Image: HBO

In a piece originally posted on /bent, titled AIDS Reruns: Becoming 'Normal'? A Conversation on 'The Normal Heart' and the Media Ecology of HIV/AIDS, Ted Kerr and filmmaker/academic Alexandra Juhasz discuss The Normal Heart, including what it gets right, what they think it gets wrong, and what is missing...

This piece builds on a previous conversation, Home Video Returns: Media Ecologies of the Past of HIV/AIDS for Cineaste, which centered primarily on Dallas Buyers Club and Philomena. Click here to read that previous conversation.

TED KERR: It seems that as the golden age of television continues, the Emmys have become, for some, as exciting as the Oscars, which makes sense given that the differences between cinematic and televised events continue to collapse. The Normal Heart certainly fits into this move. But maybe more exciting than the Emmy nods, deadlinehollywood.com reports that President Barack Obama called director Ryan Murphy after seeing his HBO version of The Normal Heart. Screenplay by Larry Kramer, based on his 1985 play, the 2014 film chronicles the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York through the life of Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a character Kramer molded after himself. In the film, as in the play, we meet Ned just as his world is changing. The “gay-liberaterory” 1970s are over—a period Kramer was critical of - and on the horizon is a horrible epidemic. The audience stays with Ned during his growing frustration because no one around him is doing anything about the heightening emergency, including the New York Mayor’s Office or the White House. He fights not only with his brother to get involved but also, it seems, the entire NYC gay male community. Eventually he founds an organization (what became Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the real world to which this fiction refers)—made up largely of white gay men—to respond to the epidemic, only to be unceremoniously kicked out due to what they see as his over-aggressive and bombastic style. It is a classic story about one man’s courage to fight the system for what he believes in.

As part of the ongoing conversation, Home Video Returns with Alexandra Juhasz, in which we explore contemporary revisits to early AIDS activist media history, and their impact on the present and future, I watched The Normal Heart during Queens Pride at my friend Mathew Rodriquez’s house. He is a writer for the thebody.com, and has written beautifully about his father who he lost to HIV/AIDS. He is about a decade younger than me (I am 35). My conversationalist, Alex Juhasz, is from another generation—the first one affected and activated by AIDS and the generation that all these movies return to and rely upon—she is fifty and was an early AIDS video activist and member of ACT UP.

Before the film started Mathew ordered pizza, and talked about all the friends we know who recently started PrEP, the HIV Criminalization conference he had recently attended, and my reluctance around watching The Normal Heart. As we talked I realized that while I grew up always knowing about AIDS, I came to the virus and its meanings in deeply personal and solo ways. I poured through the back pages of Entertainment Weekly when they would annually publish the photos of those in the industry lost to AIDS (crying in my parent’s basement upon seeing dancer Gabriel Trupin among the dead). I stayed home from school to watch Ryan White on Donahue because I felt some connection to him, deflated and confused upon understanding he wasn’t gay and his HIV status had nothing to do with sex. I repressed all of these mediated early encounters with AIDS once I started working at AIDS service organizations with people living with HIV and those fighting against the systems of oppression that exasperate the epidemic. So this return to mass media AIDS events not only brings up my unreconciled past, it gives me pause around other audiences as well.

ALEXANDRA JUHASZ: I too was reluctant to watch the Normal Heart, so our anticipated conversation about it also forced my hand. I was worried that the mainstreamification of my own history would be upsetting, and I was right. In 1986, I arrived in NYC, fresh-faced and political (I was a feminist and also active in the nascent gay/lesbian rights movements), to attend grad school in Cinema Studies at NYU. I volunteered at (Kramer’s) GMHC soon thereafter, and found myself in 1987 working in the fledgling Audio-Visual Department, which at that time was the incredible Jean Carlomusto who was single-handedly producing a cable access show called “The Living With AIDS Show.”[8] With few real skills of my own, but a lot of chutzpah and real conviction, I suggested to Jean that I produce a segment for the show about women and AIDS. Feminist, anti-racist and anti-poverty activists in NY were just mobilizing around a shared raising awareness about the certain affliction that women (and children) would face in large numbers if the government, public health, non-profits, the media, and activists did not think logically (and politically) and realize, and act, on the imminent threat that HIV posed to communities outside the gay white men who had first organized GMHC (and hemophiliacs, Haitians and heroin addicts, the other known “risk groups” at that time).

