Everything Seems Like the Movies
The Goo Goo Dolls' 'Iris', and the unconvincing nature of everyday life.
John Rzeznik hadn’t worked a day job since his band, the Goo Goo Dolls, had scored a US Top Ten hit with ‘Name’ in 1995. But that didn’t mean he didn’t have to work. Rzeznik’s job now was to write hits — and this, he’d discovered, was not as easy as it had first seemed. Shortly after the release of the band’s fifth album, A Boy Named Goo, the singer came down with a case of writer’s block that lasted almost two years — by 1997, Rzeznik had accumulated only the barest scraps of music and lyrics, none of which suggested they had the potential to become hits. When the drought finally broke, in November, it was with a song the band had been commissioned to write for a new Nicolas Cage movie called City of Angels. Rzeznik later said the tune simply fell in his lap — a lovely chord sequence suggested a yearning melody that suited the singer’s whiskey-and-cigarettes voice down to the ground. The idea for the lyrics, meanwhile, came from the screenplay — Rzeznik wrote them in the voice of the film’s protagonist, an angel who wants to be human. Fleshed out in the studio with a mandolin and a string arrangement, and christened ‘Iris’ by the band’s guitarist (after a country singer he’d been listening to), the song was released as a single in April 1998, and went on to spend eighteen weeks at number one on the Billboard charts.
In 1987, the German director Wim Wenders made a film called Der Himmel über Berlin which was released internationally the following year as Wings of Desire. Wenders’ subject — an angel named Damiel watching over a broken city, observing human beings but unable to intervene in their lives — was partly inspired by the ninth of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’.
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history...
In one of the film’s ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼most moving scenes, Damiel — played by Bruno Ganz — approaches Peter Falk at a currywurst stand. Falk is playing himself, Peter Falk, an American actor in Berlin, shooting a film about World War Two. Damiel can’t usually be seen or heard by humans, but Falk, for some reason, knows he is there. ‘I wish I could talk to you,’ he says, ‘to tell you how good it is to be here.’ This makes no sense, until the viewer realises that Falk himself was once an angel too — an angel who grew tired of experiencing life at one remove, always observing, never touching or feeling, smoking or drinking coffee — which he now loves to do. He wants Damiel to know how good all these things are. ‘But you’re not here,’ he says. ‘I’m here. I wish you were here.’ Slowly, Damiel begins to wish this for himself, and after he falls in love with a trapeze artist, his decision is made. Damiel jumps from Berlin’s famous Victory Column, shedding his wings on the way down. When he hits the street, he bleeds. Later, when he drinks a cup of coffee, he can taste it.
In 1998, Brad Silberling was hired to direct a remake of Wings of Desire, with the film’s action moved to Los Angeles. City of Angels differed markedly from Wenders’ original in many respects, but its premise was essentially the same — an angel falls in love, and decides to become human. At the start of the film, Seth (Nicolas Cage) meets a woman named Maggie (Meg Ryan). Unlike most other people, Maggie can see Seth, and the two begin to fall in love. But they can’t really be together, because Seth is not really there. Eventually, it is explained to Seth that if he wants to feel real love, he will have to live in the real world, and if he chooses to do this, he will have to give up his divine privileges. The question that now faces him is expressed on the film’s soundtrack by the Goo Goo Dolls’ ‘Iris’. ‘And I’d give up forever to touch you,’ sings Rzeznik. ‘’Cause I know that you feel me somehow.’
In the song’s video, scenes from the film are intercut with shots of Rzeznik on top of a skyscraper, observing the film’s action through a battery of telescopes. As the singer wheels around his lonely laboratory on an antique swivel- chair, he sings a line that expresses Seth’s deepest wish — to stop being a spectator, to live in the world, to be, as Falk put it, here. ‘When everything feels like the movies / yeah you bleed just to know you’re alive.’
Both the film and its soundtrack hit expressed a profound late- twentieth-century problem: the unconvincing nature of everyday ￼￼￼￼￼life. The easiest character to relate to in City of Angels was not the human Maggie, but the otherworldly Seth — just as in Wings of Desire it was Damiel, and not his circus love, with whom the audience was encouraged to identify. The plight of the angel, who must watch human life unfolding before him as on a screen, at one remove, was closer to most people’s everyday experience than that of the ‘real’ people in the film, whose ability to be in their lives seemed almost supernatural. This, according to Damon Albarn, had been the normal state of affairs for most people since 1990. ‘We started looking at our lives instead of living them,’ he told the NME’s Steve Sutherland. ‘That’s the extraordinary thing about the nineties — we feel separate from the rest of existence.’ The Eels gave form to this feeling on their 1996 single, ‘Susan’s House’. Singer Mark Oliver Everett, known to the world as ‘E’, described a litany of everyday urban horror over a soundtrack of canned sitcom laughter and applause. The narrator sees suffering everywhere, but it seems no more real to him than a TV show, so he keeps walking.
Beck, in an interview with Rolling Stone, suggested that nineties people found it hard to take reality seriously, ‘because they see so much of the world as a cliché’. The singer said his goal was to transcend this second-hand experience of life, ‘to embrace the world’, as he put it. But his words suggested another possibility. If everyday life seemed a poor imitation of the movies, might one become real by crossing over onto the screen? In 1993, critic Robert Hughes argued that this, for many Americans, was now the most reliable form of redemption available. ‘To be on TV, if you believe in TV,’ he wrote in 1993, ‘is to break through the ceiling — to become realer than real.’ MTV had already confirmed Hughes’s observation one year earlier, by naming its groundbreaking reality TV show The Real World. Author Dave Eggers later recalled one of his friends, David Milton, writing a letter to the network, begging it to cast him in the show. ‘Only there, burning brightly in front of a million dazzled eyes,’ wrote Milton, ‘will my as-yet-uncontoured self assume the beauteous forms that are not just its own, but an entire market niche’s due ...’ On Pavement’s 1997 album, Brighten the Corners, Stephen Malkmus offered his listeners the ultimate form of modern day wish fulfilment. ‘Freeze,’ he sang, ‘don’t move / you’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation / of ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼the sequel to your life.’ When everything seems like the movies, your best hope is that, with practice, you’ll get so good at playing the part of yourself that you’ll one day get to do it for real — on TV.
But in 1997, a message from one of the lucky few who managed to cross over suggested that the trip was not worth the effort. In Wings of Desire, Damiel is tempted into the real world by Peter Falk’s report from the other side. Falk has been a spectator, and now he’s in it — and he assures Damiel it’s better. At the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, the message from Fiona Apple was: stay where you are. Apple had just beaten Meredith Brooks and Jamiroquai in the category for ‘Best New Artist’. Having accepted her statuette, she began her speech with a warning. ‘I’m not gonna do this like everybody else,’ she said. This was true — the speeches so far, like all speeches at all awards ceremonies, had said, ‘I’m here — I wish you were here. Be here now.’ What Apple had to say was the exact opposite. ‘So, what I want to say is: everybody out there that’s watching, everybody that’s watching this world — this world is bullshit. And you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything.’ As the audience whooped like she was on Oprah, Apple delivered her final message. ‘Go with yourself,’ she said. ‘Go with yourself.’
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