Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Angels in America

I struggle with the HBO adaptation of Angels in America because the play means a lot to me, and especially given all the money that was clearly made available to this project, I wish it were a richer, more thoughtful production. Perestroika in particular brims with missed opportunities, though the heavy re-writing only further proves that Kushner has never quite settled on a design for that half of the play (though chaos is clearly an indispensable element). I can see that Nichols and his designers have played up the "staginess" of several interiors so as to keep the project rooted in a sense of theatricality, but a lot of the cinematic embellishments and CGI effects feel too slick and two-dimensional, when the play clearly benefits from as much tangibility as you can bring to it. I'd love to see what John Greyson or Robert Lepage or somebody might have done with the material. Still, it's hard to imagine a really bad production, and this one certainly isn't, because the core text is just so provocative, ambitious, imaginatively drawn, and beautifully written.



I'm picking this image less as the "best" than as a kind of emblem for my feelings. I'm not sure Angels needed this new scene that Kushner wrote for Perestroika, and it feels like a somewhat desperate opening-out of the physical space. I'm not a huge fan of natural location photography with a project like this anyway, since the whole text is constructed as a series of artificial problems and conceits laid over the very real nightmares of our history and our current reality. The beach here feels so ...domesticated, in a play that thrives on fantasy and fire. At the same time, I do appreciate the dynamic of this scene, not just because you see Joe Pitt getting recklessly invested in a relationship he barely understands—and at the same time you're feeling Louis Ironson starting to pull out of it—but because Angels in America is always telling us that denuding ourselves does not pare us down to essentials but in fact exposes our complexities. That in opening yourself to the world of sexuality you inevitably create a storm of debris, big or small, and that somebody else will have to pick it all up, now or later.

From a visual standpoint, in a miniseries that takes playful but earnest care to consider all the characters' potential relations to the angelic, I like how the foamy line of surf hits Patrick Wilson's body just where a tufted set of wings might go. The story, the dialogue, and the bulk of the shots make this Joe's scene, which is fine with me, since I think Wilson gives the best performance in the cast, in the play's most potentially opaque role. But visually, as Joe begins to strip down, we also recognize that it's really Louis's turn to wrestle, Jacob-like, with the naked angel—whatever an "angel" might mean to Louis, or to us, at this point in the piece. The shot and the scene are like a cold parallel to Emma Thompson's magnificent arrivals to Louis's HIV-infected boyfriend, Prior. Joe looms above with a kind of majesty that Wilson's body, the best one that a court of appeals lawyer ever had, only reinforces. Louis, like Prior, crouches below in a panic. This Louis-as-Prior doubling, despite the annoying fact of how the miniseries rejects a lot of the other doublings that the playscript demands, only intensifies insofar as this gray, cruddy beach with the jagged stumps at the shoreline and the capsized hulk on the horizon is like a downscale, mundane precursor of the chilly, magnificent wreck called Heaven that Prior is soon to visit.

If anything, though, it is Joe who is the hapless, Prior-like innocent in this relationship, and Louis who is the flighty, schizophrenic, Angelic agent/invader who likes to think he is a victim. In fairness, Louis does suffer. But nonetheless, the brief, visual confusion of roles in this shot strongly implies that this relationship won't work out.

So, a lot of resonant stuff going on in this otherwise simple shot, though it still feels like the viewer and the play have to do a lot of their own thinking to keep the image and the movie interesting. HBO's vision of Angels is nothing if not concepty but it barely if ever registers as intellectual, a category that the play fully embraces but which Nichols' movie avoids like a kind of ...virus? That's my reaction in a nutshell to this made-for-TV Angels, which I always feel like I'm either overestimating or underestimating. If Patrick's just taking off his clothes in a last-ditch attempt to convert me to the cause, what can I do about that? Let him try.

P.S. I would like to add a few more runner-up shots. Like Nathaniel, I am totally in love with Jeffrey Wright's physical vocabulary as Belize, whom he plays very differently than he did in his Tony-winning take on the same character for Broadway. I like this shot not only because Belize just cracks me up with all his heavy-lidded, low-volume, but prissily catlike gestures, but because I always wonder how much Wright might have felt like Belize, trapped in a play that pretends to have a lot to say about race (and, like Louis, it occasionally does have something to say) but delivers a lot less than it promises. Does Wright ever wish he could just signal the waitress, grab his check, and get outta there? It'd be Belize's best option for finding a private life or an orgasm, since even Hannah Pitt beats him to both. (Also, love those Ann Roth costumes.)



I'm including these three shots of Emma Thompson—the we-get-it, she's-a-religious-icon halo shot, the worthy showstopper that ends Part One, and the Goth-queen hurricane she whips up in Part Two—because even though I felt while watching Angels that Emma could have been more confident with her character work (outside of her marvelously dykey, warm but gruff take on Nurse Emily), I think the piece ultimately benefits from her balls-to-the-wall spirit of exaggeration and risk. You'd not have imagined Margaret Schlegel doing this, and if you fast-forward through Angels instead of actually watching it, she seems like the biggest incentive for a re-watch. I'll certainly take her any day over Mary-Louise Parker, who can always find new opportunities for empty, adenoidal "irony" in virtually any part. The entire HBO version misses Harper so badly, from script to performance, that it's too sad to dwell on.



