Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Angels in America
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 understandsand at the same time you're feeling Louis Ironson starting to pull out of itbut 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 angelwhatever 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 Thompsonthe 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 Twobecause 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.