Acute Angels

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
Part One: Millennium Approaches
(National Theatre, directed by Marriane Elliott)

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Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Shortly into this seven and a half hour play — twenty minutes? half an hour? — I mused on Walter Benjamin, a thinker I do not know as much about as I should and his musings on the Paul Klee picture and history.

(When I was researching a chapter on John Wyndham, “Random Quest” and the film Quest for Love, I needed to know about Goethe and Elective Affinities and Paul de Man had written an essay on Benjamin’s essay on someone else’s reading of the novel, but that was too far down the rabbit hole.)

Might this unpack a way of unthinking about Tony Kushner extraordinary play? Ah, he says, having googled, Kushner already knows about the angel of history.

It is a document of a different time — always already an history play. It is set in the plague years, the early years of the HIV crisis, when AZT trials were making headway and it might just have been possible to think of living with AIDS rather than a death sentence. Reagan had been reelected (so had Thatcher) and it was necessary to overcome deep, visceral prejudice in order to gain funding and to educate.

In another part of the forest there was The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s (autobiographical) account of the gay communities coming together to organise itself and campaign over HIV awareness (and also As Is). Angels in America chooses a more fantastical route, like Unicorn Mountain, “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals”, Tim and Pete and ”Was…”, leading up to the climactic (and bordering on ridiculous) arrival of an angel at the end of “Millennium Approaches”. In addition to the fantasy, Kushner is evidently aiming for a state of the nation play, via George Bernard Shaw or Arthur Miller.

I can’t imagine what it was like to see the original production, a year or so before the staging of the second half, “Perestroika”. A two hour wait was tough enough. And I have to say, it has aged better than I would have expected. Perhaps President Trump takes us back to a time of Reagan and the sense of a world on the brink of an abyss. I’m not convinced gay marriage was on the agenda in 1986, but clearly same-sex couples were living together even if they would have had few legal rights. A couple of names passed me by — big at the time but lost to history. And as I will note in the next paragraphs, Trump is a partial consequence of one of the characters of the play.

In a sense, the first play is about two couples and that character. WASPy Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), ex-drag queen, reveals to his Jewish boyfriend Louis Ironson (James McArdle) that he has AIDS; Louis can’t handle this and thinks about leaving Prior. He is discovered crying in a bathroom by Mormon Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey), who has been lying to his wife Harper Pitt (Denise Gough) about his true sexuality. Joe, meanwhile, has been offered a promotion by his boss, Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane).

Cohn was chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the McCarthy-Army hearings, he had prosecuted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for treason and had been responsible with McCarthy for getting many gay people fired from government employment. In the 1970s, he was the Trump family lawyer, a formidable and aggressive litigator, who defended by going in the attack (sound familiar?). This character — along with the angel — is what has stayed with me most from the HBO adaptation is Al Pacino chewing the scenery. Lane is dialled back, thankfully, with a bit more of a nuanced performance (but it could hardly be less). He is sweary sweary and the audience find this funny. He is the devil offering Joe a pact, playing semantics, offering to be a father to the Mormon, in an almost invisible seduction. He is Not Gay — gays are losers, gays have no power, he has power, he simply has sex with men. He does not have AIDS — he has liver cancer.

The theme of fathers and sons runs through the first play; perhaps just sons as none of the characters are fathers. And there is also a mother and son, as we meet Joe’s mother towards the end, setting up part two. There is the patriarchy at work, man handing on advice, knowledge, power and wealth to the next generation, except it may all end here, in the coming apocalypse.

We also have the sense of betrayal — lovers of lovers, husbands of wives, Cohn surely of Joe. So many characters want to get out and leave — complaining that they have been out in an impossible situation, not of their making. This sense of inevitability, of predestination, of the elect and the damned connects with an ongoing discussion of guilt. Louis, in particular, has long monologues (even as part of dialogue) about Judaism and guilt, as well as the after life. The scene is set for this by the opening monologue — a funeral oration by a rabbi (played by Susan Brown, who later plays a male doctor and the Mormon mother), which also points to immigration, migration and progress, a theme which develops through the second play.

