A Normal Heart Viewing Party: Two Generations of Gay Men Watch the Past Turn Into the Future on HBO

By Avram Finkelstein
27 May 2014

Avram Finkelstein
Avram Finkelstein

Two gay men of different generations — artist and activist Avram Finkelstein, a founding member of the collective responsible for Silence=Death and AIDSGATE, and theatremaker and author Dan Fishback — sat down to watch the HBO screen premiere of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart.

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When Playbill.com editor in chief Adam Hetrick asked me to write something for Playbill.com, I knew I wanted to write about the moment we find ourselves in: a period of advances in HIV treatment, counter-balanced by decades of Draconian HIV criminalization case law, and a growing interest in the story of the early days of AIDS.

And here's my thing about that last one: All I can think about is how to take the lessons of the past and apply them to the future during this rare moment of intergenerational overlap, between those who witnessed it firsthand and the generation who has inherited this struggle.

And then it hit me, what if I had a viewing party for the HBO movie version of The Normal Heart with pal, playwright and performance artist Dan Fishback, whose thirtynothing (his 2011 play, which he is now adapting into a book) is a personal view of this moment from his generation's perspective? I thought something might be revealed if we compared notes.

Boy, was I surprised by what was.

Dan: I don't even know where to begin. I don't think either of us was prepared for how intense it would be to watch this film together. I think we were both expecting to see some glossy, fluffy cartoon of AIDS history, but as we were watching, I found it difficult to even consider the film's politics or aesthetics because what was happening in the room was much more meaningful than what was happening on screen. I was experiencing you experiencing the movie, and thinking about the memories it brought up for you — the ones you shared with me and also the ones I imagined you were contemplating. So, first of all: Are you okay? And second of all: What do you think happened? You told me you've seen movies about early AIDS before without getting emotional. What was different about this one?

Avram: I'm trying to figure it out myself. I was completely blindsided. I went into it feeling extremely removed — I even said to you, "I'm not really sure what we'll have to talk about. We're going to have the same political take on it," as if it would be an abstract exercise and neither of us had made the densely layered meanings of HIV/AIDS our life's work.

And when I saw the Fire Island travelogue opening, a wall went up. It seemed bloodless, and that was not my world at all. I'd never even been there until after I was in ACT UP, and then only once. But after we'd begun our requisite critiques of the period inaccuracies, we started to compare notes about the stage versions we'd seen. And while I was telling you about the production I'd seen at the Lucille Lortel [Theatre], which was after I'd met Larry [Kramer], I remembered I'd seen it with my boyfriend, Steve Webb, who killed himself right after that, and how Larry blamed himself for it, and I'd written his eulogy on Larry's computer because I didn't have one and was afraid to go back to Steve's apartment and use his old IBM DOS system that looked like a submarine navigation system.

I was human aspic from that point on, and realized that even though I had a completely different experience of my boyfriend Don's illness and dying than Larry was having across town, it was a vanity to pretend I had no dog in the fight, that I could view it objectively, and it wouldn't be riddled with subtext for me.

And what about you? You went in girded for battle, same as I did, but were wiping away tears in no time. What was happening for you? That couldn't all have been because of me.



Continued...

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