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HBO: Angels in America


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Darren there was less there than I thought there would be, or at least that I found. It was mostly about parallels to Streetcar - which I hadn't caught. And the effectiveness of the comedy in AinA, which I had caught, and really wished there was more of. Was some of it cut for the film? The line you mentioned the rabbi saying was the only funny thing he said but you seemed to imply he rattled off a couple jokes.

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  • 1 month later...

Sorry, Dan, I hadn't noticed your comments. That main Angels post on Long Pauses was written moments after I finished reading Millennium Approaches for the first time, so it's not a very thoughtful response. I wrote quite a bit more about the plays in November 2003, December 2003, and January 2004. This is probably the single best post.

The dialogue in Millenium Approaches only truly crackles in the Angellic segments and the visions.

It's certainly at its most flowery during the scenes with the Angel, but I've come to love the language of other scenes, too. I wonder if this is because I read the plays four or five times before I first saw them on stage or film. Even the Rabbi's opening monologue is beautifully poetic -- both the rhythms of the speech and the complex metaphors he uses that introduce the main themes of the plays. If you ever have the time, find yourself a copy and give it a close read or two. I'm still finding new things to love about Kushner's writing here.

I could've watched Prior and the Lawyer's mother all night long.

No kidding. I always point to Hannah (Joe's mother) when people say there are no admirable straight, conservative, or female characters. She's all three. Hannah and Belize are really the moral centers of the play, I think.

statements were made as gospel that that were as sweepingly bigotted as the people they decried.

Yep. But as in any political discussion, you should always consider the source. Conservative critics of Angels tend to quote from Louis, as if Kushner were presenting him as the paragon of queer virtue. Louis is a horrible, horrible guy. He abandons the person he loves when that person most needs him. He uses and discards Joe. He makes all sorts of false, bigoted assumptions about Belize. He has the maturity of a 13-year-old, completely narcissistic and incapable of selfless action. And yet, he's redeemable. Just as Roy Cohn, "the pollstar of human evil," is ultimately redeemable. As a Christian, that's what I so love about Kushner's morality. He's writing from a political position, certainly, and he provokes us with the "personal as political" argument, but at a more basic human level, he evidences a surprising faith in the necessity of grace.

I really had trouble with the cliche' "everyone, deep down is a homosexual" philosophy. The only people who weren't gay were women who are crapped on anyway, and oh... one of them makes out with a female angel.

The play is a "Gay Fantasia on American Themes," and most of its characters are gay, but I don' think Kushner's argument is that all of us are really gay. Though, I will admit that he's deliberately questioning absolutes, just as all postmodern art does. In that regard, I would say that he's more concerned with blurring the lines between past/present, personal/political, conservative/progressive, and human/divine than gay/straight, specifically. My own theory about Hannah's orgasm is that it has less to do with her having a lesbian experience than with her having an encounter with an otherworldy force. Obviously, the specifics of the encounter don't gel with a New Testament version of God (little of the play does), but I think Kushner is interested there in giving the audience (by way of Hannah) a touch of transcendent ecstasy. Prior gets to experience a bit of this, too. (wingk, wink, nudge, nudge)

The film goes to such great pains to demonstrate how awful the world is, largely because of heterosexual white males, that I had trouble believing Prior's decision to keep living. Why? The "habit"? I don't buy it. Ultimately, if I believed God had abandoned us, and that the world was just rife with suffering and only getting worse, I'd have no hope. There's just no logical consistency here. The world is crap, and getting worse, God is gone, but let's forgive one another and live anyway. There are so many people doing horrible things to each other, and yet man has no culpability in the state of the world? Or America? It's all God's fault? C'mon!

I was with you here until you wrote, "yet man has no culpability in the state of the world." It's quite the opposite, I think. As I mentioned in a previous post, there's a great scene that was snipped from the film in which Prior, while in Heaven, runs into the Rabbi, who has recently died. the Rabbi tells him, "You must wrestle with the Almighty!" The line harkens to Joe's story about Jacob and the Angel. It's an unfair fight. God is always going to win. And yet the fight is necessary.

