Thursday, May 27, 2004

I must say that I've had to eat humble-pie over my previous views on Angels in America. Yet something does seem to have come out of it. It somehow brought home to me forcefully what the main difference between a play and a movie was.

I saw the first part of HBO's production of Angels without having quite any idea of what it was about. At three hours, Millennium Approaches, seemed to me to be over-long and pretentious. Here is what I wrote on it then.

"Angels starts off magnificently in its first hour (titled 'The Millenium approaches'), flags significantly in the second, even more in the third and then in its final fifteen minutes, soars significantly. The ending of the first part makes it imperative to watch the three-hour second one since there seem to be some really important plot developments in store.

Its all a bit too pretentious for its own good, there are all the cliched characters, the gay man dying of AIDS, his self-pitying lover (Ben Shenkman at his whiny best), the self-righteous closetted, conflicted married homosexual Mormon (Patrick Wilson, impossibly earnest and just about passing muster) and his wife (Mary Louise Parker, simply amazing!!!), who hallucinate frequently and have conversations that are elaborately stagey but ultimately lack any kind of dramatic intensity. Surrounding all of them are some really seasoned actors: Al Pacino (who rants with his usual energy), Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. There are times when Angels soars, the highpoint for me being, one particular sequence in which the hallucinations of the wife and the dying man intersect. The result is a brilliant scene and Parker, as the pill-popping wife, is particularly luminous and funny, yet at the same time weighed down by sadness. It all goes steadily downhill after that. There seems to be no particular reason for having seasoned actors like Streep and Thompson play multiple roles except as a gimmick and also perhaps to boost the actors' vanity (You have to give it to Streep; the lady is faultless with accents).

It is to Nichols credit that Angels ends with a bang. The lives of the characters have now been firmly established and it is interesting to see where exactly the movie is heading towards....

Lets see how the second part holds up......

There it is, right in those words - thoughts which since then I have disowned. "Stagey conversations", "cliched characters" - the fact is - Angels is and will always be a play. I finished reading the play recently (or two plays, if you think of them that way) and I must say - though Kushner would probably object to the word - that it is a revelation. Kushner concentrates above all on his ideas - and everything, including his characters is subordinated. Yet the play is remarkably resonant in it's themes and I, for one, was caught up in it even as I read it. I just wish I had been born a few years earlier to actually watch the play as it was performed. Well, someday!!

Why does the movie not work? I have some ideas. The play is filled with split-scenes which it must have been hard for Nichols to film. And inter-cutting between the conflicts just does not have the same effect as over-lapping dialogue rendered on stage. And the stage!! - which, from some photographs I looked at - is threadbare , with the minimal of props, yet Nichols fills the movie with scenery and ostentatious sets. Above all, there is the fundamental difference beween films and theater. Movies are about plots and characters, the probing camera is capable of seeing much more than the stage can, yet films thrive on a passive viewer. Theater, on the other hand, is gloriously real, much more interactive and above all, it is about the grand inter-play of thoughts and ideas through characters.

Here is an article in Slate on Angels.
The Lector Effect - HBO's new Angels in America gets Kushner wrong. By Dale�Peck

Also A. O. Scott's on-the-dot critique of Angels that he wrote in Slate's annual movie club. (You may have to search a bit, I'm afraid)

But more on this later. :)

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