“Living with AIDS: Women and AIDS” (1987) was one of the first documentaries about this issue, and also the first show from GMHC that took the shape of long-form (30 minutes) documentary, rather than the talk show format Carlomusto had been using to that point. GMHC’s Audio-Visual Department went on to make a great many more of these documentaries. They played on Manhattan cable access and then moved into the broader AIDS mediascape in a variety of ways: they were bought and borrowed from GMHC, they were donated to libraries, community centers and hospitals, they played at conferences and in film festivals, we screened them to activists and organizers.

In a 1994 I wrote my first article about AIDS activist media for Cineaste. There I explained: “Women and AIDS, a tape I produced with Carlomusto in 1987, utilizes a conventional documentary style to relay the then unconventional information that women, too, suffer from AIDS. The tape consists of talking-head interviews with female activists, educators, and healthcare providers who articulately present the distinct issues which affect women within the AIDS crisis: the potential dangers of negotiating safer sex; safer sex as birth control; the effects of racism, poverty, sexism, and homophobia upon HIV-infected women; and the scapegoating of prostitutes as an attack upon all women. The tape also includes detailed information about cleaning IV drug works and safer sex.”

I start with this, my history, because it marks that women were always active in HIV/AIDS, and lots of us were “heroes” in that we too tried to raise awareness of the epidemic through a variety of enraged and informed acts and in the name of many beliefs.

TK: I think that is great place to start Alex. There has been a lot of push back against the film version of The Normal Heart in terms of race, such as Sarah Schulman’s interview in New York magazine, and then a response from Peter Staley on the Huffington Post but with the exception of the article on Indiewire we mention further down, there has been little-to-no pushback regarding the lack of women and the role they and feminism play in the epidemic in the conversation about The Normal Heart.

In thinking again of Obama watching the movie, I wonder, did he watch it alone or with some of the many women who help to shape his life: his daughters? Michelle? Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President? Surely one of them would have noted that the Julia Roberts’ character and the lesbian that makes an appearance later in the film could not have been the only women involved? Nellie Andreeva’s reports for Deadline Hollywood that the President was incredibly moved by the TV movie, to which Murphy responded, “The whole movie is about Larry trying to get the attention of Washington and 30 years later, to get a call from the President is a full-circle moment.” But is that what the movie is about? Is that what moved Obama? Thinking about him watching the film, I am curious to consider what he saw—and what he didn’t see—when watching The Normal Heart.

AJ: Like me, I’m sure the President saw things that are basically forbidden from the image landscape, what we call our AIDS media ecology, although they are seared into my own memory banks: seemingly healthy people getting horribly sick, quickly, and dying even faster to the indifference of the broader society. It was shocking then, as now.

TK: Agreed. At its most powerful, the film evokes the emotional affect of We Were Here (David Weissman, Bill Weber, 2011) in its ability to convey to a broad audience what it was like to be in a social world where people were sick and dying. We see this in an early scene where Ned runs into Sanford (Stephen Spinella), his face marked with KS legions. He is a harbinger of the ever more sadness, disease and pain to come. Kramer is successful in being able to broadcast to the mainstream (and its President) the horror of the early American AIDS crisis that they may not otherwise have witnessed.

AJ: We talk about the definitive (non) depiction of KS in our earlier conversation, particularly in relation to its function as verification of AIDS in the “home movies” in Philomena. The politics of the representations of this visual symptom has its own history. I was glad, in a ghoulish way, to see the Normal Heart team make the difficult move of not erasing these common, and often scary, visible symptoms.

