Reviews of HBO’s “The Normal Heart” and more after the jump.
In conjunction with the White House recently naming June “Pride Month,” the much-celebrated cable network HBO has aired a litany of LGBT-oriented programs in primetime over the past several weeks, starting with the acclaimed TV adaptation of playwright Stanley Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Here are short reviews of three such programs, all currently airing on HBO, HBO GO, and HBO On Demand.
Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr.
This documentary short, which chronicles the life and work of legendary actor Robert De Niro’s father,is a well-meaning but ultimately emotionally shallow depiction of the late artist. Though an obvious passion project of the famed actor, Remembering the Artist feels like an exercise in futility due to its refusal to dig deeper than surface level while exploring De Niro Sr.’s personal demons. Directors Geeta Gandbhir and Perri Peltz focus mostly on the long-suffering artist’s paintings, while briefly touching on his repressed homosexuality which led to his eventual divorce from his wife and emotional distance from his now famous son. Though his history of working in abstract expressionist painting (at a time when the likes of Jackson Pollock was emerging onto the scene) is certainly fascinating, it is the hints of his more personal story that could have set the documentary apart. The film utilizes interviews with Mr. De Niro, Sr.’s friends and family effectively and the message they impart of the importance of passing on the gifts of one’s parents is especially poignant (as Mr. Stephen Sondheim would say, the two most important things we leave behind in this world are children and art). But, and this is a big but, there is a curious lack of any of the interview participants offering up personal insights into Mr. De Niro’s private life that would have helped fill in the gaps. To be fair, Robert De Niro Jr. explicitly states that he and his father did not speak much about his homosexuality and it’s clear that there is disappointment and longing in his son’s words. It could be surmised that perhaps De Niro Sr. was private about his sexuality not only to his wife and child, but to his friends, despite being out in the community. There are, however, journal entries left behind that feature prominently in the film’s middle section that frame the artist’s struggles in a deeply personal light. The film makes use of far too few of them. In the end Remembering the Artist simply suffers from a lack of length. With an added twenty to thirty minutes the documentary could have easily balanced the personal and artistic side of Robert De Niro Sr. to offer a far more well-rounded and compelling portrait at a feature-length. The film does give the world the chance to rediscover the subject’s art in loving, sumptuous detail, which was probably the end goal all along — Still, a bit of a missed opportunity.
The Case Against 8
In 2008, at a time when America had just elected their very first African-American President, residents of California voted in favor of banning gay marriage through the ballot initiative Proposition 8. Only a few months earlier, on June 16th, California had begun issuing marriage licenses to gay couples due to a court ruling that determined banning gay marriage was in violation of the state’s constitution. With the new voter-approved law thousands of gay couples woke up to the realization that their marriages were no longer valid. Shot over five consecutive years, the feature-length documentary The Case Against 8 takes an inside look at the legal battle to overturn the controversial proposition. Directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White, the film does a remarkable job of setting up its subject matter and following it all the way through to its conclusion to last year’s defining Supreme Court decision on both Prop. 8 and DOMA. It helps that the filmmakers were given unfettered access into the plaintiff’s case, not only getting close to the lawyers fighting to have the proposition overturned, but also the human faces behind the trial. The film goes into the very homes of the two loving couples selected to represent the thousands (if not millions) that Prop. 8 had potentially harmed – Kris Perry & Sandy Stier, and Paul Katami & Jeff Zarrillo. We see their fears, joys, struggles, and tears, but most importantly we see them operating as true family units. It is this candid human interaction that gives the documentary its beating heart and makes a clear argument in favor of same-sex marriage. Even if the film didn’t have a happy ending (and it certainly does for its target audience) you would be hard pressed not be swayed by the emotional power of the piece. But worry not political junkies, the legalese is all present and accounted for, and watching the lawyers set up their case will be a particular highlight to those inclined. But The Case Against 8 works so well not because of its legal jargon, but because of its raw human element. The fight for same-sex marriage has always been about equal rights and equal benefits for all, and in that regard there isn’t a more compelling argument than The Case Against 8.
The Normal Heart
I saw The Normal Heart well over a month ago now and though the film struck a hard nerve in me I have found myself having difficulty writing about it. Perhaps it is because of the personal hardships happening recently in my life, perhaps it’s because of my connections to people close to me living with HIV, or perhaps it is simply because as an out gay man the film infuriated me to an alarming degree – and it was supposed to. Whatever the reason, I have had an extremely hard time separating myself from the piece. Whenever I review a film I try to keep myself out of it as much as possible. In fact, you will hardly ever see the word “I” or “Me” appear in any of my reviews. Sure, there will always be biases and no critic can ever be truly subjective, but we try to be despite all of our own tastes and heavy baggage. Now more than ever, when it is possible for any schmo off the street to start a blog (yes I understand the irony here) and write their “OPINION,” it is important for critics to stand up for their values. It is important to review the work for what it is and not what you want it to be, think it should be, or some other fantasy scenario. I can’t do that with The Normal Heart. It hit too hard, too deep, and left me angry. Angry at the millions of gay men who wouldn’t see the signs and stop having unprotected sex. Angry at the politicians who did nothing while an entire generation of gay men was destroyed by this horrific disease. Angry at the progressive gays who ignored their own history and honestly expected their peers to abandon all they fought for in the sexual revolution. Angry that we have seemingly stopped caring about the HIV/AIDS crisis even though there are over 2,500 people newly infected every day. Angry that we are still debating whether we should teach abstinence-only over safe sex education despite the overwhelming evidence and statistics that state the former doesn’t work. Angry at how little my own generation has done in the fight, myself chiefly among them. And finally I’m angry that it took so long for this monumental play to be recognized for what it is – among the most important documents of the AIDS crisis ever produced. No, it doesn’t have the poetry or heartbreaking spirituality of Tony Kushner’s masterful Angels in America, but it does have visceral immediacy. This IS an angry, bitter piece of work and it has every right to be. And yet, it represents many different schools of thought in the gay community during the early years of the AIDS crisis, and doesn’t treat any of them with an ounce of condescension. Yes, now it is easy to see how RIGHT Kramer’s surrogate main character Ned Weeks was about sexual practices in the gay community, but to put the character on some sort of moral pedestal is to ignore our own history. A history that cost us many lives before and after the time period of this film.
Director Ryan Murphy, known for his none-too-subtle directorial flourishes, reigns himself in when he needs to in the film and goes for gaudy broke in key sequences, chief among them the film’s stylized Fire Island prologue. He also isn’t afraid to push in and show you the carnage. The camera remains tight on even the queasiest of images. Have a problem with blood, feces, seizures, lesions, dementia, and skeletal frames? Ryan Murphy doesn’t care. And he shouldn’t. Most AIDS narratives are so cautious of how they present themselves in order to not offend the most conservative among us. Not this one. It doesn’t care. It wants you to see. I wants you to be revolted. It wants you to be angry. It wants to move you to action.
The acting hits all the right marks and, yes, the waterworks flow uncontrollably for much of the film’s 132 minute running time. At least they did for me. From the film’s opening moments to its last factual figures displayed in stark black and white, The Normal Heart left me devastated in a way that few films ever had. I don’t know that I can speak on its artistic quality. All I know is how I felt. This isn’t so much a review as a confessional. The AIDS crisis is still very much with us and this film, maybe more than any in history, reminds us exactly what is at stake if we continue to do nothing. As Pride month comes to a close this weekend it is important to reflect on our past, how far we have come, and the work that is still left to be done.