This past weekend, nearly a million viewers tuned in to watch the premiere of the film adaptation of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart on HBO. Adapted and directed by Ryan Murphy, the film stirred up different emotions among men and women, gay and straight, young and old. Artist and activist Avram Finkelstein, a founding member of the collective responsible for Silence=Death and AIDSGATE, decided to watch the film with pal, playwright, and performance artist Dan Fishback, who's adapting his 2011 play thirtynothing into a book about his reaction to that moment in history. Two gay men of different generations, they sat down to watch the HBO screen premiere and compare ideas—and realized that Larry Kramer's spirit was the "third" viewer/participant in the emotional process. The full transcript of their conversation can be read at Playbill.com, but here's an excerpt of Avram Finkelstein's final thoughts:
My every sleeping and waking moment is centered around HIV/AIDS, and I was familiar with the scene where Ned Weeks throws a milk carton at the wall because he thinks his dying boyfriend isn't fighting hard enough. I had even talked about that scene with Larry, but this time, for the first time, it reminded me of my greatest regret about Don's illness.
After his last, second hospitalization he asked me if it would be okay to refuse the Pentamidine we had to requisition directly from the Centers for Disease Control, because the treatments caused him severe pain. And I screamed at him, right there on 42nd Street, a block away from our apartment, for asking my permission to die over the pain of living. It is a source of great shame for me, but I couldn't agree to let him go. I was your age, Dan, when that was happening to me, too young to understand what he was asking of me — what he needed of me — and I was going through this terrible moment alone because I was too afraid to lean on him to help me through it. We had shared everything as a couple, but I robbed both of us of sharing the most important thing you can go through with someone, because I felt so lost.
And to make things worse, he had sworn me to secrecy so he could continue to work. That was a scene in the movie. And the last time I took him to the hospital, they thought he was my father, another scene. And so was having to bring Don's food in from the hospital corridor.
As I was watching, I was remembering it all and realized: that milk carton scene, it wasn't just theatrical histrionics. It was real; it is what I was going through the year you were born, Dan. And on the other side of town, Larry was going through it as well.
Maybe watching it with you — a person I trust completely when it comes to understanding the vast complexity of this moment — freed me to see something I hadn't noticed before. I am extremely conscious of my connection to all of my comrades in the trenches back then. Like Larry, it's all I think about, write about and talk about. But I am also connected to everyone before that activist moment, everyone else who went through it, on the other side of town.
So it seems that in my living room, Larry, the polemicist, had finally reached Avram, the propagandist, because Dan, the mensch, was there in the room with me. Three generations, in a room, watching the past turn into the future, on HBO.
The Normal Heart is available on HBOGo and OnDemand. Watch: "The Fight Continues," a short documentary by Ryan Murphy about the events leading up to the AIDS crisis: