Hit Me With Your Best Shot – Angels in America

My decision to make this week’s HMWYBS an article is informed by the fact that I really really wanted to pick a shot from each episode. And while I thought it would be great to make a whole fucking video of my thoughts I also didn’t think I gave myself enough time to work on that video ashamedly. I swear to you, though… the next episode (which I’d call a season finale if I didn’t intent to soon make episodes based on shit I missed when I didn’t participate) WILL be a video. Here’s your proof:

Anyway, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes! Selected based on Manuel Betancourt‘s impressive and work on LGBTQ representation in film and television on The Film Experience which I really implore you guys to look at and check out, Nathaniel R. has re-assigned the HBO miniseries from 2003 based on Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning play. I’ve had multiple encounters with this play since back when I was high school interested in theater. Angels in America was already placed in its canonical zone among Death of a SalesmanGlengarry Glen Ross, and other such contemporary theatrical pieces. The miniseries already existed when I first heard of the play. I had read it in 2011 and I had eventually gotten around to being involved in a sort of college assignment for a Theater Directing Class where a couple of students used me to act out scenes as Roy Cohn, his doctor Henry, or Hannah Pitt. I’ve never actually seen a production of the play, but it seems hella ambitious to try to put up in a local theater. So, I have familiarity with the piece.

The other thing is that I had previously seen the miniseries prior to this week… back in 2007. I was also kind of a homophobe at that time, though. Not in an aggressive manner, just in an offhand conversation “Oh what y’all do is a sin and even if I won’t attack you, y’all going to Hell” and a “My beliefs are above your rights, you don’t get to marry” kind of deal. And an “I don’t want gay people talking to me as much” type of deal. And an “I’m so fucking stupid I think all gay guys is hit on other guys type of deal”. There’s a lot of principals and values I’m glad that being raised Islamic gave me, bigotry ain’t one. Needless to say between that and the fact that I was a shithead teenager in the new Millennium, I was less receptive to its message and themes then than I was when I read it in college and grew out of that bullshit.

In the meantime, that means that the miniseries is the only production of this play that I’ve ever seen and it upsets me because… I just don’t think it works as well as a film. I think it’s not as impossible to work out as a film – though I’m not happy with the late (usually-)great Mike Nichols’ work here, intercutting a little too much, and on most times close-ups as if he refuses to trust his cast to be emotive through their body language – but moments like the finale where Prior becomes speaks to the audience about his new life in 1990 lose their “I’m speaking to you” impact when there’s no audience in house and it’s just regular ol’ film fourth wall breaking and the obvious theatricality of the Angel America’s arrival to Prior announcing are almost muted by the fact that it really hides its artificiality – which scares me, as part of the poetics of the whole piece come from the theatricality, the melodrama being sold like a Biblical sermon, but one about people for the most part, not legends or fables.

It’s not all that bad but it’s not all as good as sitting there witnessing it all as an in-house audience. And I do wish it could have been better. Still this ain’t no review, I’m picking my best shots from each of the 6 episodes of the miniseries and so HEEEEEEERE WE GO!!!!

By the way, I gotta say SPOILERS!!!

CHAPTER I – BAD NEWS

I’m going to be honest and say I wasn’t immediately fond of any real images on their own merit but after watching the entire miniseries (I can tell you I absolutely hated the opening scene – with its oy gevalt treatment of Jewish culture that felt like a cartoon intermixed with a funeral scene), I browsed through the episode once more and discovered exactly what I wanted to see…

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First, I tried to avoid this scene not because I didn’t love it – it was my favorite moment but I also thought it was too obviously the VISUAL moment of the episode – but I found in the end it was inevitable. First, I love how obviously it wants to be florid but for some reason, my eye sees these colors as muted, like the characters trying to burst out of their growing shell. Eventually the shit we see them will be flatter and less colorful.

The other reason is because, quite frankly, this is the closest we ever see Prior not suffering. Not in absolute emotional anguish, not on a hospital bed facing an unfair terminal trip to the coffin, he’s sitting down at his most comfortable doing the thing he loves most (Drag does become drag as he puts it, but he doesn’t look sick as far as I’m concerned, he’s filled with life) and while he does learn to live with AIDS by the end of the story, so far here he doesn’t have to live with it.

He’s just taking one last glance at himself hoping he comes out whole on the other side.

CHAPTER II – IN VITRO

One habit I notice a lot of in my HMWYBS episodes is obviously I pick from the bookends of moments. I’m fighting it a bit, but I couldn’t not pick this moment.

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Why? Because fucking duh at the barrier now obviously visible, both metaphorically and literally in that dark column, between Louis and Prior. Prior is completely alone without Louis being there for him, as Louis calls the hospital and we know for a fact that Louis is not going to be able to sit beside Prior’s bed. Ben Shenkman’s frantic shaking and stuttering into the phone is a tremendous show of Louis’ inability to cope, while Justin Kirk as Prior is the one who is actually suffering, lying alone, in his own four-walled world, wondering if he’s going to die this time or have another of these moments to live through.

It’s the real break-up of Louis and Prior, not the scene after where Louis walks out of the hospital room, this is the actual moment that it’s over. Louis simply can’t find himself dealing with this.

CHAPTER III – THE MESSENGER

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Roy Cohn, as played by Al Pacino in regrettably the type of manner you’d expect Al Pacino to play a character post-1992 (though he does have his moments), is a vindictive little dick who tries as much as he can to showcase how much power he’s got. How he’s holding everyone in the palm of his motherfucking hands. Quite impressive when you consider the fact that he’s only ever shot from a low angle in one scene – his first scene where he intimidates Joe Pitt off-hand. Every other shot, especially with Joe sharing the scene with him is from a high-angle, usually over Joe’s shoulder.