And lastly, since it's one of the few shots that suggests what Angels might look like with a Tarkovskian sense of cold, stately, unreassuring divinity blowing through it, I'll admit that this shot triggers fantasies of what a totally different film might have looked like. I'm more reconciled to this version than I'm sounding in this post, but I like it best when it prompts celestial visions of other, more persuasively millennial approaches.

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14 Comments:

Blogger Bill C said...

Do you think Altman would've done any better with the material than Nichols, Nick?

I like the miniseries a lot, having not seen any incarnation of the play. But I felt like Nichols understood CLOSER a lot better.

8:48 PM, August 11, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I can't honestly imagine Altman anywhere near this project. You need someone with a real theatrical sense, and someone comfortable with big show-stopper tableaus and set-pieces. Obviously Altman generated plenty of indelible sequences in his films, but I don't think they're the same sorts of grand spectacle that Angels requires. And I can't envision him handling all the homosexuality all that well, frankly, though I don't know that Nichols excels himself in this regard, either. The pitch-black lighting on Louis and Joe's climactic kiss at the end of Pt 1 is a low point that it's hard to bounce back from.

Greyson and Lepage are major theater artists who have also worked more or less nimbly in cinema, which is why I thought of them; that they're both gay can probably only help, but I don't really subscribe to the Takes One To Know One logic whereby directors always have to be identitarian matches with the people they're building their movies around.

9:49 PM, August 11, 2010  
Blogger Joe Reid said...

I have to think that the HBO version being my introduction to the material plays a big part in our differences of opinion here, Nick. I'm not going to allow Mary-Louise Parker to come between us, but I have to admit, she was the one who pulled me in to begin with. I do see what you're getting at -- her Harper doesn't seem like she's ever set foot in Salt Lake -- but I've often clung to the bite and bewildered lucidity that she brings. She's a walking contradiction, and it keeps me riveted.

That said, I'm excited to see how different Harper is in the stage version. Which I am FINALLY seeing in January.

9:56 PM, August 11, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

That's funny, since I don't actually have too hard a time seeing Parker's Harper as a sort of bad-girl Mormon. I just don't feel like she does much with her fabulous lines. The part is really fierce, very funny at times and hugely unlikable at others and enormously sympathetic at still others, and her lack of a "grip" on reality should feel like more than a cute conceit or a butt of wry jokes about herself. For me, Parker just does that thing she's always doing where she leaves her mouth open while she slides her eyes from looking straight ahead to looking sideways, or from looking sideways to looking straight ahead. Or barreling through a line with flat inflections and unrelenting eye contact. She makes Harper a lot more like the other self-deprecating but acerbic characters that Mary Louise Parker has played in the past than she is like the woman in the script. Not actively a bad performance, but a major, missed opportunity in my book.

Then again, it doesn't help that she loses all her chances to play other characters in the cast (Martin Heller, for example, the lawyer who is Roy Cohn's associate in DC - i.e., "Harper" plays the person helping to lure Joe away from Harper, aka, even when Joe thinks he's getting away from Harper, she always turns up, even in DC, which she hates). In both plays, but especially Perestroika, where Harper has much more to do than the film version allows her, she feels like a sort of co-lead to Prior throughout. The movie just feels to me like it seriously demotes her.

I'll be curious to hear what you think of the play when you see it!

10:26 PM, August 11, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i'm so excited to see it on stage again in november.

i loved this piece and though i get where you're coming from with your critiques, it's hard for me to imagine a director i'd actively prefer. If you want someone great with theatrical showstoppers and THIS IS THE MOMENT images than Baz Luhrmann would be a good choice too but maybe he wouldn't pull back when needed to let the glorious text do the heavy lifting as it should.

but like you i think Patrick Wilson is pretty much unimproveable in the part so even if there is another version, they'll have their work cut out for them where Joe Pitt is concerned.

11:48 PM, August 11, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I think Derek Jarman might have knocked it out of the park if the timing had been right, unless the specifically American dimensions of the play's ideologies and historical imaginations proved hard for such a deeply immersed, deeply radical, deeply committed Brit to inhabit. Then again, Greyson and Lepage, my choices from above, are both Canadians.

Why can't I think of a good American film director for Angels? I definitely think Luhrmann would fluff all the complexities and accelerate the pace while nonetheless putting on quite a show. I don't know that I'd want to see his version. If I really wanted flash, I'd be more inclined to go with a Lee Daniels type, who would cast imaginatively and certainly gets the New York, the queer, and the American angles, and grew up at exactly the right time for the project to resonate.

I would probably jump off a bridge if Todd Haynes asked me to, but the slightly clinical remove that I love so much in his movies wouldn't necessarily be ideal here. There are long stretches of Velvet Goldmine that suggest he'd hit some real peaks, but temperamentally, he might not be my first choice.

