Sunday, January 26, 2020

James Wentzy | Days of Desperation


that’s part of our world tonight
by Douglas Messerli

James Wentzy (director and editor) Days of Desperation / 1994

My husband and I, Howard Fox, will next week celebrate our 50th anniversary as a couple, married now about 4 years, which matters little since in 1970 we met and cemented a relationship that would—despite what any gay relationship proffered as near impossible odds in those days—a commitment that settled us into a kind of outside marriage that could not tear us apart, while everything in our world in those days and much still now desires to. We fight daily; perhaps most couples do. But we have such a long history now that neither of us might imagine a separation, and I believe now that had we not met that year I most certainly and perhaps Howard also, as I’ve expressed elsewhere, might have died of AIDS. The year before, living in Manhattan and Queens, I had gay sex nearly every evening. And Howard, that first night we met, had suddenly become determined to pick-up guys; I was his first choice! We were, after all, from that first generation of the dreadful plague, when little was known about the disease or its transmission, and absolutely nothing was known about possible cures or extensions of life.
      The other day, a Facebook friend, John Wier, sent me James Wentzy’s tape about the ACT UP protests of 1991, however, that made me realize even further just how fortunate we were. That year, the apex of AIDS illnesses, when young and older gay people were suffering more deaths daily than the constantly news-reported deaths in the absurd wars of George H. W. Bush in Iraq and elsewhere in the Gulf States and more gays and others had died of AIDS than all those during the Viet Nam War, the gay-led movement ACT UP suddenly took over network reports, most notably CBS’s Dan Rather’s nightly news report, with Wier’s head popping up on screen, along with his friends Dale Peck and Darrell Bowman together shouting “Fight AIDS, not Arabs.”  
       Seconds after the screen went black and, with the intruders being carried off, Rather was returned into view apologizing for the interruption and arguing that they had been attacked by some very “lewd people.” I’ve always felt that Rather has been too exulted as a newscaster and writer, but this truly confirms it to me. He had not perceived that his constant reporting on the Gulf War, was totally ignoring the war at home that was killing so many people of the LGBTQ community (in those days simply described as “gays” and “lesbians”).
       Wier, whom Wentzy allows to talk about the event at some length, plays out the significance of those actions, quite humorously and yet clearly painfully, including his personal family crises that resulted—his father and brothers were all in the broadcasting industry—after which his father finally seemingly came to comprehend just how important his son’s action was. As Wier says, if I could influence just one person to perceive the problem, particularly my father, then I had succeeded.
       Meanwhile, at the same hour, Jon Greenberg, Mark Lowe Fisher and Anna Blume, demonstrated at the studios of the PBS MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, but were unable to reach the studio itself. Unlike Rather, Jim Lehrer, who died this past week, later admitted that those protests and the events that followed the next day, January 23rd, 1991—which the ACT UP group described as the Day of Desperation Actions—in downtown New York, Harlem and governmental offices throughout the city.
      At 5:00 they joined up at Grand Central Terminal, making it impossible for thousands of workers and tourists to make their way to their trains. The protestors held large signs reading “Money for AIDS, Not for War” and “One AIDS Death Every 8 Minutes,” holding hands and, as documentary filmmaker Wentzy shows, sometimes laying down to block the commuters.
      Their demonstration flier read:

Within a matter of months the U.S. Government is able to house, feed and provide health care for half a million people in the middle of the desert. But here at home, the Federal Government continues to routinely deny these same basic necessities to people living with AIDS. We wonder--as we fight a war for oil in the Persian Gulf--whether President Bush and Congress are conscious of the desperate state of the AIDS crisis in this country. We are. Through 10 years of this plague and 10 years of Republican administrations, there remains no leadership. After over-whelmingly (and with much fanfare) passing the C.A.R.E. Act (aka the Ryan White Act), Congress and President Bush failed to appropriate the funds necessary to implement this disaster relief. Why is it that when a hurricane or earthquake hits--and causes mostly property damage and relatively few deaths---federal dollars pour in? When a disease devastates whole communities and kills more than 110,000 men, women and children--more than twice the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War--our leaders remain silent. And you remain silent. Silence = Death.

      Soon after these events, Mark Fischer died of AIDS, and, a few years later, upon the death of another AIDS sufferer, Jon Greenburg, a friend reads poignantly from the speech Greenburg had prepared for Fischer’s funeral, but could not deliver because of his own illness at the time. If there was ever a statement about how brave these desperate men and women were this is it. I wish I might print out that entire previously undelivered speech, but if you care at all you need to hear it as delivered in Wentzy’s movie.
      At the heart of these statements is just how these young men and women where nervous, frightened, and doubtful about the actions they were about to undertake, while yet realizing that if they didn’t do so, their deaths would be suffered without consequence. They were not afraid of dying as much as they were horrified for the suffering of so many others before and after them. And they were justifiably angry. There was, as the speech declares, “an otherness about their fears.”
      By the time of Wentzy’s film, covering the events of 1991, Howard and I were ensconced in rather lovely jobs, he as a curator at the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and then the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and I, having, been an assistant professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, going on to be a significant publisher, a poet, fiction writer, and memoirist.  
      In short, we were sheltered somewhat from the world this 1994 film recounts. But I feel slightly guilty for those facts. I am glad that we narrowly escaped the AIDS crisis, but I do feel that, given my stubborn beliefs in fairness and my love of the LGBTQ community, I might have wanted to have been there to fight for those rights.
     Wier, as an AIDS activist, seems at moments to be slightly apologetic or at lease a bit sanguine for his actions; but when he posted Wentzy’s film I immediately realized how proud he should be and perhaps is.
     Any growth in consciousness, in the US awareness of what is truly happening, is a near miracle, given our recalcitrant belief in our values, and those young men and women from 1991 helped to accomplish that with acts small and large.
     Goodnight Dan Rather; "That's part of our world tonight." These men where not “lewd,” but true believers.

Los Angeles, January 26, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

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