We never actually see Cohn having power. His AIDS diagnosis is revealed extremely early, we know he’s a weak rabid old dog trying to gnaw at Joe’s leg for a last hurrah at Washington, D.C. and even the camera won’t give him any dignity he so desperately pretends to think he deserves.

Here, Cohn’s done acting. Here he’s at his weakest. On his back. Looking into the light above him with that lamp. Knowing he’s fucking done for. Here while he’s at the floor, we see one piece of residue from his reign of terror as a lawyer, the most famous victim of his McCarthy work – Ethel Rosenberg (Oh, I forgot I may need to contextualise this – Cohn actually existed in real life as a New York Attorney who had his biggest heyday during the Communist Red Scare. Ethel Rosenberg and her husband were two of his most notorious victims, being tried and convicted and executed by chair for espionage). And she’s above him now, just barely giving him enough space to breathe, giving him a reluctant helping hand by calling his number. And even as a ghost, in her purple outfit and pale makeup, she looks livelier than Cohn does, who just sits and hacks and wears a flamboyant robe thats shut down by the darkness of the edge.

Also, I love ghost stories. I think that’s the biggest reason I pick this shot. It’s just one ghost story in a single frame. I mean, the reason I do videos rather than posts like this is because I call it Hit Me With Your Best Shot, not your Best Frame and I like showing this stuff in motion, but I think this is the first shot I picked that actually works best frozen like this.

Regrettable statement: I need to go to work. However, I want to submit these shots in time for them to make Nathaniel’s visual index, so! I’m gonna place the shots for the second half of the miniseries and let you guys wrap your heads around why I picked them and then I’ll be back after work tonight to complete my explanation of them all. Gracias, y’all.

I’M BACK BITCHES!!!!

CHAPTER IV – STOP MOVING!

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BTW this isn’t explaining the shot but: I swore to Odin I was gonna have at least one shot with Jeffrey Wright in it. The more I’ve seen him in – Casino Royale, Catching Fire, Syriana, Only Lovers Left Alive, Ali, this, etc. – the more I’m catching how awesome he is as an actor.

Anyway, my feelings about this shot are simple – it’s a cool breezy respite for me after the very frenetic rising action of the first half, Millennium Approaches, which was a very eventful climax around the end of it. That’s absolutely 100% the reason this was my shot choice, the nice calm blue, the snowy fantasia surrounding them, the sax-like instrument (actually an Oboe as he identifies later in the scene), the sleek white costuming against the soft texture of the snow around them. Even the character is the reason I find it super cool (Patrick Wilson as Joe is best in show by a significant margin, but either of Wright’s characters – Mr. Lies pictured here or Belize – are the coolest ones to me, the most centered. Funny since Lies is a figment of Harper’s imagination).

This respite doesn’t last very long considering that it takes place in Harper’s mind and we have to face that as she approaches in the background, but it’s smooth New York-ian fantasy either way. Even if it’s not supposed to be New York. It’s Antarctica. Harper says so.

CHAPTER V – BEYOND NELLY

I think it is immensely telling that in the few moments where violence spurts in the story, it could easily be staged as an act of love. Like, I don’t know if this is deliberate or if I’m just as a dirty-minded idiot, but when Joe stands over Cohn in The Messenger, it looks like they’re about to get it on (and Cohn’s expression makes it more heated). When Prior wrestles with the Angel America, his face is literally on her crotch, it makes me think of cunnilingus. The leather daddy Louis tries to cheat on Prior with in In Vitro smacks him for an uncalled-for remark and it’s almost flirtatious. Joe throwing Louis, his very lover, and beating him in a rage after being confronted with his ghostwriting work for Cohn ends with them both tired and out of breath, with Louis barely having breath to say “that really hurt”

Neither of those are more shocking a reversal of the idea of passion to causing aggressive acts of violence than when Cohn threatens Joe after Joe comes out to him and Cohn rips out his IV, spraying blood everywhere, including on Joe to threaten to ruin his life. Belize rushes to put Cohn back in his bed and struggles because of Cohn’s impudence as well as Cohn beginning to spasm and they are positioned exactly like this.

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With Joe being forced to watch the man he once looked up to and admired turn from father figure to monster to impotent and Cohn still has enough anger in him to sneer at Joe and ask if this is what he wants to fucking see, giving double meaning to Joe’s halfway-out-the-closet homosexual desires and the concept that Joe could have any true contempt for Cohn even after everything Cohn has done and said to him in this episode and the two preceding it (also, I find very disturbing double meaning in the fact that, seconds after throwing his AIDS-infected blood on Joe’s person, he tells him coldly “I gave you my blessing”).

CHAPTER VI – HEAVEN, I’M IN HEAVEN

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Ah yes, this is exactly the theatricality I was looking for when it came to Angels in America. Not the famous image of the Angel America above Prior in glowing golden rays (though it is beautiful undoubtedly), but just the work of hues and shadows with shape above characters as they look with terror at a destiny they can’t imagine. The time has come for Prior to face his reluctant role as Prophet and Prior rejects it, knowing damn the message of standing still and just rejecting the concept of living is bullshit. But hell if he’s not going into this battle scared, low angle making him and Hannah look completely vulnerable with all the solid empty blue around them and the wrath of the angel looming above threateningly. It’s expressionist as fuck, it’s theater as fuck, and it implies a hell of a ride to come in the final half-hour.

Like hell if I’m going to describe that to you guys. You watch it. Or even better, catch a production of it and let me know what you think.

Thanks for your patience with part two – Perestroika.

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