Sunday, July 31, 2005

#18: On ANGELS IN AMERICA 11/25/2004 Shortly after the election, one of my sisters emailed me Thomas Jefferson’s remarks to the broken-hearted losers of 1796’s presidential election. Jefferson wrote: “A little patience, & we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, & the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles.” As you fight fire with fire, we answer the reign of witches with wings! I’m grateful for the recent DVD release of ANGELS IN AMERICA. This is Mike Nichols’ 2003 film adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play about the AIDS epidemic in Ronald Reagan’s America – there’s love, politics, the letter & spirit of the law, the toll of faith & the deep sorrow of abandonment that underlies American migration & progress. And right now, this soaring, brutal & hilarious film has enormous resonance. As two 4-hour plays, MILLENIUM APPROACHES & PERESTROIKA, ANGELS opened on Broadway in 1993 & 1994, winning Tony Awards two years in a row along with the Pultizer Prize. The film pares ANGELS down to six hours, debuting last December on HBO. Despite a cascade of awards, some critics grumble now that it’s “uneven” & “melodramatic.” There’s a curious fixation with Emma Thompson’s angel wings being “unrealistic,” which I think misses the point. Like much of ANGELS’ hilarity, the Messenger’s unwieldy wings avoid any danger of lapsing into earnestness at a high camp moment. Such complaints might stem from stuffing all that communal grandeur onto a TV screen with mostly solitary watchers. But I’ll take the trade-off because a lot of people can see this now. Set in New York City with what Mike Nichols calls his “dream cast,” ANGELS recounts interlocking stories of lives that whirl ever closer & eventually intertwine. Here’s a bare-bones recap. After his grandmother’s death, Louis abandons his HIV-stricken lover Prior & pursues Mormon lawyer Joe, whose wife Harper unravels. Joe’s boss is the only factually-based character, McCarthyite lawyer Roy Cohn. Played by Al Pacino as the best slimeball since Ben Kingsley in SEXY BEAST, Roy Cohn dies of AIDS, the male nurse Belize & Ethel Rosenberg’s gloating ghost, played by Meryl Streep, who also plays Joe’s mother Hannah Pitt, who arrives from Salt Lake City. Hannah Pitt coaxes Harper back from madness & takes up with Prior, who’s been visited by an angel. The angel explains that God has abandoned America for not staying put –certainly a classic conservative stance, but a dilemma for a nation of pioneers, even more so for two religions whose survival has depended on wandering. Now, this sounds a lot like a Robert Altman movie. Altman’s networks often illuminate women’s evolving relationships & show something that is socially very American, these made-up families that compete with blood, often with garish incongruity. It’s no surprise that Kushner talked with Altman first about getting ANGELS on-screen. But the production is such an extravaganza that we could miss the fairly elegant structure it’s hung on without Mike Nichols’ cooler strategy, which here emphasizes doubling – mirrors, parallels, twin situation, different sides of one emotion, all sorts of puns. One of my favorite examples of this doubling is that several actors play two or more characters who echo one another, notably Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson & Jeffrey Wright. This device, deeply pleasurable because it incarnates those echoes, isn’t much used in film - & could be. Thompson & Wright as the pair of nurses are pivotal as “angels of mercy” during an epidemic. And Wright’s black queen, Belize, is the only character with enough earned moral heft to hold his own against Roy Cohn. There’s an abundance of extremely well written turning point scenes between two-somes. They’re often about keeping faith or abandonment, & hinge on human action mattering deeply. Language matters as a kind of action too, & Kushner’s is gorgeous. Comprehending one another is key & the film visually shows emerging points of view. Long tracking shots carry the viewer great distances, literally connecting the dots in the landscape [map?]. In the final scene at Bethesda Fountain’s angel statue in Central Park, Prior looks the audience in the face & the camera dips beneath him, conferring angel perspective: [Start Tr. 2 from pause & play underneath] “This disease will kill many of us, but not all. We will commemorate the dead & we will not live secret lives anymore. We are not going away. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens.” On Thanksgiving Day, ANGELS IN AMERICA is good for ails us all. (748)