City of Angels
a review by Ari Armstrong
City of Angels provides sort of a "window" into that part of the culture which remains theistic in the Christian tradition (which really is quite a large segment).
The film really is quite well done, with excellent cinematography, music, and acting. But then, I've always really liked both Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan, the two leads.
But the premise is just too hard to swallow to make the film thoroughly enjoyable. The idea is that Cage plays an angel who struggles with the decision of whether to "fall" to earth so that he can have a human romantic relationship with Ryan('s character).
Something to notice is how non-traditional is the film in its version of "Christian morality." Sex is seen as healthy even outside of marriage, and there's no problem, with God or ethics, with Cage "falling" to earth to become human to pursue a romance. This seems to be in line with the more general cultural movement to make religion more "tolerant" (and fun). The central theme is the importance of romantic love to the individual, and on this level the film is touching.
But on to more substantive issues. The philosophy behind the film actually shares an important tenant with realist philosophy: the acknowledgment that "objective reality" exists apart from human consciousness. Cage as the angel says, "Some things exist whether or not you believe in them." Of course, he's talking about God and Heaven, in response to Ryan's skepticism concerning religion, but the basic metaphysical point remains sound.
Of course where the film differs from Objectivism and other realist philosophies is in epistemology. The film is comfortable with "proof" and thus shuns "blind faith," but the type of "proof" it offers of God and Heaven is of the typically shoddy religionist sort. (I'm disregarding the obvious, that Ryan has ample opportunity to see Cage AS an angel in the film, and rather I'm focusing on the messages of the film from which presumably the rest of us, out in real-life, are supposed to be able to learn.)
The first "proof" offered for the existence of God and Heaven is "feeling." Just as we gain experiences through our physical senses, suggests the film, so can we gain experience through our emotional "feelings." Of course, the error here is an equivocation on "feeling." In one sense "feeling" means a perceptual experience, which is readily explained by realist epistemology. In the other sense "feeling" means an intuitive emotion, which, as Dr. Nathaniel Branden explains, is an emotional integration of one's broad *beliefs* (conscious and subconscious) which may or may not reflect true knowledge. The film follows most of Christendom in mistakenly conflating the two meanings.
The film does offer a nice example of realist epistemology, though, as well. Cage asks Ryan, "What does the pear taste like?" "Don't you know what a pear tastes like?" "I don't know what a pear tastes like to you." Part of the significance here is just that we all associate different things with different experiences (like maybe a romantic walk on the beach with the smell of sea salt). Another implication, though, is that there is no "taste" in existence apart from the human experience; the film implicitly recognizes that perception is neither "subjective" nor "intrinsic," but rather *relational* between the perceiver and the perceived. (Plus this was just a nice scene between two lovers.)
The other "proof" the film attempts of God and Heaven is the alleged inadequacy of physiology to explain such human experiences as "love." Cage asks of Ryan, "What is love?" She starts to respond in terms of chemistry, but then stops in failure. The implication is that we can only explain humanity in terms of an a-physical spiritual nature. What the film fails to recognize is that, just as we *experience* color in a way that isn't the same as the physiological explanation of the event, so we *experience* love in a way that is not dependent on our knowledge of the physiology. It's a matter of perspective, of context. Hence, it is inappropriate of Ryan to respond to Cage with an explanation of "love" in terms of chemistry, in the context of their conversation. That does not mean, however, that love cannot *be* explained in terms of physiology; it just means that our *experience* of love is not the same as the explanation. There's not the tension here that the film suggests.
However, this does lead to the disagreement among Objectivists concerning the nature of "free will." To some, our will is "free" of any first-cause; it IS a first-cause in at least some respects. To others (such as Voss and myself), "free will" is compatible with a basic physical determinism (though of course not a "genetic determinism" or a "social determinism"). Thus, when the film suggests that physiology cannot fully explain the human condition, some Objectivists might tend to agree, though I would not. But whether or not this is true, it obviously doesn't imply the sorts of conclusions the film and modern Christianity wish to draw from the argument.
I'm definitely not suggesting that the reader go see City of Angels, though certainly it is well-made in many respects. My interest in the film here has been to explore why the film, and much of our culture generally, thinks a Christian theism is justified.