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

Dan Fishback

Dan: In a way, it was. I've been studying the early history of HIV/AIDS in NYC's gay community, in one way or another, for the past five years, and most of that time has been defined by isolation. I initially felt very distant from this history, and from this community (or these communities), and I did all of this research and made all of this theatre in order to draw myself closer to my people. And you know, you and I talk about this all the time - that, as Jews, we need to have some sense of history in order to function in the world. That's what I was looking for, and I found it through all these mediated, artificial methods. And now that we are actual friends, in a completely true and natural way, it makes all of my "research" seem kind of silly. Like: instead of going to libraries, I should have just been hanging out with you – or with anyone else who is totally 100 percent alive today, and lived through the events that I wanted to learn about. But I didn't do that because I was scared and shy, and had all sorts of baggage about age that I needed to get over. And this is all just to say that, sitting with you and watching this movie, I'm not thinking about "history," I'm thinking about my friend's dead boyfriends, and wondering if you're okay, and if I should hit pause, or get you a glass of water, or any other normal awkward human stuff that people do.

And the only moment when I felt like the film itself was having that effect on me was in that devastating scene where Joe Mantello's character demands that his defense of gay sexual culture be taken seriously as a legitimate response to homophobia. He keeps saying, "Am I a murderer?" And you can really feel how impossible that seems to him — this historical accident that HIV intersected with gay sexual liberation — all of that monumental horror is so palpable in Joe's performance, and it felt so real.

And I could have watched it alone and felt the same way. Because Joe's performance of Larry's words was just that powerful, and hopefully accomplishes something profound for the majority of viewers who don't have the privilege of, you know, being in your living room.

Avram: That scene was probably the most powerful moment in the movie. But again, I couldn't help but see Larry in there, real-life Larry, not just Larry the polemicist, but Larry at his most human, circling back to forgive that character's frailties and perhaps asking forgiveness himself, for any pain his dogmatism may have caused. It was so layered, and masterful, and we were grappling with who was responsible for the truth in it. Remember, we went back and forth; was it Mantello's generosity as an actor, was it Larry putting his dukes down in the text, was it the director making room, or possibly making choices?

But in the end, didn't you and I also add something to that moment, with everything we have learned as a result of our awareness of the earth-shattering human moment that is HIV/AIDS? Maybe every living room will have its own version of what we just experienced.

And now your comment has me thinking about something else we touched on: This story has nothing to do with my social setting. In the circles I traveled in, we were worried about Klaus Nomi [the influential downtown NYC performance artist and musician who died of AIDS in 1983], or whom we shared needles with. But even though we had different experiences in those early years, I met Larry through ACT UP, and he became an integral part of my life at a moment we both were exorcizing what had happened to us through a shared activism.

So, he was in my living room the whole time I was watching the film, as a touchstone that allowed me to get lost in it. And I was in the room as yours. Now, who wasn't in the room for you?


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