Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Angels in America" (miniseries, 2003)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Before we begin discussing Angels in America, I want to talk about its author, Tony Kushner. Kushner is the author of the plays that the miniseries is based on, and has also written the screenplays for the films Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012). Look, the script for Lincoln was quite simply the very best screenplay of that year, and arguably the best of the decade thus far. I first read Angels in America in a theatre class during my first year of college, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that not only did it completely alter my understanding of art, but it now holds the place as the single greatest text I have yet read. In terms of becoming a writer, Kushner is my idol, the man I want to emulate the most (well, one of; his husband Mark Harris is no slouch either, authoring my two all-time favorite books about film, so clearly their marriage is the most magnificent thing to ever bless this planet). Needless to say, I love this work, and I was pre-disposed on title alone to love this miniseries.

My issue in putting this post together, then, is that it is such a thematically immense work that I have no idea where to even begin with it. This is a story that weaves the AIDS epidemic, Reagan-era politics, religion, sexuality, supernatural beings, and 20th century history through the tale of six New Yorkers whose lives intersect (Kushner subtitled his plays "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes"). Prior Walter (Justin Kirk) is diagnosed as HIV-positive, and upon hearing the news, his boyfriend, Louis Ironson (Ben Shenkman), leaves him. Joe Pitt (Patrick Wilson) is a clerk at the federal appellate court who is up for promotion thanks to the involvement of notorious right-wing fixer Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), who has himself been secretly diagnosed with HIV. Joe's wife, Harper (Mary-Louise Parker), is miserable in her life, taking copious amounts of pills to stabilize her mental condition yet still hallucinates about a travel agent named Mr. Lies (Jeffrey Wright). Joe comes out to both Harper and his mother, Hannah (Meryl Streep), and starts a relationship with Louis. Roy, meanwhile, falls under the care of drag queen/nurse Belize (Wright). And Prior is having dreams about an angel (Emma Thompson) who tells him that he is a prophet.

Like I said, there's a lot going on in this miniseries, and it's an incredible feat that Kushner (adapting his own plays) and legendary director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) keep the whole thing on track. So to tackle this unwieldy project, I've decided to break down this article episode-by-episode.

Check them out, along with my best shots from each, after the jump.

"Millennium Approaches, Part 1 - Bad News"

The most immediate take from this opening episode - and, on a certain level, the miniseries as a whole - is just how good this cast really is. Everyone involved is operating at the top of their respective games, transforming these characters into human beings even when they're being utilized as symbols, ghosts, and visions.

In "Bad News," the focus mostly resides on how these different characters handle difficult truths. Harper contends with the idea that her loving, conservative, good-Mormon husband might be gay. And truthfully, she handles this idea a lot better than Joe himself does. Whereas Harper stands on "the threshold of revelation," Joe is so deeply repressed that Harper's words rattle him to his core. It's a truth that he has certainly been aware of all of his life, but has excelled at hiding from himself, if not anyone else. When the story opens on them, however, it's about Joe's professional promotion, recognition of how good he is at wearing his straight conservative Christian costume (and this being Reagan's America, that's all you really need to succeed). But by the time he reaches home, we see him in his real skin, even as he refuses to see himself.

Similarly, Prior faces his diagnosis together with Louis, just after attending the funeral of a member of the latter's family. Louis loses his cool, unable to handle the idea of his lover for over four years being condemned to a death sentence by an invisible plague, and walks away. Prior, then, is left with having to face not only his disease, but the idea that Louis can't bear the idea of having to take care of him. The dichotomy of the relationship is established quickly: Prior sees the need for action and acceptance, while Louis is more content in espousing big ideas about the state of America and liberal ideologies. Louis would rather grapple with the intangible, because concepts don't require immediate emotional investments. Prior and his disease prove to be too real for him, and that leaves Prior alone to handle a terrible fate.

