Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Stuck Inside Wenatchee

with the Memphis Blues Again
In Wenatchee I saw "Angels in America". Contrary to what I expected from the DVD box, Meryl Streep has only a few (brilliant) cameos, as does Emma Thompson. Al Pacino plays the endlessly loathsome Roy Cohn - or rather he plays the endlessly loathsome Al Pacino.

The rest of the acting is done by a bunch of justifiably unknown actors, with two exceptions. Jeffrey Wright and Mary-Louise Parker justifiably won Golden Globe Awards for best supporting actor and actress in a mini-series.

One thing I liked immediately is that Tony Kushner, who wrote both the screenplay and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play it is based on, calls the people involved "homosexuals". "Gay" is both slang and a euphemism. If, as claimed, there is nothing wrong with it, it doesn't need a euphemism. If there is, a euphemism won't help.

Similarly I have no use for being a "Member of the Tribe",
nor even "Jewish". I am a Jew.

So too, are all too many of Kushner's characters, as it is set in New York. Though the movie opens with an above-the-clouds shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, it pans across the country to a lovely shot of a bronze statue of an angel in Central Park. Which moves slightly.

This is disconcerting. One of the things one hopes for in a movie adapted from a play is reliance on dialogue, acting, and story, and a relative freedom from car chases and special effects. Such hopes are dashed repeatedly in this thing. Floors and ceilings erupt with imaginary visions, ghosts of ancient ancestors wearing whiteface makeup appear in smoke and disappear in flames, and Emma Thompson appears in winged radiance suspended from wires like a summer stock Peter Pan. This movie may not have as much computer graphics as "King Kong" or "Jurassic Park", but it is in the chase.

I suspect what has happened is that as electronics have made special effects cheap enough to produce on legitimate theater stages, playwrighting has come to depend on it, and playwriting has begun to decline correspondingly. One thinks of the special effects in "Amadeus" and "Phantom of the Opera". O tempore, o mores.

Clearly Kushner had such things available and used them when "Angels in America" was a stageplay, and director also Mike Nichols also showed no restraint in using them. And not without reason. I kept wondering when this thing would end, as it began to descend into soap opera. It ran 5 minutes short of 3 hours. When I put the disk back in the box, I discovered that what I had seen was Part One. Of Two. According to IMD, the Internet Movie Database, there is another 3 hours of snooze to go with what I already saw.

Maybe it would have been more engaging if I had seen it in several episodes conveniently punctuated by commercials during which to pee or snack. But now that it is no longer being broadcast, DVD presentation as a movie is all that is available.

IMD's blurb says the play and movie are a political tract about the AIDS epidemic, as seen from the 1980's. I didn't see that it was. Various characters get sick, they go to hospitals and get sensitive, competent medical treatment. Unless there is some objection to the medical care or the amount of pharmaceutical research, and there wasn't, I don't see the political content. That theme may have been developed in the second, iron-pants, Part Two that I mercifully did not see.

I wondered about the characterization of homosexuals as angels. If it was intended as an upgrade from fairies, who are also supernatural winged persons, then it is witty and appropriate. If it is intended as an idealization then it is merely the latest in a long series of reversals of group bigotries. African-Americans went from Stepin Fetchit and Amos 'n' Andy to sexless, pious Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby. Women became nurturing overworked saintly victims. Any even vaguely brown-skinned person who could by any stretch be called a villager became incapable of self-interest, prejudice, or ignorance. All of these are the same bigotries as before, transformed from hostility to condescension.

Homosexuals, like heterosexuals, are people who act on their sexual impulses. So are adulterers and people who open their raincoats to old ladies. There is nothing special about it, and nobody's impulses are any nobler than anyone else's. One is not made an angel by one's choice of orifice.

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