TK: In our discussion, Home Video Returns we explore the idea of AIDS Crisis Revisitation, the name we have bestowed on our current cultural moment, one where contemporary media production is being made from earlier cultural objects about the first days of AIDS in American and in particular in New York. Using examples like How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2013) and about twenty more films and videos, both mainstream and activist, from the past and the present, we look at the how this quite singular focus on the past makes it harder to discuss the present, as communicated in the poster “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me” by Vincent Chevlier and Ian Bradley-Perrin for a project called PosterVIRUS. And now, so soon after our article was published online, there is yet another mainstream media event of rather large cultural impact! It seemed important to consider if our analysis of AIDS Crisis Revisitation helps to understand this particular act of looking back for the benefit of now.

AJ: What’s most curious to me about The Normal Heart, in relation to the many films we discussed just a few short weeks ago, is while it too revisits, and while it revisits the exact same moment, and while this embrace of a moment that was once largely invisible and offensive and caused indifference from the mainstream public, today with the distance of time seems to inspire both pathos and maybe even anger from Obama and large numbers of viewers, The Normal Heart looks at that same time as all those other works but within the logics of a distinctly different form. That is to say, it is not a rebuild from images made in the past but a redo of images and words written in that very past moment made again for now. In this way, it reminds me more of Elisabeth Subrin’s shot-by-shot remake Shulie (1997), and other similar efforts that mimetically reproduce a dated artifact to see what happens when it is both forced into another era, but also pressed through slightly different hands and lenses.

TK: Right, this revisitation is different from the other media we analyzed in that it is rooted in a stage play from the time. However, the screenplay is something new. As Emily Colucci points out in her review on Visual AIDS the play and the HBO production share a similar foundation but are quite different projects. For instance, she points to a seemingly innocuous script change from Ned Weeks in the original play version who says, “That’s how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war,” to “That’s how I want to be remembered: as one of the men who won the war,” in the film version. This shift, from struggle to triumph / remembrance recalls less about the early AIDS activist movement than it indicates about recent gay politics. HBO’s The Normal Heart collapses and elides past and present politics. While it emphasizes the very real importance of how HIV/AIDS galvanized a push back against structural homophobia, it also leaves much out.

AJ: While I may agree with your interpretation of the political shifts that underlie the history of this text, I do think it’s understandable, and inevitable, that a return through redo will write new needs into old forms!

TK: And there’s no stronger re-write than that of writing out gender! In her think piece for Indiewire's Women & Hollywood blog Marcie Bianco points out the erasure of women within many of the mainstream films of the AIDS Crisis Revisitation. This is exemplified by the underwhelming use of Julia Roberts as Dr. Emma Brookner (compared to the blistering performance by Ellen Barkin in the 2011 Broadway production in the same role) and the stock lesbian character volunteering at GMHC that recalls Alison Pill’s turn as token lesbian in Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008), who by the way did a 1998 shot-by-shot remake of 1960’s Psycho. Must every gay revisionist movie event have only one quirky likable lesbian? In concert with Bianco we would like to add that these misrepresentations do not stop with the lack of women’s bodies on screen. The fact of their missing is indicative of a bigger issue: the erasure of feminist and queer politics that women, and others, brought / bring to the work.

AJ: It is a little humiliating, this simplification and eradication of women, especially being one such active AIDS activist myself! The role of lesbians and women within HIV activism has been amply documented by historians, theorists and activists, so I need not do that here. But let me mark a few important points about women’s contributions that seem most relevant for this conversation about the AIDS politics of The Normal Heart. First of all, many of us got involved in early AIDS activism (remember me volunteering at 22, I didn’t know anyone with HIV at the time) because unlike “mainstream America” we immediately understood the injustice, injury, and inhumanity defining the broader culture’s non-response to AIDS even if we were not personally at risk. Furthermore, as you say, we brought at least a generation worth of feminist, leftist and civil rights thinking and activism to AIDS organizing (remember Living with AIDS: Women and AIDS?). Feminists immediately made the connections to poverty, racism, sexism, and a political analysis of health care and sexuality that AIDS activism sorely needed. A little later, Queer Nation, queer activism, and queer studies grew to account for this radical conjoining of gay men and lesbians and the kinds of politics, art, and theory that we produced through this empowering union.