Roy, meanwhile, handles his diagnosis the only way he knows how: through negotiation and intimidation. Roy's doctor (James Cromwell) delivers the bad news, and Roy explains to him that that's not actually what he has, nor is he actually gay. He only sleeps with men because doing so is an expression and source of power, and power is the only commodity that Roy cares about. He forcibly persuades the doctor to list his official diagnosis as liver cancer, because this is who Roy Cohn is: there is no truth that can't be changed through threats and delusional repetition.

The episode's third act, then, ties it all together through a shared vision between Prior and Harper. Both characters have been jilted by their lovers because they saw truths in them that their partners did not like, and are united by this supernatural presence that allows them both to stand at the aforementioned threshold of revelation.

*Best Shot*

What's really great about this moment is that both characters are looking at themselves in the mirror, but Prior is in drag, play-acting as Joan Crawford just moments before. Despite this being the threshold, Prior isn't seeing his true self - the chosen prophet of the angels - but rather a costumed vision of himself. Harper, despite being heavily medicated and possibly insane, sees herself clearly. In fact, through this entire episode, she's the only one who has any moments of genuine self-awareness. Those moments may involve a smooth-talking member of the International Order of Travel Agents who is clearly a figment of her imagination, but they are moments of self-awareness nonetheless. Of all the characters introduced here, she's the only one who truly sees.

"Millennium Approaches, Part 2 - In Vitro"

The focus of this episode is Joe's reconciling of himself. This isn't to say that other interesting things don't happen: Harper leaves Joe by entering the refrigerator with Mr. Lies on a journey to Antarctica, and Prior is hospitalized, where he continues to have strange visions and hear angelic voices. And these stories have some indelible images of their own:

But Joe's trials stand out the most. A dinner with Roy leads him to question if the promotion to Washington is something that he really wants, and Roy dresses him down, telling him that practicing the law is not about delivering justice but rather about defending the law itself. This conversation leaves Joe questioning the nature of his morality; namely, is he really the outstanding citizen and Mormon that he's convinced himself that he is.

This is an instance in which the casting of the miniseries is just sublime. Wilson is a gifted performer, and his performance here is nothing short of phenomenal. But a key factor in his effectiveness as Joe is his appearance. With his square jaw, soft eyes, chiseled nose, and youthful complexion, Wilson looks like Mr. All-America, the high-school quarterback who married the head cheerleader, had two kids, got a great job in the city, and moved his family to the suburbs. He's the living embodiment of white-picket fences and apple pies on the windowsill. Moreover, his appearance makes Joe the perfect Reaganite: a yuppie whose whiteness, neo-conserveratism, devout Christian faith, and genial nature practically make him the poster boy for Reagan's version of phrenological beliefs. 

*Best Shot*

By the time he finally comes out, towards the episode's end, in a phone call to his mother, he's become a tarnished version of that image. Nichols frames this scene with half of Joe's face obscured by shadow, his neocon-Messiah visage obscured by the void of homosexuality within him. That Hannah is immediately dismissive of his enormous act of courage only makes him seem to fade even more. Joe has finally presented himself as he truly is, yet it's only clouded his sense of self even more. Reconciling the truth has only left him further in the dark, lost and adrift in a life that he's always denied and is not yet capable of navigating.

"Millennium Approaches, Part 3 - The Messenger"

It is in this episode that the miniseries begins truly embracing the metaphysical. "Millennium Approaches" concludes with ghosts, hallucinations, and divine creatures, as the characters now have to wrestle with the nature of their existences.

Prior is visited by prior Priors (it's a name that goes back centuries in his family), who are sent as heralds for the Angel America. The heralds prepare Prior for the angel's arrival, treating him to visions both terrifying and sentimental, including a gentle waltz with Louis to "Moon River" on a starlit stage.

Roy, meanwhile, is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Streep), the woman accused of being a Communist who Roy secured a death sentence for. Roy boasts that killing Ethel is the greatest achievement of his career, an act that he's so proud of that he keeps newspaper clippings to look at whenever he wants to remember his former glories. But now that he's dying, Ethel has returned to torment him, serving as a reminder of the evil that he has committed in his lifetime. Of course, Roy sees his purgatory as a challenge rather than a meditation, refusing to acknowledge Ethel's purpose and tearing down her conversations.

