How to Surive a Plague Inspires

How to Survive a Plague (2012)
Directed by David France.
Public Square Films, 120 minutes, Not-rated.
* * * *

When A.I.D.S. first showed up in 1981, diagnosis was a death sentence. That was just fine by conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, and George H. Bush, who were willing to see it as God’s punishment upon immoral homosexuals. And then Rock Hudson died of the disease and Magic Johnson contracted it. So too did heterosexual men and women. When middle school student Ryan White, a hemophiliac, came down with AIDS, even bigots found it expedient to keep their mouths shut. Inexorably, the stigma attached to AIDS began to erode (though they never disappeared totally). Millions perished, but by 1995, an effective drug cocktail treatment plan was in place that dramatically prolonged the lives of HIV positive individuals.

As David France’s Oscar-nominated film shows, don’t applaud science–give the credit to the activists that forced drug companies, public officials, and the National Institutes of Health to research the disease, end the demonization of homosexuals, and speed clinical trial approval. France’s film centers on New York City and the activities of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group). It’s not an easy film to watch and its graphic images of final-stage victims are often sickening. It’s positively heartbreaking to watch the transformation of ACT UP spokesperson Bob Raferty from a robust beefcake to a deathbed stick figure in just three years. Nor is it comforting to contemplate that AIDS still has no cure and that millions still die because they can’t afford the medicine that can save them.

We care deeply about Raferty because filmmaker David France understands the need to personalize the AIDS crisis. Just as Hudson, Johnson, White, Freddie Mercury and a few other high-profile cases awoke the collective conscious of a nation, so too does France take New York’s large gay community and personalize AIDS by focusing on a handful of individual stories. Call it an Olympics profile style if you will, but it’s effective. Segments are linked by flashing each new year while a counter of AIDS-related deaths clicks away in the background. France’s technique puts human faces to otherwise sterile numbers.

How to Survive a Plague tackles a depressing subject, yet it’s ultimately upbeat and inspiring. Among its many virtues is that it demonstrates the power of citizen advocacy  at a time in which cynicism over the efficacy of politics is skyrocketing. Think individuals can’t make a difference? Tell that to activists who recall the day they met Iris Long, a frumpy straight housewife from Queens. She also happened to be a trained chemist and righteously angry that people were dying and nobody was doing anything about it. She appeared at an ACT UP meeting, told the mostly male crowd that they didn’t know what they were talking about, showed them how to put science into their rhetoric, and challenged them to develop their own treatment plan if nobody else would. From her challenge, TAG was born and, by the early 1990s, the NIH, Merck, and others wanted TAG representatives on their boards. 

The film is also an antidote to the no-we-can’t crowd that thinks everyone should fend themselves and that problems won’t be solved by spending money on them. Nonsense! We went from knowing nothing about AIDS in 1981 to AZT trials in three years, and a very effective treatment plan in 14–not quick enough for Bob Raferty, but enough to save the lives of playwright Jim Eigo, writer Larry Kramer, and former broker-turned TAG activist Peter Staley. If you think that these drugs came about through anything less than tens of millions of taxpayer dollars added to the private money, you probably also still think AIDS is the “gay disease.”

For the record, the film is just as hard on the brand of mushy-headed “Yes We Can” liberalism that thinks good intentions and petitions will win the day. ACT UP was often coarse and ill informed, but its “Yes You Damned Well Will!” tactics ultimately triumphed. Watching the film made me wonder what would happen if women with breast cancer stormed the gates of the NIH, or if individuals lacking health care coverage held cough-ins in the halls of Congress. ACT UP is testimony to what desperate people can accomplish if they get organized instead of getting depressed.-- Rob Weir


Summer of Love Posters on Show until September 15

Take a deep look inside 1960s posters.

If you’re going to Smith College before September 15, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. By all means, be sure to see the colorful–and I do mean colorful–exhibit “Summer of Love: Psychedelic Posters from the SCMA.” As advertised, it’s a collection of great rock posters, most of which come from the San Francisco Bay area from the 1967 Summer of Love. It features works from acclaimed graphic artists such as Alton Kelley, Rick Griffin, Bonnie MacLean, Peter Max, Victor Moscoso, Stanely Mouse, and Wes Wilson.

You will notice that I used the term graphic artists. Many of the SCMA (Smith College Museum of Art) images are, on the surface, mere advertising props for music concerts, especially those at the Fillmore West or at Family Dog Productions venues. Ahh, but look deeper. Among the many ways in which the history of the 1960s is misremembered is the myriad ways in which the period is stereotyped as one of stoned, vacuous hippies. Only a blind fool would deny that drugs were a big part of the 1960s–and an entire section of the exhibit is devoted to images devoted to the glories and of controlled substances–but to reduce the era to an orgy of wild child trippiness is to miss the day-glo bus on many levels. In a far more profound sense, the 1960s were about new ways of “seeing,” be they chemically induced visions, challenges to the traditional social norms, probing critiques of politics, sonic explorations, or spiritual journeys. Among those individuals that knocked down old walls were African Americans, women, young people, and artists. The imagination of poster artist Victor Moscoso, for instance, was fueled more by Diego Rivera and the Bauhaus movement than by LSD. Look carefully at Wes Wilson’s images and amidst the block letters, the swirling images, and the bright colors you’ll see Art Deco and Art Nouveau. In many respects, 60s poster artists anticipated today’s mash-up culture. In the case of Peter Max, he did so literally by assembling collage images of all manner of things that wouldn’t normally go together, but which magically create a harmonious statement. (You will definitely see Max’s influence on Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam.)

