Why the Genre of AIDS films -with the addition of Ryan Murphy’s latest HBO release- and their themes of love, fear, anger and loss remain relevant to gay and straight audiences alike more than three decades after the epidemic broke out. By Udayan Dhar.
HBO’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s iconic autobiographical play The Normal Heart on the early years of the AIDS crisis that ravaged the gay community in New York and elsewhere in America is the latest and much awaited offering in the list of films that help define for us, who have not lived in that age or place- the sense of dread, anger and loss that almost became synonymous with being gay and American in the nineteen eighties. But The Normal Heart and other great works in this genre are not merely compelling for the historical narrative they provide, they also present a perspective on the follies and triumphs of what it means to be human and how what was essentially a medical crisis brought out the best and worst in us- and changed forever the political and social landscape for gay men and women globally.
On July 3, 1981 buried somewhere in the inside pages of The New York Times was an article titled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals”. It talked of 41 cases among homosexual men of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer, ominously echoed in the words of the paraplegic and quixotic Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) when she tells Ned Weeks- the thinly disguised Larry Kramer “This only seems to be happening to gay men.” The Times report goes on to say that eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made. This was to be the beginning of what assumed varied nomenclatures- from Gay Cancer, to Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) and finally, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS.
While The Normal Heart is a masterful biopic of a bunch of fearless and selfless young men who jumped into the fight against AIDS at a time when nobody seemed to know what it was that they were fighting against, yet it somehow lacks the historical context that the uninitiated may need- director Ryan Murphy perhaps found himself contractually limited in this area. The initial Fire Island scenes of careless love making and hedonism or the beautiful Roxy Music track of More Than This leaves one wanting for more. And the Band Played On– a devastatingly detailed chronicle of the human and political tragedy of those early years written by San Francisco Chronicle journalist Randy Shilts attempts to fill the gap. An extensive and meticulous work of investigative journalism, Roger Spottiswoode’s 1993 film based on the book unapologetically shows the bath house scenes and the gay leadership’s steadfast resistance to self criticism that Kramer believes cost lives. Of course certain elements of this narrative such as Shilts’ portrayal of Canadian flight steward Gaëtan Dugas as “patient zero” was later shown to be sensationalistic at best, factually manipulated at worst casting an avoidable shadow one of the best works on the AIDS crisis.
(Image: Parting Glances itself is not an AIDS film, having instead a commentary on love- both gay and straight)
One recurrent theme that underscores many of these films is the sense of anger and frustration at an uncaring regime that seemed unbothered with the fact that homosexuals were dying by the thousands. President Reagan had not even publicly uttered the word AIDS until 1985 and federal budget allocations for AIDS research was paltry- by 1983 researchers across USA had applied for $55 million worth of grant for an available $8 million- a time when nearly one and a half thousand were already dead. To get a sense of perspective, during the first two weeks of the Tylenol scare, the United States Government spent $10 million- evidently the dying were white and straight. Steve Buscemi (Nick) in the brilliant 1986 Bill Sherwood film Parting Glances, – while recording his own will decides to leave behind money to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (the pioneering group founded in Larry Kramer’s living room from which he himself was shown the door after having fallen out with his less militant and more closeted colleagues) instead of research. “If the Feds can spend a trillion bucks on bombs, then they can spend a few on research, right?” Nick caustically shoots his rhetorical question.
Parting Glances itself is not an AIDS film, having instead a commentary on love- both gay and straight as its central theme while furnishing some memorable dialogs, all to the enchanting melody by Brahms with Mozart in counterpoint. At his partner Robert’s going-away party- a going away to Africa that was supposed to be an unavoidable work assignment which later turned out to be a way of taking a break from a “predictable and settled” life- Michael overhears him telling his former girlfriend in an inebriated state “You be with someone for six months.. and then it goes sour so you dump them, and move on to another one. This cycle keeps repeating till you realize that if you knew how to be with the first one, it’d be good again- almost like finding a new person.” Yet Robert must leave- for apart from the “predictable” life he leads with Michael, he can no longer stand disease and decay that stares at his face every day in the dying body of Nick- Michael’s old pal whom he nurses with much love and tenderness.
