“If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what motion pictures about AIDS are worth. Film has not simply changed a cultural attitude toward AIDS as a disease, preventing it from becoming closeted like tuberculosis was. Films about AIDS have broken through stereotypes, boundaries and emotional barriers that feed alienation and breed disaster between family members, friends and communities – not to mention nations. As World AIDS Day brings attention to the heroism required to bring unpleasant truths out into the open where health can triumph, take another look at films that have paid attention — and made a difference. What was once shrouded in darkness and prejudice has now begun to inspire kindness, courage and humility in people who thought it was only an affliction of ‘the other’.”
What films have made what kind of difference since 1980 – a scant twenty-two years – since the NY Times first reported AIDS as “gay cancer”?
The First – Parting Glances, 1986, dated as it may be, assumes what later had to be proven — gays are normal and worthwhile. It’s a milestone film, an up close and personal story of small scope where a freelance writer in Manhattan has a friend dying of AIDS and a boyfriend leaving for a job in Africa.
The Best – Longtime Companion, 1990, dashes the stereotype of gay men as promiscuous against the wall, elevating their ‘manly man’ traits of caring, concern and fierce loyalty in a crisis to a well-deserved, long ignored, heroic status. It dramatizes a change in consciousness arguably equivalent to the atom bomb; no longer can even the first sexual encounter of any young person be innocent, free-spirited without fear of something more devastating than pregnancy or herpes.
The Oscar Best – Philadelphia, 1993. No doubt about it. Tom Hanks opened the hearts of the American people to AIDS. Hanks represents the apple of any parental eye, gift to corporate glory and the perfect honey of a guy to his honey who, in this film, happens to be gay. Watching lovable Tom Hanks, shut out by mean-spirited bigots, succumb to the horrors of AIDS brought the issue home to everyone. It could be you. What the film lacks in veracity of true experience by those who’ve ‘been there’, glossing over and idealizing realities, it makes up by being honorably memorable, embossed in the American psyche.
The Most Riveting – And The Band Played On, 1993, reveals the terrifying fear, laced with every kind of resistance, that government agencies, gay groups and scientists alike felt while bringing the truth about AIDS to the American public. It documents the long, arduous trail of the Center for Disease Control’s initial discovery in Africa and San Francisco in the mid-seventies to its medical clarity of AIDS as a virus in the eighties. The information is enlightening, the search is intense and the performances – with special cameos by actors who know how to tap soul – remain fresh. It’s message of caring, fighting for the good of country, is still relevant to health issues now, approaching 2003, as we discover that half the population with AIDS are women.
The Most Life Affirming – Before Night Falls, 2000, opens with a naked child playing with a dirty bottle in an empty dirt hole that serves as his playpen in Cuba, 1943. Reynaldo Arenas was born, as he says in the voice over “in absolute poverty and absolute freedom”. He managed, somehow, to publish twenty books and win international acclaim in spite of being scorned, hunted and imprisoned as artist and homosexual before dying in New York City of AIDS. A magical triumph of spirit, Arenas came to the U.S. in the Mariel boat lift with a friend who was not gay, bringing us a deeper, broader understanding of what freedom truly means.
The Most Like TV Series – Jeffrey, 1995, inverts the typical, almost infamous stereotype of the heterosexual man who cannot commit and tells it like it is. He may say he’s afraid to commit to someone he may lose (in this case, to AIDS) but, just like a man of any persuasion, his real problem is that he doesn’t have a clue how to connect emotionally so control is his only solace. Comedic as the film is, it never loses sight of the tragedy of AIDS — Patrick Stewart’s performance may be worth the whole movie unless you count his partner’s after-death message “Hate AIDS, Jeffrey, not life.”
The Wackiest – The Cockettes, 2002. Has America arrived? It’s hard to imagine the antics of this group being received anywhere outside its Haight Ashbury origins, interesting to anyone but a groupie of sorts. But The Cockettes, half of whom died of AIDS have caught a national airstream, playing in movie art houses in major big cities all across the country. With little interest in anything but their ‘art’, The Cockettestreats its film audience like its old time theatre audience; they go for the laugh, performing life to the hilt with and without clothes, talent or restraint. The message? Life is short. Have a great time!