I’m sure many of my friends are
sick of familiar with hearing me go on about just how amazing so much of the television produced in the last fifteen years has been, how shows like the The Wire, Peaky Blinders, and Borgen have made screenplays not simply an offshoot of stage drama but something like a hybrid of plays and the serial novel from the days of Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It isn’t as though I didn’t like television to begin with, but there is a depth to these recent series–albeit not always in every season of some long-running ones–that rivals many of the films considered to be more serious art, which I think is a great pity. Six Feet Under was the first such series that I saw, back in 2002; it was like nothing I had ever seen, and I loved it. About a year and a half later the HBO production of Angels in America aired, and I was transfixed.
It was a play to begin with, of course, so adapting it for the screen was presumably less of a challenge than stories written as novels or other prose, but the freedom afforded by filming with regard to locations, sets, and special effects gave the scenes a dimension that just couldn’t be achieved on a stage. (My experience of drama is admittedly limited, but to my mind there are some plays that will always be better on stage than on screen; I do not think this is one of them.) I had heard of it when I was growing up and considered buying the script when I was in high school, but resisted because I wanted to see it on stage first. (I still haven’t had the chance, but I live in hope.)
From the opening scenes I thought the production was as close to perfect as could be; the ensuing years and numerous viewings have not altered my opinion. The casting was spot-on, particularly Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, and Al Pacino as the vile Roy Cohn. There are so many luminous moments in the six hours that I don’t have a favourite scene, although I do have a favourite line–Belize looking Cohn straight in the eye and saying “I am the antithesis of you.” Prior’s line about taking anti-depressants “in wee fistfuls” in his first dream-sequence meeting with Harper, and Harper’s vague query about why Mormons are thus named are close seconds. If there is a flaw at any point in the film, it is Emma Thompson getting too strident and manic as the Angel in her scenes with Hannah Pitt–for me a couple of those moments veered from the intense into the absurd.
The play is valuable for so many reasons. It’s an insight into the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and the discrimination faced by the LBGTQ community, which much of our society still has so much trouble understanding. It’s a particularly haunting account of personal struggles with physical and mental illness, and of how fear can lead us to hurt those we love most. It’s also an insight into how the idea that the straight white Caucasian male is superior to all other genders, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations can damage just about anyone, even those who believe most strongly in the idea–even when they are among those disadvantaged by such a position, such as Hannah Pitt and Roy Cohn.
Beyond–or underlying–all this is the fact that it’s a beautiful work of literature, and that the television production is a gorgeous example of what can be done on a screen. Aside from the fact that I am a staunch feminist and I believe strongly that the rights of the African-American community, people of colour, and the LGBTQ community continue to be suppressed and infringed upon in this country, I get frustrated with commentary on works such as Angels in America, Between the World and Me, and Hamilton that dismiss them out of hand because they “advance a liberal agenda.” Dismissing these and other such works because they portray a worldview you have no experience of or familiarity with is to miss the point of what good art is, and what it can achieve. It is possible to be able to appreciate a work while still disagreeing with its central premise, or actively disliking the person who created it (*cough cough* Woody Allen, Roman Polanski). Refusing to listen to / read / watch something because you do not share the perspective of the creator or protagonist(s) is as absurd as saying that a woman shouldn’t read Tom Jones and can’t enjoy its humor because she’s not a randy and yet hopelessly romantic young man, or that only men with military experience should watch Band of Brothers–another near-perfect example of filmmaking–because it fails the Bechdel and DuVernay tests. Badly. Such refusals are as dismissive of our cultural inheritance as the proverbial reduction of the Western Canon to a single-semester course in “dead white men”, because they deny that we still have art that is vital and creative and new, and that all of the techniques and facets of language those same dead white men used, and in some cases created or perfected, are still present and alive in these new works. (If characters being portrayed by people of different races and genders bothers you, blame Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Sarah Bernhardt; Lin-Manuel Miranda was not the first to hit on the idea.)
Margaret wrote an excellent review of Between the World and Me a few weeks ago, in case you didn’t read it the first time. I will have more to say on Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton, and its amazing cast at some point in the (hopefully near) future. If you haven’t seen Angels in America, or haven’t seen it in a long time, give it a try. It’s held up well in the years since its filming.