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October 3, 2006

Of Angels, Angst and Kushner

Oscar winner Frieda Lee Mock talks about turning her camera on the legendary playwright

Talk to enough documentary filmmakers about their work, and you'll start hearing all about the 60-Second Epiphany: That flash of awareness or sudden knowing that illuminates their next subjects and, thus, throws the first of many long shadows over their months and years ahead. For Freida Lee Mock, whose new film Wrestling With Angels provides a glimpse at the living legend of playwright Tony Kushner (and opens today at Film Forum), the moment came like so many others -- and then guided her professional life for six more years.

"His sensibilities -- artistic and social and political -- really spoke to me," Mock said of Kushner, whose work she came to know not from reading it or seeing it performed, but from a brief speech to college graduates in 1999 -- literally a minute long. "I was really astonished by his interest in the world around us in terms of ideas about social and political ways we can make this a better place. Also he was incredibly funny and extremely inspiring and at the same time very serious. He had all these combinations and qualities in what he said and how he said it that struck me."

Like Kushner's own writing, Mock's idea required a while to germinate, and by 2001 -- when the playwright's work-in-progress Homebody/Kabul acquired a very public immediacy after 9/11 -- the director knew she had her next project. The result is a straightforward and overwhelmingly benign oral history of Kushner, featuring interludes with actors lost in "the cocoon of his words," a proud family having come around to his work and his homosexuality (not without struggle) and detailing his triumphant way with audiences from Broadway to birthday parties. His political activism, including everything from rally appearances to polling place vigilance, overlaps with his Pulitzer Prize-winning canon to the point where neither is distinguishable from the other. In many respects, the film intimates that Tony Kushner can do no wrong; even his bad reviews stoke constructive momentum.

None of this is lost on Mock, who revives the same artist/zeitgeist portraiture that earned her 1994 film Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision a Best Documentary Oscar. The only question was whether or not the artist and the zeitgeist were ready for such close attention.

"I didn't know that much about Tony," Mock told The Reeler. "I discovered things that were very fundamental to his character [and] to his being. And I said, 'If I can make a film that has an impact like the one I felt when I first saw him, then maybe this film will have some resonance.' I sort of made this film hoping that it would be more than just theater mavens, you know? He's a person of impact in our popular culture, or among those who follow a certain strand of our popular culture."

And considering the enduring impact of his epic AIDS-era requiem Angels in America (among other work; high-schoolers in the film acknowledge studying scenes from A Bright Room Called Day, for example), there is no doubt Kushner is worth profiling. The only problem --at least in dramatic terms -- is that everybody likes him so damn much. Charismatic figures like Oskar Eustis and Maurice Sendak appear just long enough to endorse their friend's humanity, and in contrast to someone like Al Franken -- the subject of another recent, quasi-political doc that ran hot with sympathy -- Kushner's acts have no ideological repercussions. For better or worse, Mock asks her audience to take his earnestness, humor and brilliance at face value.

Which may be a slight exaggeration, I suppose. Kushner deals with plenty of his own conflicts: a high-maintenance, ethical compulsion against despair; the insurmountable angst evoked by New York Times theater reviews; the inclination to give up on the lukewarmly reviewed Caroline or Change. To Mock's alternating credit and disadvantage, though, her camera frames Kushner as a success despite (and even during) all of his inward second-guessing. She's so good at it that she doesn't entitle you to ask questions.

It's a bizarre paradox, but not necessarily an unlikable one. At any rate, Mock is at peace with it. "It certainly wasn't a decision to do a puff piece," she said. "As a filmmaker, I tend to try to rely on the organic flow of the story line, rather than bringing in someone academically from the outside just to say he's not universally beloved by everybody. Hopefully, it was an insightful look at an artist, basically looking at a creative force: What are the influences, what are the pitfalls and downfalls and all that. I think for the audience, you're spending an hour and a half at the most. And to have a shouting match between two opinion makers saying he's great or he's horrible just didn't fit in. ... You look for it; you're looking for tension. If it was there, it would have been included."

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