Please see my conversation with Ted Kerr, Programs Manager at Visual AIDS, recently published at Cineaste. Initially asked to discuss Dallas Buyer’s Club we felt we needed to take a lengthier look at the much broader phenomenon of retrospective looking at AIDS fueled by home movie images of the crisis, often shot by AIDS video activists like myself. In the piece we suggest that “the past, signified by the home movies of AIDS, in particular, has many cultural functions, and just as many cultural formations. We begin with Matthew McConaughey’s butt (where else!), and use it as our entry into a lengthy discussion of Dallas Buyers Club, as well as nearly a score of past and present alternative AIDS videos that also broker in activist made home-movie-like images of a crisis past—Like a Prayer (DIVA TV, 1989), Keep Your Laws Off My Body  (Catherine Saalfield, Zoe Leonard, 1990), Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (Mark Rappaport, 1992), Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), Silverlake Life (Peter Friedman, Tom Joslin, 1993), Video Remains (Alexandra Juhasz, 2005), Sex Positive (Daryl Wein, 2008), How to Survive a Plague (2012), Heart Breaks Open (William Maria Rain, 2011), Liberaceón (Chris Vargas, 2011), Sex in an Epidemic (Jean Carlomusto, 2011), We Were Here (David Weissman, 2011), When Did you Figure Out You had AIDS (Vincent Chevalier, 2011), United in Anger (Jim Hubbard, 2012), Untitled (Jim Hodges, Carlos Marques da Cruz, Encke King, 2012), Bumming Cigarettes (Tiona McClodden, 2012), he said (Irwin Swirnoff, 2013), and the poster campaign Your Nostalgia is Killing Me (Vincent Chevalier with Ian Bradley-Perrin, 2013). With Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013), we return our conversation to more conventional fare before concluding our thoughts upon so many home video returns.”

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 “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me” (2013), a poster designed for posterVIRUS by Vincent Chevalier and Ian Bradley-Perrin

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So many anniversaries, and so much fascination with the 90s! Looks like Watermelon Woman (Dunye, 1995) is going to be part of the posse of re-views too (slated for Framline 2012 retrospective, more soon). Given the spate of new films focusing upon the history of ACTUP/AIDS activism circa 1987 (United in Anger, Vito, How to Survive an Epidemic, We Were Here, Sex in an Epidemic) and a new-found fascination for the now old new queer cinema that was borne from AIDS’ sorrow, anger, and community, it is a pleasure to get to also see a new film, Still Around, that both looks at the legacy of AIDS, and reminds us that it is a living, breathing phenomenon of our now.

The film links fifteen original, diverse shorts that remind us—without the safety and nostalgia of distance—how AIDS activism (and NQC) linked a fierce, radical, experimental, and beautiful cultural production with sharp political commentary and profound personal expression.

Swoon at 20

February 4, 2012

I had the pleasure of attending the first in a series of screenings at the UCLA film archive that will be revisiting the original films of “the new queer cinema” as so heralded by B. Ruby Rich in 1992. We saw my dear friend Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), and Sadie Benning’s Jollies (1990), with Tom, lead actor Craig Chester, and B. Ruby Rich in scintillating attendance.

I suppose that a happy but emotionally nuanced privilege of living into one’s middle age is to see the work of one’s friends and generation revisited, commemorated, celebrated, and memorialized (just last week I spoke at a similar event for The Watermelon Woman, 1996: a comer those few years later into this history, as Rich noted even then, because it took [black] lesbians just a little longer to move from video to film). For, it turns out that this year is not only the 20th anniversary of the (beginning of the male) NQC but also a sort of cultural watershed in relation to filmic revisits to AIDS activism of the same period (United in Anger, Sex in an Epidemic, We Were Here, How to Survive a Plague, Vito). Maybe distance makes us/AIDS activism/then seem safer, softened as it all seems by a rosy wash of loss, nostalgia, and the inevitable mellowing of age. I’ve certainly found it interesting, when on the road myself with such revisits, to find that contemporary audiences are not as open to returns that stay as defiant, angry, political, and anti-sentimental as our work was then. This may explain why United in Anger, a film that attempts to represent this period from the voice, analysis, and method of the time–from the point of of view of AIDS activists–is seeming the hardest to sell of the commemerative bunch, given directors Hubbard and Schulman’s commitment to not soft-peddling for the present (the film opens MOMA’s documentary fortnight in February, but has not had as easy a run of it in the A-level festival circuit).

