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AIDS Reruns: Becoming 'Normal'? A Conversation on 'The Normal Heart' and the Media Ecology of HIV/AIDS

By Alexandra Juhasz and Ted Kerr | /Bent August 18, 2014 at 10:31AM

AIDS activists Alexandra Juhasz and Ted Kerr have a conversation about "The Normal Heart" ahead of the Emmys next week.
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The Normal Heart

In the weeks following the online publication of Alexandra Juhasz and Ted Kerr's conversation Home Video Returns: Media Ecologies of the Past of HIV/AIDS for Cineaste, the HBO version of The Normal Heart debuted. The film provided the conversationalists, coming from different generations and experiences of HIV/AIDS, to further consider the theories and ideas brought up in their initial conversation: How does the film version of The Normal Heart relate to media ecologies of AIDS of the past? How is The Normal Heart related to the ideas and histories of the “AIDS Crisis Revisitation” they put forward? Click here to read the conversation.

The initial conversation had begun with talk of the Oscars, specifically for the Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013), also then focusing on Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013) and a host of more alternative AIDS videos that all build arguments about AIDS now by using images and stories of AIDS past. It seems fitting then to begin this follow up conversation with talk of the Emmy’s, given that The Normal Heart is nominated for 16 statues![1]  

The Normal Heart 4

TED KERR: Its seems that as the golden age of television continues, the Emmys have become, for some, as exciting as the Oscars, which makes sense given that the differences between cinematic and televised events continue to collapse. The Normal Heart certainly fits into this move. But maybe more exciting than the Emmy nods, deadlinehollywood.com[2] reports that President Barack Obama called director Ryan Murphy after seeing his HBO version of The Normal Heart. Screenplay by Larry Kramer, based on his 1985 play, the 2014 film chronicles the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York through the life of Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a character Kramer molded after himself. In the film, as in the play, we meet Ned just as his world is changing. The “gay-liberaterory” 1970s are over—a period Kramer was critical of (see Faggots[3])—and on the horizon is a horrible epidemic. The audience stays with Ned during his growing frustration because no one around him is doing anything about the heightening emergency, including the New York Mayor’s Office or the White House. He fights not only with his brother to get involved but also, it seems, the entire NYC gay male community. Eventually he founds an organization (what became Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the real world to which this fiction refers)—made up largely of white gay men—to respond to the epidemic, only to be unceremoniously kicked out due to what they see as his over-aggressive and bombastic style. It is a classic story about one man’s courage to fight the system for what he believes in.[4]

As part of the ongoing conversation, Home Video Returns[5] with Alexandra Juhasz, in which we explore contemporary revisits to early AIDS activist media history, and their impact on the present and future, I watched The Normal Heart during Queens Pride at my friend Mathew Rodriquez’s house. He is a writer for the thebody.com, and has written beautifully about his father who he lost to HIV/AIDS.[6] He is about a decade younger than me (I am 35). My conversationalist, Alex Juhasz, is from another generation—the first one affected and activated by AIDS and the generation that all these movies return to and rely upon—she is fifty and was an early AIDS video activist and member of ACT UP. I currently work at Visual AIDS as the Programs Manager.

Before the film started Mathew ordered pizza, and talked about all the friends we know who recently started PrEP, the HIV Criminalization conference he had recently attended, and my reluctance around watching The Normal Heart. As we talked I realized that while I grew up always knowing about AIDS, I came to the virus and its meanings in deeply personal and solo ways. I poured through the back pages of Entertainment Weekly when they would annually publish the photos of those in the industry lost to AIDS (crying in my parent’s basement upon seeing dancer Gabriel Trupin[7] among the dead). I stayed home from school to watch Ryan White on Donahue because I felt some connection to him, deflated and confused upon understanding he wasn’t gay and his HIV status had nothing to do with sex. I repressed all of these mediated early encounters with AIDS once I started working at AIDS service organizations with people living with HIV and those fighting against the systems of oppression that exasperate the epidemic. So this return to mass media AIDS events not only brings up my unreconciled past, it gives me pause around other audiences as well. 

