Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Angels in America: Thinking About Greatness

How did I miss this? Emma Thompson as an angel replete with gorgeous wings? Al Pacino in a blood chilling performance of a man consumed by self-hatred? I watched Angels in America this weekend for the very first time. And yes, I am a decade or so behind everyone else. Actually, the play is now twenty years old with the 20th Anniversary Edition coming out this year. The movie was first aired on HBO and I suppose I didn't think it was a "real" movie as it wasn't released in the theaters. How could it be? It's over five hours long -- and yet I didn't want it to end.

I think this is the first time that I have seen any piece of art that so expertly combined so many realms of life in one work. There is surrealism, history, politics, and romance to name but a few elements --- I suppose it is the writing that elevates this so -- along with superb cinematography and world class acting - but that's not the point either. I mean, that goes without saying and is meaningless until you see the film.

What I really keep thinking about is the scope of Tony Kushner's ambition: to create a piece of theater that so completely speaks to its time (the 1980's including the Reagan years and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic) and in the same piece, go far beyond its particulars to something universal. There are references to the films of Cocteau and to The Wizard of Oz.

I confess when I am writing I rarely (well, never) create on such a large canvas. Mixing so many different themes and concerns together often ends up in disaster, but not here. I'm inspired to try and do more with my work - maybe not the equivalent to a five hour film that's operatic in its structure - but at least be more aware of the larger world around me. I'm in the stage of working on a new book when nothing is clear,  I'm floating or sinking depending on the day. What seeing "Angels in America" did for me over the weekend was to remind me how much is possible. How far from the everyday art can take us. We soar out of our lives and through to another world where things make sense and are imbued with an imperfect beauty. What does it take to make art like that?


  1. I loved this, too--just amazing! (And I am comforted that I'm not the only one who sometimes sees things many years later! Happens with my reading, too!)

    Saw the television event on a re-airing. I've never seen the play, but it has been produced near me and has toured. I think I was so enamored of the magical effects on film that I didn't want to mix memories.

    Also, I had read the play without really getting it, as often happens for me with dramatic literature, meant to be seen and heard. (My own limitation.) And I think that is part of his great writing, too. He could envision it fully and put that into the structure and combination of events as well as the dialogue.

    I will muse on your question of the large canvas, and what does it take...?!

  2. Wonderful production. Just the opening credits, with the beautiful theme and thrilling visuals, is my favorite ever. Jeffrey Wright is a great actor. And did you figure out who plays the rabbi in the first scene?


  3. Hi Marc,

    Yes! The voice over starts the scene before we see the rabbi and I knew it had to be a woman. I confess we saw the credits roll before it became clear that the old man was Ms. Streep.