Thursday, January 13, 2005

Angels in America

Over the past couple of days, I watched the HBO miniseries Angels in America. It's a six hour thing, that aired earlier this year. The first notable thing about this is the cast, which includes Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and one of my favorite actresses, Mary-Louise Parker. Also, it's directed by Mike Nichols, who directed the recent film, Closer, and way back in 1966, he directed The Graduate. The man is 73 years old, and he directed a six hour miniseries and a two hour film in the same year, both of which are very much in touch with how young people today behave. They're both based on plays, so he probably didn't have a huge role in setting the story direction, but the fact is, he gets how people interact, and it feels natural. He's still in touch with what's happening with people today, unlike directors like Woody Allen or Martin Scorcese, who no longer attempt to do movies set in the present.

I really liked Closer, but it felt very theatrical, particularly at the beginning. There were a couple of scenes that were filmed in an interesting way, notably the beginning, and the scene with Alice and Larry in the private room, but it was really an actor's showcase. I thought the acting in the movie was phenomenal and it was a strong story, but it didn't feel very filmic.

However, with Angels in America, Nichols makes a very visual film that surpasses Closer, and is just a really impressive piece of filmmaking. The movie's about a bunch of people in 1985, and the way that AIDS affects their lives.

The most interesting character for me was Harper. She's the wife of a closested homosexual Mormon, and spends all her days alone at home taking pills. As a result of the pills, she has these bizarre hallucinations, accompanied by a "travel agent," a mysterious character who turns up to talk with her. She was a semi-crazy character, but she was always played as the sane one. We're present during her hallucinations, so her view of the world, and her frustrations are more relevant to us than Joe's remoteness. I love the sequence in Antarctica, which looks great, and says a lot about her character's state of mind.

Throughout the whole film, I love the mixture of supernatural elements with the mundane. We're never quite sure where the character's hallucinations end and the reaity of the world begin. In the beginning of the movie we see Pryor and Harper wander into each other's hallucinations, which is the first hint that there's some kind of actual supernatural activity going on in the world of the story. Later, when Pryor and Hannah both see the angel, we get the idea that there really is a higher purpose at work behind the scenes of the story. I like the fact that despite the presence of fantasy elements, the story remains emotionally real. Very few works are able to, or even attempt to balance reality and fantasy in the way that this one does. The angel is used symbolically, but without being so obviously symbolic as to make it ridiculous. There's both the literal level and the metaphorical level.

The miniseries reminded me of Preacher in a number of ways, most notably in the fact that the thing that throws everything into action is the fact that God has left heaven. When Pryor speaks before the angels at the end of the movie, and says that if God comes back, they should sue him, it's the equivalent of the saint of killers shooting God at the end of Preacher. Also, the idea that Pryor is imbued with this power, and has a mission to save humanity ties in with what happens in Preacher. Both series have essentially the same theme, which is, you can't rely on God to save you, you have to out and take control of your own life. This is notable in the characters of Hannah and Lewis. Lewis first abandons Pryor, but realizes, it's his duty to stand by him during his illness. For Hannah, it's the fact that morally, she's obligated to save Pryor, even if she disapproves of his lifestyle. Preacher has the same idea, that you must live by your own moral code, and alwyas uphold that.

I really liked the way that the story of Hannah and Pryor came together at the end, and the parallels between the two of them. Their dynamic was really interesting, and I like the theme the movie presents there, the idea that where normally people see only stereotypes, if you look a little deeper, you can find connections. Both Pryor and Hannah would in theory hate each other, but when they actually meet and talk, they realize they have a lot in common, and a lot to learn from each other. This is a counterpoint to Louis, who, even though he clearly has a connection with Joe, is unable to come to terms with the fact that he's dating a Republican and a Mormon. He sees people in terms of labels, rather than seeing the people as they actually are.

It's interesting that Louis is consistently presented as at least an annoying, if not outright dislikable character. He has a lot of liberal guilt, and an inability to see past his principles, to see the people themselves rather than the stereotype he has in his head. That's ultimately his failure, when he sees the disease in Pryor, rather than Pryor himself.

This series brought to mind my favorite TV series of all time, Twin Peaks, a number of times. The obvious way was in the interaction between quasi-mystical figures and ordinary people. The use of the angel and the travel agent recalls the Man from Another Place and the Giant. Also, the angel herself brought to mind the end of Fire Walk With Me. I don't think they pull off the use of the archetypal angel image as well as Lynch did there, but it works well. I love the black angel at the end of the movie.

Are there flaws in the movie? Yeah, I'd say that Roy Cohn isn't really necessary to the plot, and his story doesn't tie in that much with everything else that happens. I suppose thematically there's connections, but so much time is spent with him, and it just sort of ends on its own, when you expect to connect a bit more with the main story. I suppose the medicine is crucial, but was that worth the creation of an entire plot? Everything else seemed so tightly knit, I guess that made the Roy Cohn stuff seem unconnected in comparison. Also, I get that it's a movie about AIDS and the gay community, but it was a bit odd that every single character, with the exception of Harper was gay. There were a lot of hints that Hannah was a lesbian, and I'm glad that wasn't explored. I suppose that also might be connected to the fact that I wanted Harper to get a happy ending, and there was no one there for her to love.

But, I did love Harper's last speech, about the souls rising and filling the hole in the ozone layer. I also liked the way she delivered it directly to the camera. Also, the 1990 coda was really well done, and gave you a sense of hope after all the bad stuff that happened during the movie. There was such a sense of friendship and love, it showed that all the bad stuff really was worth it.

So, a great production, amazing acting, especially from Mary-Louise Parker and Justin Kirk, top notch effects and direction. I think the best testament might be that unlike almost all other TV miniseries, nothing here seemed like filler, and if I could have, I'd have watched the six hours straight through. It was compulsively watchable, and I just kept wanting to go on.


Image Editor said...

Such a touching and heart-whelming TV-series, one of my favorite ones. Thank you for this post, it is nice that it has a lot of fans!

conversion mp4 to mov mac said...

I love to watch this episode. good job!