I've always been interested in the "cultural history" of AIDS. It fits in well with my interest in it as a health care professional and general science-head. Many readers will recall that one of my all time favorite books is And The Band Played On... by Randy Shilts, an exhaustive (if biased) account of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. For me, reading it encompasses equal parts fascination and horror. I'm fascinated by the history, but horrified by the inattention that history has received and especially by the inattention that the government at large paid while it was happening.
My friend Jason recommended the documentary Silverlake Life: The View From Here to me a while back based on my interest in AIDS history. He shows this documentary in his Queer Identity class that he teaches and it always ends up being shown right around the first part of December, coinciding with World AIDS Day. For most of his students, this movie (which came out in 1993) is ancient history. Most of them now were just in the process of being born when this movie was released. For them, AIDS has always been a manageable chronic illness. It's hard for them to imagine the time when young men died from this disease every day, often alone, mostly in the prime of their life.
Silverlake Life: The View From Here is the story of Tom Joslin and Mark Massi, two gay men whose 22 year relationship comes to an end in front of a camera for all to see because of AIDS. Having both been diagnosed with AIDS, Joslin (who also taught film at the college level) started to document what would be the end of his life as a sort of "video diary." It is fascinating and heartbreaking. The documentary starts with footage from 1989 and ends mid-1990 following Joslin's death. During that time, his decline is remarkable for its speed and magnitude. He starts the documentary out as a thin, frail looking man for whom most activities of daily living are exhausting, Massi, by contrast, appears relatively healthy, especially when compared to Joslin. But this is belied whenever he removes his shirt and reveals a body covered with Kaposi's sarcoma lesions.
We see them at doctor's appointments. We follow them to an herbalist who grinds up herbs to put in a tea to be consumed every 30 minutes. They consult energy therapists and other alternative medical treatments, all in an attempt to delay the inevitable. It's hard to remember that in 1990, we didn't have the bevy of treatment options we have now. Protease inhibitors were still 6 years off so FDA approved treatments were still pretty slim. But Joslin's decline continues in spite of all of this. When he ultimately succumbs to the disease, in what is probably the hardest scene of the whole documentary to watch, we see just how wasted is body had become, how the disease had ravaged an otherwise healthy body of a relatively young man. His ribs and spine are clearly visible, as is his pelvis. These images, combined with the clearly distraught Massi providing the voiceover on the video tape ripped me in two.
I am so glad that AIDS is not the death sentence that it used to be. It is, in many ways, a more manageable illness than it used to be. It does not inevitably and rapidly lead to death in the ways that it used to. Treatment, while cumbersome, does exist although at times it's a toss-up as to which is worse - the "cure" or the disease. I would never wish for a return to this time. As I (and others) have said innumerable times, a generation of gay men was nearly decimated by this disease. Andrew Holleran compares the AIDS epidemic in the 80s to a "very nice dinner party with friends, except some of them were taken out and shot while the rest of us were expected to go on eating." The improvement in survival and treatment is, however, a double edged sword, as I think it has led us to forget how devastating the disease can be and that prevention of infection should still be the goal.
Subsequent generations would be wise to remember this, lest they be destined to repeat it. Films like Silverlake Life: The View From Here provide us with a sobering reminder of a time gone by. But it also gives us a glimpse into the how AIDS shattered the lives of those touched by it.
I'd advise anyone that wants to watch this to watch it when they can handle the images they will see. No matter how ready you think you are, you aren't ready for this. But it's essential viewing, not just for those interested in the impact HIV/AIDS had on a generation of gay men, but also for those that question the commitment that gay couples can have for each other. You will walk away from it with a much different opinion than the one you went in with.