The long-awaited adaptation of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play, The Normal Heart, premiered on HBO this week and is available on HBO GO. Directed by Ryan Murphy, it chronicles the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York circa 1981. Its very existence is a small miracle in itself since the rights for many years lay in the hands of Barbra Streisand and apparently she and Kramer fought over how detailed her version would be. That Kramer himself is alive to see the movie is also a miracle since his health has been compromised for decades due to his HIV-positive status and intestinal complications.
Taylor Kitsch is in it. He was born the year in which the events of the movie happened. And Matt Bomer, star of USA’s White Collar, is also in it. He was four when AIDS first appeared in New York. Jonathan Groff was born in 1985 and by then AIDS had exploded. Julia Roberts and Mark Ruffalo also co-star but the three men I’ve mentioned were children when The Normal Heart premiered on Broadway. This fact strikes me because it’s hard for many young people today to imagine what life was like for the gay community back then who had to deal with the double whammy of a ravishing disease that doctors knew very little about and the initial silent response (and in some cases mockery) on the part of the government. Official nonchalance in the face of what would soon be a holocaust is exactly what spurred Kramer and his fellow activists to found ACT UP, a militant group dedicated to loudly raising the public’s awareness of AIDS and establish a cogent health policy, any policy really, targeting the disease. Needless to say that gays today live in a much different America than in the eighties. The right of gays to marry and adopt has been established in many states, gays can now serve openly in our military, and homophobia (I prefer the term heterosexism) is routinely denounced on social media and normal everyday conversations in much of America. But, as Kramer repeatedly points out, even today there is much to do.
Kramer himself is a polarizing personality. The Malcolm X of the gay struggle, he’s a firebrand who doesn’t hesitate to scorch his fellow AIDS “activists” with the same intensity as he does phony or duplicitous government officials. In fact, he often lambasts activists far more harshly. In them he sees hypocrits and traitors, people who happily settle for the few crumbs that society drops to the LGBT community rather than insist on their rightful place at the table. He is also unapologetically gay. In an interview, he explained that his fight with Streisand centered on the depiction of gay sex in Streisand’s version of The Normal Heart. Streisand had the general public’s sensibilities to think about while Kramer wanted full-on graphic gay sex, the kind that straight people have had access to in mainstream Hollywood films. Kramer is clearly a unique figure in our American history and if he is not personally warm and fuzzy, his loud and sometimes vicious attacks on the enemies of his cause are to be admired and (dare I say?) emulated.
Kramer has loudly staked out the far end of the rhetorical spectrum. He is intentionally provocative, saying things like, “George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were gay.” Though, I assume, he means not with each other. The primary aim for an activist in Kramer’s position is attention. And this is particularly important within the AIDS movement because as he points out in The Normal Heart, the government did not even acknowledge AIDS for many years. “Ronald Reagan didn’t say the word ‘AIDS’ until 1987” is one of Kramer’s truest quotes.
And so I wondered, with so little progress being made on behalf of the most beleaguered in our society (the poor, women, people of color, the mentally ill, veterans) where are the Larry Kramers on issues of race? On issues of social justice? Why aren’t there more firebrands poking their fingers into official eyes as Kramer once so famously did? Where is the passion within liberals that we see in the frenetic eyes of Tea Party acolytes throughout the U.S.?
Kramer’s kind of vocal extremism is essential to public discourse. Just as the Tea Party has moved the dial to the right in conservative circles, so must we have left-leaning extremists so that other progressives may safely move the needle leftward. Between the two extremes is where most of us live and the people with the loudest harshest voices give cover to those of us that want to compromise and explore social policy in the middle. Extremists show us where the limits are and give definite boundaries to the discussion. By inflaming passions they conversely take a little of the hot air out of conversations and cathartically take on the emotions of an argument themselves. What remains is the real-world nuts and bolts molding of policy, not sexy but necessary.
Part of the reason that these kinds of people don’t exist in other social issues, I imagine, is that few people are touched by these issues in such a personal life-and-death way as Kramer was. Kramer lived in New York in the eighties among a gay community that was decimated by a disease that seemingly struck with no warning and devastated with such ferocity that it’s hard to imagine any other community being allowed to die off without comment as they were. Kramer took the government’s apathy personally, a signal to him that his community did not matter. The general belief at the time was that gay deaths were trivial and the natural byproducts of a filthy and immoral existence. We continue to see this same judgement being passed over the years on different communities. For example, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people talk about inner-city crime as something the communities bring upon themselves. What do you expect, they say, they’re animals.
