WHAT I WATCHED
|WORDS BY ZEON KANE|
I haven't slept the last few nights. The death - the prolonged, painful death - of a beautiful young Swedish boy has been playing on my mind. Rasmus died from AIDS complications in 1989. But that's too much information, I'm jumping way ahead. Already, you're tuning out. You don't want to think about young gay men dying horrible AIDS deaths; wasting away to skeletons, blinded, riddled with tumours. My own boyfriend - "clean", successful in his career, and In A Relationship (albeit with me, poor sod) - refuses to watch any of the many recent films about AIDS. During Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves, I asked him why, and he said, pointedly, "the danger of a single story", referring to Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk.
So what makes me different? I'm also an '80s baby, and an immigrant kid (twice over) too. Why do I need to dwell on AIDS? I've watched How To Survive A Plague, We Were Here, and Common Threads. I sobbed uncontrollably during HBO's The Normal Heart. I'm a Dallas fan. When I first watched it - on DVD - I Googled the cast, and was devastated to learn how several young, virile male cast members were AIDS victims. I know all about Hemphill, and Mapplethorpe, and Vito, and Gia. And it hurts; it kills me. It leaves a sickening, black hole inside me. Scores of fallen soldiers, lost forever... But still, I have to know more. I greedily devour every new entry in the catalogue. Dallas Buyers Club, Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves... Why, I wonder? Why do I feel the need to subject myself to Longtime Companion? Does facing the past honour the ancestors, the thousands of brothers lost too soon? Does stepping up to the cliff-face, facing the horror of the past head on, no matter how painful, mean something? I don't know, but I have to do it. I have to be a witness.
Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves puts us at Ground Zero, opening with an AIDS victim writhing in agony in a hospital bed. But its non-linear structure cleverly takes us back to this kid's childhood, to a family holiday. It does the opposite of The Normal Heart, which opens on Fire Island, inside an already thriving gay community, its players well and truly "in the life". Tears, on the other hand, delves into the past of our protagonists Benjamin and Rasmus, before breaking us into The Life. Together, we take those first terrifying steps, experience that first gasp of fresh air. That makes a huge difference; The Normal Heart talks about loss; Tears talks about the promise of a life - The Life - and then snatches it away. It talks about all those young gay men who never had a chance of a life, who might have had just a brief taste of it, between the repression of a closeted adolescence, and the freedom of the big city. It's in this detail that Tears is truly devastating: It makes it personal.
Rasmus is so young, so new and fresh and full of hope, a living, breathing baby gay. This beautiful kid, coming from the sticks, tells us everything about the scourge of AIDS. Rasmus tells us about the boys who loved too much.
Tears is also ruthlessly effective in telling us about the other victims of AIDS: of the men forced to watch their lovers disintegrate, and their families. Tears depiction of Rasmus's doting father is particularly effective. And then there's the draft dodgers: Rasmus's uncle stayed in the closet, stayed behind in that little suffocating village. He didn't get "the plague"; but there's a price attached to that, too, something expertly punched home in the finale.
This Stockholm story is also eerily historically effective. So deeply into the '80s does it take us that when, during the third concluding instalment a laptop appears, it's deeply disorientating. Each of the three episodes opens with stock footage of Stockholm in the early '80s. Boy, it worked for me.
It's 2014, and two of my best friends are HIV-positive. Numerous acquaintances, boys I once chatted to online, are too. They're all in their twenties, early thirties. We're still at war. But those two close friends, my little gay family, they'll be okay. They ain't going anywhere. With the way I treat my liver, they'll outlast me.
I look back at the last twenty years and I think, boy, somehow I got away with it. I've had so much unprotected sex in my life - some of it with HIV-positive guys - but I got away with it. I've sat in waiting rooms waiting for test results, and came out breathing a sigh of relief. Maybe it's because I'm a top (yeah, I know that's no get out of jail free card), maybe those bottoms were undetectable. But I got away with it.
So, I can't look away, and pretend AIDS doesn't exist, as some do. I want to remember our ancestors, those lost boys, the ones who didn't ever stand a chance. Boys like you and me. I want to think about the unbearable horror of their loss. I want to feel something, no matter how much it makes me cry. You should watch Tears, and cry, and feel something for our lost boys, too. It hurts, it really does, but it matters. Wipe away your tears, and face the past.