Yet, it is this very anger exemplified in Nick’s statement that sets the ball rolling. In Kramer’s own words in the HBO documentary Outlist 2013, he asserts empathically “Every treatment for HIV that is out there is out there because of us- not from the government, not from any politician, not from any drug company. We forced all those things into being by our anger and our fear, and that’s what anger can get you… Anger is a wonderful emotion- very creative if you know how to do it!” And nobody knew how to do it better than Larry Kramer. From his fiery 1983 essay 1,112 and Counting, he warns America’s gay men, “If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.”
That will to survive in the face of all consuming death is captured like nothing else in the iconic images of early AIDS activists like Bobbi Campbell- portrayed by Danal Logue in The Band Plays On where he’s shown to bring a human face to a hitherto anonymous “gay plague” by appearing valiantly on the cover of The Newsweek with his lover and gets publicly known as the KS poster boy- KS being Kaposi Sarcoma, one of the most identifiable opportunistic diseases associated with the onset of AIDS among gay men, or in the candle light marches beneath the telling black banner “Fighting For Our Lives”. It is this fighting spirit in the midst of a battle for bare survival that redefined forever what it means to be gay in today’s world. Rick Berkowitz in his moving 1997 essay The Way We War captures the essence of this- “Against a barrage of medical reports that an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence and media images of PWAs as disfigured monsters, we gave the most stigmatized disease of our time a human face.” Again, in the closing scene of Mike Nichols’ Angels in America, “We’re not going away, we’re not dying secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward- We will be citizens. Time has come.” Such exceptional words that indeed epitomize the very essence of the gay people’s struggle for freedom and dignity.
(Image: Onir’s 2005 film My Brother Nikhil is loosely based on the tragedy that befell Dominic D’souza)
Indeed, has any disease ever hauled with it the stigma and shame that accompanied AIDS? Years ago, as a gay teenager watching Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia that is what terrified me the most in the courthouse scene that showed protesters holding placards screaming- “GAY? – Got AIDS Yet?” At the time I wasn’t aware that something very similar had recently played out right here at home- in the land of the sun bathed beaches of Goa. Onir’s 2005 film My Brother Nikhil is loosely based on the tragedy that befell Dominic D’souza, a frequent blood donor who was detained by authorities upon being discovered to be HIV positive- a condition which for them implied criminality, and shamefully quarantined him in a Tuberculosis ward under the provisions of the mendacious Goa Public Health Act 1986 mandating isolation for people living with HIV/AIDS. His friends petitioned the High Court and secured his release- the Act itself stands amended today. Fighting humiliation and ostracism Dominic continued his work with his theater group, went on to publicly declare his HIV status and founded the support group called “Positive People” that does amazing work till date in Goa. Dominic died in a Bombay hospital in 1992. My Brother Nikhil ushered to screen the ultimate horror of the middle class Indian homosexual man- to be diagnosed with HIV, and having to spend one’s last days fighting not just a ruthless, relentless virus, but also the shame and betrayal that he sees in the eyes of his distant father and an anguished mother.
But all this talk of love and death and politics leaves a gaping spiritual hole- brilliantly portrayed in Angels in America-an epic drama of love, betrayal and hope based on Tony Kushner’s play revolving around separate, yet connected individuals caught in the eye of the storm. Robert’s dilemma is reflected here in the character of Louis (Ben Shenkman) who cannot bear to see his lover Prior (Justin Kirk) wither away and die. “What does the Holy Writ say about someone who abandons someone he loves at a time of great need?” he asks his old rabbi. The rabbi has no answer in an age where God Himself has abandoned heaven, and Prior- now alone in his apartment after Louis leaves him- is burdened by the terrifying specter of the messenger angel played by the lovely Emma Thompson who relinquishes to him the prophetic responsibility of finding God again and restoring all that is good and noble in this world for creation has moved too fast and too far ahead. But Prior doesn’t want to be a prophet, he wants to die in his lover’s arms- and when his ancestral gnomes haunt his dreams and call upon him to shed his gloom and dance, his hurting legs do not stop him from swaying in the conjured arms of Louis to Moon River- that timeless song of love and longing.
