Saturday, February 2, 2013

How to Survive a Plague (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets
by Ian Brockway

How to Survive a Plague

"How to Survive a Plague" chronicles the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and delineates the evolution of the New York group ACT UP which was dedicated to the survival and well-being of people with AIDS.

It is 1982 in Greenwich Village and Mayor Koch has repeatedly ignored the blight of AIDS. Sick and dying people are being turned away and offensively, some deceased patients are terminally covered by garbage bags.

There is no voice or support for a person with AIDS, nor is there any effective medicine. As a result ACT UP is started by a collection of mostly young professionals, many of them writers, curators, students, stock traders and filmmakers. All of these young people had to scavenge for information and become their own medical professionals as there is virtually no standard or reliable information in 1982.

Bob Rafsky who was a Harvard graduate and the managing editor of The Crimson is featured in this documentary as one of Act Up's charismatic ringleaders and, as he looks like a young Robert Blake in archival footage, he is both entertaining (as he gives President Bill Clinton a criticism and a shout ( who defensively exclaims "I Feel Your Pain!) and heart rending as he stands outside George Bush Sr's campaign headquarters and issues a chilling curse for his cursory attitude towards the epidemic.

Bob Rafsky steals the show but there is also footage featuring the resolute playwright Larry Kramer who brings a chaotic meeting to a stunned silence by the mention of AIDS as a plague.

ACT UP's main task was to get effective drugs to the people as needed, by any means necessary. Instrumental in this task was Wall Street trader Peter Staley and Harvard Grad Mark Harrington who scoured medical journals and hounded pharmaceutical companies with guerrilla-style confrontations.
For several years the only drug available was AZT and by itself, the drug was shown to be very toxic and in some cases, producing blindness.

This excellent documentary by journalist David France makes no concessions or apologies. It will make you laugh as much as it will ignite your ire. Highlights are the shots of ACT UP on the streets of New York. At one point they disrupt a Catholic Mass by lying on the floor. They also converge on the home of Senator Jesse Helms and wrap it in a giant yellow condom.

If only old Jesse Helms had a sense of humor. Last but certainly not least, artist Ray Navarro appears as Jesus, giving a well-deserved criticism to Cardinal O' Connor. Navarro appears again as Jesus in the film saying "During your Second Coming, wear a condom."

Surrealism, as well as truth is alive and well.

Along with the comedy though, there are scenes that will shake you to tears. When ACT UP members march to The White House to pour the ashes of their loved ones on the green lawn, the sight of the ashes falling like spent sparkler dust is both sad an existential---a marking of defiance during very real war.
"How to Survive a Plague" is no special interest film. By showing the full scope of its people, this story is accessible to all. It is both a time capsule and a vivid sometimes painful portrait of how things were in the mid-80s to late 90s. The people of ACT UP utilized a hybrid of science, compassion and art in the most altruistic of ways, to improve every life they encountered and we are better for them.

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