Este post foi escrito para a série Hit Me With Your Best Shot do blogue The Film Experience de Nathaniel Rogers, sendo que é aqui apresentado em inglês, ao invés do que é usual neste blogue.
When thinking about HBO’s Angels in America, I always feel that I’m predisposed to miss something, not being American and never having seen a staged production of Tony Kushner’s play. Despite this, I’m unable to deny the impact of the TV version, which I’ve rewatched numerous times. It helps that Kushner’s text is so good that I can’t fathom an adaptation that wouldn’t regain some of his brilliancy, even a merely functional adaption.
Mike Nichols was the director in charge of the production and it’s an understandable choice, one must only look at his past filmography to see the play adaptations he gloriously adapted to the screen. He’s a director whose filmography is rich in amazing performances, I would even say that directing actors was his greatest achievement, despite the keen eye for theatricality he shows in this production. From the production design to the framing, there’s a constant presence of the play’s stage origins, but even so, while rewatching the series I couldn’t keep my mind from wondering what a more adventurous director than Nichols would’ve done with the material. A director like Derek Jarman, Todd Haynes or even Sally Potter, who could embrace the formalistic possibilities of the material, and truly explore the theatricality of the text with a bit more creativity than Nichols inevitably shows.
This is not to say that Nichols does a subpar job, far from it. His talent to direct actors is well alive here, filling the miniseries with a collection of some of its cast members’ best work as well as imbuing the film with a certain sense of intimacy and reliance on the actor’s performances that I doubt any of the directors I’ve mentioned above would be able to fully achieve.
Anyway, here are my six best shots, one for each of the chapters:
Chapter One: Bad News
One of my personal obsessions is the way different directors shoot the space in which they set their films. Here, we’ve got a shot set inside the kitchen of Harper and Joe’s apartment, after Joe arrives home and starts closing the several cabinets and drawers his wife has left opened throughout the apartment in what seems to be a usual part of their routine. It’s an incredibly cluttered shot, with objects cutting Patrick Wilson in unattractive places, not to mention the presence of Harper’s head, filling half the shot in shadow. It’s a simple but effective way of showing a trapped man, a world where there’s an unbalance which here is manifested in an uncomfortable and even ugly composition. Its effect is only exacerbated by the way Nichos has showed the audience their apartment until this very moment. When Harper is alone, the director seems to emphasize the emptiness of the apartment, focusing on Harper as if she were a ghost wandering aimlessly through an undefined, incomplete space. Harper may be distant and aloof, but Joe is here deeply physical, instead of floating through the space, through the home, he is blocked by it, trapped, almost visually threatened by the set itself.
Chapter Two: In Vitro
The deterioration of Prior’s body is never better visualized than on this amazing composition, where he is seen crawling out of the darkness, suffering and crying for help. The lighting here is both beautiful and horribly ominous, as if death is embodied in the very shadows of Prior’s apartment. Still, my favorite detail in the shot is probably the almost cruel detail of the bicycle’s shadow looming over the dying man. A symbol of athleticism, health and exercise haunting the frame, almost mocking the sickness and frailty of Prior in this painful moment. The contrast doesn’t seem to want to create humor or pity, rather it seems to only underline his perseverance and his struggle as he drags is own body, finding strength and even a glimmer of tragic hope in this vision of human suffering.
Chapter Three: The Messenger
In comparison with the lonely suffering of the previous shot, here we have a moment of peace and profound sadness. One of the fantasies that appear throughout the miniseries, especially regarding the character of Prior, and one of the sweetest. After being abandoned, and seeing his sanity and bodily health deteriorate, Prior is given this simple moment of rest, of emotional calm and in the process gives such a moment to the audience as well. Like many other scenes in the film, there’s a strong sense of theatricality and artificiality mixed with a beautiful intimacy, even if just dreamt intimacy. The two ex-lovers dance, slowly, to the sound of Moonriver, transported to a pastiche of an Old Hollywood romance. Artifice turned intimate, fiction turned into a moment of brief happiness. I was briefly torn between this shot and the wide shot and the circling camera close-up of this same scene, but the static use of the camera, and the way the opulence of the set is only partially hinted made me choose this one in particular. It’s as refreshingly peaceful in form as it is in emotional content.