Perhaps the most depressing reason that figures like Kramer are largely absent from the public policy arena is the lack of money and access that firebrands have. It takes a true rebel, one who is not only outside the margins of the fight but who is comfortable being there, to lob molotov cocktails into the conversation. Nowadays the scramble for political attention is defined by money and access to the people who can make policy changes. One very real possible outcome of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling is that smaller organizations (to say nothing of individuals) trying to reach politicians will be muscled out by larger organizations. I’m sorry, the Senator has no time for your small community organization. Large interstate body with millions in your coffers? Right this way! And sadly large organizations will by definition be watered down and reflect mainstream interests. You have to in order to represent so many people’s interests. People on the margins, on the other hand, will always be fewer and their representatives, given the chance, will quickly jump to any mainstream organization that will have them, thus ensuring that the numbers of people fighting for those on the margins stay small. So even the best, brightest, and most outside-the-box-thinking activist would be a fool to pass up a mainstream organization that has a staff, a budget, and access already in place. In short, these potential Larry Kramers are co-opted and their causes, accordingly, have their wings clipped.
There is one hope for those of us that crave the kind of fiery activism that awakens the public consciousness of America and it lies in social media. Social media can be the great equalizer that negates a larger organization’s superior funding and access. A viral video, like the recent appearance of President Obama on Zach Galifinakis’s Between Two Ferns, can create a tornado of online hype that not only reaches millions but spurs them to action (in this case a jump in Obamacare sign-ups). Social media doesn’t require certain numbers of pepole to show up to your rallies. It isn’t dependent upon a certain number of credentialed media to cover your press conferences. It also insulates you from the kind of hatred and vitriol that face-to-face encounters might bring, if such things even matter to an activist. Of course, social media invites all sorts of other vitriol and trolling, but as Kramer would probably say, if you aren’t hated nor being spat upon then you’re not doing it right.
About ten years ago my roommate and I settled into the front row of the balcony of Washington, DC’s Uptown theater. The largest screen in the city was showing the rereleased director’s cut of Alien. Shamefully I had never seen the movie in its entirety and because I had seen its most famous scenes over the years, I wondered if somehow time and my diminished expectations would stand in the way of my enjoyment. Then the lights went down. And what followed, as anyone who has seen the movie can tell you, was one of the most terrifying experiences of my entire life. I was delighted.
There is a lot in the film that contributes magnificently to the Alien experience. The slow unraveling exposition, the sound, the music, the incredible star-making turns by Sigourney Weaver and the doomed crew of the Nostromo all contribute perfectly to the sense of mounting dread that the Alien telegraphed in the title will indeed be the most horrifying thing in the universe. When he finally appears, it’s worse than even your imagination could fathom. The alien is a dark snarling dildo of a monster that is covered in goo. It was literally out of this world and unlike anything seen in a Hollywood movie then or since.
In order to outwit your imagination, an imagination greater than yours must be at work. And that imagination belonged to the Swiss visionary, H.R. Giger. His death on Tuesday at the age of 74 leaves a unique legacy that includes movies, furniture, tatoos, and even a failed Tokyo cafe.
Born in 1940 to parents who wanted him to study pharmaceuticals, Giger eventually began to work with traditional media like ink and oils. HIs style is the essence of science fiction, the melding of human form and technology. What he called “biomechanics”, we would call nighmarish. His black monochromatic work showed outsized heads and necks, teeth and fingers, that blended with phallic machinery. Often you weren’t quite sure what you were looking at, but it was unlike anything you had ever seen. It’s no wonder that he easily designed microphones, weapons, and album covers that showcased the terrifying unity of organic beings and the efficient machinery that lies in our future. He was perfect to design the Alien.
In the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, we meet Giger as an aging eccentric, a man for whom speech is difficult. He looks the part of a madman who created some of film’s most indelible characters. It was while attempting to film Dune in the early 70s that Giger met Dan O’Bannon. Though that movie never happened, the two would later collaborate on Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979 and its success would change cinema forever.
There is a Giger museum in Switzerland and I, for once, hope there is an afterflife. Can you imagine the visions and dreams that are swirling inside Giger’s head now?
Frankie Knuckles sought to make the dancefloor a refuge from all the bullshit in the real world. How, he wondered, could you make safety last forever…or at least until the morning hours?
In the seventies where there wasn’t much in the way of dance records (not the kind we know today anyway), he made do with what he had: disco, soul, R&B, jazz, and yes, even rock records. You could play one song after another, but how to keep the really dancey parts, the beats, going? Two records on two turntables, but that wasn’t enough. He wanted to add more parts.
And so Frankie loved the dancefloor so much that he played reel-to-reels for the masses. And it was grand.
House music, the music he created and so named after the Warehouse (the Chicago club where he began spining in 1977), like hip hop, is a lifestyle. Sure, you can merely dabble. A bachelor party. Or New Year’s. Or whatever special occassion you allow yourself once a year. Special because you know it will end and the next day it’s back to your life, back to your job, back to your blah.