Juanita Mohammed in "WAVE: Self Portraits" (The Women's AIDS Video Enterprise, 1990)
Juanita Mohammed in "WAVE: Self Portraits" (The Women's AIDS Video Enterprise, 1990)

ALEXANDRA JUHASZ: I too was reluctant to watch the Normal Heart, so our anticipated conversation about it also forced my hand. I was worried that the mainstreamification of my own history would be upsetting, and I was right. In 1986, I arrived in NYC, fresh-faced and political (I was a feminist and also active in the nascent gay/lesbian rights movements), to attend grad school in Cinema Studies at NYU. I volunteered at (Kramer’s) GMHC soon thereafter, and found myself in 1987 working in the fledgling Audio-Visual Department, which at that time was the incredible Jean Carlomusto who was single-handedly producing a cable access show called “The Living With AIDS Show.”[8] With few real skills of my own, but a lot of chutzpah and real conviction, I suggested to Jean that I produce a segment for the show about women and AIDS. Feminist, anti-racist and anti-poverty activists in NY were just mobilizing around a shared raising awareness about the certain affliction that women (and children) would face in large numbers if the government, public health, non-profits, the media, and activists did not think logically (and politically) and realize, and act, on the imminent threat that HIV posed to communities outside the gay white men who had first organized GMHC (and hemophiliacs, Haitians and heroin addicts, the other known “risk groups” at that time).

“Living with AIDS: Women and AIDS” (1987) was one of the first documentaries about this issue, and also the first show from GMHC that took the shape of long-form (30 minutes) documentary, rather than the talk show format Carlomusto had been using to that point. GMHC’s Audio-Visual Department went on to make a great many more of these documentaries. They played on Manhattan cable access and then moved into the broader AIDS mediascape in a variety of ways: they were bought and borrowed from GMHC, they were donated to libraries, community centers and hospitals, they played at conferences and in film festivals, we screened them to activists and organizers.

In a 1994 I wrote my first article about AIDS activist media for Cineaste. There I explained: “Women and AIDS, a tape I produced with Carlomusto in 1987, utilizes a conventional documentary style to relay the then unconventional information that women, too, suffer from AIDS. The tape consists of talking-head interviews with female activists, educators, and healthcare providers who articulately present the distinct issues which affect women within the AIDS crisis: the potential dangers of negotiating safer sex; safer sex as birth control; the effects of racism, poverty, sexism, and homophobia upon HIV-infected women; and the scapegoating of prostitutes as an attack upon all women. The tape also includes detailed information about cleaning IV drug works and safer sex.”[9]

 I start with this, my history, because it marks that women were always active in HIV/AIDS, and lots of us were “heroes” in that we too tried to raise awareness of the epidemic through a variety of enraged and informed acts and in the name of many beliefs.

TK: I think that is great place to start Alex. There has been a lot of push back against the film version of The Normal Heart in terms of race, such as Sarah Schulman’s interview in New York magazine, and then a response from Peter Staley on the Huffington Post but with the exception of the article on Indiewire we mention further down, there has been little-to-no pushback regarding the lack of women and the role they and feminism play in the epidemic in the conversation about The Normal Heart.

In thinking again of Obama watching the movie, I wonder, did he watch it alone or with some of the many women who help to shape his life: his daughters? Michelle? Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President? Surely one of them would have noted that the Julia Roberts’ character and the lesbian that makes an appearance later in the film could not have been the only women involved? Nellie Andreeva’s reports for Deadline Hollywood that the President was incredibly moved by the TV movie, to which Murphy responded, “The whole movie is about Larry trying to get the attention of Washington and 30 years later, to get a call from the President is a full-circle moment.” But is that what the movie is about? Is that what moved Obama? Thinking about him watching the film, I am curious to consider what he saw—and what he didn’t see—when watching The Normal Heart.

Denise Ribbble in "Living with AIDS: Women and AIDS” (Alex Juhasz and Jean Carlomusto, 1987)
Denise Ribbble in "Living with AIDS: Women and AIDS” (Alex Juhasz and Jean Carlomusto, 1987)

AJ: Like me, I’m sure the President saw things that are basically forbidden from the image landscape, what we call our AIDS media ecology, although they are seared into my own memory banks: seemingly healthy people getting horribly sick, quickly, and dying even faster to the indifference of the broader society. It was shocking then, as now. 

TK: Agreed. At its most powerful, the film evokes the emotional affect of We Were Here (David Weissman, Bill Weber, 2011) in its ability to convey to a broad audience what it was like to be in a social world where people were sick and dying. We see this in an early scene where Ned runs into Sanford (Stephen Spinella), his face marked with KS legions. He is a harbinger of the ever more sadness, disease and pain to come. Kramer is successful in being able to broadcast to the mainstream (and its President) the horror of the early American AIDS crisis that they may not otherwise have witnessed.

This article is related to: Takes on 'The Normal Heart', The Normal Heart, The Normal Heart