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Winging It

Fifty-two years ago I was a starry-eyed English major hired at Commonweal to answer the telephone and to pound outliterallycorrespondence on an old Smith-Corona.Who could have imagined that the ties would still bind so many years later.True, I sometimes feel like the comic relief. Not all writing needs to be Shakespearean, not all movies need the hand of a Bergman or Fellini. Personally, I am an aficionado of well-done fluff. But when I discover a diamond in the dungand a good part of what passes for popular culture today is dungI want to talk about it, to share my opinions.

A friend told me recently that she and her husband had seen Wim Wenders 1987 Wings of Desire five times and that when they finally visited Berlin, where the movie is set, how much they enjoyed seeing some of the now-familiar landmarks. The movie is also a favorite of mine, and part of a trio of interesting films in which various winged creatures help ordinary humans to achieve happiness. In Wings, angels hover above Berlin unseen and unheard, trying to help people through their moments of anguish and agony. The excellent Bruno Ganz plays Damiel, an angel who yearns for something more than a spiritual life. His desire crystallizes when he sees Marion, a beautiful and deeply lonely trapeze artist who wears big feathery wings in her act. Enter Peter Falk, flawlessly playing himself as an actor working in a movie being shot in Berlin. He is also an angel who chose earthly existence, and as such is able to sense Damiels presence and his longing. He speaks to him of the simple joys of human life. When, at last, Damiel does fall to earth, he and Marion meet in a bar and recognize each other as soulmates.A Hungarian Fairy Tale, also a 1987 film, is Gyula Gazdags charming story of love and longing set amid the dreary conformity of Communist Hungary. A young woman attends a performance of The Magic Flute, after which she has a tryst with one of the singers. The singer disappears and months later, the young woman gives birth to a son. When the son, Andris, is still a young boy his mother dies in an accident and he sets out to find the father he has never known. He is befriended by the nurse who helped deliver him and by the clerk who recorded his birth. The three form a family of their own, foiling the soulless bureaucrats who pursue them for political reasons.Gazdag directs with gentle humor, bits of romance, and a touch of magic. He splashes the milk of human kindness in odd places. He uses Mozarts beautiful music to tie it all together. As the agents of the state close in on them, Andris and his two friends leap atop a large ornamental stone bird. The bird comes to life, lifts its wings, and carries the new family heavenward. It is heart-stoppingly wonderful.Miracle in Milan, Vittorio de Sicas 1951 minor masterpiece, is an odd amalgam of gritty neo-realism and comic fantasy. It follows the travails and eventual triumph of another young boy, Toto, discovered in a cabbage patch as infant by Lolotta, a kindly old woman. She raises him lovingly and teaches him, above all, to be good person. When she dies he goes to an orphanage and emerges, an honest and cheerful young man, into the grim and impoverished world of post-WWII Italy.Toto moves to a crowded shantytown and tries to make things better for the poor people around him. Lolotta appears to him in a dream and gives him a beautiful magic dove which can perform, well, miracles. When oil is discovered on the land where the hovels are built, the greedy plutocrats of Milanin top hats and fine fur-collared coatsmove in with police to arrest the poor folk and seize the land. But ah, the dove! As the convoy arrives at the square fronting the great cathedral of Milan, the walls of the paddy wagons fall apart and the prisoners run free. The free-for-all that follows is hilarious, improbable, and immensely satisfying.I plan to spend a long, long weekend this summer watching once again these quirky, charming and life-affirming movies. You, dear reader, can seldom do as well at your local Cineplex.

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I no longer go to movies or even rent them from Netflix. It wasn't an an intellectual choice - I just stopped wanting to spend hours of my life sitting in front of a screen, being dragged through hours-long recitals prepared for mass amusement in film factories. The linearity, I think, was part of the turn off. If I want linearity now, I much prefer a good lecture.Nevertheless, there are a few films I remember fondly from the pre-dung days. I may watch them again now and then, if the mood should strike - Jules et Jim, La grande illusion, Doctor Strangelove - stuff like that.

As I love all three of the movies that David Smith cites as being fondly remembered from the "pre-dung days" I have no doubt that he would enjoy all three movies I mentioned. The Grand Illusion is a particular favorite of mine, and I have only to think of Peter Sellers in his wheelchair forcibly restraining his arm from making the Heil Hitler salute, or Sterling Hayden raving about bodily fluids, to be grateful for the art of Stanley Kubrick. As to linearity, I know nothing. There are great movies--The Seventh Seal, Open City, Ozu's The Tokyo Story-- cult films, and a whole bunch of movies such as Strange Brew and The Princess Bride that I can watch with enormous pleasure without feeling that I have been insulted or that I wasted my time.