A Plague On All These AIDS Films and Stuff


By Walter Armstrong

A veteran of Act Up and former editor of POZ takes issue with the profusion of movies and books memorializing our 'bravest generation'

Callen and other early activists are absent from most of the current AIDS output. They did amazing feats in the 1980s—visibility for people with AIDS, safe sex, experimental drug testing. Many died before ACT UP started. They were older than most members of ACT UP, and because they came of age during the 1970s, a time often recalled as one of optimism, confidence, and awesome sex, these men had a different experience of the plague (and of activism). We all lost friends and lovers. They lost a world.

Callen, a star, makes a brief appearance in the HBO documentary The Battle of amfAR, along with some of the other gay men who, with Mathilde Krim, co-founded what became amfAR. Produced by board head Kenneth Cole, the movie is quite inventive with facts, spinning a female buddy fantasy in which Krim and Elizabeth Taylor are credited for singlehandedly curing AIDS. Callen loyalists were offended by this de-gaying of our activism, although it is modest by Hollywood standards.

Does the gay community own this history? Consider Dallas Buyers Club, released last fall. The offbeat film stars Matthew McConaughey (minus 50 pounds) as Ron Woodroof, a hard-living hetero rodeo rider who, diagnosed in 1986, is born again as an activist smuggling experimental AIDS drugs into the United States. McConaughey’s star turn (and Jared Leto’s, as a tragic transexual) were widely praised, but the film rankled critics and many activists by de-gaying the issue—it was about a straight dude and did not include the larger AIDS movement. It is worth noting that the real Woodroof was a renegade, as scripted.

De-sexing our history is a trickier issue than de-gaying, perhaps because we practice it ourselves. During the AIDS crisis, it was not uncommon for friends of a dying or dead man to desex his apartment before the family arrived, leaving the porn, dildos, and leather gear in a trash bag out on the curb. In ACT UP, sex and desire were an almost primal force, energizing the group at a level far deeper than the widely recalled cruisy meetings. But except for a mention of the meetings in Anger both ACT UP documentaries leave sex, as a serious subject, out on the curb.

The subject of David Weissman’s We Were Here is bearing witness. The scene is San Francisco’s gay community, which felt the plague with a singular intensity and the swiftest, highest rate of infection and death. The film quietly brings the darkest days back to life. Archival footage shows the uninspirational side of the crisis, including many shots of confused young men with what was once instantly recognizable as the “AIDS look,” waiting in hospital beds. The faces looking into the camera, and into you, are awful to behold, but they soon become a given—part of the family—as in the old days.

We Were Here is a feel-real film. It has an artlessness that, together with its “heavy” content, seems to appeal mainly to those who lived through those years. In the film's interviews, inspiration and loss are revealed as inseparable; anecdotes about the Castro uniting around caregiving, clinical trials, and the AIDS Quilt are expressed in voices thick with grief and the disbelief, even after 30 years, that something unthinkable was happening. This is the dead center of the gay plague.

Larry Kramer’s 1985 play, The Normal Heart, was written from the dead center. A film version, directed by Ryan Murphy, is set to air on HBO in May. When the play first opened at New York’s Public Theater, the effect was electrifying. It's both a raging indictment of then-mayor Ed Koch and The New York Times, and an anti-promiscuity plea to gay men.  Some critics noted the film’s “humility” and “spirituality.” Kramer shows the values of gay liberation at a breaking point and has more to say to young gay generations than any current documentary.

The Normal Heart is one of many brillant works about AIDS made during the plague. Their intensity, clarity, and depth of feeling set a very high bar for anyone attempting to add his little bit of wisdom to the history. The profusion of AIDS stuff shows no sign of letting up. An HBO documentary about Kramer, long overdue, is in the works. Memoirs are trending. Agendas and ambitions will be furthered, personal and cosmic scores settled. Perhaps the truth of the plague years will also be served. Often, the dead in their absence seem to me more vividly present than the living. I imagine them witnessing these efforts of ours and wonder what they, who are acquainted with oblivion, would have to say.