“Memories of a Penitent Heart”: a filmmaker looks into the life of an uncle who died of AIDS in the 1980s

Memories of an Penitent Heart” aired on Monday, July 31, 2017 on PBS Independent Cuts, slightly abridged from 69 minutes to about 55.

Filmmaker Cecilia Alarondo looks at the life story of her gay uncle Miguel, born in Puerto Rico, who would die of AIDS early in the 1980s.

Miguel would change his name to Michael and live a double life in New York City.  For a while he stayed with a priest, who was OK with his being gay but who didn’t want to allow guests.

Miguel developed Kaposi’s Sarcoma, apparently conspicuously. Some doctors were afraid to treat him. The documentary does cover the attitudes during the early days of AIDS, where it was first called “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” (GRID) and even Wrath of God syndrome. Some people wanted all infected people or even all gay men quarantined.  I remember those days of panic.

The film could be compared to the much larger film, “The Normal Heart”, from HBO, of Larry Kramer’s play, aired in 2014.

Puerto Rico scene.

Toward the end Cecilia travels on a riverboat through canals in what looks like Louisiana.

Name: Memories of a Penitent Heart
Director, writer:  Cecilia Alarondo
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed: PBS Independent Cuts, 2017/7/31
Length:  69/55
Rating:  NA
Companies: PBS
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Tuesday, August 1, 2017 at 2:15 PM EDT)

“The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA” by Benita Roth, recalling the internals of AIDS activism a couple decades ago

The detailed analytical chronology “The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA: Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s” certainly brings to my own mind the political struggles in Dallas, where I was living in the 1980s, as the epidemic reached my southern conservative city about a year or two after it had started to burn in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The author is Benita Roth, Professor of Sociology, History and Women’s Studies at Binghamton University (New York State).

I had moved to Dallas from New York City at the start of 1979 to start a new job, and the relocation may have saved my life. But by early 1983, after sensational media reports (like Geraldo Rivera’s on ABC 20.20), the right wing was proposing draconian extensions to the Texas sodomy law, HR2138, trying to ban gays from almost all occupations. There was a particularly vitriolic group, Dallas Doctors Against AIDS. The Dallas Gay Alliance (in the days of Bill Nelson and Terry Tebedo and the Crossroads Market on Cedar Springs) managed to keep the bill dying in committee. This is history that has been forgotten.

There was, in the national debate, over whether AIDS was primarily about “personal responsibility” and “behavior”, or whether it was about belonging to a marginalized group. Of course, it was both. But Dr. Roth’s book certainly focuses on left wing activism, based on solidarity and “intersectionality”.

I’m reminded of a sign in the recent Equality March for Pride and Unity in Washington DC. “Intersectional Resistance and Collective Liberation”. Intersectionality refers to the coming together of different groups (the “rainbow coalition” of the 90s, maybe) and the tensions that can occur about the nuances and priorities of the groups. For example, rural or inner-city African Americans (“people of color”), sometimes infected by needles and often heterosexually (especially male to female), don’t have the same perspective as urban white and economically independent cis gay males. Intersectionality is a big issue in the gay community today, as the role of not just transgender but “gender fluidity” seems emotionally disruptive to the values of the white cis gay males.

The author writes in meta mode, often telling the reader what she is going to cover, and what she has covered, as if she were teaching a course or graduate school seminar. She gives an almost biblical chronicle of ACT/UP in Los Angeles, the internal conflicts (which are a big deal for almost any activist), the role of women, the group disciplines (intersectionality and loyalty), the sometimes disastrous challenges to the power structures, then the winding down, as activists moved into other areas. She correlates it to a lot of other LA history, such as the Rodney King riots, and governor Pete Wilson’s often duplicitous behavior. She does discuss Ronald Reagan’s unwillingness to discuss AIDS at first, but I didn’t see that she covers Reagan’s previous opposition to the Briggs Initiative (concerning gay teachers) in 1978 when he was governor.

Benita emphasizes that HIV has affected women at a higher rate than most people realize, and the percentage of patients who are female and infected heterosexually continues to rise. It still seems to be a mystery today if this was completely the case in Africa in the early 1980s, although the presence of other STD’s would facilitate heterosexual transmission. She does discuss protease inhibitors and PrEP, but seems to assume that normal health insurance should always cover them. With the GOP rewriting health care now, this coverage for many gay men (MSM) would seem to be at grave risk. She also notes that the use of PrEP might have the unintended effect of making men complacent about condom use.

She makes the interesting observation that in the 1980s people tended to look at volunteering to help PWA’s as a kind of “activism”. I encountered that view in a 1986 visit to Robert Schuler’s Crystal Cathedral in Anaheim. People would move in and out of volunteering and paid jobs in caregiving, as at hospices, as if that were political behavior.

The author sometimes does cover the existential political threat that AIDS seemed to create to the male gay community. I remember the night in 1984 that “they closed the baths in San Francisco.” But the effort to close them in Los Angeles was met with resistance, a fear that they could lead to closing of bars and any meeting places (like in Nigeria today).

Her discussion of the blowup at the 1992 GOP convention reminds me of Barbara Bush’s speech on family values.  “You don’t have to be married,” she said, “but if you have children, they have to become the first priority in your life.”  But in practice, the right wing wants to make a moral case against childlessness, citing population demographics.

She also discusses “CNN” (“Clean Needles Now”). I’m reminded of now VP Mike Pence’s idea in 2000 that you could control AIDS with conversion therapy.

Author: Benita Roth
Title, Subtitle: “The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA; Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s”
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-1-107-51417-1
Publication: Cambridge University Press, 249 pages, paper, indexed, appendix; 7 chapters; detailed TOC;  complimentary paper copy provided to me for review
Link: Author

(Posted: Tuesday, June 13, 2017 at 9:45 PM EDT)

“The Messengers”: Volunteers serve homeless men with HIV at a house in Washington DC

The Messengers“, directed by Lucian Perkins, shows us the life of two committed volunteers at Joseph’s House, a hospice for homeless men with HIV and AIDS, in Washington DC, in Adams-Morgan.  The film showed at Filmfest DC on Sunday afternoon at Landmark E Street.

One young woman comes up for a year of service from North Carolina before finishing college, but now she has finished her Masters in social work at Columbia.

The film also traces the experiences of some of the patients, such as one who was told he had only two months to live but survived ten.  At one point Elijah actually looks forward to the possibility of his own place again, as sometimes people get better and can live on their own.  The experience here is more variable than at large “commercial” hospices where people die of old age and usually enter only when they have a few days to live. But this house is very much a home for the patients as is.

Emotionally the experience is very intense, with volunteers sitting with patients for very long periods. During the QA, it was said that the House only accepts volunteers who can make extensive minimum time commitments.  This is not an experience that benefits from large numbers for short times.

The film showed a cat and dog, and one wonders how well they understand what is happening.

In understanding the title of the film, it is well to remember that angels are messengers.

QA

1

2

3 Comment that only long-term volunteers are needed

Name: “The Messengers”
Director, writer:  Lucian Perkins
Released:  2017
Format:  digital video
When and how viewed:  Filmfest DC, Landmark E Street, 2017/4/23, large auditorium nearly sold out
Length:  52
Rating:  NA
Companies:  NA  (hope to see on PBS Independent Lens?)
Link:  Facebook, Filmfest DC

(Posted: Sunday, April 23, 2017 at 11:45 PM EDT)

“Holding the Man”: epic biography from Australia would echo “The Normal Heart”

Albert_park_aerial

Name: “Holding the Man”
Director, writer:  Neil Armfield, Timothy Conigrave (book)
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Amazon Prime HD, $5.99
Length 127
Rating R
Companies: Strand Releasing;    (Australia)
Link: Facebook, Strand purchase


Holding the Man” is an epic autobiography based on the memoir of Timothy Conigrave.  As for narratives about the AIDS epidemic, It deserves comparison to “The Normal Heart” (both play and HBO film) of Larry Kramer, and “Angels in America” by Mike Nichols and Tony Kushner.

The film is set in Australia and tells the love story of Tim (Ryan Corr), an aspiring stage actor, and John Caleo (Craig Stott), a soccer player.   The film starts with a prologue as Tim, vacationing of the coast of Italy in the early 1990s, recalls his life, and ends with an epilogue in the same beautiful setting.  Tim, then in his early thirties, still looks strong and healthy. Then the film tells us he died at age 34 in 1994 ten days after finishing his book.

They meet in a Catholic high school in 1976.  The film will trace their relationship over 15 years, with sequences back and forth in time to solve a mystery.

Both families, especially John’s, object to their homosexuality, as does the Catholic rector (maybe with some hypocrisy). Tim’s parents (Guy Pearce and Kerry Fox) seem a bit more understanding at the outset, though.

An early scene where Tim tries out for a minor role in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is interesting, as judges wonder if he can really put himself into the emotion of losing a “girlfriend”.  Is that what acting is all about?  I thought about the acting classes that the Ninth Street Center held in the 1970s, and of indie film actor Mark Parrish’s own accounts to me some years back of his early career in stage.

No question, “Romeo and Juliet” is a metaphor for this film.  (When I worked as a substitute teacher, I saw both the 1968 and 1996 movies, and worked one day when students were reading it aloud.  One teacher had to explain the fact that Juliet would be underage by today’s legal standards.)

But the film also gives us some interesting early shots of the sport of soccer, when John breaks his leg in a play, just after they have met.

The film jumps to 1985, when John has tested positive for HIV (the new test has just become available).  The couple claims to have been monogamous for a long time, as both talk to a doctor when getting the results.   The film then jumps back to 1979, to set up a bathhouse scene where Tim could have been infected first.

By 1988, John has gotten pneumocystis  carinii pneumonia and apparently an unusual lymphoma.  He goes into some remission, and the film picks up the intimacy of their relationship, with the head shavings and physical changes.  This is an experience I would not be game for.

Eventually, around 1990, John dies, and John’s “right wing” father insists (in a difficult meeting with Tim) on getting most of John’s will, saying he “earned it” by raising John.  It gets rather difficult to listen to. (Of course, there’s an insinuation that Tom’s “behavior” caused the loss.)  At the funeral, the priest calls Tim the “friend” and refuses to recognize their relationship as morally legitimate.  All throughout this part, Tim looks perfect, as if he were somehow biologically immune.  His own onset of symptoms apparently took close to 15 years from exposure.

The film uses background classical music effectively, including Vivaldi’s “Gloria”, Mozart’s early Divertimento in D (that was a present to me from a friend right after my own early William and Mary episode), and some adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s own symphony fantasy “Romeo and Juliet”.  The wide screen photography of the countryside around Melbourne (looking like coastal California) and Italy (especially) is also quite stunning.

I streamed the film from Amazon ($5.99 HD rental; purchase available both HD and DVD), and it deserves a large screen, Hi Def device.  I did get a screener from Strand but I didn’t get around to watching it in time.

I don’t give ratings often, but this one gets 4 out of 5 stars from me.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture (by Tim Serong) of Albert Park in Melbourne.

Update: January 22:  I did get the DVD from Netflix and watch the 13-minute featurette with interviews of the cast.  The main emphasis in their remarks that this is a lifelong love story that happens to be between two men.

(Posted: Thursday, August 11, 2016 at 6 PM EDT)