Harper, however, is fully convinced that she's in Antarctica, spending time with Mr. Lies and asking for an eskimo. 

*Best Shot*

What's great about these scenes in Antarctica is how it suggests she's deep in a hallucination without betraying her perception of reality. By all intents and purposes, the backdrop looks like the frozen continent, with ice and clouds as far as the eye can see. It's in the little details that tell us where she really is: the refrigerator to her right in the frame and the Coca-Cola machine Mr. Lies is standing on are clearly not part of the Antarctic landscape. However, they could fit in more in an abandoned lot in New York. It's a reversal of Harper's previous position: whereas she was once the only character seeing clearly, she's now buried herself deep in delusion, rejecting the reality of her situation for something easier to process.

"Perestroika, Part 1 - Stop Moving!"

If "Millennium Approaches" was about how these characters face the truth about themselves, then "Perestroika" is about how they choose to proceed with this knowledge. It makes sense - the literal translation of the Russian "perestroika" is "restructuring," which is essentially what we find these characters beginning to do in "Stop Moving!"

Roy is hospitalized and under the care of Belize, and proves to be every bit as abrasive, demeaning, and horrifically hateful as he is with everyone else. Even so, Belize recommends that he pull some strings to get out of an AZT trial and actually get hooked up with the experimental treatment, his only hope of avoiding imminent, painful death.

Joe is coming to terms with his sexuality through a relationship with Louis, yet the two are so diametrically opposite on the political scale that their coupling is strained. Politics aren't really Louis' only problem, though; Joe needs him for emotional support, but that's certainly not Louis' forte.

The most compelling restructuring, though, is Prior's. The Angel America has proclaimed him to be a prophet, and explains the concepts of heaven and God. Heaven, it turns out, is a paradise that resembles San Francisco, and that the angels are jealous of humanity because the latter quickly became God's favorite creation. But God has since abandoned his creations, leaving a void in the universe. Prior, naturally, is resistant to the idea of becoming a living word, especially one that condemns humanity and demands an end to progress and desire.

The angel represents a purity of sexuality and being, a manifestation of the power that comes with sexual liberation both within and without the self. Prior is aware of when the angel is present because of his erections, and during the angel's visitation, they experience a form of metaphysical sex that results in Prior's powerful orgasm. The angel is a sexual being; it's an interesting contrast to the disease that's killing Prior, a virus that demonizes and destroys sex and sexual pleasure.

This concept carries over into my choice for "best shot."

*Best Shot*

In silhouette, with the divine, sepia light of heaven shining down on them, the angel becomes madonna, holding her child in her arms. There is a touch of sexuality at play in the action: the angel is inserting the ancient Hebrew text into Prior, an act of penetration that will transform him into the prophet he is to become. He is absorbing the text into him, as he is joined with his destiny with assistance from a sexual spirit. Prior's restructuring begins in this metaphysical act of coital union.

"Perestroika, Part 2 - Beyond Nelly"

With restructuring eventually comes renewal. In essence, embracing their true selves has led these characters to reinvent themselves, becoming new people from who they were when the story began.

This is true for Harper, now free of her polar delusions, as she sits with Hannah at the Mormon Visitors' Center. She gazes at the waxy figures of the settlers who followed Joseph Smith across the nation to Salt Lake, placing herself within the role of pioneer. More specifically, the role of pioneer woman, sitting silently beside her husband (the figure looks astonishingly like Joe), her voice not to be heard. Harper is beginning to find her voice; her vision is becoming clear once again.

Roy, however, refuses to accept change or growth. He's stubbornly the same asshole he's always been, and the result is that his countenance becomes more sunken, his body more skeletal. His refusal to restructure is allowing the virus to consume him, and as a result he's more spectral than ever.

Renewal comes for Louis, however, in Central Park with Belize. Their scene is potent with symbolism: rain is pouring on them, itself an ablution that cleanses them. But their conversation - or, rather, confrontation - about Prior and Louis' selfishness in that regard occurs in front of the statue of the angel Bethesda. In Christian lore, the Pool of Bethesda had the power the cleanse any ailment of the person who bathed in it because it had been created by an angel's footprint. And it's in front of that angel's statue that Belize and Louis have their cleansing conversation.