The SCMA show is divided into several major sections: aesthetics, the counterculture, drugs, and music. One side exhibit features a few black light posters, and another is a running video loop of outtakes from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, which was the era’s musical signature event–Woodstock’s outsized reputation notwithstanding. (It will also remind you what an amazing band The Byrds were.) The explanatory texts are insightful, though I do have quibbles with curator Aprile Gallant’s incomplete take on the counterculture. The counterculture comes off as too much about LSD and hippies (Ginsburg, the Human Be-In, acid tests) and not enough about politics. (Where are the Diggers? The San Francisco State and UCal Berkeley student protests? The antiwar movement?) To be sure, the Summer of Love had a turn-on vibe, but by the fall the party petered out and other issues rose to prominence. Can we finally get it straight and understand that hippies were a small part of the counterculture, not its essence?  

Still, the SCMA “Summer of Love” show is–if I might–a groovy trip. It’s well worth an impulsive trip to Northampton. Freak out among the colors. Enjoy the music. If you’re of a certain age, take a nostalgia trip. But also take some time to appreciate the fact that you are standing in a room of wondrous art objects that just happen to involve unconventional subjects. One wonders if we shall ever see such likes again. Stand in the middle of the room and try to imagine any of this on a CD cover or an MP3 download.  --Rob Weir

Reminder: This show closes September 15, and then the Age of Aquarius goes back into storage. 

Postscript: More images from this exhibit can be viewed on my Facebook page.


Ryan Dempster Should Be Suspended

Yeah--you--Dempster. You're as big a jerk as the guy you threw at. 

I’m a Yankees fan but, like millions of others, I dislike Alex Rodriguez. If you ask me whether or not I think he has used PEDs and other substances banned since 2005, I’d say he probably did. I would hasten to say, though, that I can’t prove that–and it’s possible that Major League Baseball can’t either. Like Lance Armstrong, there’s a lot more innuendo than material evidence ,and Rodriguez strikes me as such an egoist that I’d certainly not hold my breath waiting for an Armstrong-like come-to-Jesus confessional. 

For all of what I suspect about Rodriguez, the guys playing the he said/he-said accusation game are no more credible than A-Rod. Unless there’s a smoking syringe out there with datable A-Rod DNA on it, I’d not be surprised to see A-Rod beat the rap. It happens–bad guys with good lawyers beat charges even if they’re actually guilty as hell. But for all the flaws of official channels, be they league standards or the legal system, they beat the alternative: vigilante justice.

This brings me to a guy who proved himself as big a horse’s posterior as Rodriguez could ever prove to be: Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster. In case you missed it, in the second inning of last night’s Red Sox-Yankees matchup, Dempster through his first pitch at A-Rod’s knee. On a 3-0 count, he hit him on the elbow and side. The tape on this shows the obvious: Dempter’s pitches didn’t get away; he was playing headhunter. Home plate umpire Brain O’Nora blew the call–Dempster should have been ejected immediately. Instead, Yankees Manager Joe Girardi was tossed for giving O’Nora the cursing out he so richly deserved. The next trip to the plate, Rodriguez blasted a Dempster pitch over the centerfield fence, which just goes to prove that at this stage of their careers a diminished Rodriguez remains a better hitter than Dempster is pitcher. And it certainly proves that he has more pride.

Plunking A-Rod makes Dempster a folk hero in some circles, but it shouldn’t. Vigilante justice is never a substitute for the real thing. Who is Ryan Dempster to think that he is the guy to deliver A-Rod’s just desserts? .) A-Rod is a major distraction, maybe even a disgrace, but he has the right to appeal and confront the evidence (or lack thereof) against him. Maybe someone out to remind Dempster that his own union, the Players’ Association, negotiated such an agreement. Now the ball is in Joe Torre’s mitt. As Executive VP for Baseball Operations, it’s his job to review the tape and determine whether or not Dempster should be suspended. One can think what one wishes about Alex Rodriguez, but if Torre is interested in playing by the rules rather than yielding to lynch mob mentality, he ought to rescind Joe Girardi’s fine and suspend Ryan Dempster for at least ten games. (Fifteen would be not be inappropriate.) Until A-Rod’s fate is settled by due process, Torre needs to nip in the bud vigilante behavior such as Dempster’s.

