By Hans Pedersen, June 2015 Issue.
In 1995, just a generation ago, AIDS was the leading cause of death among Americans ages 25 to 44 – before medications became available to help treat the condition.
The new HBO documentary Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger by director Jean Carlomusto is a work about the onset of the epidemic that’s both illuminating and instructive is its documentation of the measures taken by activist and ACT-UP founder Larry Kramer to stop AIDS during the homophobic 1980s.
This amazing doc proves its points with archival footage, including incredible standard-def video gems of author and activist Vito Russo interviewing Kramer on an early ‘80s public access show.
It’s also a piercing reminder that President Ronald Reagan didn’t mention the word AIDS until six years after it appeared.
Carlomusto’s incendiary movie shows how the eighties were an era of inaction by some, and direct action by others. Kramer is highlighted as the first person in the community to set off alarm bells in the early days of the crisis, when he penned a fiery column in the New York Native, imploring gay men to stop having sex until it was clear what kind of disease was killing their friends.
From the creation of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to the activist group ACT-UP, hotheaded Kramer helped fight the Reagan administration’s lack of action as the epidemic grew worse.
Through interviews, the movie shows how Kramer called upon people to commit civil disobedience and channel their anger in a way that motivated the community. Scenes, including one of meetings where the activist cries out that a plague is happening, help demonstrate his strident calls to action.
The film also presents lots of internal opposition to Kramer within the LGBT community at the time; activists recall that he got frozen out of meetings with the mayor and that many opposed his histrionic words and methods. Others point out that his continued theatrics made headlines and evening newscasts, keeping the crisis in the spotlight.
Whether calling to hang the FDA in effigy and demanding they “get off their tushies” in news interviews, or shrieking “40 million people is a f__king plague!” Kramer produced apocalyptic public protests. Subjects of the movie argue that he created a space where calmer demands for more funding and resources to battle AIDS sounded levelheaded and reasonable by comparison.
What’s so revelatory is Kramer’s self-reflection in candid interviews: He admits he was “pushy and obnoxious” and wound up ostracizing people. But the creepiest aspect of this documentary is how clearly the federal government’s inaction during the AIDS battle was fueled by blatant homophobia.
The movie emphasizes how Reagan never uttered the word AIDS until 1987, and subjects point out how the FDA bureaucracy held up the release of drugs to battle the disease. This was an era before community activists had any voice in groups like the National Institutes of Health, and Kramer is credited with helping change that.
Toward the end of the film, Kramer recalls how great it was when protease inhibitors finally became available – and laments how it took much longer than it should have. Additionally, he credits ACT-UP with helping cut the death rate of AIDS victims in half.
Carlomusto chronicles the history of these developments with tenderness and accuracy. Her film serves as a stark reminder, not only of the banality of evil, but the impact of how one person can help create change, and a group of people can impact the world.
This outstanding documentary, directed by someone who witnessed the crisis and forged a long friendship with Kramer over the years, is gut-wrenchingly truthful and engaging. Her portrait of the activist argues that thousands of people are alive today in part because of Kramer, and it’s hard to argue with that.
Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger hits Valley theatres June 29. For more information, visit facebook.com/larrykramerdocumentary.
Director pays tribute to AIDS activist with documentary
Director Jean Carlomusto’s (pictured)intimate documentary profile Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger gives us a full picture of the iconic AIDS activist.
The documentary will air on HBO in June to mark Kramer’s 80th birthday.
Carlomusto, a lesbian filmmaker who directed such movies as L is for the Way You Look and Sex in an Epidemic and a long-time friend of Kramer’s, sat down for an interview with Echo at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where her film premiered.
Echo: Can you tell why you wanted to make the film now?
Carlomusto: Yes, I wanted to make the film while Larry was still alive and I wanted to do that because I feared if he were to die, God forbid, to pass away, everyone would want to make a saint out of him. And that wouldn’t be Larry Kramer. It wouldn’t be a piece about him and I feel like historically those of us who lived through those times have a responsibility to get the record right …
I think those of us who lived through that time who were really engaged have a responsibility to not just keep the history alive, but to make it accurate. And that’s something in making this film I fought very hard to be accurate. It’s very tempting sometimes to cut things and use shots from different events and try and make it look like a whole. I tried to really keep that to a minimum just because I wanted this to be accurate.
Echo: Has he been able to see the film?
Carlomusto: Yes, as soon as we got to the point where it was basically finished, I said basically, “I’m not going to be comfortable until I sit through it with Larry, just to make sure that we got it right.” And so I sat through the film alone with him.
You can imagine… he was so quiet throughout the whole piece. There was just one small thing: he asked me to tell a little more about the story of how ACT-UP broke up, because that was what really broke his heart. But other than that, he didn’t have a single change, so that was a big sigh of relief.
Echo: As a friend of Larry’s, was it a challenge for you to tell some of the more controversial aspects or people’s criticisms?
Carlomusto: I certainly wanted to be fair. I like to make documentaries that are complex because I think the truth in many of our lives is complex. So I didn’t want to flatten things out, and that means sometimes telling two conflicting sides of the situation and putting it in context, so you can understand that both people are coming from logical places.”
Echo: Was it emotional for you making this documentary when you had a personal connection with Larry? Was it difficult sometimes?
Carlomusto: It was very difficult when Larry got sick because I did not undertake this project with the idea that Larry was going to die during it. I wanted it to be humorous I wanted it to be feisty, I wanted to be all the things – smart, intelligent – that Larry is. But when he got really sick, and almost died, I so dreaded going to shoot him in the hospital because it brought back all these memories. I did a number of oral history project interviews back in the ‘80s with friends who were on their last legs in the hospital, so going into that room I was kind of shaken … At many times he wasn’t even aware I was there and that brought up ethical issues for me so I spoke with his husband David… And David was the one who said to me you’re making a documentary and that’s were it’s happening right now, in the hospital room, so go, do it… He’s (Larry’s) really got a very strong inner core. Grit, the man has grit. And he’s shy and very sweet in his own way. Just don’t piss him off.
Echo: Is there anything we haven’t touched on?
Carlomusto: The other reason I wanted to put this out there is because it really shows how one person can make a difference. I think that’s really valuable. What was unique about Larry was his grit, his ability to stay on message and believe in himself, even when he was taking scorn… And he still stood his ground and stood by what his beliefs were. Ultimately I don’t know what we would have done without him. What would we have done? It already took way too long but without Larry, it’s almost frightening to think.