TK: In United in Anger (Jim Hubbard, 2012), which we touched on in Home Video Returns, the viewer is given a behind-the-scenes look at the planning of the Stop The Church action (1989), is brought into the church during the demonstration (as well as on the street outside to get a sense of its largess and pandemonium), and then is provided a post demo analysis—both at the time, and then retrospectively as activists look back at the action. It is a 360 degree look at a critically important action in AIDS history and even, perhaps, American activism more broadly. As we can see in the footage, people from across race, class, gender and political backgrounds came together to demonstrate against the Catholic Church. Stop the Church was a collaboration between ACT UP and WHAM (Women’s Health Action Network). At its inception the demonstration was rooted in a feminist understanding of women’s reproductive and sexual health, an awareness that Cardinal O’Connor’s anti-condom policies not only hurt HIV prevention efforts but also exasperated human and reproductive health rights.

AJ: It’s interesting that Normal Heart brings us to our own return to Stop the Church (Robert Hilferty, 1991) given that it was so much on my mind in our discussion of Philomena. In our previous analysis, I wanted to indicate how the political documentaries made within the alternative AIDS media movement are empowered to make profoundly radical, and often quite complex, statements about politics that have to be quieted in more dominant fare. Philomena couldn’t overtly link abortion, AIDS, sexuality, and religion in its anti-Church storytelling, so these connections spill out and symptomatize into its media ecologies (the way the film uses “home movies” of PWAs, with their KS lesions, for instance).

TK: To get thousands of people out on the street to demonstrate against the Catholic Church was no small feat. While it took hours of activist time on phone trees, and flyering, it also took a complex politic that brought together gay men, lesbians, Latina/os and other predominantly Catholic communities, college health advocates, social justice advocates and many other communities. This menage of agendas could not have been possible without a women’s health inspired feminist/lesbian politic that existed on a spectrum between anti-religious and a cautious pushback against power within the church. This lengthy and articulated politic was not created for the Stop The Church action, it is what enabled it. Milestones such as Play Fair (1982) by The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence which was an early community health brochure that recalls the self determination of Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971) and The Denver Principles which is the reason we say Person With AIDS (PWA), rather than AIDS victim, illustrate the ways in which feminist approaches to health were a major part of AIDS activism from the beginning. But you would not know that from watching The Normal Heart.

AJ: So the question is: why? Misogyny? Gay male exclusionism or exceptionalism? A messy gay/lesbian/queer/feminist politics that’s too complicated for straights to get their simple heads around? What does HBO think (successfully, I must add) American viewers want or are at last ready for now?

TK: I am not sure I have the answers, but it seems clear to me that contemporary marriage equality politics undercut the HBO version of The Normal Heart, exploiting Kramer’s foundational pro-monogamy politics to a new level. The deathbed wedding as it played out in the 2011 Broadway revival was just one of many powerful moments weaved into an emotional production. In the film, the wedding makes a bigger impression, acting as a moment of character consolidation and reconciliation. At the beginning of the film, Ned winces a cardboard smile at the frivolity of Fire Island and all that it stands for. Throughout the film he becomes more jovial and fulfilled through the love of one good man. Finally, through marriage he is given full humanity, joy and sorrow all at once. In the context of current LGBT activism, the wedding is a celluloid nod to “how far we have come.” It plays into the “same-sex-marriage-would-have-reduced-the-impact-of-AIDS” rhetoric that writers like Andrew Sullivan have long been pushing. (http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/02/26/the-right-and-marriage-equality-a-breakthrough) We have to ask, is it an attempt to suggest that marriage equality is this generation’s LGBT war to be “fought” (or should we now say “won”?) If so, how did a movement built on feminist politics, with a key moment being an anti-church demonstration, find itself reduced to a TV movie wedding rendered in a melodramatic register? Is the early AIDS crisis being exploited by gay media makers now to craft an American tale of gay neo-liberal liberation?

AJ: Of course it is! How does today’s marriage project affect our thinking about AIDS, do you think?

