Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thoughts after a preview screening of We Were Here: Voices from the AIDS Years in San Francisco (a work-in-progress)

The thing that haunts me the most from this movie is the look in the eyes of one young guy in the hospital, dying at 22, and he’s looking out at the doctor or the camera so stunned, so scared, like he’s a little kid waking up from a nightmare begging for help, help me.

There is no help. Or, there is help, but it won’t help. Nothing will.

That same look repeats itself over and over in the eyes of the guys in these photos, the archival footage from the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the look of mass trauma that replaces another look, another innocence, the one where shirtless guys lean against one another on the streets of the Castro and smile for the world, will this ever be the same? No, it will never be the same.

Yet I’m struck also in those pre-AIDS photos by the regimentation of the gay clone aesthetic, how homogenous these men appear, somewhat mixed in age and race but not body type or masculine adherence, and one interviewee tells us how he never felt like he could fit in, how in the ‘70s all these men were busy fitting themselves into rigidly delineated cliques and there was no place for him as an awkward tall guy with long hair and a high voice.

Someone tells us about a speech by Anne Kronenberg, Harvey Milk’s now-legendary lesbian aide, a speech she gave in 1979 after Dan White was given the most lenient sentence possible for the murder, where she ended: welcome to the ‘80s, welcome to the ‘80s, welcome to the ‘80s. And I’m not sure if that person actually said that everyone started chanting it or if that’s just the way it sounds to me. 1981: a photo in the window of the Star Pharmacy in the Castro, showing a man opening his mouth, pulling back his teeth to reveal blue lesions, and the message, “watch out -- there’s something out there.” And then, even on the cover of Blueboy magazine, beside another shirtless coverboy, welcoming you to pornographic pleasure, “A Killer: Kaposi’s Sarcoma.”

These same men, shirtless on the street in the Castro, now cradling gaunt lovers in their arms and helping one another to feel brave about death. Planning funerals and suicides instead of trips to the baths, shuttered in 1984. Lyndon LaRouche proposes a ballot measure enforcing a mandatory quarantine of all HIV-positive people. Twice.

These were men who had abandoned the hopelessness of secrecy, who had come to San Francisco for sexual splendor, who had finally grasped the invincibility of desire, and then. That shocked look in their eyes. One interviewee, a nurse, tells us how some of those eyes would soon end up in urine cups, sheltered by a paper bag, on the way to research trials to help figure out what caused AIDS-related blindness. Those men wanted their eyes to help someone else. And another interviewee says, “suddenly my way of being with gay men was okay.” Because he’d never figured out anonymous sex, but he immediately took to the sudden intimacy of helping strangers to die, holding them in the hospital and then going into the waiting room to counsel their parents, fathers who might say, “It’s harder to find out that my son is a fag than to see that he’s dying.”

Or, another interviewee, talking about a lover who was a research scientist, after they both tested positive he got them into one of the first clinical trials, a drug that was so harsh that everyone in the study died. Everyone except the interviewee, who stopped the drug because of the harsh side effects. Here he is on-screen, crying so many years later. The whole audience is crying. Some of us start crying even before the movie starts, maybe when the director, David Weissman, says he wants the movie to embolden people who survived those years to tell their stories, and to embolden people who weren’t there to ask questions.

“We all suffered, but we also became more beautiful.” One interviewee says this, but it’s also a central message of the movie: through all this mourning and loss, we have survived. We have survived as a community. I’m not so sure that’s true.


Nick said...

Aw jeeze, I'd really like to have seen that movie.

nixwilliams said...

i find it interesting how strongly some movies appeal to a desire for community, to see community prevailing. i often get immediately caught up in that feeling (i want to believe), although after allowing myself a few minutes of that i inevitably drift out of it and end up like you, not being so sure.

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Nick & Nix, so lovely to hear from you!

Nick, the movie's by the same director as The Cockettes, so I'm guessing it will have wide distribution...

And Nix, yes I do think that's my main problem with the movie as a whole -- even though it feels completely honest about all the death and destruction at the heart of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, it still imposes this triumphant narrative in the end, and that I think camouflages the violence of what this "community" has actually become...

Love --

nixwilliams said...

yes, the desire for a 'happy' ending... but happy for whom?

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...


Love --