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Archive for July 19th, 2017

Prior

by Bob Clark

There’s a passage in Scott McCloud’s graphic novel (or perhaps the better term is “graphic essay”) Understanding Comics in which the cartoonist examines the ways in which new artistic mediums sometimes rely on the principles of past forms in order to gain their footing. When films began, they were often little more than stageplays recorded on celluloid until directors began to take advantage of the newborn disciplines of camerawork and editing, and when television started out it chiefly resembled radio with a visual component, or films reduced to living-room screens (depending on who you ask they’ve never stopped being that). He didn’t directly mention the live playhouse experiments of the early 50’s where neophyte creators like Rod Serling and John Frankenheimer got to cut their teeth as professional writers and directors before graduating to feature films or their own series, but in the best examples of that form you can sometimes see the idea that McCloud was referring to come to life– the sometimes shaky, sometimes graceful first steps of a genuinely new and potential-rich creative medium, born of the clumsy and hodgepodge marriage of more established peers.

The fact that Tony Kushner’s landmark play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes would find its home on television can in some ways be recognized as a sort of artistic destiny, reaching back to the close relationship that newborn, cinematic television had with the stage in its early days. But it shouldn’t go overlooked just how unlikely and revolutionary it was for this work to thrive in such a mainstream forum, for reasons ranging from the political to the dramatic, to the purely aesthetic. It all looks so easy, fourteen years out from Mike Nichols’ saintly production of the epic-length Tony winning play– spanning two three hour installments and detailing, among other things, the catastrophic effect of AIDS on the gay communities of New York in the 1980’s and a whole host of legacies revolving around the worst abuses of America’s power throughout its lifetime. The fact that it was made with an Oscar winning director and flamboyantly scenery-chewing Oscar winning stars, the fact that it was made on HBO, ground-zero both for prestige television and the sometimes derided subgenre of AIDS dramas (sandwiched between the star-stutted And the Band Played On and The Normal Heart), or even the fact that its writer would since go on to become a dependable scribe for no less than Steven Spielberg on Munich and Lincoln (a fact that would probably make every single character in this play gag for multiple reasons)– it’s all very tempted to take Angels in America for granted and simply move on to the next celebrated bit of 00’s television and leave it at that.

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