But true house heads know that the dancefloor is more than a mere stopover. It’s the destination, where you congregate and share not just your best (or worst) moves but the entirety of yourself. It’s a community of peacocks in human form. The dancefloor is where friendships are made, kisses are exchanged and if you’re lucky, your soul flies free.
Whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t like songs that go thump, thump, thump. It’s too repetitive”, they’re missing the point. The point is to get lost in the repetition, to find solace in the beats, to let your mind and body float off into the ether. To enter (here comes a bad word) a trance. Like the ecstatics of ancient Israel who would go out into the desert and chant non-stop in the searing heat until they hallucinated and found communion with their god.
On these enveloping dancefloors, you became a part of something so natural and beautiful that when you returned to the real world, you looked at other people as if THEY were crazy and living on the outside of society. How, you wanted to scream at everyday people on the street, can you not want to be a part of the boundless love and energy and acceptance that you experience at a night out with other people who look nothing like you but are really just like you?! But you don’t scream. You smile and maybe listen to your Walkman and count down the hours until you’re among your people again.
The grand masters of any art need lucky as much as brilliance. Their art must hit at the right moment and that’s what makes Frankie Knuckles so special. He saw a need and wanted to do something about it and filled a void in our culture at the perfect time. He reasoned that people on the margins of society should have a place to be themselves, to be free. The crazier the better.
And so it was, a visionary black gay man from the Bronx began to play records to groups of sweaty gay men in places like Continental Baths on West 74th. And when the opportunity presented itself for Frankie to move to Chicago in 1977, he jumped at it and unknowingly began a journey that would change music, pop culture, and partying forever. You only need to look at the huge impact of electronic music in festivals, concert halls, and stadiums worldwide to understand his legacy.
The news yesterday of the death of Frankie Knuckles dots the final sentence in the book of genesis for house music. Every party has to end. And that’s a hard thing to accept. Frankie Knuckles was, and will always be, The Creator of house music. No genre of music is solely attributed to one person but house.
Frankie made house. This house. And we all now live in it.
There’s no cult surrounding the books of Thomas Harris like the kind surrounding other crime authors. Harris writes about the behavioral science investigators of the FBI who look into the darkest corners of the human mind. In addition to being murderous and incapable of stopping, the serial killers of Harris’s books have a flair for sadistic ritual killings and dramatic presentation of the bodies. Not the kinds of things you want to rehash and examine with a book club.
You’ve undoubtedly heard of Harris’s greatest contribution to pop culture, the villain Hannibal Lecter. Played most famously by Anthony Hopkins, his first on-screen appearance was by Bryan Cox in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, the first of two adaptations of Harris’s Red Dragon.
Red Dragon chronicles the investigation by Will Graham, an FBI agent whose sophisticated sense of empathy allows him to enter the minds of serial killers. During the investigation he must play mental chess with Lecter, a psychiatrist who once helped him but turned out to be a pyschopath himself.
Now Hannibal, the T.V. show on NBC, chronicles how Lecter and Graham met and how their lives and minds would be forever intertwined. It was created by Bryan Fuller (of the excellent Pushing Daises) and can easily lay claim to the goriest, most graphic show ever on network television. Assuming that’s your cup of tea, here are three more reasons why you should tune in to the season two premiere tonight.
1) The Guest Stars
Here are a just a few examples. Gillian Anderson as Lecter’s therapist. That’s right…Dana Scully is head-shrinking Lecter. Eddie Izzard as another insane doctor who is seemingly keeping Lecter’s cell warm for him. Raúl Esparza as Dr. Frederick Chilton (yes, Lecter has him many times for dinner). And Mobius himself, Laurence Fishbourne, as Jack Crawford, Will Graham’s mentor and enabler. And these are the people you know. Several other actors are stars in the making, like Hugh Dancy (who plays Graham), Caroline Dhavernas (as Dr. Alana Bloom) and Gina Torres as Bella Crawford.
2) The Pedigree of the Directors
T.V. isn’t really a director’s medium, but try to tell me that the horrific Grand Guignol artistry and look of the show doesn’t have the fingerprints of masters like Guillermo Navarro (the cinematographer for Guillermo Del Toro), John Dahl (who directed Red Rock West and The Last Seduction), and British legend, Peter Medak, all over them. Let’s see who they bring aboard for season two.
3) Mads Mikkelson. Obviously.
The world I dream about has enough money to remake Casino Royale and this time swap roles between its leads. Daniel Craig will play a Bond villain and Mads Mikkesen is James Bond. Smooth, with an impassive face, he betrays nothing of the danger that awaits. He is a killer at the ready. That is essentially how he plays Lecter. No Hopkins hamming here. This is the face of sophisticated evil. The beautiful death incarnate.