Angles in America

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DECEMBER 29, 2003

Angles in America

"Made for television." The designation made my heart sink when I was
a boy: it amounted to a disclaimer of quality. The stops were
definitely not going to be pulled out. Big frights would be cast as
little scares; the violence would be not cathartic but
exasperatingly phony; complex psychologies would be flattened into
caricature. Not to mention the fact that a movie made for
television had television stars, not movie stars. You were going to
get the gifted but life-sized Darren McGavin and Marlo Thomas.All this has changed, obviously. Thanks in large part to HBO, the
little screen can barely contain the edgy artistic and production
values of films made strictly for television. (It is no coincidence
that the television screen is itself growing larger and larger
every year.) As war, crime, and civil unrest wracked the country in
the 1970s, the evening news expanded the frontiers of what was
permitted on television, to the point where media-history came full
circle and numerous movies, from Natural Born Killers to 15 Minutes,
now portray the six o'clock news as a laboratory for turning real
violence into thrilling entertainment. Indeed, starting with Peter
Finch in Network screaming that he was mad as hell and not going to
take it anymore, Hollywood has become increasingly obsessed with
television. More and more producers and directors realize that
there is a good chance their films will be seen for the first time
not in the theater, but as rented videos or DVDs on television's
small screen.

So just about all the dimensions of dramatic entertainment are
either made for television or suited to television, whether it is
the script, the style of directing, or the method of acting. And
filling the small screen to bursting with the big screen's
super-sophisticated techniques can sometimes hide the smallness of
what actually is appearing. Such is certainly the case with Angels
in America: Tony Kushner's play was not so much made for television
as made to be rescued by television. The rescue consists in turning
it into an "event." Sleekly directed by a celebrity, Mike Nichols,
the contemporaneity artist who perfected the skill of making movies
into "events," and peopled by celebrities-- Al Pacino, Meryl
Streep, Emma Thompson--HBO's Angels hits the screen with such
glamour and noise that Nichols and company almost succeed in burying
the play's essential mediocrity in this production's illusion of
significance. In The New Yorker, Nancy Franklin actually called
these six hours of chic "fearless," as if the film had defied the
censors of a police state. Others, who never question why the likes
of Paris Hilton have their own reality shows, have hailed the show
as something on television finally "to argue about." But the only
thing worth arguing about with regard to Angels in America is why
anyone would think Angels in America is worth arguing about.

Angels in America is a second-rate play written by a second-rate
playwright who happens to be gay, and because he has written a play
about being gay, and about AIDS, no one--and I mean no one--is
going to call Angels in America the overwrought, coarse, posturing,
formulaic mess that it is. And the Bandwagon Plays On. Nichols
knows this trick well: before directing the film of this play about
AIDS, he directed the film of Wit, a play about a woman dying of
cancer. When, in Angels, Roy Cohn says that America "is just no
country for the infirm, " he might have added that America is,
however, a great place for novels and movies that find a profitable
use for illness and the infirm.

Centering a work of art on the experience of marginality and
suffering is like waterproofing your shoes. It repels criticism.
You make the work seamless with its subject, so that anyone who
criticizes the work seems callous about the subject. (Do you think
that The Pianist was tedious and familiar, and that Adrien Brody
simply walked through a critic-proof role? Then you hate the Jews
and ride with the Cossacks.) And once you join in the praise of a
protected work such as Angels in America, you reap the benefit of
demonstrating your own virtue by celebrating the play. This confers
on you the added halo of not appearing as a snob who presumes to
know the difference between artistic success and artistic failure.
After all, not everyone can judge the illusions of art, but
everyone can project the illusion of goodness.

There is no doubt that Kushner possesses a gift for creating
illusion in the theater. In fact in Portland, Maine I once saw his
production of The Illusion, an obscure play by Corneille, and I
remember the actors moving across the stage in thrall to a
mesmerizing moon suspended above it, as if the play's own spirit
were casting a spell over the play's own world. The angel that
descends sensationally toward the stage in Angels in America had a
similar effect. But all of Kushner's plays are adaptations, whether
they adapt another play or not. They give no evidence of an
original experience offered to an audience to do with it what it
will; instead they consist of a preconceived set of ideas adapted
for the stage in the form of characters who constantly speak about
who they are and what they are doing, rather than allowing their
identities and their actions to speak for themselves. Kushner's
people develop point by point. In the case of Angels in America,
Kushner made his ideas theatrical ideas. Its appeal on stage was
that, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when that disease was
decimating the gay community and particularly the theater community,
the play celebrated both the gay element in American theater and
the theatrical element of being gay.