Chapter Four: Stop Moving
I absolutely adore Emma Thompson’s performance as the Angel. It’s not that she’s giving the best performance, but, at least to me, it’s certainly the most rapturously entertaining. Her biggest accomplishment existing in the way she’s able to give the figure its gravitas, grandiosity and overt dramatics, while never seeming to let go a certain silliness and humor that turns her angel into both a messenger of the apocalypse and a self-aware, overdramatic, celestial bureaucrat. Most of her appearance in this chapter is marked by an abundance of dramatic theatrical visuals, with showy lighting, and impressive, if rudimentary, special effects. There’s not a lot of humor to be found, at least not in the visuals. Well, there is, in this shot in which the Angel brings the prophet to orgasm. Here, some of that humor seems to manifest in the visuals. There’s the epic scope of the imagery but also a certain silliness with the use of CGI fire, framed by the theatricality of the composition itself, which creates a proscenium out of the architecture of the apartment. It’s a beautifully lit and framed, funny, epic, ecstatic and exhilarating image. Plasma Orgasmata indeed.
Chapter Five: Beyond Nelly
While wandering, drugged out of his mind, Roy Cohn has one amazing dialogue with Belize, probably my favorite character from this miniseries and wonderfully realized by Jeffrey Wright. During this encounter the audience is shown this shot, a close-up of Roy and Belize, where the camera moves around them in movements similar to the drunken unbalanced motions of Roy himself.
The movement, and the way the background is out-of-focus, isolate the two characters in a sort of perverse dance, almost reminiscent of the moment referred previously between Prior and Louis, only here it’s not a scene of fleeting bliss but an uncomfortable show of desperation and pain. The actors’ performances are brilliant, but, to me, it’s the constant movement that really makes the shot. Informed by the text, this movement doesn’t only create a perverse dance of Roy and Belize’s dialogue, but also turns their scene into dance between a dying man and the Grim Reaper, history and fiction, fantasy and reality, hatred and compassion. It’s terrifyingly beautiful.
Chapter Six: Heaven, I’m in Heaven
I chose this shot because it’s pretty. The End.
Not really, please bear with me…
In 1966, Mike Nichols presented the world with his first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring two of the world’s most glamorous movie stars, stripped of their beautiful public images and presented in a cruel and unattractive way. The glamour of their star personas was necessary for the contrast to appear, but the negation of that glamour of that Hollywood glow, was one of the most jarring elements of the film. We’re now used to de-glam, and Hollywood had certainly seen it before (Grace Kelly’s Oscar), but in that film, at that particular point in cinema history, there was something poignant and almost revolutionary about it. The film was the first film to receive the now common R-rating. A new period has just started for Hollywood cinema. The soft-focus, glamorously lit, glowingly romantic image of the Hollywood Golden Age’s movie star was fading. Nichols’ films mostly avoided embracing the romantic glories of yore, even when shooting the Hollywood celebrities in Postcards from the Edge. In Angels in America, by embracing theatricality and fantasy in a way I’ve never seen so completely in his filmography, it’s predictable that he would access some of that artificial beauty of the Hollywood of the past. And so he does, even if only sparingly.This shot is my favorite where this cinematic heritage is visible. Most of the series avoids this sort of glamour in its filming of the cast, but here Nichols shoots Thompson as a veritable movie star. Soft-focus, backlighting illuminating the hair and almost creating a halo, soft lighting that avoids harsh shadows in the face of the actress, and a good dose of drama with that turn of the head, that reveals the fiery background. It’s as beautiful as it is seductive, an appropriate pair of adjectives when one considers the fireworks inducing climax that follows. This Angel is really from another world, an older world, a world of glamour and distant images of perfection, a world of stars bigger than mere mortals.
So yes, I actually chose this shot because it’s pretty.