Tony Kushner Deserves Better

kushner.jpgTony Kushner certainly deserves a film on his theatre career. He’s a helluva writer, and he takes risks. But the film Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner takes no risks; it’s more like an infomercial trying to sell us Tony Kushner than it is like a documentary. Yes, he’s great and an obviously intelligent, warm and witty guy, but without the dark and the light, the yin and the yang, the overall effect is more Hallmark card than incisive view of an artist at work. Kushner deserves better. Of course, those who love Tony may love this film. But then, your mother loved the Mother’s Day cards you hand-colored for her as a child. That didn’t make them art.

This feature documentary, made by Freida Lee Mock, runs 98 minutes, and yet when it is over all one knows about Kushner is that he works hard, runs around a lot, and writes plays definitely worth seeing. Everyone on screen speaks well of him. But surely a man who writes plays about homosexuality, AIDS, the Taliban, terrorists, and race relations in the American south has offended some people. The publicity material for this film describes Kushner as “an artist and activist.” But what we see is a basically happy-go-lucky fellow, who is wonderfully articulate, rushing from one victory to another. He is amazingly engaged in our contemporary world and the film makes this clear. But it is Kushner who is worthy of our deep respect, not the film.

There is also the issue of Kushner’s homosexuality, which he recognized early in his life, and which his father resisted. But his father is so basically decent that his resistance was overcome and they became close again. The documentary even covers his father’s joyous eightieth birthday in the south, where family and friends gather at an extended and musical love-fest. The whole southern section of the film (Kushner grew up Louisiana) portrays an artistic loving home with supportive, creative parents. One wonders where the dark demons generally present in an artist’s childhood lie.

Of course, the society as a whole was more homophobic in Kushner’s youth, so that when he arrived at Columbia University he wanted to turn himself heterosexual. But luckily for him he had a wise therapist who told him he would not change. Thus began the psychological journey towards writing Angels in America, a play that Kushner characterizes as “very political” for its time, the late 1980s. Those were, after all, the Regan years. However, by the time the Mike Nichols film version was shot for HBO, America was ready to celebrate Kushner’s work with several Emmy awards.

Occasionally “mixed reviews” are mentioned, but what we see on screen is theatrical work that is compelling, and theatre directors and actors testifying to the power of Kushner’s vision. The best part of the film is the scenes from his plays; would that there were more of his actual work in this film.

Over the period covered, from 2001 to 2004, Kushner becomes more and more of a celebrity, and is even invited to speak about tolerance at the banking firm JP Morgan and be the commencement speaker at Vassar (two rather mainstream institutions). He also gets married and buys a retreat house in the Hudson River valley for writing away from it all.

Kushner’s most damning admission in the film is that “eating is a kind of self-medication for me.” He simply doesn’t seem to have a dark side, or at least not one that Mock uncovers. She structures the film with three sections (like the three acts of a traditional play), entitled “As a Citizen of the World,” “Mama, I’m a Homosexual, Mama,” and “Collective Action to Overcome Injustice.” The awkward verbiage is indicative of Mock’s approach: something closer to a high school civics paper than an effective rendition of an artist’s “relentless struggle to find creative expression for deep and fundamental truths” (the press release prose).

If the film were edited down to half its length, it might be useful in an educational context. At present it is neither art nor entertainment. The problem is not that it is a documentary; many documentaries are brilliant. It is that this one lacks bite. Victoria Sullivan

WRESTLING WITH ANGELS will play at Film Forum Oct. 4-17

Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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