The angel appears to Prior, a gay man stricken with AIDS. She
announces that he has been chosen to be a prophet of the new age,
and invites him to ascend with her to heaven, where presumably he
will occupy an honored position--he refuses, and clings to life.
Now the device of the angel is wonderfully campy, akin to the wild
farces of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatre Co. But Kushner's
angel, flying around the stage on visible wires, is also a
descendant of the ancient deus ex machina, literally a god swung
down from the heavens by means of a machine onto the stage at the
last minute to radically change the outcome of events. And the
angel's grandiose declarations, and Prior's earthy undercutting
replies, and the frenetic, almost hysterical struggle between them,
is pure opera buffa. The angel is also a woman--with eight vaginas,
we are told: the vagina dialogues!--who, in some sense, is tempting
Prior to reject his love of men and live a "normal" life, free from
the curse of death; that is, the curse of being gay, that is, the
curse of being mortal. And so in one deft, ingenious stroke Kushner
makes the theater synonymous with being gay; and homosexuality
synonymous with the free, antic, wise spirit of the theater; and
the survival of gay men and the theater synonymous with the
continuation of decency and humanity.

The San Francisco theatergoers who applauded the play's first full
production in 1991 were also applauding their own still-beating
hearts, and the American theater's resilience. To write a play
about hope was, after all, why Kushner and San Francisco's Eureka
Theater had gotten a grant in the first place. And the play was so
affirmative, so much more broadly appealing than, say, Larry
Kramer's polemics. It was acclaimed from San Francisco to London.
For many people, it was not so much a piece for theater as proof
that theater still existed. It really didn't matter that Kushner's
play had almost no artistic merit. The play did not produce a
catharsis through art. It was a catharsis, and thus could dispense
with the complicated business of trying to make art.

Angels in America's dramatic guts were as trite and tame as its
theatricality was gratifyingly overblown. Its principal antagonist
was Roy Cohn, whose self-deceit about his own homosexuality Kushner
laboriously links to Reagan's economic policies, to Reagan's
indifference to the AIDS epidemic, and to human untruth in general.
The play's several subplots involve a closeted Mormon husband named
Joe Pitt, who is lying to himself about his identity and thus
pursuing the same destructive right-wing politics as Cohn; Harper,
his anguished wife; Mother Pitt, Joe's devoutly Mormon mother; the
black Belize, the hip, cool, wise, ironic, cynical, vitriolic,
saintly former drag queen and now male nurse; and Louis, the
Kushner persona, Prior's cerebral, head-in-the- clouds lover, who
callously and spinelessly leaves Prior when Louis discovers that he
is sick with AIDS, and whose callousness and spinelessness are
presented as Kushner's sensitivity and courage about his own
condition and life's universal complexity. The only element that
all these garrulous subplots have in common is their histrionic
intensity.

Cohn, the bad guy with AIDS, dies; Prior, the good guy with AIDS,
lives--but since Cohn is the only actor with a hint of complexity,
and wit, and candor, and since Prior echoes the litigious Cohn at
play's end by saying about an indifferent-seeming God, "sue Him,"
you begin to suspect that Kushner has not fully resolved his
attraction to Cohn. Mother Pitt, for all her upset when she
discovers her son's homosexuality, ends up caring for Prior. Harper
snaps out of her Valium addiction and heads for a happy new life
sans Joe; Joe comes to terms with his gayness. Belize holds
everyone together, just like the stock wisdom-figure of the drag
queen in countless gay plays since at least the 1970s, but he is
more Wilder than wild since he serves precisely the same function
as the all-seeing narrator in Our Town. Louis, who alternates
between feeling guilty that he didn't see his grandmother often
enough before she died--Orestes, meet Chaim Potok--and feeling
guilty that he abandoned Prior, gets roundly scolded and
disapproved of before being taken back into everybody's affections.
The play ends less like a drama by Kushner's hero Brecht than a
musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, with everyone teamed up
together in the end, in harmony and love. How comforting. If an
anti-depressant went to sleep and dreamed that it was a play, it
would dream that it was this play.