To take the play at its word as a “Gay fantasia on national themes”, it seems to be a very middle class set of characters — with doctors and lawyers. There is a single African American actor, Nathan Stewart-Jones, who plays an hallucinated travel agent and then Belize, a nurse. In the second play he is given a lot more ideological weight, but not so much here. The female roles are a little thin — with Gough’s Harper playing a hysterical, Valium popping wife who has been driven there by Joe, first leaving her alone as he works and then leaving her alone as he “goes for long walks”. (The gay demi-monde is a little cringe worthy in its representation.) As part of her hallucinations, she sees Prior, and engages in conversations with him, and this seems to be real if impossible. In the third act she appears to go Antarctica, in search of friends, a moment which perhaps plays with Robert Walton in Frankenstein.

Much of the staging involves three revolves (sorry — an awful sentence) that keep shifting locations. The staging is meant to be abstract, not realistic, but sometimes this device gets in the way. And when it all slides back, revealing the whole stage for a snow storm, the release from claustrophobia is striking.

And then, the angel.

The first manifestation, if I recall correctly, is a single feather, and then there is a burst of flames. This risked being comic rather than revelatory. But the apparition is worth waiting for — Amanda Lawrence as a kind of Annie Lennox with half a dozen assistants, actually rather sinister not utopian in tone. It seems a very deus ex machina ending, a brave perhaps fool hardy moment.

And of course, as you recall from his roles other than Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield can act — coy, camp, heart broken, tough, resigned, angry, and scared out of his wits at what May of course be a night hallucination, or may indeed be an angel in New York.

(I rewatched the play as a live relay.)

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Mars Attack

Spoilers on ice
Doctor Who: “Empress of Mars”

So a few weeks back, we weren’t allowed a reference to Harry Sullivan, companion for Tom Baker’s first season and the opening of the second, as well as appearing in a later serial, because no one would remember him.

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Monks’ Childhood Memory

Spoiler Heap

Doctor Who: “The Lie of the Land”

And so we come to the end of the Monks Trilogy — although the finale may yet return to them as Missy has been mixed up with them.

With all this virtuality around, you can imagine a much better episode exploring the memory police and the dystopia that’s Nineteen Eighty-Four-lite. Someone actually trying to resist and then being arrested. Instead of a reset button.

Instead we get the Doctor going in with a militia, all guns blazing, with a possibility that he might have to kill Bill, even though he says the safest place in the world for her is by his side. To be fair, she has already shot him — and he goes into a fake regeneration that last week’s next week teased us with.

The Monks have replaced our reality with a new history where they have always been (and the president is orange) and they’ve even redesigned the rather narrow streets around St Paul’s Cathedral where the pyramid has landed. (Is it an Illuminati reference? A dollar bill? Camel cigarettes?)

It is a fairly obviously plot, but the scriptwriter Toby Whithouse doesn’t trust us, nor does the composer. Murray Gold’s soundtrack is less intrusive than it usually is, but it still needs to Shut The Fuck Up for much longer. Bill is given a couple of great speeches and Pearl Mackay delivers them with gusto, but the subtlety is undercut by the sodding music telling us to emote. We also have Bill imagining the dead mother that the Doctor photographed back in “The Pilot”, so she can do Fake News for herself, but this is undercut by leading to a narration of what is an obvious set of manoeuvres which make sense without voiceover and we are distracted by wondering when this happened.

It also clues us into the end of the Monks — although David Archer has evidently gone back to sorting out the IBR on Brookfield. They were let into the world by love and will be expelled by it. Bill’s memory is touching and a little unconvincing — no anger at her dying? — and her heroism is undermined by the Doctor’s speech TELLING US.

Pedants would note that we don’t really know what the Monks got out of this invasion and whether a multimillenia dry run really helped, and if they really wanted to be loved then maybe they could use a little moisturiser or fake their appearances.

We don’t really know what they got out of this invasion and whether a multimillenia dry run really helped, and if they really wanted to be loved then maybe they could use a little moisturiser or fake their appearances.

I’m not sure how Margot knew that Bill had been to Australia, either. He wasn’t there, was he? There’s a brief acknowledgment of him nearly dying in “The Pyramid at the End of the World” and I can’t help but feel that the gaps between the episodes are disjointed in the wrong way.

Meanwhile, back at the STORY ARC, Missy is going cold turkey from evil and is asked her advice on how to defeat the Monks. Her solution is somewhat utilitarian, the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one, but clearly she has some way to go. She has a few decent lines questioning the Doctor’s version of good, but she keeps being directed to eat the scenery. It is neat that — like the Doctor — she does remember the names of everyone she killed. Maybe she has a conscience after all.

We’ll see.

Kissing Cousins

My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell, 2017)

What is not clear here, of course, is how reliable the self-serving Philip is. Is it really wise to want to marry a cousin with a dodgy back story? Is it good taste to marry one’s uncle’s widow? Or is Rachel perhaps just poor at handling money and the victim of an infantile young man brought up in a homosocial environment?

We’ve all been gaslighted at some point — I know I have and I can tell you the name of the man who did it and does it to others. Typically, of course, it’s something a man does to a woman rather than vice versa, although I suspect if you reverse the power dynamic we get into not-a-proper-man territory.

I can live with that.

Daphne du Maurier is probably best known for Rebecca, in which the nameless narrator has a less than frank new husband and housekeeper. Somewhere along the line it ends up back at Bluebeard.

But here, in this film adaptation of another of her novels, we have Young Philip, orphaned, brought up by Ambrose in an all-male household, aside from the dogs and the plainish daughter, Louis Kendall, of a family friend and Godfather, Nick Kendall. Ill Ambrose goes to Florence to take the air and falls in love with a cousin, presumably younger than him, Rachel. They marry in haste, but Philip learns first that his uncle is dying and that Ambrose thinks Rachel is to blame.

We have a structural problem. Key to the narrative is the psychodrama between Philip and Rachel — is he mad? Is she a bunny boiler? Is he naive? Is she misunderstood? We can’t have her, until she comes to the Cornish estate he inherits, and thus we have to told about what she has done rather than seeing it — we cannot see if she loved Ambrose. We are stuck with truncated flashbacks and awkward voiceovers, and even when she has arrived, the shot of her is delayed as long as possible. Was it half an hour in? It all feels a little laboured.

The film has to convince us that Philip can switch between someone who hates and wants revenge on “the bitch” and someone madly in love, wrapped round her finger. Philip here is a bit wet and sulky and arrested adolescent — and you have to lay that at the door of Ambrose, who has excluded all women from the household save the dogs. And the dogs want to sleep with the bitch.

What I think the film sneakily does — more so than I recall from the novel — is to make us side with the wrong character. Rachel is, it appears, a character who loves sex. I’m guessing this is set in Regency times (it isn’t clear — neither trains nor telegrams seem to have made it to Cornwall; I don’t think the letters are sent by the penny post). Lydia in Jane Austen may well be the right era, and her desire is the cause of all manner of shenanigans that delay Elizabeth and Darcy exploring the double beds in the west wing of his stately erection. Narratively, she probably has to be punished, but I’m not sure du Maurier really wants to.

So we have a young man, starved of affection and sex, who finally gets an opportunity and loses a sense of proportion — showering her with gifts and trying to buy her, pretty well paying her for sex. Given the opportunity, she even tries to give it back.

There is the question of her overspending — is she being blackmailed by the Italian Rinaldi? He knows about her past and perhaps the confirmed bachelor Ambrose has secrets too. Or perhaps the house repairs are just bloody expensive.

I ended a little underwhelmed — not because Rachel Weisz didn’t put in a fine performance, because she did, and Sam Ciafin is suitably emo. Holliday Grainger makes the most of an under written role as a smart role. Cornwall is pretty if a little … narrow. (Florence, I’m afraid, shouts CGI.) But somehow the pace is off — we’re given an interesting ending rather than a satisfying one, and for a film that seems to reach for ambiguity, Michell — unlike Hitchcock, who learned his trade in silent — just keeps telling.

Thirty-Five Years On

If you were in New York or another big city in the US thirty-five years ago, 25 June 1982, four films opened:

  • Blade Runner (Ridley Scott)
  • MegaForce (Hal Needham)
  • Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Terry Hughes/Ian MacNaughton)
  • The Thing (John Carpenter)

It would be pleasing to note that MegaForce was the only hit — it’s got Barry Bostwick in it, guys — but it tanked, too.

I suspect the others made their money back on the video/DVD long tail — but where’s MegaForce 2049?

Monks’ Anxiety

Spoilery McSpoilface.

Doctor Who: “The Pyramid at the End of the World”

Bill, for reasons that are no clearer than she’s on the opening credits, is picked up by an American general and the Secretary General of the United Nation, interrupting the real date that replaced the virtual date from last week (and I wonder if this is going to be a thing — we are repeatedly informed she is a lesbian, but she won’t be allowed past first base. There was Heather, too, don’t forget). When there is a crisis, the Doctor gets to be president of the world (although note that the dead president last week doesn’t have the orange look Bill mentions) and the current crisis is the appearance of a five thousand year old pyramid, which has landed between the American, Russian and Chinese armies, threatening… well, oddly getting between them so you’d think it’d be safer.

How do they know it’s five thousand years old?

They just do, okay.

And it’s home to monks, because everyone knows that monks live in pyramids, wearing particularly tasteful curtains.

Look, this episode is co-written by the guy who did the Moon-egg-butterfly-Moon-egg episode, which makes The Clangers look like a Larry Niven novel.

Somewhere, the end of the world is underway, as at a research lab the hungover scientist Douglas screws up an experiment and the cock up isn’t clocked by short-sighted Erica. (Erica, I like, I could bear more of Erica.) The whole world is in danger of being poisoned by them. Fortunately, the Doctor is able to find them, thanks to Margot hacking the security cameras — the Doctor couldn’t do the hacking because he’s visually impaired — yes I know he’s already hacked two computer systems since he lost his sight, don’t quibble. He also gets locked in the lab in question. Because the sonic screwdriver won’t work on a combination lock. Because labs use mechanical locks.

Obviously.

Meanwhile, the Monks are offering to help, but will only do so if asked — shades of the Doctor asking Bill if he can save the world in ”Thin Ice”. In return for saving the world, they will want the world, which they have been practicing to invade since humanity crawled out of the slime.

Yes, I know it would be a pain in the butt if after all that humanity didn’t want help. You’d think they’d asked for consent before they were so committed, but the practices clearly told them Bill would oblige…

Yes, Bill, after the Secretary General and the three military leaders asked, but apparently not in the right way.

Do these monks want to invade or not? David Archer must have cows he has to get back to milk.

Bill has finally learned — and you wouldn’t think her so dumb — that the Doctor hasn’t got his sight back. She can ask for help, with love, and not fear, honest, unlike the Secretary General, so sight is restored.

How?

Don’t ask. You should be more worried about the STORY ARC and that Margot is apparently dead in the TARDIS and

Will nobody think of the Vault?

Monks Scream

Spoilers, innit.

Doctor Who: “Extremis”

I have an awful feeling that as a child we were set the task of writing a story that ends with the words “and I woke up and it was all a dream”. At some point we were probably told not to. Lewis Carroll gets away with it, twice, but I felt very cheated by The Box of Delights. Occasionally long-running dramas will risk it — think of Bobby Ewing coming out of the shower. One problem with telefantasy is the diminishing returns of the bigger and bigger Big Bads the heroes have to defeat, before a big reset button has to be hit.

This episode effortfully winds together the series STORY ARC and what turns out to be the first of a three part story. Moffat is also back at the word processor.

On the one hand, we have Missy, facing execution by the Doctor for unknown crimes, with the latter promising to guard her in the Vault for a thousand years. (Is this the first time we know who is in there?) Margot arrives, cowled like a monk, with River’s diary and permission to kick his arse. The Doctor, whilst he has killed people, can’t be an executioner, and so it turns out Missie is not dead, but resting (beautiful plumage). And this presumably explains why the Doctor is a millennium older than he used to say.

A thousand years is a long time in Bristol. You’d think an Oxbridge college would be better. He presumably sat out the various Dalek, zygon, cyberman invasions.

The main plot involves the present day Doctor being asked by the Pope to come and read a mysterious heretical manuscript, Veritas, which has caused all but one of its previous readers to commit suicide. Ooooh, shades of the Ringu movies. There’s a bad taste joke to be made here about the Doctor’s visual impairment and a visit from the Holy See, but I’m not going to make it.

We have another illustration of the distinction between Classic and Nu Who: One thru Seven (as the kids call them these days) either kept it in their trousers or were discreet about their sex lives. They lived like monks, meddling or otherwise. More recently, perhaps through the experience of the Time War, and realising YOLTT, we’ve learned of all kinds of shenanigans — this time with Pope Benedict IX, who it turns out looks like Angelina Jolie and was a woman. The real Benedict, who oddly enough just turned up in a documentary I was watching the other day, was 20 when he achieved popedom and was pope three times (to be pope once, might be considered a fortune, but thrice…) He also seems to be the first pope who repeatedly (or reportedly) engaged in same sex relationships. Hmm.

Bill, for reasons that are no clearer than she’s on the opening credits, is picked up, interrupting a date (and I wonder if this is going to be a thing — we are repeatedly informed she is a lesbian, but she won’t be allowed past first base), and they head to the Vatican with all these Italian-speaking priests. That’s odd, because there’s the convention that the TARDIS telepathic circuitry translates stuff into English. It’s also going to be interesting because the Doctor is still visually impaired and it’ll be hard to read a manuscript — perhaps Bill can read it to him.

But whilst the Doctor is preparing a little light read, Bill and Margot disappear through a crack in the wall and find a white room with more rooms, through which they find the Pentagon and then CERN. In case we aren’t clear it’s CERN, CERN conveniently has a publicity stand for CERN in CERN’s lobby. The scientists have been emailed a translation of Veritas and have learned that they are actually in a computer simulation — their reaction is to decide to blow themselves up because, well, particle physicists are especially gullible to emails from the Vatican. OK, that’s not fair, they realise that they can’t pick random numbers. Mass suicide seems an overreaction.

Margot and Bill escape to the white room and Margot steps the other side of the projector and is pixelated, whilst Bill follows the drips of blood to another zone, the Oval Room with a dead president. The Doctor’s been bleeding from his meeting with the mysterious and messy monks in the reading room, the chief one sounding oddly like David Archer after a long day shouting at Josh and Kenton. The monks are mentioned in the book — the simulation is a practice invasion of Earth, repeatedly run and rerun.

Yes, this is a mind-bending idea, in a Philip K. Dick-lite way, and for a moment you might glimpse that all of series ten has been a simulation — perhaps explaining how most of the episodes have been better than series eight and nine.

Hit that freaky deaky reset button.

Somehow the monks know about the Doctor and the TARDIS, but not the translation circuits (hence the Italian, I’m told bad Italian) and the sexuality of Benedict IX. Was it wise to include the Veritas in the simulation?

And somehow the Doctor can hack the programme to send the PDF of that book to the real world version of him — but then we already know he can program whilst visually impaired.

So, at the risk of invoking or interrupting STORY ARC!!!, we’re prepared for an invasion of meddling monks, who might get away with it if it weren’t for those pesky time travellers.