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`Wrestling With Angels' has soft grip

A documentary about outspoken playwright Tony Kushner is too reverent to dig deeply.

November 03, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Tony Kushner, author of the epic millennial trumpet blast "Angels in America," has never doubted that he's living in interesting times -- "interesting" in the euphemistic sense of the proverbial Chinese curse. As an artist and citizen, he has felt a responsibility to respond to contemporary political upheaval through his plays and copious remarks as the quotable go-to guy now that Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller have moved on to that old public-intellectual retirement home in the sky.

Kushner represents a potentially enormous subject for a documentary, even if at 50 this relatively late bloomer ("Angels" wasn't completed until he was in his mid-30s) is still too young to have his career assessed. Freida Lee Mock's "Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner" opts for a narrow, up-close and personal perspective. Her film is wide-eyed with admiration, lending the feeling of an elaborate home movie made by a cousin who doesn't want the Thanksgiving dinner invitations to stop.

"Saint Genet" was the title Jean-Paul Sartre gave to his existentialist biography of the rebel writer Jean Genet. Too bad there isn't a Jewish equivalent of canonization that Mock could have borrowed for her hagiographic purposes, although "wrestling with angels," an Old Testament notion meditated upon in "Angels," suggests a similarly worshipful attitude. And the grave loveliness of the documentary's score, composed by Kushner's frequent collaborator Jeanine Tesori, intensifies the reverent atmosphere with a steady burning of musical incense.

Not that Kushner's progressive vision should be denied a moment of piety. But this uncritical cinematic embrace doesn't do justice to a playwright who never met a Brechtian dialectic he didn't want to ponder more deeply.

Divided into three acts ("As a Citizen of the World," "Mama, I'm a Homosexual Mama" and "Collective Action to Overcome Injustice"), the film concentrates on a brief but momentous period in recent American history, from Sept. 11, 2001, to the 2004 presidential election.

The action kicks off with clips of Kushner writing at his desk interspersed with scenes from his three major works of this period, "Homebody/Kabul," "Caroline, or Change" and the HBO version of "Angels in America," and proceeds to explore his impassioned sentiments on their respective subjects of Afghanistan, civil rights and AIDS.

Later, during a segment on Kushner's collaboration with Maurice Sendak on "Brundibar," the children's opera first performed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, the Holocaust emerges as a painful point of discussion.

"Wrestling With Angels" has a rough, low-budget directness that doesn't quite achieve the intimacy it desires, and the incorporated production footage seems clumsy in the extreme. Anyone seeking an approximation of Kushner's uniquely cerebral theatricality will have to look elsewhere.

What Mock does manage to convey, as she trails Kushner around his home in Manhattan, his never-ending lecture-circuit stops, the place where he grew up in Lake Charles, La., and the serenity of his country house in the Hudson River Valley, is the exemplary ethic of his committed life.

Kushner is a world-class mensch. He's also one of the most ambitious contemporary playwrights around. But great theater isn't synonymous with great causes, and none of his other plays has come close to eliciting the resounding critical acclaim of "Angels."

What's more, there are obvious costs to his public availability, exploited by journalists in need of a sound bite as much as by dogged documentary filmmakers. Simply put, if you're constantly holding forth on what you do as a writer, how can you protect the imaginative insularity needed to do it?

These are issues that should have been addressed with more probing acuity. Just as Kushner's artistic achievement should have been placed in contexts larger than his moral goodness as a tireless activist and humanist.

How much more interesting it would have been had Mock pursued just one of her leads -- for example, Kushner's mournful confession that he wants "to succeed as a popular entertainer" after receiving mixed reviews for "Caroline, or Change," the musical about his family's African American maid that he campaigned to move to Broadway despite its lack of crucial raves when it premiered off-Broadway at the Public Theater.

As it is, "Wrestling With Angels" is neither compelling enough for people with little knowledge of the playwright's work nor insightful enough for those of us who have followed his career closely and want more than snapshots of his father's 80th birthday party and his own wedding reception filled with show people wishing him and his partner mazel tov.


`Wrestling With Angels'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Distributed by Balcony Releasing. Writer-director-producer Freida Lee Mock. Cinematographers Bestor Cram, Don Lenzer, Eddie Marritz, Chris Paul, Terry Sanders. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

Exclusively at Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.

Filmmaker Mock is scheduled to appear at 7:30 and 10 p.m. screenings tonight and Saturday.

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