The worst part of all this, especially for a politically engaged
Brechtian such as Kushner, is that Angels, with its incessant
raging references to Reagan, was already dated when its first
curtain rose. In 1991, Reagan had been out of office for three
years, and the country was on the brink of a Democratic government
whose immediate priority was integrating gays into the military,
and whose vision of Kushner-like diversity co-existed very
comfortably with Reaganite ideas about dismantling welfare and
government entitlements. And insofar as Angels is an explicit brief
for the multi-cultural movement that surged in the late '80s and
'90s, it undermines its "message" because of the dead-end dynamic
of its argument. In order to make the case for diversity, Kushner
has to emphasize everyone's sexual, ethnic, and racial identity,
which has the effect of making his vision of tolerance at the end
look as much like fantasy as the airborne angel. But Kushner, who
actually has his angel recite a version of Walter Benjamin's remark
about the angel of history, to the effect that material progress is
really spiritual regress, is as mushy-headed as Reagan ever was.
His devotion to Brecht and Benjamin has about it a college
freshman's starry-eyed susceptibility to the first difficult ideas
that he encounters. And the characters wear the dialectical
technique like a straitjacket: Louis will attack Reagan's
heartlessness, and then Belize will expose Louis's own
insensitivity while deriding Louis's ineffectual intellectualizing.
Kushner thinks that by contradicting his pieties, he is moving
beyond them, but he has really just found a way to hide his pieties
behind the veneer of "complexity."

It boggles a tender mind that this quaint film of Angels should draw
so much praise in late 2003. Here are Kushner's characters pleading
for the acceptance of gay rights even as the Supreme Court declares
a ban on sodomy unconstitutional and the Massachusetts Supreme
Court declares gay marriage legal. This movie has exactly nothing
to do with political reality. If there is one thing it does not do,
it is clarify our moment. Even looking back, Angels in America
really bears no more connection to its Reaganite subject than
Waiting for Lefty did to the Depression. Like Odets's play, its
appeal lies solely in its facile, upbeat vision of human survival
in the midst of crisis, any crisis.; But sentimental, historical
carpet-bagging is Kushner's trademark.

But sentimental, historical carpet-bagging is Kushner's trademark.
On stage now at the Public Theater, you can see a superb group of
actors wasting their gifts in Caroline, or Change, Kushner's
"politically engaged" musical centered on the travails of a black
maid working for a Jewish family in Louisiana in 1963. Again, we
get the fearless dialectic: Jews and blacks, the victims of
prejudice, are shown to have their own prejudices against each
other. Imagine! Never mind that in 2003 the situation of blacks
cannot be reduced to the situation of a black maid in a small
Louisiana town, much less to a black maid whose central conflict is
with a spoiled Jewish boy named Noah, another of Kushner's
courageously complex self-portraits.

A truly engaging play would enact the confrontation between a Jewish
playwright mindlessly exploiting the black experience and, say, an
accomplished black writer who returns enraged from the former's
play to contend with far less transparent modes of racism, and
passive-aggressive projection, and condescension. There is not a
single black character in Caroline who is not a mammy, a
pickaninny, a shvartze, or an entertainer with lots of rhythm. And
deyz all workin' fer a nice, socially conscious Jewish family. Black
artists and intellectuals were once angered by Paul Robeson's
return, in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, to the spirituals
sung by slaves, but about Caroline, or Change, not a peep. Instead
we get John Lahr in The New Yorker--in the same issue with Nancy
Franklin's "fearless"--declaring about Kushner's musical that
"There are moments in the history of theater when stagecraft takes a
new turn." The worlds of Noah, the nine-year-old Jewish boy, Lahr
solemnly informs us, and Caroline, the middle-aged black maid, are
"negotiable, Kushner makes clear, not bridgeable. Caroline, or
Change gives the inconsolable a mature song...." A white British
mandarin condescending to a cuddly Jewish playwright condescending
to black people at a time when American consciousness of race has
been pushed off the political agenda and onto media obsession with
the likes of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson: now that's theater.

Mike Nichols's ultra-slick production is a study in television's
fascinating alchemy. A crowded theater, in which one is immediately
aware of other people, of other experiences, automatically provides
the indispensable first step for the appreciation of a work of art,
which is to get out of oneself. Television, since you watch it in
your environment, usually alone, keeps you comfortably close to
your own experience, which is the relaxing value of entertainment.
That is why sitcoms are about everyday problems; and why even great
television, like The Sopranos, or innovative television, like Sex
and the City or Six Feet Under, keeps the viewer close to the
personal, the local, the ordinary experience. And that is why
television drama is nearly always tied to an issue fresh out of the
news.

You know that Nichols is highly conscious of topicality because
midway through his film of Kushner's play, he gives us a stunningly
mendacious scene in which Joe and Harper are talking against a
backdrop of the World Trade Center. Throughout the play, Kushner
makes a connection between the impending millennium and the
AIDS-beleaguered gay community; so naturally, after September 11,
2001, an apocalyptic day if ever there was one, many viewers are
going to marvel, for all the horror and devastation of that
plague-period, at Kushner's parochial perspective on history's
capacity for surprise. To avert this, Nichols expertly juxtaposes a
bit of end-of-days patter against the twin towers: speaking of the
deteriorating ozone layer, Harper foresees a cataclysm in which
"the end of the world is at hand." The unsuspecting viewer might
get the impression that Kushner has, with astonishing clairvoyance,
envisioned the world-ending destruction of the towers. But the film
was made long after 9/11, and the towers were digitally inserted so
as to make the play itself fulfill the play's own pose of
prophecy.