*Best Shot*

At some point during this scene, the angel Bethesda appears behind each of them, standing over their renewals. I pick the shot of the angel behind Belize, however, because his proximity to the angel gives him the power to cleanse. When the angel is behind Louis, the fountain it stands upon is also visible; thus, Louis is the one in need of bathing in those healing waters. But when the angel is behind Belize, he obscures the fountain. Belize becomes the angel that stirs the water, giving Louis the healing that he's so desperately needed. Given Belize's occupation, it makes sense that he's the healer, of course.

"Perestroika, Part 3 - Heaven, I'm in Heaven"

And now, the finale. This is where the miniseries presents some of its finest moments, and I'll be cheap in starting with that smoking kiss between Hannah and the Angel America.

But this is the episode where everyone has to come to terms with their transformations. Harper finally finds the strength to truly leave Joe, walking out on him now that he's come home, begging for her to continue loving him. Joe, on the other hand, is left standing alone in an empty apartment, jilted by his male and female lovers.  For Joe, his perestroika is still nascent.

For Harper, however, she's ready to begin anew. Her final monologue - framed in the window of a jet as she flies across the nation to San Francisco - is a confirmation of herself. She's no longer "crazy," she's simply free.

Roy attempts to fool Ethel, pretending to die so that he can finally get the last word in on his ghostly tormentor. Yet, because of his refusal to renew, he ends up actually dying in the act, giving Ethel the last word. 

Ethel gets to participate in his rites, too. Louis, a staunch opponent of everything that Roy stood for, finds himself being the one to pray for Roy in Hebrew in his hospital bed. Ethel surreptitiously guides him through the prayer, allowing them both a shot at renewal through an act of implicit forgiveness.

Prior's perestroika may be the most significant of all. The Angel America returns to him in his hospital bed, only this time, Prior fights back, earning him the chance to ascend to heaven and stand before the Continental Principalities. He pleads the case for humanity to continue moving forward, unleashing wrath toward God and rejecting the opportunity to be the angels' prophet. He is, in return, blessed with life; his disease isn't cured, but he's lived longer than anyone could have expected.

These initial scenes of Prior's arrival in heaven feel distinctly indebted to the films of Federico Fellini, ancient ruins rendered in black-and-white with only a few, brilliant splashes of color. Symbolically, these splashes of color indicate the agents of change: Prior will give humanity another shot, and is thus given a blood-red robe, while the bright orange of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance represents a promised land, a potential for paradise on Earth.

The potential for paradise is the key to the entirety of Angels in America. Kushner's work touches on myriad themes, each raising questions to which there are no easy answers. His work grapples with things that we cannot understand, and presents them from different perspectives that are equally ruminated upon. There's a healthy dose of cynicism coursing through the text; understandable, given that it was originally written just past the height of the AIDS epidemic, when the United States was still coming to grips with what had happened the previous decade. Yet there was room for hope: through the political movements of Perestroika and Glasnost, the Soviet Union had crumbled, the threat of a Communist takeover dissipated, and a Cold War concluded. There were treatments for AIDS, and preventative measures had become a routine part of (most) people's sexual educations. Neo-conservative enthusiasm was (for the moment) no longer sweeping the nation, still extant but with only a fraction of its Reagan-era strength. The world seemed ready for something new.

*Best Shot*

This makes the above shot perhaps my favorite of the entire miniseries. It's five years later, and Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah have all come to be friends. They argue about politics still, but there's no longer animosity in their debates. Prior and Louis have come to forgive each other. Belize has settled his differences. Hannah, Joe's straight-laced Mormon matriarch, is now meeting homosexuals and drag queens in the park. They have been renewed. And standing over them, protecting their newfound peace, is the Angel Bethesda, her purifying waters not exactly flowing in the winter, but healing power ever present in her watchful gaze. Hope is ever present, and change will come.

No comments: