In the same fashion that the film Legion made a hero of the fallen angel, 1998's City of Angels literally romanticizes their fall from Heaven. The film's play on the phrase falling in love is so fitting here that the viewer is forced to wonder if this is its origin:
"When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose." (Genesis 6)This notion of romanticizing the fall is more problematic than the reader my first think. To understand why, we have to recap the process of unconscious associations. Recall Pavlov's drooling dogs:
While Ivan Pavlov worked to unveil the secrets of the digestive system, he also studied what signals triggered related phenomena, such as the secretion of saliva. When a dog encounters food, saliva starts to pour from the salivary glands located in the back of its oral cavity. This saliva is needed in order to make the food easier to swallow. The fluid also contains enzymes that break down certain compounds in the food. In humans, for example, saliva contains the enzyme amylase, an effective processor of starch.City of Angels offers two main stimuli: romance, generally considered a positive thing, and the falling of angels, traditionally considered a negative thing by most. Splicing the two stimuli would typically produce one of three results: A) the positive would become negative, B) the negative would become positive, or C) they would achieve a neutral equilibrium.
Pavlov became interested in studying reflexes when he saw that the dogs drooled without the proper stimulus. Although no food was in sight, their saliva still dribbled. It turned out that the dogs were reacting to lab coats. Every time the dogs were served food, the person who served the food was wearing a lab coat. Therefore, the dogs reacted as if food was on its way whenever they saw a lab coat.
In a series of experiments, Pavlov then tried to figure out how these phenomena were linked. For example, he struck a bell when the dogs were fed. If the bell was sounded in close association with their meal, the dogs learnt to associate the sound of the bell with food. After a while, at the mere sound of the bell, they responded by drooling.
Considering that romance is a here and now emotion for most of us, it is something we understand to some degree, and an emotion constantly reinforced in media, and contrasting that with the falling of angels from Heaven, an abstract notion for us, distant and remote, we can be confident that the result of this film's reflex association will result in B) the negative stimuli will take on a positive connotation.
The film opens with an angel, Seth, leading a dying child into the afterlife.
Seth and his fellow angel Cassiel preside over the city of Los Angeles. Here they wonder about being human and experiencing all their pleasures. Throughout the film the attentive viewer will notice an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the heavens and a glamorization of earthly pleasures.
Our angel/protagonist's name, Seth, seems to be some kind of wink and nod. Regarding the "sons of God" in Genesis 6, there are three schools of thought--on which a rather concise for and against argument can be found here. Basically, those who don't believe the sons of God were angels believe they were the sons of Seth, the third son of Adam.
Aside from no corroborating verses or rational explanation as to why Seth would be referred to as "God," this guy is definitely not a son of Adam.
The L.A. angelic crew meets daily at sunrise and sunset to witness the sun and to listen to the majesty of His Heavenly music.
However, as already noted, being an angel isn't so great after all. When Seth and Cassiel discuss a little girl asking for a pair of wings, we are asked to question "What good are wings if you can't feel the wind on your face?"
Seth is visiting the operating room of Doctor Maggie Rice one day as a patient dies, when, as she struggles to revive the patient, it seems that Dr. Rice is able to see Seth, which is not possible unless he allows himself to be seen.
Seth is overcome with Maggie's passion for humanity, her tireless devotion to its continuation, and her dedication to her patients. He becomes infatuated with her.
In a rather unusual scene, a child passing by is apparently able to see Cassiel. Here, again, we the viewers have to wonder whether children have some ability to recognize the supernatural, some spiritual discernment, that we as adults have had drummed out of us.
Seth and the other angels like to spend their free time in the library. Here we see Seth listening to the thoughts of an elderly gentleman reading Earnest Hemingway's Paris memoir A Moveable Feast.
Hemingway's memoir describes his days as an American expatriate in 1920 Paris along with fellow authors F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, et al.
Given the prominence of this book in the film, we can easily recognize it as an allusion to the fallen angels, or expatriates from heaven:
"And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day."(Jude 1)
Seth essentially begins stalking Maggie; but put to some romantic music though and it doesn't seem so creepy.
