A.I.D.S. Recollections, Cinema, and Hope
Jerry Tartaglia, 2018
Published in O virus-cinema: Cinema queer e VIH /sida. Translated into Portuguese for Queer Lisboa, 2018, by Joao Ferreira.
What would be a polite, academic opening for an article about Experimental Cinema during the height of the A.I.D.S. crisis in America?
Should we begin by replicating fear, denial, lack of interest, and silence? How does one show silence on the printed page?
Are there a few platitudes that can be summoned to help dispel the anguish that was felt by the men who saw their human identity destroyed by the passive violence of their self-righteous countrymen?
Should we perhaps strike a more conciliatory tone, and thank the mainstream religious groups for all the good work that they did in assisting with the memorial services and cremations?
Maybe I should drop some names of Filmmakers, Artists, Museum Curators, Film Programmers. I could score some points for the advancement of my “career” if I give free advertising space to people who could be of assistance in furthering the illusion of “artistic success.”
Or, conversely, I could begin by recalling the lack of courage and the careerist mentality of the many politicians, medical workers, and leaders of American cultural institutions: those who stood by in silence as a generation of Gay men went to their deaths, taking with them the real heritage of Gay Culture.
No, such an opening would be too negative, critical, and unproductive. And I am too old to try to do battle with a History that has been reedited, revised, rewritten and remixed into the normative hetero culture. So let me adjure you, my reader, that you need not accept the comments that I make, for I am now an old Gay man of a lost generation. I will soon become a Senex. I am an anomaly who survived the cultural genocide that was wrought upon Queer Culture. You may disregard these words because they may not fit neatly into the heterocentric paradigm. But please, just remain aware that the hetero paradigm itself is founded upon false premises and assumptions. It will fall, and take you with it, if you are not awake.
The premise of hetero culture has been etched into the twisted psyche of Western Civilization. It is a tool through which Queer Culture is bridled and brought under control every time there is an expression of Queer Freedom.
There were outbursts of Queer consciousness in Berlin in the 1920s, in America in the 1970s, and globally in the 2000s. But whenever and wherever we dare to blossom, the hetero Culture does its best to shun, ostracize and delegitimize.
I was always fascinated by the fact that Underground Cinema seemed so intimately connected to an outlaw sexual sensibility. Yet, most of the writing about Avant-Garde Cinema was more concerned with its formal elements and other academic issues. So in 1977 I wrote the first known article on the “Gay Sensibility” in American Avant Garde Film. Needless to say it was poo-pooed at the time because “gay” was defined ONLY as an act of homosex. Therefore it had no relevancy to anyone or anything beyond its orgasmic function – certainly not a topic for critical analysis by a filmmaker.
That heterocentric assumption changed dramatically in the early 1980s when it began to dawn on straight Americans that the happy bubble which protected them from A.I.D.S. was nonexistent. Suddenly they were VERY interested in what we were doing with our bodies. Doctors, Cops, Ministers, Mothers, Politicians, Pop Stars and all the rest were now free to poke their curious faces into our lives, bodies, and orgasms.
But since the Heterocentric world view does not comprehend the connections that exist among Queer sexualities, human spirit, and cultural invention, they missed the point completely and helped to set back the evolution of consciousness.
We were told that the erasure of Queer Spirit was only taking place for our own good. It was a medical issue and had nothing whatsoever to do with “moral questions.” At the same time we were being told that this was “god’s punishment,” that sexual practices had to be monitored, and public sexual activities prohibited.
Everyone seemed to have a “morally neutral” idea to help the crisis. William F. Buckley Jr. (a now dead crypto-fascist writer and commentator, and founder of The National Review) suggested that the penises of all gay men be tattooed so that anyone who got that close would be forewarned!
Straight America was in full psychological warfare mode against Gay men and our Lesbian sisters. It was a “mind fucking” involving Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson and others.
While all this was happening in the early 80s, the newly formed “Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual” Film Festivals were struggling with the issue of positive representations of LGB characters in mainstream narrative films. The short films in most festivals were Coming Out Stories.
Underground, experimental, and politically radical films were not part of the early LGB Festival movement because most of the festivals followed the marketplace. Rather than lead the audiences by educating and challenging the assimilationist mindset, the festival programmers subscribed to the Commercial model: sell tickets and give the audience its sentimental fantasy. Movies are about entertainment; not tools for political or social change.
Similarly, the mainstream cultural institutions that exhibited avant-garde cinema were very slow to recognize radical Queer Cinema. It was only in January of 1989 (eight years into the epidemic) that the Whitney Museum of American Art became the first American institution to exhibit such works in “A.I.D.S.: Counter-representations,” curated by Lucinda Furlong.
It was within this context that The New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival was created in 1988 and morphed into MIX NYC. Experimental filmmaker, Jim Hubbard together with writer, Sarah Schulman, successfully unearthed, rediscovered and exhibited the radically inventive films that survive today.
Three of my films, A.I.D.S.C.R.E.A.M. (1988), Ecce Homo (1989), and Final Solutions (1990) have the distinction of being part of that era. They were all shot on 16mm film and used the J-K Optical Printer to create visual language that helped to push the viewer beyond the linear story mode. I intended for these visual codes or tropes to impact the viewer and subconsciously suggest the multi-dimensionality of Queer Consciousness.
Optical printing was painstakingly detailed and took a very long time! It was a single frame-by-frame rephotography process. Today, it can be easily replicated with Adobe AfterEffects or other software. For example, the simultaneous action of a four section split screen as seen in Ecce Homo, is now a part of our common visual language. In 1989, however, its effect was more startling and difficult to achieve.
Coincidently, unknown to either of us, Barbara Hammer created her film, Still Point, in the same year (1989) using the same process. I believe that this is an example of the Collective Queer Consciousness at work.
Ecce Homo (1989) uses re-photographed images from 8mm & Super homosex films along with some from Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour. The visual effect suggests that the eye of the voyeuristic guard in Genet’s film is the eye of the viewer of Ecce Homo. The soundtrack consists of a commanding run-on sentence, or two, that attempts to distract the viewer from the orgasmic imagery and think about the equation of police with doctor, and homosex as a poison that is subject to control.
That film is an outgrowth of A.I.D.S.C.R.E.A.M. (1988) which drew the connections between “morality” and the medical issues surrounding HIV infection. It rather bluntly stated that the HIV Test was being used as a psychological warfare weapon against gay men. The ambiguity of one’s HIV status was used to instill fear. It was an attempt to desexualize Gay Culture. To a Heterocentric mind, it may seem reasonable to presume that homosex can somehow be erased from conscious identity. The film asks us to reclaim the power of our desire.
The last film in the trilogy, Final Solutions (1990) is centered more upon the cultural effects of the epidemic in four short sections: “Commodity Trading,” “Germ Theory,” “Disease Management,” and “Discovery.” When we live in a consumerist culture, we are forced to either accept the identity that is imposed upon us and forsake our conscious Queer Spirit or resist the madness and recognize that we are a part of a continuum of life.
An honest recollection of Queer history requires resilience in the face of pain, and the strength to understand the machinations of the forces of evil. Yes, I believe that there is evil in this world. Every time we choose assimilation, we are complying with the culture of oppression and its horrors.
But as individual Queers living in the present and experiencing our personal histories, we create the possibility of hope. In a sane world there would be Art without Artists. We can connect with one another and reject the isolationism and false security of individual “success” in singular lives. The mythology of Heterocentrism will one day fade away as humanity evolves into our Queer and Collective nature.
Jerry Tartaglia, 2018