Friday, May 11, 2007

And the Band Played On

I am officially 4 hours in to my 10-hour shift at hospice (10pm-8am) and technically, I'm supposed to stay awake the entire shift, but I'm not sure I'm gonna make it. I figure if I just crash out on the couch I'll still be accessible, but can get a little shut-eye.

After watching my nightly dose of Jon and Stephen, I raided the Doug's House video/DVD library, which is quite extensive, and settled on a 2 and a half hour movie I figure I should see, but would probably never rent: And the Band Played On. I have to say, it took me about an hour to really get into it, such as it's the type of movie that tries to cover so much material in such a short amount of time, that it kind of comes across as preachy, and having to explain everything to you. So the characters talk very explicitly about the "issues," and what's happening, in ways that humans never talk, particularly when they're all in the midst of something. I find that dialogue is rarely so clinical and straight-forward in real life. But I guess all in all, the filmmakers did a pretty great job of cramming all the exegencies of the first 5 years of the AIDS crisis into such a relatively short amount of time.

Some of the things I took away from the film that I of course already knew, but I guess have never seen offered in such a specifically dramatic light before, was what "gay life" was really like back then, and how terrified the government was of anything even remotely "gay." (It took the Reagan administration 5 years, and over 25,000 deaths, before the Gipper even said the word "AIDS" in public. It was a gay disease; they wouldn't touch it.) It was interesting to see the parallels between AIDS and the Ebola virus (which the Western world was fortunate enough to be spared from), and to see the face of the man (albeit an actor) who researchers think was single-handedly responsible for bringing AIDS to America. It was an airline steward who claimed he'd slept with up to 300 men a year, for the last 10 years! I'd heard this theory before, but thought it was fairly unfounded until this movie. But the book was written in 1987, and the movie made in 1993, so it's possible that this theory no longer holds any water; I'm just not sure.

It was also a little shocking for me to realize how prominent gay bathhouses were to gay culture in San Fransisco, New York, and Los Angeles. There was a near riot in San Fransisco when the Centers for Disease Control had isolated the virus as spreading through sex and in particular at bathhouses, and they suggested that for the good of public health, the bathhouses should all be shut down. Maybe I just come from a generation that takes being "out" and the finding of a healthy, monogamous relationship for granted, but the idea that bathhouses were the primary social venues for gay men in the 70's is so depressing. It's a topic that's been covered in a myriad of novels and films, and we all the know the free-wheeling, post-Stonewall, let's-go-nuts-and-fuck-everything-in-sight attitude is what led to AIDS, but you'd think more gay men could have seen how dangerous this lifestyle was, both physically and spiritually, but again, it's really hard for me to put myself in that position and in that era. (San Fransisco's bathhouses were finally shut down in 1985, and the rest of the country pretty much followed suit right after.)

I also thought it was really interesting how it wsa the AIDS crisis that essentially led to the mainstreaming of gay culture and gay people in general. It seems difficult to imagine what our world would look like today if AIDS had never happened. Would we have eventually gotten to this place where we are anyway, just slower, or would we still all just be sex-crazed zombies going to bathhouses and having orgies every night? I shudder.

The film ended beautifully, with Elton John's "The Last Song" playing over documentary footage of everything AIDS: celebrities, marches, funerals, pickets, parades, news footage, you name it. Of course I totally cried.

Now I think I'm gonna go watch Omen III.


bryan h. said...

The thing you heard was right: the flight attendant theory has been disproven. Apparently, more recent editions of the book contain an extra chapter explaining why it's not true, and how it came to be included in initial publication (it's not really Randy Shilts' fault his sources kept dying). Also, the relevant Wikipedia entries (for the book, Shilts, the flight attendent) also explain it. One of them links to this:

Anyway even though it made for a compelling read the Patient Zero theory does seem a little off, considering the book opens with a much more plausile setting: the worldwide convergance on America for the bicentennial celebration.

The Fire Next Time said...

That's interesting: the movie starts off with Dr. Francis going to Africa and having to burn bodies because they're all infected with Ebola, but shows the first AIDS case having originated in Copenhagen, then in Paris.

Maybe I should read the book.

Tom Drew said...

By all means, read the book! It's long, there are passages where all the science confused the hell out of me, and it's not exactly lightweight subject matter. But it's a really fascinating and important book.

I'll have to check out the most recent edition, though, because the one I read was probably the first. I'd be interested to read the extra chapter.