While I may be a queer, trans, anti-capitalist atheist now, I once believed in God. Big time. Like writing letters to Jesus type of believing in God. And one of my favorite films as a ten-year-old was “Angels in the Outfield”. Danny Glover and Christopher Lloyd are angels sent down from heaven to perform a miracle for a young, orphaned Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In a quintessentially ’90s movie move, its main motif is the ever-American tradition of baseball. It has everything a good Christian product has to offer: forgiveness, redemption, miracles—and in 2018, the quaintness of this film is almost heartbreaking, and brings to mind innocence lost and illusions shattered. Reflecting on this feeling of loss and the seeming disappearance of this genre film convinced me to dive into the history of the angel movie.
The first arc of popularity reached its apex in the mid-1940’s, smack dab during World War II. By no coincidence, its second zeitgeist immediately predates 9/11 and the Iraq War. Suggestively, most angel movies of the ’90s were remakes (including Angels in the Outfield). Across time and medium angels appear as harbingers of hope, responding to the prayers of children to reassure us that yes, God is Real. Out of that national trauma comes the inversion of the angel’s symbology in film (see Constantine, Dominion, Hellboy, etc) and its reinterpretation as the marker of a lost (or at least crumbling) Christian empire, as seen in Angels and Demons. Here I present my Top 5 Angel Movies that can be read outside of contemporary Christian culture, films that use the hallmarks of the angel genre to more deeply explore what it means to be human. While still circling around themes of hope, redemption, and miracles, these films are outstanding examples of a genre long since lost.
5. “Liliom” (France, 1934) Penned by Fritz Lang and later inspiring the 1945 Rogers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel”, “Liliom” is a German expressionist work featuring a charming vision of heaven rendered in soft black and white 35mm. While not Lang’s best film, it is beautifully shot and holds the moralistic undertones crucial to the angel movie genre. We follow the charming yet rough protagonist Liliom through his own death, watching him play out a philandering, sinful life of a carnie slash con artist. Hanging against a brash carnival backdrop that represents the dirty allure of giving in to one’s hedonistic desires, Liliom ruminates the stygian cruelty of humankind through the lens of heavenly judgment.
4. “A Matter of Life and Death” (UK, 1946) Pack a fat bowl before rolling out on this wacky tour of heaven through the eyes of a dead man walking. WWII fighter pilot Peter Carter gets shot down in combat, but miraculously survives; or did he? A very self-conscious deployment of the angel genre, on the verge of dying our protagonist pontificates: “Sorry about the parachute, but I’ve got a wingsuit coming – big white ones! I hope they haven’t gone all modern, I’d hate to have a prop instead of real wings.” Featuring an enchanting soundtrack, old-timey technicolor special effects, and a good dollop of pop philosophy, join a cabal of flamboyant angels and gaze down on the Earth and its messy emotional trappings from a modernist, orderly heaven.
3. “Bedazzled” (UK, 1967) (CW: suicide attempt) This film, remade in 2000 featuring Brendan Fraser, features the original fallen angel: Satan! Definitely the lightest in mood of all the films featured here, we get to explore the reversal of a lot of angel tropes and philosophical themes from a wry, irreverent standpoint. Viewing the angel movie from the other side, that of evil and sin, is a great way to explore the depth of the angel genre in reverse. Themes of redemption and forgiveness are inverted, and we get to watch the wallowing of a pitiful little everyman being existentially tortured in his hilarious and sexy film.
2. “It’s A Wonderful Life” (US, 1946) (CW: suicide attempt) Last Christmas I saw this with my datemate before breaking up with them for the first (but not last) time. Soaked in the nihilistic irony of youth and weed and all its concomitant queer feelings, reading this movie critically as an adult was a helluvan experience. Give this film a go if you want to crack it open from a Marxist perspective while (paradoxically) feeling Christmas-y! I for sure cried at the end, as I always do, but also had many thoughts about anti-capitalism, community solidarity, and the banking industry long after the curtain closed.
1. “Wings of Desire” (German, 1987) Wings of Desire is another angel movie that was remade into a lousy but popular Nic Cage flick in the late ’90s called “City of Angels”, co-starring Nicole Kidman. This Wim Wenders masterpiece is a visual delight; an early scene depicts a woman in the traditional white-winged garb, but she is revealed to be no angel; instead, a trapeze artist in costume, giving a visual nod to the angel motif itself, presupposing the gauche angel wing costumes of movies to come. This film focuses on the angel’s perspective as he falls in love with a mortal woman, yet ultimately is about the subtle beauty of being human.
Like many genres that explore the Other in the supernatural, the animal, etc, the figure of the angel is a reflection of ourselves: in this case, an embodiment of the conscience. Note how all of these films are at their core about negotiating regret. The Angel symbolizes holding oneself accountable, an external reminder to live intentionally by viewing your life as a series of moral choices that exist outside of time. The hardcore determinism of the present might well be softened by such angel movies, and one doesn’t need to be a film buff nor existentialist to use their lessons well.