It started with mysterious purple lesions symptomatic of Kaposi’s sarcoma and fierce attacks of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia followed by a quick death. Initially referred to as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) or the “gay cancer,” HIV was first recognized in 1981 by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to Wikipedia, by 2014 some 39 million people had died of AIDS; 36.9 million were living with HIV.Some people called it “the gay plague.” Others insisted it was God’s way of punishing the queers. During the 1980s, as more and more friends succumbed to the disease, it struck terror into people’s hearts and robbed far too many of their futures. One day, you could be chatting with someone at the gym who jokingly said “Hey, with a body like this, how could I be sick?” Two weeks later you would learn that he had died. There was even a period when friends might run into each other in a supermarket and gasp “Oh my God, you’re still alive!”The AIDS crisis gave rise to an entire new genre of documentary and narrative films: stories about AIDS. Some were based on successful stage plays, others were adaptations of books written by gay authors. Grouped by decade, these include:
As the epidemic grew, the gay community came together in ways that were previously unimaginable. In San Francisco, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence published and distributed the first materials to describe safe sex preventive practices in easily understood language. Many lesbians became caregivers to dying gay men. When it became obvious that traditional religious, charitable, and other institutional resources were not interested in helping, volunteerism and fundraising became major activities within the gay community.
While early films about AIDS dealt with the stigma, confusion, and horror caused by this pernicious disease, later works depicted governmental indifference to a public health crisis, the challenges facing the medical community, and the physical, financial, and emotional hurdles facing those living with AIDS. For far too many people, an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence until anti-retroviral drugs entered the market. Today, it is considered a manageable disease.
In the 35 years since HIV was first discovered, it has deprived far too many people of their futures. Not only do we mourn friends and family, we mourn the loss of a generation of talent. Even those of us (like myself) who are nearing 70, look back and are forced to realize that we have considered AIDS to be a part of our cultural landscape for half of our lives.
In addition to Pushing Dead, the 2016 Frameline Film Festival included two films which mark an important turning point in what we now call AIDS cinema.
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In his 20-minute short entitled Pick Up, filmmaker Joshua Alan Rogers introduces audiences to Jesse Ritter (Travor Thompson), a young gay man driving for Pick Up (a car service similar to Uber or Lyft) in Los Angeles. Like many people recently diagnosed with HIV, Jesse is still wrestling with who he should tell about his HIV status and how he should go about sharing the news.
As he drives around the city, practicing his conversation starters and pickup lines, the viewer sees him having the option to accept or deny requests for rides that pop up on a screen. When the name “Guy” appears, Jesse quickly accepts the request. Soon after pulling over to the curb, a handsome man enters the back seat of his car ― someone Jesse has previously driven around town.As they make small talk, Guy (Louis Hunter) complains about how difficult it is to meet people when the men he meets in bars only want to talk about television shows and the more superficial aspects of pop culture. What Guy really craves is someone with whom he can have a real conversation; someone with whom he could discuss meaningful issues. What Jesse remembers most is getting a hand job from Guy in the back seat of his car after they had reached their destination.
As Jesse drives, Guy asks him about the first time he had sex with a man and starts running his finger up and down Jesse’s neck. When they finally arrive, he asks Jesse if he’d like to come upstairs for a while. At this point, Jesse realizes that he has to talk about his HIV status. When he does, it feels awkward, clumsy, and he can sense Guy getting cold feet.Rogers was inspired to create Pick Up after having dinner with a close friend who, during the course of a long and difficult conversation, divulged his HIV status to the filmmaker. Similar talks with friends made him aware of how difficult it was for some men to be honest about their condition and share it with others. For many, it was almost as difficult as coming out. Here’s the trailer:
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Back when I was a frequent flyer, I would often arrive on the East Coast when most friends were getting ready to call it a night. In those days, a gay bathhouse was a logical choice to while away several hours while waiting to feel tired. Within such venues, a person could safely walk around, relax in a jacuzzi, observe men enjoying casual sex, make new friends, or watch gay porn. I was always amused by how the films screened in many bathhouses were focused on aggressive and dispassionate sportfucking. However, the Club Baths in Miami (which attracted a large Latino clientele), showed films that featured men making the kind of love that includes lots of kissing and plenty of stroking as well as passion, romance, and tenderness.
There is a great deal in Paris 05:59 (Théo et Hugo dans le même bateau) to rave about. This brave and deeply touching new film directed by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau begins with a 20-minute segment that takes place during an all-male orgy at a Parisian sex club, delivering a red-light reminder of what it’s like when gay men feel free to express themselves sexually and, if so inclined, just stand by and watch their comrades going at it. As the camera moves around the club’s basement observing the various forms of groping, coupling, sucking, and fucking taking place, it captures the kind of mellow voyeurism enjoyed by men who like to take their time ogling and sampling the offerings at an enticing beefcake buffet.
One of those men is Théo (Geoffrey Couet), whose cat-like caution can be seen in the way he fends off the advances of multiple men as he continues to stare at Hugo (François Nambot), who is clearly enjoying himself. Slowly, but surely, Théo works his way into Hugo’s line of vision. Even as Hugo keeps kissing the man he has been having sex with, Théo draws closer until he makes direct eye contact. Both men’s tongues soon intertwine in a kiss that will change their lives.
Once they have finished making love, they go upstairs, get dressed, pay their bar tab, and head out into the night. Stopping at an electronic bike stand, they rent two bicycles and, still on a sexual high, pedal through the darkened streets of Paris. Hugo keeps complimenting Théo on the sheer beauty of his cock (something about it makes him want to kiss it, hold it, and caress Théo’s balls). Théo responds with a curious statement ― that their sex felt “unusual.” When he repeats himself, Hugo stops and asks his new friend if he forgot to use a condom.
Their post-sexual euphoria is quickly shattered. Although his viral load is undetectable, Hugo is under treatment for HIV and needs help figuring out what they should do next. Using his smartphone, he contacts an AIDS hotline which advises him to go to the nearest hospital and tell the triage clerk that Théo has had an ASE (an acronym which signals that he might be at risk for AIDS/HIV). The rest of the night involves a emotional tug of war in which Hugo is determined to remain by Théo’s side for moral support as his new friend copes with the emotional roller coaster ride of an unexpected health crisis.
While the rest of their night involves arguments, probing about their backgrounds, and sharing stories about the first time they had sex with another man, as the two men travel from the sex club to a hospital, from a late-night kebab shop to Théo’s apartment, they learn intimate and often surprising facts about each other. Hugo contracted HIV the first time he had sex with another man; his work as an assistant notary exposes him to all kinds of personal dramas. Théo is an architectural intern whose dreams of seeing the world might be compromised if he tests positive for HIV.
This film is structured as a race against time, starting from 04:27 a.m. (when the two men leave Impact) and continuing until 05:59 a.m. when, after visiting the local Emergency Room, they arrive at Théo’s apartment ready to start a new chapter in their lives. It’s a grand exercise in male sexuality, responsible behavior with regard to HIV, and the special joy of catching the first train to leave Le Métro’s Stalingrad station as it heads for downtown Paris. Here’s the trailer.