Film: How to make a film take off: just add wings

Hollywood's celestial craze is a reaction against materialism (and it really pulls in the punters).
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The Independent Culture
Pensive men in trenchcoats eavesdrop on private thoughts, hover over the heartbroken, sidle up to soothe the sick. You can't see them but they're watching, perched on high, curious as to the frail yet sensuous nature of humankind - not least Seth who, on falling in love with a mortal, takes the plunge to become part of our corporeal world.

If the theme of City Of Angels sounds familiar, it's because it's a re- make of the lauded German film, Wings Of Desire (1988). Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, no one ever admits as much ("We always looked at it more as an inspiration than a remake," insists Brad Silberling, director of the new version). But even though City Of Angels has been heralded critically, one can't help but notice it marks a sweeping trend - not the one which dictates that every idea issued by Hollywood these days should be a recycled one, but of the current American fad for all things angelic.

John Travolta, of course, made a splash last year as the eponymous fallen seraph in Michael; Denzel Washington played a heavenly body in The Preacher's Wife (another remake); a revamped Angels In The Outfield took a recent turn around the bases. Even Britain's own A Life Less Ordinary was orchestrated by agents from the hereafter. And there are others preparing to dance upon the pin-head. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon continue their miraculous ascension as renegade cherubs in Dogma; Brad Pitt is the vacationing Angel Of Death in Meet Joe Black (a spruced-up Death Takes A Holiday). The symbolism exists everywhere - from Greg Kinnear posing in front of feathered wings for Dear God, to Claire Danes sporting a dinky pair of flutterers in Romeo + Juliet.

"For whatever reason, there are times when there is this collective consciousness and it moves in one direction or another," gushes Chuck Roven, City Of Angels' producer. "I don't know why. It might be because of the Millennium, you know?"

Ah yes, the Millennium. In Tinseltown much is made of the impending watershed, which, like El Nino, seems a blanket explanation to be used at will. But, given that Hollywood is in the throes of a spiritual revival that has seen it subjects flocking to Buddhism, Scientology and Kabbalah (a formerly obscure branch of Jewish mysticism), there may be some truth in it - especially given other spiritually tinged films of late such as Phenomenon, Contact, The Apostle, Seven Years In Tibet and Kundun. Even mortality-questioning movies about volcanoes, meteors and giant lizards can be construed as part of the movement.

"Terrorism, the testing of atomic bombs. In this climate of fear, people are looking for something to comfort them. Angels are traditionally seen as comforters," chirrups Eileen Freeman, upon whose book, Touched By Angels, the hit TV series Touched By An Angel was based. "The fact that we've come to a very materialistic period, striving to outdo one's next door neighbour is very important. What happens is that constant attitude starves the spirit and so people start to look for spiritual answers."

Freeman should know. A self-styled "Angelologist", her views fit with the adoration that has seen millions rush to make bestsellers of Sophie Burnham's The Book of Angels, James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy and Betty J. Eadie's Embraced By The Light. In addition to the 150 angel- themed titles currently available, America's tabloids fill with tales of winged visions who pluck drowning children from the sea, save rock climbers from plummeting or - a speciality - avert fatal car crashes. A whole spin-off industry is churning out angel playing cards, wrapping paper, T-shirts, screen-savers, mouse mats and brooch pins - the kind popularised by Hillary Clinton and prosecutor Marcia Clark (whose heavenly guide seemed to go AWOL during the OJ Simpson trial).

Need memorabilia? Call the Angel Collectors Club of America. Care to set up shop? HALOS - that's Helping Angel Lovers Own Stores - will lay on hands. Spiritual small talk? Freeman's own Angel Watch foundation - complete with bi-monthly magazine - will steer you towards any of the 72 per cent of Americans (according to a recent Gallup poll) who believe.

The current touchy-feely climate (where, even here, a faith healer is deemed a crucial part of England's World Cup campaign) has allowed the celestial seasoning to permeate every aspect of life (Freeman's fourth book, The Angels' Little Diet Book, inspired by a winged chum who helped her lose 10 stone). Angels R Us.

"Angels are not demanding. They ask for nothing in return. They do not demand that you go to church on Sunday," concurs Professor Jaime Lara, Professor of Religious Art at Yale, citing their cross-cultural, non-denominational bearing as particularly user-friendly (they crop up in Christianity, Judaism, Islam and, in parts, Buddhism). "Americans like the fact that angels don't demand any specific code of behaviour, especially sexual behaviour. If Barbarella could make love to an angel, and if John Travolta could mess around while on a heavenly mission, well, we Americans can relate to that. Angels of the 1990s aren't churchy or preachy. They have their peccadilloes and, perhaps, anyone of us can get our wings."

The current clamour doesn't mean it is purely a 1990s phenomenon. In movie terms, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941 - remade in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait), The Horn Blows At Midnight (1945), It's A Wonderful Life (1946), A Matter Of Life And Death (1946) and The Bishop's Wife (1947) are classics of the genre. Not that film interpretations don't incense those in the know.

"Some of them are absolutely ludicrous. John Travolta as Michael The Archangel? Angels don't do those things," tuts Freeman. "I've had personal experience. My problem with most of the movies about angels is that they present them as recycled human beings in search of good deeds.

The traditional view of angels is that they are immortal spirits that predate the earth." (Though she does confess a fondness for It's A Wonderful Life, despite Hollywood's persistence with "giving angels names like Clarence".)

Of course, angels come in handy, too, when screenwriters want a mouthpiece for some moral insight, words that don't sound right coming from a pasty- faced mortal, and which is why a single angel will always be more credible than a host of philosophising aliens - although it seems no coincidence that in one fell swoop, angel encounters have supplanted "close" ones as the tabloid sensation du jour.

Indeed PEER, the Program for Extraordinary Experience Research, run by the medical faculty at Harvard, deals with both types of revelation, suggesting that most poor souls, blinded by all that white light, are still a little confused as to which aspect of the heavens it might hail from.

Perhaps there is a simpler answer to the film revival in that, prompted by the 1990 film Ghost, which proved a boffo sleeper hit, studio execs, assuming they had hit upon a brand new supernatural genre (at least one in limbo since Chevy Chase's Oh Heavenly Dog in 1980), rushed into development of any spirited script they could get their greedy hands on, most of which have now come to fruition.

"There is a certain follow-my-leader approach to film-making. You know, if something makes money, that's a common market force in any industry," says Ian Nathan, editor of the film magazine Empire.

"I think what stimulates writers most of all is other films they've seen. They think, `Oh, I've got a good twist on the angel thing.' It's a simple pitch - `It's Wings Of Desire with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan.' Producers get it right away."

In other words, there's no business like show business. Maybe Sean Daniel, producer of Michael, puts it best. "If there's room in the Scriptures," he says. "There's room in our culture..."