926, trans. Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge and London: Belknap-Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 258.

2 Simmel is cited in: Derek Gregory, Geographical Imaginations (Cambridge M.A. and Oxford U.K.: Blackwell, 1994), p. 269.

3 Benjamin, "Translator," p. 254.

4 Richard Wolin, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 43.

5 Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), p. 257.

6 Roger Cook points out that a reference to Benjamin's ownership of the Klee painting is overheard by the angels as they wander through one of the many scenes in the Berlin library. Cook indicates that Benjamin's descrip-tion of the angel is matched by the role plaed by Wenders's angels: "The angels in Wings of Desire, as in Benjamin's account of the "Angelus Novus," are not able to alter the course of history; they only observe and verify it as they accompany it into the future with a painful countenance." In "Angels, Fiction, and History in Berlin: Wings of Desire," The Cinema of Wim Wenders, ed. Roger F. Cook and Gerd Gemünden (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997), p. 185.

7 Cited in Gregory, p. 288.

8 Cook, p. 178.

9 Benjamin, "Translator," p. 260.

10 The morning scenes where angels gather at the ocean shore to hear music is the notable exception, but it is a sensual-everyday pleasure absolutely denied to the living.

11 Cook, p. 164.

12 It is this detachment, this impossibility of representing history, which is David Harvey's criticism of the film in his: The Condition of Postmodernity, (Cambridge M.A. and Oxford U.K.: Blackwell, 1990).

13 Cook, p. 181.

14 Fredric Jameson, "The Cultural Logic of late Capitalism," Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 44.

15 Wim Wenders, "The American Dream," Emotion Pictures: Reflections on the Cinema, trans. Shaun Whiteside and Michael Hofmann (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), p. 146.

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