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Erasure and Second-Generation Hearts: Why Millennials Should See Films Like 'Longtime Companion'

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by Jose Gallegos
July 16, 2014 11:39 AM
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While waiting in line with my boyfriend for Outfest’s 25th Anniversary screening of "Longtime Companion" earlier this week, I overheard a conversation between a woman and two gay men. The woman, who was munching on an artichoke salad, remarked, “I would like to see more people under 30 in this line.” The two men laughed, to which the woman responded, “I’m serious! I feel like these people think we’re making [the AIDS crisis] up.” I initially laughed at this conversation because I believed my young age disproved her remark, but as we shuffled into the theater, I couldn’t help but notice that I was one of only a handful of people in their 20s.

"Longtime Companion" is a seminal film in the LGBTQ canon, but its contemporary companion piece, "The Normal Heart," has seemed to strip the latter film of its appeal to younger generations. I’m not writing in order to erase the merits bestowed upon "The Normal Heart" (it does boast a stable of great ensemble acting and has some poignant moments), nor do I intend to argue that "Longtime Companion" is a flawless film.  I’m writing because I notice that our queer culture is evolving into one of erasure and second-hand consumption, meaning that a majority of this younger generation prefers a rehashing of cultural staples instead of seeking out those staples themselves.

The two films bear many similarities to one another: they both open on Fire Island, they are studies of gay characters and allies, and they depict the characters’ ongoing struggles with the AIDS epidemic. Yet the two films differ significantly in their executions, with one opting for a more realist (as opposed to formalist) depiction of paranoia and fear, while the other focuses more on a stylized adaptation of the source material’s politicized anger. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way the two films depict death. "Longtime Companion" observes death from a distanced perspective, exploring Sean’s (Mark Lamos) hallowed face as his lover, David (Bruce Davidson), tells him to “let go.” "The Normal Heart" uses canted angles and rapid editing when characters become severely ill, placing the viewers into the character’s mindset (Craig – played by Jonathan Groff – has many of these moments, in spite of his brief screen time).  The films also differ in the ways their characters deliver eulogies. Norman René frames Willy (Campbell Scott) in a medium shot as he delivers a heart-felt speech about his friend David. Ryan Murphy uses the audio of Tommy’s (Jim Parsons) emotional speech about his Roledex of deceased friends, rarely giving the audience a close-up/medium shot of Tommy at the podium (Murphy instead explores the church, the casket, and a scene of Tommy doing that which he is describing). The only moments when the two films swap their realist and formalist tendencies are during their finales: René shows a tearful reunion on the beach between the living characters and their deceased friends, while Murphy lingers on the grieving Ned (Mark Ruffalo) as he watches couples dancing during Yale’s “Gay Week.” Both films make you feel the same emotional impact, but for different reasons: René focuses more on the body language of his actors, and their interactions with their surroundings, whereas Murphy creates a frenetic energy out of rapid editing and shouted lines of dialogue.

Ruffalo and Kitsch in 'The Normal Heart'
Ruffalo and Kitsch in 'The Normal Heart'

My personal issue with Murphy’s influence (not only in "The Normal Heart," but in all of his projects) is his inability to let things exist in their own context. He reappropriates cultural influences (songs, films, etc) and repackages them for easy consumption. Who needs to listen to a Cyndi Lauper or a Barbra Streisand song when you can listen to a “Glee” cover? Who needs to watch "Rosemary’s Baby" when you can watch the first season of “American Horror Story”? And who needs to watch "Longtime Companion" when you can watch "The Normal Heart"? It is postmodern pastiche at its most extreme, catering to a culture that does not actively seek these images and representations, but will gladly accept a second-hand copy. Dermot Mulroney put it best during the Q&A following the screening of "Longtime Companion": "Companion" was immersed in the climate of the AIDS epidemic (many members of the crew, including the director, had AIDS and died during or after the production of the film), while "The Normal Heart" (in spite being written by Larry Kramer during the height of the AIDS epidemic) is considered a period piece. René’s film has an immediacy to its subject matter because the AIDS crisis was occurring during the production, whereas Murphy creates a distanced perspective that allows younger LGBTQ generations to explore a foreign time period. Yet in creating this distanced perspective, it also creates a notion that this particular struggle belonged to them (the older generation), not to us (the younger generation).

The generational gap reveals an inherent schism between each generation’s cultural struggles. Though our generation is fighting for marriage equality, we live in a post-“Will and Grace,” post- “Ellen,” post-“Queer as Folk” world in which we are consistently inundated with media, articles, and images of our LGBTQ selves. During the production of "Longtime Companion," those images were scarce and (for the most part) stigmatized. Before films like "Philadelphia," accepting a gay role could bring an end to an actor’s career, yet these actors (both straight and gay) participated in a production that openly addressed the need to see LGBTQ characters on the screen. A faction of this younger generation is unintentionally ignorant to the power of these images, and a majority of queer youths seek these rehashings and reproductions without knowing that they are such (many of my friends didn’t even know that John Waters made "Hairspray" before Adam Shankman adapted the Broadway play into a film). They are accepting these second-hand accounts as first hand depictions, ignoring the struggles that actors and filmmakers had to endure in order to make these landmark films.

What was an off the cuff remark by a woman eating an artichoke salad slowly became a realization that my generation is letting these cultural relics collect dust. They are important films because they are firsthand accounts of struggles, both personal and collective, that an entire generation had to endure. We are indebted to films like "Longtime Companion," which bravely showed these images when very few mainstream films (other than documentaries) were depicting these issues. Yet the film is slowly becoming a relic of the past, one that won’t play to younger crowds unless it is streaming on Netflix.

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