TK: Marita Sturkin in her book Tangled Memories, which in part looks at the role of images in producing both memory and amnesia writes, “Some Vietnam veterans say they have forgotten where some of their memories come from—their own experience, documentary photographs, or Hollywood movies.”Similarly, it is fair to consider how films like How to Survive A Plague, United in Anger, We Were Here (David Weissman, Bill Weber, 2012), Dallas Buyers Club, and The Normal Heart impact the memory of those who lived through the early days of the epidemic. As Sturkin explores, film is a memory producing technology, heightening the stakes of representation as well as history. How will The Normal Heart, which produced countless articles and blog posts and which The Hollywood Reporter states had 1.4 million viewers for its premier (the numbers will go up considering it is available to view on demand via HBOGo) impact not just how mainstream audiences understand AIDS, or how the contemporary gay community thinks about and uses AIDS, but how people understand their own experiences of the early AIDS crisis? How will a story rooted more in the heroism of one man, and a celebration of his marriage, further erode an understanding of the complex histories of the early days of the AIDS crisis? Will the feminist influences within the AIDS movement be eroded in people’s minds in place of a distinctly 21st century urban gay politics? What will people forget?

In thinking through the media ecology of the AIDS Crisis Revisitation in relation to films like The Normal Heart it becomes possible to imagine that if audiences are not vigilant, and if we privilege only mainstream media production as the authority over AIDS history, the revisitation will become less about HIV/AIDS, or the AIDS Crisis, and become more about gay (male) history revisionism. The crisis is not over, AIDS has not been won, and the epidemic is not only the story of gay men, As wonderful as a wedding may be, it did not save Felix any more than marriage will fundamentally improve the life chances of the 1.1 million people in America currently living with HIV, gay straight or otherwise.

AJ: Ted, did you know that one of the hardest things we had to express in early AIDS activism for/about women (not to mention gay men), in relation to their sexual health and safer sex education, was that neither marriage nor “monogamy” protected women from HIV? This one critical message was at the heart of our actions against the Church and most of our safer sex outreach and education! People need condoms because they need to take control over their own sexual and reproductive health. As hard as this is for anyone, it’s harder still for women.

I have no problem with romance, love, or marriage, except for as suggested and dangerous protective remedies against the acquisition of STDs or pregnancy. This is why GMHC Audio-Visual Department made safer sex porno tapes and so much more pro-sex, safer sex media. We took control over a pro-sex, anti-monogamy representational agenda, carefully focused for particular (sexual) communities (straight women, lesbians, lesbians of color, Latino gay men, etc.) just as we asked individuals to take control of their own sexual and/or reproductive health.

TK: Normal Heart sure ain’t radical pro-sex, safer sex porn! What moment in the film was it that made President Obama want to call Murphy? Was it when Ned is trying to care for Felix in the shower, his lover’s body marked with KS? Is it the deathbed wedding, a memory of when he himself was forced to “evolve” faster on same sex marriage after a fruitful gaffe by VP Joe Biden?

AJ: Can you imagine showing Obama the deathbed scene of Liberaceon (Chris Vargas, 2011), a recent AIDS revisitation activist video we discussed in our earlier conversation that imagines Liberace instructing his lover to begin a militant AIDS activist movement as a response to Reagan’s indifference to AIDS in its early years?

TK: Ha! Right!

Maybe I am inscribing too much interest in romance to Obama’s viewing. Maybe it was the workplace drama that touched him the most, given his own relationship with the Senate and the House of Representatives. There is a scene towards the end of The Normal Heart where Ned is getting kicked out of the organization he founded because his anger has become too much for the other gays/guys. This poignant scene is at the core of The Normal Heart. And it is also a moment in which various media ecologies of HIV/AIDS come together in an impossible way illustrating what happens when a radical politic is left on the preverbal cutting room floorBehind Ned as he is being fired, a version of Gran Fury’s “Men Use Condoms or Beat It” poster hangs in the office Kramer was asked to leave in 1983; the poster was not created until 1988. “The slogan itself,” Tom Kalin writes when I email him about the use of the poster in the film, “first appeared on a black and white poster which featured a very large erect cock and was printed to advertise the national Spring AIDS Action 1988. Reach My Lips and All People With AIDS Are Innocent were also posters made for this series of nation-wide protests.”