Seth also leaves Hemingway's memoir in her bedroom. When she return it to the library she finds a display of "Lost Generation" authors--of which Hemingway is the unofficial head. The Lost Generation is a dubious distinction coined by fellow author Gertrude Stein, herself an expatriate, for the post-war expats living in Paris.
Maggie runs into Seth again, allowing himself to be seen for a second time. And here is where the film is at its most a fantasy: this guy, all dressed in black, who seems to know an unusual bit about Maggie, and who here identifies himself as a messenger of God, in Los Angeles, the weirdo capital of the country, takes the woman's hand and runs his finger across her palm... and she digs it!
Back at the hospital, Seth comes across a patient of Maggie's named Nathaniel Messenger. Much to Seth's shock, he is aware of Seth's presence in the room.
It turns out that Mr. Messenger is himself a fallen angel who now describes himself as a hedonist and glutton.
At a diner, where Messenger promises to give Seth answers, we find this heart patient smoking and ordering several dishes which he reeeally enjoys as he explains to Seth about falling:
"You choose... to fall. You take the plunge, the tumble, the dive. You jump off a bridge, you leap out a window... You just make up your mind to do it, and you do it. [...] It's all very confusing and painful, but very very good."
It's interesting here how the word "fall" is diluted by the following words "plunge," "tumble," and "dive." Messenger continues:
"Listen kid, He gave these bozos the greatest gift in the universe. You think He didn't give it to us too?"
Seth: "What gift?"
"Free will, brother. Free will."
The reason for Messenger's fall was also because of a woman, just as described in the Book of Genesis, "The sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose."
After witnessing some of Seth inhuman traits, Maggie is later shocked to learn that Seth isn't quite what she thought he was.
Maggie soon gets the straight story from Messenger, who also reveals that he too was once like Seth. He tells her, "He can fall. He can give up his existence as he knows it and become one of us."
Back in the library, Maggie tells Seth that she is going to marry her fellow doctor and boyfriend.
Seth, distraught, decides to fall in order to be with Maggie.
Following some initial euphoria, Seth soon learns of the pains of being human. He is beaten up and robbed of his shoes.
The viewer here is shown the "NUDE" sign several times from several angels. This is probably an allusion again to the Book of Genesis wherein after the fall of Adam and Eve, they found themselves naked and ashamed.
Seth eventually catches up with Maggie at a cabin on Lake Tahoe. She didn't get married and he tells her what he did.
So they sleep together.
This is another of the more fantastical aspects of the film: Maggie, who has just had confirmation of the supernatural, the afterlife, angels, God, Judgment Day, and pretty much everything else the Bible describes, decides to "fornicate" with a fallen angel.
The morning after their passionate night together, Maggie rides into town for some snacks.
Just as we saw Seth spread his arms just prior to his fall, or his transition from one world to another, we see Maggie doing the same as she rides back to the cabin, obviously enjoying the wind on her face during her post-makeout high.
Then she slams into a logging truck and dies--or transitions from one world to another, as Seth did.
Cassiel later asks the bereaved Seth, "If you'd known this was going to happen, would you have done it?"
Then comes one of the most sentimental lines in the history of moviedome; Seth says, "I would rather have had one breath of her hair, one kiss of her lips, one touch of her hand, then an eternity without it."
So here again we find an emphasis on the carnal pleasure even at the expense of eternity.
To reiterate that point, the film ends with Seth returning to the beach at sunrise with the angels. He can't hear the music anymore, but he can feel the ocean. He's lost eternity (ostensibly), but he got joie d'vivre!
So there it is, this fallen angel is a compassionate, sensitive, self-sacrificing, romantic, book lover brought to you by the Hollywood public relations machine. Recall that propaganda is the propagation, or spreading, of an idea or line of thinking. It is this alchemical machine that is transforming Satan, the Adversary, into Lucifer, the bringer of light, or gnosis and understanding, via films like Legion, Mosnters, Inc., Hancock, City of Angels, et cetera.