Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Poor Joe: on Angels in America's lost character

For Nathaniel’s interactive Hit Me With Your Best Feature this week he’s chosen Mike Nichols’ HBO adaptation of the Tony Award winning play Angels in America. The behemoth miniseries based on the play (titled Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes) examines homosexuality and the AIDS crisis in the eighties, in the U.S.

With such a gargantuan reach its to his credit that Angels in America (the play, and the miniseries) is so generally adept in getting its message across without feeling like it's doing too much. It’s an undoubtedly important work and so outstanding and yet I do not completely love it, even a it moves me. Of course, I like that I am not completely in love with the text which encourages discussion so as it frustrates, confounds and enchants me I credit Nichols for generally adapting Kushner’s multifaceted play so well.

Kusher wrote the script for the film so even though I know the miniseries is not the play I can’t help but think of them as a single entity, it’s why I love this delightful shot which takes on meta significance for me.
The Angel here is akin Mike Nichols and the book is the original text. Sure, it opens up the play, and robs it of some of the more overt sentiment which makes the text work but Angels in America really does exist in glorious deference to its source.

And on the journey to my best shot in the series I cannot help but turn to its best performance – Patrick Wilson as Joe Pitt. I am never certain if Wilson is truly a boon or a crutch to the fil adaptation. How does Tony Kushner feel about Joe Pitt? More importantly….how does he want us to feel about Joe?

Joe is the closeted, Mormon, Republican. He is unfaithful to his wife, Harper. He is the protege of the terrible Roy Cohn and becomes the lover Louis, a self-flagellating Jewish man who left his ex-lover (Prior when) he become HIV positive. As much as the story's ideology is one of acceptance and hope, Angels in America always leaves me feeling discomfited for Joe Pitt related reasons. In the epilogue of the story, Nurse Belize, a healed Prior, a repented Louis and a transformed Hannah Pitt (Joe's mother) sit on the Bethesda Fountain and look ahead at the world and the Great Work to be done. It’s an epilogue that turns the story into something even more fantastical in a beautiful way. How glorious that Kushner does not root this tale of suffering in the desultory but so deliberately presents the light, and yet…I am never able to truly acquiesce to the epilogue because I’m left thinking about Joe.

It reminds me of my personal inclination to focus on the conventionally "villainous" characters in art, something I remember my mother being beffudled about when I was younger. We went to see a play, I could not have been more than 6, and at the end the villain was getting flouted by the hero and I remember sobbing because I felt bad for him. It'If my life were a bildungsroman it would be a key scene in shaping my idelogy, because I always find myself looking on the fringes for characters to sympathiase with with that the story itself does not care for. And I deliberately think of that moment when considering Joe Pitt who I feel the play wants to villainise but cannot quite. Instead, Kushner opts not to expressly villainaise Joe but to abruptly cast him out from the narrative when he expends his use.

Angels in America on screen manages to, somewhat, marginally improve on Part 2 and my issues with the Joe's arc, even as it still insists on othering him runs through. Of course, it’s obvious why Joe cannot be in the epilogue and why he must remain an “other” in the story – he is still, mostly, closeted, he is a reminder for Louis of his transgressions and he is at odds with the hope of the ending and still it does not sit right with me. Joe (maybe unintentionally) becomes the film’s (unintentional) tragic antihero who is not even given the dignity of a proper exit.

But, let me get to the actual purpose of finding a a best shot.

Nathaniel gave us three options, pick a shot from one half, pick one shot from each chapter or pick one overall shot. If time permitted I would have gone for one from each chapter but instead focused on Part Two, with my three favourite shots from each hour. It's my lesser favourite of the two parts, but each of the three chapters in this part have significant shots for me.

Like this shot.
It’s simple, almost prosaic but a shot I love (and abhor) for reasons that zero in on my relationship with the drama. First, it seems to be a parallel to this shot below, endorsing my belief that the play (and the adaptation) projects Joe as the antisis to Prior.

This much is obvious when in their first sexual encounter Joe’s orgasm cuts directly to Prior moaning (not in desire) in bed. And if Prior is our Messianic character on the journey, who is Joe but the symbol of the devil (he is literary a descendant of the devilish) Roy. Joe is caught in the dark shadows, in black against Prior’s white. They're both in shadows, but notice how Prior's is almost ethereal and warm instead of being encroached in darkness like Joe? Notice how Prior looks straight ahead, without fear, unlike Joe who cannot face himself? A key aspect of Joe post his affair with Louis is the way he becomes unshorned, here he’s out of his usual business attire, his collar is twisted, he looks impossibly childlike, dishevelled and wrong. He’s not even looking forward making him look shifty and ill-at-ease.
Like this shot where he looks especially untrustworthy as Louis, and the story, begins to lose interest in Joe as a person and he becomes a hurdle for the story to scale - specially Harper and Louis.

This shot, gets it best, though. There is no Joe, really, just a shadow of a man for Louis to be measured against in perspective.
Best Shot: Episode Six
I feel like I'm being hard on the story which is such an important text in the American canon and especially in the LGBT canon but in its assertion of there being no wrong way to be gay, its unwillingness to reach out to Joe feels unfortunate, the recurring motif of the second part is Joe alone and this shot below gets it in a beautiful way.
Best shot: Episode Five

Not that Joe in the story could come to a happy ending (he's too uncertain, and sad, and embarrassed) but as the film goes on it feels so decidedly disinterested in him making the earnest sincerity with which Wilson performs that much more unusual. Joe's fate makes me think of questions like who deserves redemption? And at what cost? Is Joe's transgression more heinous than Louis, for example? Or Hannah's? What is the unforgivable aspect of Joe? His unwillingness to evolve? Being closeted? Being a Republic? These questions cannot really be answered but Wilson's dexterous handling of an almost impossible character really is a marvel. (It is also a woeful reminder that he's never been given an opportunity to do anything as great on the big screen).

This is such a terribly doldrum piece for such a hopeful film I had to include a few runner-up shots that are not about Poor Joe. Like this fantastic shot of Belize turning up at Prior’s hospital bed.
It’s so ostentatious and over-the-top and delightful. I think Belize works more in theory than he does in reality. His conversations with Louis, in particular, are great but Angels in America isn’t very vivid on race even as Wright is projecting a lot of subtleties the text does not actually address. Still, it's not really a shortcoming for the play or Kushner who would ten years later write one of the best black characters of musical theatre in Caroline Tibedow in Caroline, or Change.
 Then Emma, my second favourite performance of the film playing the illusory persons, her angel is beatific, off-beat and excellent and she’s invol. The role’s theatricality could have been expertly done by any number of performers, you might argue, but what makes the performance especially vivid is Emma’s use of her face (it nails the bathos of the piece more than any performer), she gets that she’s not playing straight drama or true comedy but a swirling mix of something in between so this other shot of her heralding the book is not majestic but almost hilariously ridiculously in its ostentatiousness.

I’ll admit, though, sentimental me avoids the purely bathetic and approaches this one:
Best Shot: Episode Four
Why? It’s flipping of the gender roles in gorgeous way. I would not exactly call Angels in America an actressexual delight (but for Emma, the quartet of Wilson, Shenkman, Wright and Kirk are so superior to the women – although the entire cast is excellent) but from its Wizard of Oz intertexuality, to its – Angels in America cares about women and femininity, and about the relationship between gay men and its women. Moreover, on a purely technical level I love how the shot hides its intent – what is the Angel doing to Prior? Is she carrying a dead body? Resuscitating him? About to kiss him? Its an ambiguity that, at its best, the film and its source give over to that even when the story frustrates it enchants for what is great art if it does not leave you unsettled in some way?

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