Nichols's smooth, very nearly flawless camerawork has the shine of a
campaign commercial. Like a campaign commercial, its purpose is to
spin a negative into a positive--in this case to turn a failed play
into effective television drama. With Angels in America, Nichols
has managed to halt all the advances that HBO has made in films for
television over the past decade or so and returned to the tired old
made-for-television category. He has made a big film about a little
play, in which Kushner's caricatures are worked away at by the
camera until all you see are the faces of the big stars, which are
meant to hide the rounded-out and flattened motivations of the
characters they play. But, then, star-strickenness is Nichols's
aesthetic. On stage, the angel of theatricality tried to save
Kushner's play from its shallow grasp of life; on screen, the
camera tries to perform the rescue-work of the angel by attempting
to suppress the play altogether under the aura of glossy production.
Angles in America.

Nichols turns the theatricality into special effects--poor Emma
Thompson, swinging around on wires as the angel, looks like she is
about to throw up. And just as those old made-for-television movies
appealed to audiences by their treatment of edifying and familiar
issues, Nichols rivets the camera on the most superficial
references to emotion or psychology. Consider this typical
exchange: "You are amazingly unhappy." "Oh big deal. You meet a
valium addict, you figure out she's unhappy. That doesn't count."
There is nothing psychologically original, or verbally interesting,
or emotionally true, about those words. Kushner doesn't write
dialogue; he makes the characters declaim Brechtish notations on
what should be dialogue. The characters speak lines that are really
what a director would say to an actor before a scene: "OK. You
suspect that your husband's gay. You're angry and helpless and
confused. You are amazingly unhappy." And then the actor would have
to go and express unhappiness. Or a director might say: "You don't
really have emotional problems. You're in a bad marriage that is
playing havoc with your emotions." But here is Harper saying to
Joe: "I do not have emotional problems, and if I do have emotional
problems, it's from living with you." These bulletins are mind-
numbing. It's like being on a date with a newspaper.

Whenever we get one of these segments of the Evening Emotional News,
Nichols handles the camera with such seriousness and urgency that
you feel insentient for thinking that nothing serious or urgent is
going on. The camera is so close to the actors that it endows them
with that living-room dimension that makes television drama seem
profound when it is really just cozy. Nichols has seized on
Kushner's directorial dialogue and used it to direct the audience's
attention right past the dialogue to the heart-rending music, and to
the tricky camera, and to the legendary stars. This buffed
manipulativeness has to be why Nichols chose Pacino and Streep
(Thompson doesn't perform her characters, she endures them),
because the two of them are so miscast there cannot be any other
reason.

Always more studied than intuitive, the usually miraculous Streep
cannot think her way into such vaguenesses as Mother Pitt and the
ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, both of whom she plays, so she
intellectualizes the simplicity and humility of both, and thus ends
up with a parody of simplicity and humility, a famous actor
performing the facial expressions of the un-famous. (Did you know
that the latter smile with eyes downward in near-embarrassment?) And
Pacino is even more star-corrupted. On Broadway, Ron Leibman
animated his Roy Cohn with clenched red-faced rage and
self-conflict, but Pacino never loses control. There is an uncanny
moment in The Godfather, Part II when Michael Corleone, seething
with rage as his wife tells him that she aborted their child,
suddenly springs at her and slaps her face; Pacino's genius was to
have Michael explode while elegantly retaining his cigarette
between the fingers of his other hand. The detached self-possession
in the midst of near-murderous rage, as if his left side and his
right side were two different people in two different worlds, was
breathtaking. But now Pacino's villains, even when they are torn
and tormented like Cohn, are all self-possession. They have the
arrogance of a star.

Brando and De Niro re-invented themselves late in their careers as
self- ironizing comic actors, but the extraordinary Pacino has
become humorless, solipsistic, the last self-conscious upholder of
the Method. He doesn't act; he does master classes for Inside the
Actors' Studio. He is unforgettable not as Roy Cohn but as Pacino
playing Roy Cohn. James Woods's performance as Roy Cohn in HBO's
Citizen Cohn eleven years ago, though more modest and scaled down,
was simply unforgettable. Indeed, five minutes of that movie, for
all of its faithfulness to the real transcripts and history books
and biographies, was worth all six hours of Nichols's Angels. "The
messenger has arrived," proclaim the ads for Angels. And the
messenger brings nothing but messages.

By Lee Siegel

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