Over Christmas, I rewatched the 1998 romance/fantasy flick, City of Angels with Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage with my 18yo son, Brandon.
Like most movies, this movie has its own mixed reviews to contend with, for sure, but the acting by Ryan and Cage, like them or not, brings you into their plight and tale, no matter how hard you try not to get hooked.
Film critique stuff aside, what inspired me to write about this movie was not about reviews nor the quality of the actors’ acting but rather about how struck I was with the blatant, visual ironies throughout the film.
This is something I asked Brandon about once the credits were rolling:
What — if anything — stood out in terms of the movie’s visuals?
The first thing Brandon reflected on was how he wished the angels hadn’t been so ordinary looking; he said the angels in the film had too much of an everyday-person-you’d-see-on-any-street kind of look and wished they’d been “more unique looking” … like the wonderous elf characters, he referenced, in the Lord of the Rings 👇🏽
Brandon’s feedback directly speaks to the usual aesthetic presentation of heavenly angels, which typically (to Western minds) is associated with billowy, sparkling, bright, and very clean white garb or robes. Sometimes, lush and feathery-white wings are also depicted.
About white (and black)
White, as we tend to understand and accept (in Western societies), is often associated with purity (virgins, angels, weddings, etc.), goodness (white bread, white rice, white eggs, etc.) and cleanliness (detergents and soaps, exteriors and interiors, etc.).
Conversely, the color black is the ‘opposite’ hue; one used to frequently connote dark or somber moods, uncleanliness, and even evil or wickedness.
Silberling’s visual irony
In this film, Silberling directly bucks our usual white and black color associations in two prominent ways:
As stated above, we don’t tend to associate angels or heavenliness (nor goodness and purity) with the color black; and yet Silberling depicts all the movie’s glorious angels in constant, dominant black. In doing so, the director breaks with traditional angels-in-white symbolism while, at the same time, reverses our color-black-views from associations of evil to those stemming from God and the heavens.
In the film, we learn we’re 24/7-surrounded by angels; literally they’re *everywhere* and all around us but we “can’t see them” as they’re wholly invisible to the living. And yet, the stark black trench coats worn by all the angels in the film make them stand out to the viewer like angelic sore thumbs, much too difficult to miss or ignore even if you tried because the thick black they uniformly wear creates such a visual contrast against the movie’s scenes and backdrops.
While this film unfolds a great irony as the crux of its whole narrative tale (I don’t want to be the one to give away spoilers), there’s also a great visual irony at massive play throughout the movie. The directory goes beyond flirtation or pussyfooting; he instead outright twists our traditional symbolisms for the colors of black and white in visually unexpected ways.
No matter what one thinks in terms of the symbolism, one can’t deny the elevation of the color black — from evil to Godly — is pretty ingenious, cinematographically speaking.
I admit these visual, symbolic, and color psychological details are not ones I thought much of before, because I’ve watched this movie several times in previous years and didn’t notice any of this stuff then.
I credit my trainings in fine art and media psychology for allowing me to better see how and when these kinds of (visual) narrative tools are put in place to enhance both the aesthetics of, and meanings derived from, rich storytelling.
In the end, I found Silberling’s black-white symbological twists to be daring and provocative. Since rewatching City of Angels, I’ve been kind of wondering about how or where I can further flip ideas or include more unexpected elements in my own image-making work🙏🏽
I hope you, too, feel just as inspired to revisit your own creative processes to uncover opportunities for enhancing the element of surprise or visual irony in your work.
Yours in art and creative expression,