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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Comments on Angels

One reason I haven't been posting as much is that my mind's very much on my new relationship, and most of what's occupying my mind is too personal to share in a public forum, if only out of respect for Laurie. But we did just watch the HBO version of Angels in America, so maybe I can find some things to say about that.

I was in some deeply problematic productions of Angels in America I and II here in Birmingham Alabama, so it was intriguing to see how some of the best in the biz handled the challenges of the material. There's lots to praise, but I have to wonder what I'd think of the series if I didn't know about the play and took it purely as a movie/show.

It's very talky, which is normal for a play but not always the best thing for a film. Speeches are fundamental to theatre, which relies on vocal communication (whether spoken or sung) but I'm still trying to make up my mind about talky film. Hitchcock said you should be able to turn the sound off and still follow the story. Eric Rohmer, one of my fave filmmakers, makes talky dramas but makes it clear in his essays that his movies aren't about what people say, but how they say it, and the deceptively simple camerawork in his films is central to his concerns.

One could probably follow the basic story of A in A by watching without sound, but the fullness of it relies so much on what characters say. Director Mike Nichols began his film career with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, so he has a pedigree for adapting film to theatre... and what does he bring to film that wouldn't be better left to theatre? Aside from some complex staging that couldn't work in theatre, swooping camera movements, sudden scene changes and transitions, etc., he takes advantage of the camera's ability to capture delicate, subtle performances. My favorite scene in the screen version of A in A is a discussion between Roy Cohn and Belize, Cohn's flamboyant nurse, about the nature of the afterlife. Belize almost whispers his marvelous description of Heaven, Belize-style, and the camera gets so cozy you can almost feel Belize's body heat. A close second is Harper's final speech, framed in an airplane window with CGI cloud reflections, but unabashedly a speech, straight to the camera... I think I'd love that Long speech even if I didn't know the source material was stagebound (or should that be stage-bound?) Stuff like that on film doesn't make live theatre obsolete, but it is a lovely supplement.

I'm a bit uncertain about the campy flamboyance of Emma Thompson's angel, but given author Tony Kushner's love for .Charles Ludlam I suppose it makes sense to camp up the angel. Anyway it makes an interesting counterbalance to the naturalistic elements of the work. Kushner has compared playwriting to making lasagna, in which disparate ingredients are complexly layered together in way that could make a mess, or could be exquisite... A in A is a compelling layered pasta both onstage and onscreen. Having traveled from ill-conceived poverty-row productions to the glitzy HBO version I find it as aesthetically inspiring as ever. Kushner's lasagna recipe is a good -un.


FLT3 said...

I know exactly what you mean! As you probably know, my favorite musical of all time is MY FAIR LADY, which was so beautifully captured on film by hiring many of the actors from the stage version (Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway) as well as established stage stars (Audrey Hepburn, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Mona Washbourne.) The style of the stage play was retained, and the cinematography was unobtrusive.
( On a side note, I read in Alan Lerner's biography that he and Fritz Loewe had considered re-writing the script to make Professor Higgins an instructor at Oxford, with Eliza as a scullery maid. Glad they abandoned that idea for an almost word-for-word recreation of the stage script.)
The one thing MY FAIR LADY has that AIA does not is a built-in stylized reality...no matter how intense some of the scenes between Higgins and Eliza may be, it's hard to command realism when you have characters suddenly breaking into song with full orchestral accompaniment mid-argument.

Aaron White said...

That's what I love about Musicals (well, one thing I love); they can express things that you can't do with kitchen-sick realism.