Based on the complex historiography in Swoon and the head-trippy colors and aggressive stylistics in Savage Grace, plus the compelling performances in both, I might nominate Tom Kalin?

Or what about John Cameron Mitchell?? Smart, humane, gutsy, spectacular and completely in touch with specifically theatrical idioms.

If I were a producer trying to fire up a new movie version of Angels in America, I'd want my first two meetings to be with Kalin and Mitchell, and then with Robert Lepage, John Greyson, Lee Daniels, and Todd Haynes if something still wasn't clicking. But surely there are at least two or three fabulous Angels productions waiting to happen just within that group of six.

And what about Gus Van Sant? Paul Thomas Anderson, since he loves American epics, and he seems to be getting more interested in grand-stroke politics and history? Rodney Evans, if he were comfortable with the budget? Julián Hernández, if we didn't mind it being rendered in Spanish, and maybe even transposed to Mexico? Still America. That'd be cool. The Prior-in-Heaven sequence actually reminded me of Hernández this time around.

I'd love the idea of a woman helming Angels, but I can't think of who might fit the bill in this case.

1:00 AM, August 12, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

Julie Taymor? Though she'd be just as likely to make a terrible mess of it, I'm sure. Maybe I'll nominate an idealised version of Julie Taymor who hadn't made Across the Universe.

Your Mitchell pitch feels like the winner on paper.

3:15 AM, August 12, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

JCM for the win. it's really a brilliant choice.

one of the sad things about the cinema -- though remakes generally inspire derision as in "why" -- is that it doesn't seem as flexible as theater to different interpretations. I mean. wouldn't it be great to have an ANGELS every decade from a different auteur. There's just so much in the text worth exploring and no one version will ever truly suffice.

6:50 AM, August 12, 2010  
Blogger Bill C said...

I love the idea of PT Anderson, and certainly think Mitchell could bring it. I was always kinda glad it slipped through Altman's fingers, because he apparently rewrote it into something unrecognizable.

I have a strange reaction to the thought of Greyson or Lepage being sought out for this. To me they're both too reserved, too Canadian, but that could be mere lack of national pride on my part.

9:16 AM, August 12, 2010  
Anonymous Guy Lodge said...

Like Joe, I know this material only in its screen manifestation, but that doesn't make me any more predisposed to it: I remember being riveted by Part I, only to feel absolutely crushed by the turgid, all-caps symbolism of the remainder. I'd love to revisit it on stage to see if the problem goes away, or if it's a block on my part.

With that said, I think Patrick Wilson is absolutely smashing in it -- handily my 2003 Best Supporting Actor champ, whatever the size of the screen -- and I'm so pleased to see he's your best in show.

As for directors, I'll second the Tom Kalin pick, while idly (and not with any degree of certainty) wondering whether Alison Maclean would have been ready for this jelly.

11:20 AM, August 12, 2010  
Blogger Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I saw this when it premiered on HBO and was ruling the Emmy's. Each time I tell people that I'm not THAT invested in it other than Emma Thompson I get weird looks. Even if she still is a little "soft" sometimes I still find her hard to ignore and it sort of annoyed me that the one person I wish would win an award from the cast was the only one with no chance of winning. Nice writeup, though, I'm inclined to seek it out and rewatch it now.

This movie reminds me of The Hurt Locker. I think both are great, but just like I felt I'd have liked The Hurt Locker that much more if I was American I wonder if I'd have liked this a bit more as a gay person...although that makes me feel a little shallow (I was young when I saw it...) Should I get the play and read it?

3:55 PM, August 12, 2010  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Andrew, I know what you mean; I also wonder if I might feel more receptive to Angels in America, apart from its easily acknowledged theatrical bravado, if I weren't a (relatively) young non-American. I was born in the year the Berlin Wall fell, and my coming of age coincided with the furore over the legitimacy of gay marriage, so the AIDS crisis (as well as the Approach of the Millenium and Perestroika, which form the names of both parts of AiA) feels quite firmly out of my historical frame of reference.

11:16 PM, August 12, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

Andrew and Colin, I'd suggest reading the play. About frames of reference: When I first saw it performed I was seeing it through a very limited prism. My frame of reference was that I was at the time (in 1994) a gay Mormon. When the HBO version premiered it felt so different to me and when i saw it again on stage in a tiny regional space a few years ago it felt ever different.

THere's so many ways into it that depending on where you are in life it will morph. I used to see it as this huge gay religious thing. Now, believe it or not, it doesn't feel that gay or religious and i'm way more obsessed with its migration and change themes. Maybe it's because I uprooted and started over in the mid 90s.

anyway. don't let the HBO miniseries be your only experience with it. I love the miniseries but it's such a complex piece of theater that one version is not enough.

7:03 AM, August 13, 2010  
Blogger CCW said...

I've yet to experience Angels in any incarnation, but the mention of Mary-Louise Parker brought back memories of her work in Longtime Companion. Although she does fill the role with the mannerisms you mention, Nick, I found her strangely endearing in it.

4:03 PM, August 13, 2010  

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