A Plague On All These AIDS Films and Stuff
By Walter Armstrong
Illustration by Marek Haiduk
“I felt like it would be real easy not to be here anymore,” recalls Daniel Goldstein, an AIDS survivor, in the 2011 documentary We Were Here. “Most of my friends were dead and there didn’t seem to be any reason just to stick around. It wasn’t crazy suicidal. It just felt logical: I don’t need to be here.”
When the gay plague descended in 1981, it was a literally unthinkable event. By the time it ended in the mid-’90s, it had shattered the assumptions of the world built by gay liberation in the 1970s. This shattering is the radical truth of the gay plague. Now, a generation later, versions of that history are appearing in a profusion of films and books. A few are more than mere entertainments. But only We Were Here approaches anything like a spiritual reckoning. It is not about how to a survive plague. It is about how to remember one.
“I didn’t kill myself and I’m glad I didn’t,” Goldstein says. “But I still can understand it, looking back.”
Two documentaries released in 2012, David France’s How to Survive a Plague and Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger, are about AIDS activism. They are feel-good movies. Catching up with the crisis in 1987, as ACT UP’s militant, campy, sexy image was supplanting the image of a dying generation, the films ride the wave of inspiration home to the development of drug “cocktails” in 1996.
Plague focuses on activists who set the agenda for getting drugs into bodies and then abandoned ACT UP’s street activism to form Treatment Action Group (TAG). The film is dramatic, polished, and not entirely besotted by the activists. By contrast, Hubbard's video clips of ACT UP are the only vital aspect of his paint-by-numbers film. Both films interview the leading activists, but their accounts reveal little reflection or introspection, adding nothing new or even unexpected to the record. Audiences and critics of Plague have hailed ACT UP and TAG as heroes, a role that some of them have embraced like a second career. Anger, which lost the competition for attention, was marketed as the “real” how-to, complete with a “guide for activists” so dogmatic that it would have sparked a mass exodus from ACT UP.
The current focus on activism partly reflects our generation's need to protect itself against the losses that made a mockery of mourning. Militancy served the same aim during the crisis. There is a related need to put the plague away. Consider The AIDS Generation, presented as a study of long-term survivors by distinguished gay health researcher Perry Halkitis. The book is less a study of survivors than a party for them. “I simply want to celebrate the lives of gay men who, despite all logic and reason and without any hope at the time of their diagnosis, are long-term survivors—my generation, the AIDS generation, the bravest generation,” he writes.
The book records Halkitis’s conversations with 15 guys who tell their war stories with honesty and humor. Halkitis the researcher is looking for evidence of “resilience”; Halkitis the celebrant finds it everywhere short of death. He is instructive on the experience of PTSD and its aftereffects, what some of the bravest generation see as the cause of their midlife problems. But Halkitis says that his long-term survivors have worked all that out. How they did this he does not say, but now “they are ready to move on.”
It is curious that Halkitis repeatedly professes his respect for the late Michael Callen, the pioneer of self-empowerment for people with AIDS. Callen asked hard questions—Halkitis does not.