Even if the use of the “Men Use Condoms” poster in the film was a case of “timing be damned,” the anachronistic slip is still a mistake. It communicates a fundamental misunderstanding of both the text of the poster, and the text of the play itself.

AJ: I knew several of the members of Gran Fury (through our shared participation in the Whitney ISP program and ACT UP), and a feminist analysis was definitive to their collective work flow, organizing, and production. The slogan, “ Men Use Condoms or Beat It” was also used by the Women & AIDS affinity group within ACT UP, and as Tom Fury reminded us, it was used to good effect at the successful Shea Stadium intervention in 1988 where banners with the slogan were unfurled before tens of thousands of fans.

TK: At its core, The Normal Heart is about the inability to reconcile politics of respectability in the face of suffering and death, and the need for people to stand up against power, and what it looks like when people do / do not take action. The poster on the other hand is a direct message to men to either use a condom or masturbate. It is an bold and humorous message that underscores understandings around the complex and political connections between sex, power, gender and HIV. The use of “Beat It” is not only a euphemism for masturbation, but also a threat, a call to men to leave their sexual partners alone if they are unwilling to play safe. The politics of GMHC, when they forced Kramer out, and that of the poster are unreconcilable. The poster, even if it had been available at the time, would have never hung in the GMHC office as it was. It is the rage that still burned in Larry’s belly that lead him to give yet another fiery speech about AIDS and the gay community in March 1987 at the LGBT Center of New York, that inspired the creation of ACT UP, that then brought together the artists that would form Gran Fury to then make the poster. Maybe it is a stretch, but it is worth considering that if the men involved with Gay Men’s Health Crisis at the time had the stomach for Kramer’s rage, the Gran Fury poster may not ever needed to be created. It is interesting to note that in the real offices of GMHC, long after the action portrayed in the movie occurred, “Men Use Condoms” could have appeared on a wall or cubicle. “GMHC did ask to do a run of the sticker version for their own distribution once they started focusing on safer sex campaigns, and we agreed,” said Gran Fury member Avram Finkelstein when I asked him as well about the poster in the film.

When we conflate and erase histories we loose the truth of nuance, the order of things, the ability to go back and trace steps, and make sense of why something had to happen. Urgencies get lost. Maybe we will never know why of all things within the AIDS Crisis Revisitation Obama was moved by The Normal Heart, but let’s hope that for the health of our nation and the world, it is not the only AIDS Crisis Revisitation media he consumes. He did not see the whole story.

Alexandra Juhasz has been making and thinking about AIDS activist video since the mid-Eighties. She is the author of AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke, 1995) and many more recent essays about the changing shape of the representation of AIDS including “From the Scenes of Queens: Genre, AIDS and Queer Love,” in The Cinema of Todd Haynes; “So Many Alternatives: The Alternative AIDS Video Movement,” From ACT UP to the WTO, “Forgetting ACT UP,” ACT UP 25 Forum, Quarterly Journal of Speech; “AIDS Video: To Dream and Dance with the Censor,” Jump Cut. She was a guest editor for APLA's Corpus V: Women, Gay Men and AIDS (March 2006) and is interviewed in the ACT UP Oral History project online. As a videomaker, she has made a large number of AIDS educational videos including GMHC's Living with AIDS: Women and AIDS (1987), Safer and Sexier: A College Student's Guide to Safer Sex (1991) and, most recently, Video Remains (2005). She is a professor of media studies at Pitzer College.

Canadian born Theodore Kerr is a writer, artist, and organizer living in Brooklyn, New York. He was the programs manager at Visual AIDS, and is board member with QUEEROCRACY. He has written for NY Press, Lambda Literary, In the Flesh, and other publications. For AIDS ACTION NOW's posterVIRUS campaign, he created "Inflamed: litany for a burning condom" with Chaplin Christopher Jones. With artist Aldrin Valdez, Kerr co-organizes Foundation Sharing, a queer series of readings, performances, zines, and visual art. He is a graduate of the New School for Public Engagement, Riggio: Writing and Democracy Program. Currently Kerr is doing his graduate work at Union Theological Seminary.