Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Commendable: The Normal Heart gains new life on HBO

Still trying to climb back into EDT after being on Israel time for two weeks (seven hours difference) and grateful to no longer have to fear rockets exploding over my head,  I sprawled onto the couch at about 6 PM last night, tuner in hand. Out of curiosity, I found myself watching the HBO version of The Normal Heart.

I had no idea what awaited me.

A Brilliant Recasting

This is a powerful film that recasts Kramer’s critically acclaimed play about the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in New York City in a highly compelling adaptation. I had seen the play when it first was performed here in Orlando in the late 1980s.  This film version is at least as brilliant as the original play.

HBO is to be commended for this excellent film and its actors for their wonderful performances. Mark Ruffalo provides a stellar performance as the irascible, unrelenting gay Jewish activist desperately trying to draw attention to the looming crisis as does Matt Bomer as his gentle spirited, still closeted New York Times reporter partner. Julia Roberts, in a complete departure from previous roles, plays the wheelchair bound doctor who sounded the alarm over this strange, new disease. It is a surprising role in which she is truly at her very best.

The HBO production is decidedly an award winning performance. Whether it will win the awards it deserves, time will tell. Controversial topics have ways of getting ignored at awards time. 

Ask Ang Lee.

They Descended Into Hell…..

For those of us who lived through this terrible time, it will be difficult to reenter the descending circles of Hell of the early Reagan days of the 1980s. I watched spellbound, horrified and nearly nauseous as I recalled the desperation I had felt during that time of death and fear. The film managed to rip open deep wounds in my soul that I thought (hoped? prayed?) had long ago scarred over even as they may never completely heal. 

I spent most of the 1980s in a white hot rage over the people I knew who were dying. No one cared. Medical facilities and insurance companies denied them treatment. Our government refused to even acknowledge the crisis starting with the president himself who remained silent as his  supposed dear friend, Rock Hudson, lay dying of this unspeakable plague halfway across the world in a hospital in Paris. Our churches demonized the dying from their pulpits and fearful, hate-filled protesters dehumanized them on the streets.

Amidst the denial, fear and hatred, I lost 53 friends.  Kramer’s screenplay brings it all back, complete with the pain, the rage and the tears. 

This film is a tribute to all who suffered through that long, dark night of fear and loathing and to those brave souls who were galvanized by that tribulation to fight back for human dignity. It is also a touching, respectful memorial to those many good souls who were not able to accompany us all the way through the  journey. 

May their souls and the souls of all the departed rest in peace.

Finally, it is a recognition of the many family members touched by this darkness, some of whom were forced screaming out of their own closets of fear-driven denial by the impending deaths of their own children and family members. It’s also a calling out of those who were never able - courageous enough? selfless enough? -  to find their way out of their iron-clad bunkers of denial.

An important reminder of human fragility

We are in HBO’s debt for being willing to take a chance on such a troubling, pointed film. And we are in the debt of Larry Kramer for his spell-binding account of life and death in an age of AIDS. I commend this film to all of you. It will not be an easy ride nor will it be mindless entertainment.

But it is an important reminder of the fragility of our human existence and our need for each other. If nothing else, it is a way of paying our respects to the many victims of this disease, both those infected by this tragic illness and those whose lives their tragedies touched.  

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Assoc. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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