The plays, as an epic, 7-hour experience, force audiences to wrestle with the Almighty. The theology of the play isn't Christian, but I promise you that Kushner does take God very, very seriously. (Last I heard, he was still calling himself an Agnostic.) And so, when trying to get your head around the plays' ideas about the nature of God and man, I'd again encourage you to always consider the source. Upon learning that God has abandoned man, Prior chooses to "keep moving," in part, because he is acutely aware of man's culpability in the tragedies of history, especially on the micro level. (Prior, as he reminds us several times, received a death sentence in his early-30s. He gets tragedy in a way I hope to never understand it.) But at the macro level, he can see progress -- the "painful progress" that Harper talks about as she flies away to San Francisco. Again, as a Christian, I see something beautifully holy in those moments -- God revealed in his creation despite our fallenness.

But the parts add up to a whole that's philosophically absurd. I love the truth in the film, but can't believe any one really buys into the Truth its preporting.

And yet your experience of the play/film tells you otherwise, right? It's like that argument we've been having here for years: The purpose of Christian criticism is to explore the revelations of Truth, Beauty, and Grace wherever we might find them. We're archaeologists of "Common Grace." At my most charitable, I think Kushner is, too. He's an intellectual -- a socialist, an artist, a Jew, an agnostic, all in one -- and so he, like many of us, would be hard-pressed to offer an intellectual argument for the proof of TRUTH. His characters, Prior especially, are in the same boat. And yet they're wrestling with the Almighty, they're saying Kaddish for Roy Cohn, they're rejecting the moral complacency that "standing still" would demand. Every time I see or read Prior's final lines, they feel to me like a Benediction. Obviously, his words are tinted by humanism, but the form is just as important, as Kushner is well aware. It's a human blessing that gestures toward the transcendent.

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  • 13 years later...

I'm going to resurrect this ancient thread because--well. I read Angels in America years ago for a graduate-level class and it's stuck with me, in various ways, since. I've often, for instance, pulled up clips of the miniseries and watched them, recalled particular plot-threads and lines, and generally had the thing kicking around in my brain. But I've never made it through the miniseries--it's been in some way too much, to huge, and I just wore out emotionally before I could finish it.

I finally watched the whole thing this week. The miniseries? I mean, it's wonderful, isn't it? The performances are universally excellent (Al Pacino as Roy Cohn and Jeffrey Wright, returning to the role of Belize after having played it on stage, are stand-outs, but I mean everyone is so good....). The effects are ropey, but who cares? It's an old HBO joint.

Speaking more broadly--both more subjectively and more seeming-objectively--this thing wrecked me. The scene where they say the Kaddish for Roy Cohn is a particularly complicated moment of  grace, and the concluding blessing of "more life" is moving and empowering. I really can't think of a late-20th C work that feels as enormous and eternal as the play of which this miniseries is an adaptation. It's Melville-big. It's Whitman-big. The Great American Stage Play.

Anyway, I'm reading The World Only Spins Forward now and finding it very helpful in terms of contextualizing the play (the messiness of Perestroika, for instance, is no doubt down to the fact that it was literally the size of a phone book in its first draft). I may post more as that book brings thoughts to mind.

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  • 1 year later...

I was listening to Alan Dershowitz Great Books/Modern Library CDs on courses that shaped America and he claimed that Roy Cohn admitted to him personally that he had "framed" a guilty man -- i.e. manufactured evidence against Joel Rosenberg. And that he and the government manufactured the case against Ethel (whom Dershowitz opined was almost certainly not guilty) as leverage to get Joel to name names. 

He also said, interestingly, that although Cohn had Kaposi Sarcoma at the time, he would not admit he had AIDS since doing so implicitly admitted he was gay. I've really been mulling what sort of place one has to be in as a lawyer or person to brag about executing an innocent woman but be unwilling to admit the truth about one's own sexuality.

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