To all Red Sox fans flooding the talk radio shows in defense of your folk hero, consider this. What if Dempster does get the 10-15 game suspension he deserves and misses a few starts? He’s not a great pitcher–he never was; he’s 130-133 lifetime and his ERA is well over 4–but in a crucial September series against Tampa or Baltimore, do you want to hand the ball to a not-yet-ready AAA pitcher like Webster or Workman? And what if the Sox miss the pennant by a game and go on to play and lose the one-game Wild Card matchup? How then would you feel about your folk hero? I know the label I’d put on him: jerk.

The Engagements a Flawed, But Shiny Gem

The Engagements (2013)
By J. Courtney Sullivan
Random House
* * *

Although I adored J. Courtney Sullivan’s previous book, Maine, I admit feeling apprehensive about opening The Engagements. True to its title, the novel is about wedding engagements. Sort of–and the “sort of” makes all the difference in the world. My fear was that it would little more than chick-lit. I try to avoid chick-lit, not because it threatens my manhood, but because most of is like sifting through tons of slag in search of a single paragraph that sparkles. Sullivan’s latest is no Hope diamond, but it certainly qualifies as a small, if flawed, gem.

It’s a sprawling novel that skips between time periods: the 1930s through the early 1950s, 1972, 1982, 2003, and 2012. It also blends five stories, sometimes directly, and sometimes tangentially. The sheer number of stories and the constant time jumps make for an inconsistent book, though a fascinating one. The book’s center is Frances Gerety, the woman who invented modern marriage. Think I’m kidding? Gerety was a feminist before most people heard of the word, a high-powered advertising agent in a male-dominated world, and the crackerjack copy writer for N. W. Ayer & Sons who, in a sleep-deprived moment of desperation in 1947, coined the phrase that has come to symbolize modern weddings: “A diamond is forever.” She’s also the one that worked with Ayer client De Beers to determine that an engagement ring ought to cost two months’ salary, and the one that early on helped De Beers cover its “blood diamond” tracks.

Diamonds are the rock upon which Sullivan tethers the four other stories. In 1972, we first meet Evelyn, who is married to Gerald. Their son Teddy has left his wife and taken up with a woman Evelyn perceives to be a floozy. As we soon learn, the gold digger suspicions resurrect some of Evelyn’s demons, as she too was viewed by some as an opportunist for marrying the wealthy Gerald, the best friend of her deceased first husband.

Ten years later we encounter Sheila, James, and their two kids, a hand-to-mouth working-class family from East Cambridge, Massachusetts. In a departure for Sullivan–known for her female protagonists–James is the center of this drama. He’s a hot-tempered but good-hearted pump-the-caffeine E.M.T. wracked with guilt that his house is falling apart, the bills are piling up, and he’s never given Sheila the princess treatment he thinks she deserves. He can’t even afford to pass up overtime to be home during a  Christmas Eve blizzard, let alone treat Sheila as royalty. Maybe a beautiful ring would make her feel better and assuage his guilt. Maybe not.

Jump ahead to 2003 and cross the ocean to Paris, where we met Delphine, who is still drop-dead sexy at age 40. She’s already made some trade-offs in her life, including marrying the older Henri, who was first her business partner in a shop that sells rare instruments. They live in a posh apartment, but Delphine still sees herself as an avant-garde gamin who belongs in a funky section of Montmartre. Enter PJ, a 23-year-old musical savant who is the only person good enough to purchase Henri’s prized Stradivarius. Is the man-child PJ also talented enough to captivate and capture the bored Delphine? Will the ring on her finger seal the deal?

In 2012, we meet Kate, who wants nothing to do with marriage, an institution she finds utterly bourgeois and morally bankrupt. Her partner, Dan, the father of her children, is fine with that, though Kate’s family thinks she’s a vacuous hippie-wannabe. Kate’s crisis comes in the form of her cousin, Jeff, who buys into every last bit of the wedding industry hype. He and his male lover, Toby, are deep into planning an ├╝ber-expensive gay wedding and Kate, who dearly loves them both, finds herself involuntarily thrust into the middle of their Bridezilla madness. As you’ve no doubt surmised, a ring factors into the equation.

Connecting these five stories is quite a challenge and, frankly, Sullivan resorts to contrivances in several cases. Each reader is likely to like certain sections and characters and feel let down elsewhere. I wasn’t all that “engaged” by Evelyn and Gerald, perhaps because Sullivan’s take on 1972 seemed more caricature than substantive. By contrast, my heart went out to James–probably because I know firsthand some of the stacked deck against working-class dreams that frustrated him. I wanted more of Frances, who deserves a book of her own.

A small footnote: No other review has mentioned what seems obvious to me–Sullivan’s “engagements” are not just of the marital sort. This novel probes other links that bind us to one another; among them: family ties, work relationships, friendships, business connections, and consumer culture. And breathe in this irony: Frances Gerety, the woman who made brides crave diamonds, never married.--Rob Weir