Hope and Glory
By Belinda Acosta, Fri., Dec. 7, 2007
There's good news and bad news. The good news is that Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner will, indeed, air on PBS. The bad news is that it airs in Austin a week following its national telecast. Fortunately, the Freida Lee Mock film is well worth the wait. Like the HBO miniseries of Kushner's amazing Angels in America (2003), Wrestling With Angels is a rare and welcome treat. Wrestling With Angels closes P.O.V.'s 20th season of airing provocative and inspiring documentaries on PBS.
Kushner has written about AIDS, class struggle, racism, terrorism, the Holocaust, gay rights, politics, and the human condition with lightness, anger, and passion in works as varied as A Bright Room Called Day (1985); Homebody/Kabul (2001); Caroline, or Change (2002); Brundibar (illustrated by Maurice Sendak, 2003); and, of course, his stunning Angels in America (1992). Yet, as this engrossing documentary reveals, Kushner manages to maintain, in the face of frequently dark subject matter, a buoyant spirit and an enduring sense of hope – something he claims is an artist's ethical responsibility.
Mock covers the necessary biographical and professional territory with ease, seamlessly showing how Kushner's personal life and politics have influenced his work and vice versa. To do this, she divides her film into three acts, each focusing on the three broad themes of the playwright's work: "As a Citizen of the World"; "Mama, I'm a Homosexual Mama"; and "Collective Action to Overcome Injustice"; along with a closing epilogue. Marcia Gay Harden, Meryl Streep, Swoozie Kurtz, director George C. Wolfe, and writer/artist Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) are a few of the talented artists who have worked with Kushner. Instead of a litany of first-person interviews with each, the film shows them in action – in rehearsal and in performance – which is the best tribute to the depth and reach of Kushner's work. Mock saves the bulk of the actual face-to-face interviews for Kushner himself. Hearing him speak as his unadulterated, down-to-earth self is a treat. But if there's a takeaway lesson to be had, it's that an artist, no matter how celebrated, successful, or honored, never stops learning. "I wanted to write the play as a way of understanding the monologue," he says of Homebody/Kabul. "I want to succeed as a popular entertainer," he says of Caroline, or Change. That Kushner expresses a practical desire to learn something in addition to saying something in his work was illuminating.
First screened at the 2006 Sundance Festival (and at the Austin Film Festival later that year), Wrestling With Angels is an intimate, surprisingly extensive profile of one of this nation's greatest contemporary playwrights. Filmed over a three-year period starting just after September 11 to the 2004 presidential election, the film is also a great reminder of the beauty of TV's ability to bring the world into your living room.
Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner airs Tuesday, Dec. 18, at 10pm on PBS. Check local listings for additional airdates and times.
Writers' Strike Update
The writers' strike continues at press time. After returning to the bargaining table, Writers Guild of America members walked away saying the deal the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers proposed (a set fee for Internet use instead of the desired residual plan) was a "roll-back." The AMPTP responded by saying that the WGA doesn't know how to negotiate and that perhaps their chief negotiator, David Young, should learn to give and take (um, in the same way some broadcast producers offered WGA members information on how to quit the WGA?). In the meantime, nonwriting staffers for many shows have been laid off until the strike ends. Late-night talk-show hosts Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien have offered to pay salaries of their laid-off staff for at least a week.
What does this mean to viewers? Now a full month into the strike, after the holiday season has passed, viewers can look forward to reruns of their favorite series and new episodes of second-tier shows like Notes From the Underbelly, Carpoolers, and K-Ville.
With less (good) TV on your TV, check out TV on DVD. Upcoming releases include The Wire: The Complete Fourth Season (HBO Home Video), Battlestar Galactica 1980: The Complete Epic Series (Universal Home Video), ESPN's Yankees miniseries The Bronx Is Burning: World Championship Edition (Genius Products), and The Mod Squad: Season 1 Volume 1 (Paramount).
As always, stay tuned.