Watching Kalin’s film these many years later (and Benning’s too) it is remarkable to see how dark, critical, theoretical, political and formally inventive is the work, ways of filmmaking that seem to have been largely absented from independent cinema in the past twenty years, arguably because of the evacuation of public funding from this sector. From where we sit today it seemed more incredible to see the funders of this film during its credits–the NEA (who also funded WMW in its last year of film funding), NYSCA–then what at the time seemed like the big conquest, its ultimate industrial home with Fine Line Features. On the long drive cross town to the screening, I was explaining to my friend that what made NQC queer to me was its home in a cultural millieu and friendship network that was inhabited by men and women (take the critical role of Christine Vachon in both Kalin and Haynes’ careers, for instance) who were equally inspired by a recent art school/liberal arts education in “critical theory” by way of a critique of gender and sexuality through feminism, and who happened to have to live our requisite moment of youthful exuberant artmaking during a plague that felled our remarkable friends and altered our lives. Ruby and Tom reiterated this vision of an uncompromising, challenging, art-like NQC from the stage. Films that were queer, as Ruby said last night, not so much because they were gay or lesbian but because they were inspired by AIDS, cheap rent, camcorders, and Reagan.

In the past few days, I’ve seen two powerful film screenings featuring works that historicize AIDS in the 1980s: We Were Here (“the first documentary to take a deep and reflective look back at the arrival and impact of AIDS in San Francisco”) and United in Anger: A History of ACTUP.

Now, most people weren’t AIDS activists, and fewer still are professional AIDS remembers (a role several of us seem to have been gifted in the last few years), but I am both, and in the second role, have been asked to write or speak about the remembering of AIDS in three upcoming venues: a publication on the 25 year anniversary of ACTUP with the Quarterly Journal of Speech, a talk about recent AIDS video at Visible Evidence documentary conference in August, and a lecture in October at Concordia University for their nineteen-year long community lecture series and course on AIDS, Concordia HIV/AIDS Project. Most people don’t remember AIDS: in particular how we fought, how we cared and loved, how we raged, what we won, who we lost. This non-remembering of AIDS is a kind of recollection crisis in its own right, particularly affecting younger queers (of color) who don’t somehow know that there was unimaginable death, anger, activism, community-building, and art made because of AIDS, practices that continue to be highly relevant (if absent) to AIDS, queer youth, and the dearth of activism more generally.

I find that these two video projects (and Jean Carlomusto’s Sex in an Epidemic, and my own Video Remains, and others) each approach this recent remembering project with different forms, themselves reflective of the aims of their remembering goals. In short, We Were Here emotes and United in Anger rages–these feelings evident already in their titles–but also in their documentary approaches. WWH personalizes the crisis, focusing closely on six people with a soft and warm camera, evocative music, stories of personal loss and commitment, and a camera that lingers on tears (producing the same in its audience). Meanwhile, UIA moblizes a cold, sharp video look at a large group of speakers, and an even more clinical body of activist documentation of demonstrations and meetings, allowing us to feel that these images stand in for a mass of similar voices and a compendium of events and actions, and inviting us to enter through their anger and action (just another player in a movement of individuals that can lead to change). Both approaches feed us, although in different ways. Remembering AIDS–which was itself a complex amalgam of emotion, action, living, dying, loving, politics, and representation–demands as many complimentary approaches as we can afford and can bear. While we are all not professional AIDS remembers, nor need we be, we can all learn from this history, particularly in relation to its sustaining models of personal and political action in the name of human rights, health care, and the power of people to help themselves and thereby better their community and world.