We now have Bob Rafsky, Peter Staley, and TAG's story on film thanks to David France's excellent documentary How to Survive A Plague. We have Ron Woodruff and Dallas Buyers Club. We have United in Anger, The Hours, Angels in America, Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, and Philadelphia. There are smaller films like We Were Here, Deep South, and Sex Positive. The indie film Kids has an excellent HIV backstory, and television brought us In the Gloaming, An Early Frost, and now The Normal Heart.
I like these HIV/AIDS films. I never see a problem with the lack of a panoramic narrative, one that encompasses more than it should, because a big picture diffuses the line of suspense. I enjoy the little picture, where a film chooses to create a microcosm of the greater visual macrocosm. This is particularly true when showing us the misery of HIV/AIDS.
A film has to focus; there has been no ACT UP Shoah, and I'm OK with that. I want more films, more HIV/AIDS stories. All of us may, and some may not, but they are painful and necessary, what Sam Fuller would call "emotion pictures." I turn away, I cry, I pick apart the bad KS lesion makeup as a way to avoid the impact of the narrative. "Will any of these films ever get the look of a KS lesion right?" I ask myself as I cry through the details and find these technical flaws pull me out like a Bertolt Brecht play, like Verfremdungseffekt, the distancing effect. I look at flaws as breaks from my tears and laughter and wonder if these moments are conscious decisions by filmmakers to break the horror of the epidemic into manageable pieces.
We are now exploring the "epic theater" of AIDS.
The Normal Heart was a leap for director Ryan Murphy. I was impressed with the drama and the actors. I don't think Matt Bomer ever had a chance to do what he did here in any of his previous work. He always seemed distant, poorly placed, no connection to anything but a good publicist who happens to be his husband. But here he moves with a bit of grace, truth and accuracy. He's gaining; that great ass and the choice to reveal it doesn't hurt his performance at all.
Joe Mantello blew me away, particularly with his breakdown scene in the GMHC office. It reminded me of the scene in The Hours when Meryl Streep loses her hors d'oeuvres over her dying ex-lover, played by Ed Harris. Mantello generated untethered pain, fear of his own powerlessness, and that is not easily conveyed. And Jim Parsons: Where, oh, where have you been hiding? Your performance touched me greatly.
Time will give us more films. We catch them, we wait for them, we wonder about accuracy and truthfulness, but we have no control. The artist has the wheel. Do these films remind me a little bit of the series of Vietnam films in the '70 and '80s? Yes, they do. Distance from the actual events of the Vietnam War created the kind of introspection needed to deliver the goods. Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, and The Deer Hunter would not be the same had they been crafted during the war years.
The Normal Heart: This was Larry Kramer's fiction, but the man onscreen bore a remarkable resemblance. I never saw the play. I don't come from theater. The stage was sinking when I lived in New York. Many of its brightest were dying or dead. I come from movies and from television. This is probably why I think HBO and Mike Nichols' Angels in America is superior to the theatrical production I saw in Seattle. I like the intimacy of movies. I like to see an actor's eyes and hear them whisper in closeup. I like to see the bottle smash on the wall and the drops of white milk pour over Matt Bomer's face. And I really like to see gay, out, and proud actors get together and punch the clock without the closet.
We are still in an age when the straight guy gets the gay-for-pay lead, just like in porn. But you can't fault Ruffalo when America prefers its angels to be heterosexual. And Ruffalo was terrific. But we who lived through the epidemic saw what most Americans did not. We saw our own angels die in our arms and those of our friends and loved ones. Our outstretched arms were not always straight.
The Normal Heart: Beating, murmuring, arrhythmic, it fits and starts like the entire AIDS cannon yet to be detonated. But it has begun, and The Normal Heart feeds an awakening of a series of films, a genre. It remembers moments, then reinvents others, and it reminds me that AIDS fiction is not the truth but a reflection on the emotional truth of an epidemic. That's all I ask for. Lie to me about the look of a lesion or the fabric on a speedo and I will forgive you. Lie to me about the emotional truth of the epidemic and I'll pitch you out like an old AZT bottle or the liquid nitrogen they used to pour on those KS lesions, the scars that followed and the inevitable failure to control gay cancer, homophobia, the epidemic, or ourselves.
I'll keep watching because that is what I have left: my eyes, and the belief that the AIDS crisis will never be over until there is a cure. This will require a solid, unified front among the LGBTQ and world communities. My body is slowing down, but my heart still feels normal. Break it and it bleeds salty tears, but show me a bit of the old days anyway. I don't want to miss a thing, because our time, this age, can be so unforgiving and forgetful. Make me feel again in the comfort of my easy chair what I cannot reach through memory alone.
Thank you, Larry Kramer. I never saw the asshole side of you. In the film you're a top, and as a young buck, to me, you were tops. I joined ACT UP in 1987, but I went to my first AIDS rally in 1986. Larry Kramer took my silly, callow youth and taught me to fire flaming arrows, because otherwise I'd die on the battlefield. And you were right, Larry. Without the skill to make arrowheads and point them at federal and corporate institutions, I would not be alive to write you this review. Instead, my heart would be ash, lining a plastic garbage bag. The beat would skip in the chests of those who knew me well. Instead of my own pulse, I would hear my family's tears, shame, and outrage. I would be long gone to a boneyard on the hill like all my dearest young friends from 1981 to 1996.
It is 2014. The movie has wound down off the reels, but the epidemic has not ended. Let fiction reignite your bravery, your activism, and a new solidarity, and once and for all let's smash the virus that caused this movie.