Yet, at the heart of all of this is the most profound sense of loss- the loss of an entire generation of young, beautiful, talented gay men of immense promise. You’re reminded of it as you watch the beautiful Jonathan Groft spew blood and die in front of the shocked eyes of his friends who do not know yet what is it that is killing him, or in the lament of Jim Parsons of the “plays that will not be written and dances that will not be danced” at another of the many funerals that has now become his social life.
(Image: My Own Country, adopted into a movie by Mira Nair starring Naveen Andrews and Ellora Patnaik, is the vividly written memoir of Indian American doctor Abraham Verghese who treats AIDS patients in Johnson City)
In the vividly written memoir of Indian American doctor Abraham Verghese My Own Country, later adopted into a movie by Mira Nair starring Naveen Andrews and Ellora Patnaik, he recounts this very sense of loss even as he struggles to comfort his increasingly large flock of patients in various stages of decay at his sleepy little eastern Tennessee town of Johnson City. He tells the painful story of how “a generation of young men, raised to self-hatred, had risen above the definitions that their society and upbringings had used to define them. It was the story of the hard and sometimes lonely journeys they took far from home into a world more complicated than they imagined and far more dangerous than anyone could have known.”
(Image: All the talk of love, death and politics leaves a gaping spiritual hole- brilliantly portrayed in Angels in America)
As a gay man watching these films I cannot but feel guilty- guilt that comes from the overwhelming sense of relief that I’m a gay man in twenty first century India and wasn’t one in nineteen eighties’ New York or San Francisco. I wonder what is worse- to die in the arms of your lover knowing that your repeated pleas to God to spare your togetherness at least a few more months is going dreadfully unanswered, or to hold on to a dying lover in your arms- soaked to the skin in his sweat, lungs struggling for the last ounces of oxygen, his once beautiful body now but a ghost of its former self. But you know what’s the worst part- that those were the lucky ones. What about the countless who died lonely deaths in their quarantined chambers under a debris of metal and pipes, staring into the anonymous impersonal ceilings of their Intensive Care wards, tended to by skittish nurses who wouldn’t touch you without putting on their protective suits that made them look like astronauts, your food getting cold outside because no one would dare to bring it inside the ward of an AIDS patient, even the ward’s television set not working because the TV guy’s been told by his union that he shouldn’t risk his life for a contagious fairy.
(Image: Norman René and Craig Lucas’ Longtime Companion)
Perhaps no film portrays this sense of loss better than Norman René and Craig Lucas’ Longtime Companion– groundbreaking in its content and style when it was released in 1989. The name itself is indicative of the euphemism The New York Times used for the surviving lovers of gay men who died of AIDS in their reports and obituaries. At times classist, the film brings out the inherent phobias and prejudices born out of ignorance, but at the same time renders the power of love, friendship and belongingness. It’s difficult not to well up at Bruce Davison’s heartbreaking farewell speech or when Campbell Scott talks of the dichotomy of “before” and “after” in the final scene on Fire Island beach even as he sees his dead friends among the sadder but wiser and stronger crowd of gay men who had almost forgotten what it means to have a carefree evening of dance and music. While the sun goes down on one of the most iconic gay club areas of New York, how can one not feel that sense of loss when he says, “Seems inconceivable, doesn’t it- that there was ever a time before all this, when we didn’t wake up every day wondering if we’re sick now? Who else is gone?” All this to Zane Campbell’s Post Mortem Bar-
Do you remember when the world was just like a carnival opening up…
I never thought that I would ever see the day
And I don’t wanna believe it’s true
You were supposed to always be there
And a part of me has died with you.