Tuesday, February 28, 2017

When We Rise, episode 1 (ABC-TV, aired February 27, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on ABC for the much-hyped first episode of When We Rise, a four-part series chronicling the Gay liberation movement (I’m old enough to remember when “Gay” was considered a sufficiently inclusive term for all Queer folk, and rue their disappearance and ultimate replacement by that series of initials, which now seems to have expanded to “LGBTQ” and will probably get even longer before the madness stops — the Queer student group at UCSD identifies itself as “LGBTQQIAA,” meaning “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual and Allies,” the last being the term of art for straight people who support Queer rights) from its initial validation by Life magazine in 1972 (they run a feature called “1971: The Year in Pictures,” and one of its stories is about the heady early days of Gay liberation) and around three real-life people in particular: Cleve Jones (Austin P. MacKenzie, later played by Guy Pearce), a young Gay kid from Arizona whose dad is a psychiatrist who makes no secret that he thinks homosexuality is a mental illness and out of “love” for his son wants him subjected to electroshock, lobotomy or one of the other nasty standard “treatments” for his “disease”; Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors, later played by Michael Kenneth Williams), a Black Gay Navy guy whose white boyfriend Michael gets killed in action in Viet Nam, and his grief is compounded by his inability to acknowledge their relationship; and Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs, later Mary-Louise Parker), who discovers her Lesbianism when she falls in love with a fellow woman volunteer in the Peace Corps. All three of these people end up in San Francisco and live out the history of the Queer rights movement from the early days dealing with police repression and Queer-bashing in San Francisco (under Right-wing Democratic Mayor Joseph Alioto the city’s cops, most of them Irish-American and hard-core Roman Catholics, set out to eliminate the city’s hippies and Queers by virtually any means necessary — this is a bit of an historical exaggeration but it’s close enough to the facts to work as period drama) to the AIDS epidemic and its decimation of the Gay male community and the modern era in which marriage equality became the movement’s defining demand and was achieved when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) unconstitutional in 2013.

Alas, the main creators of the production are two of my least favorite Queer filmmakers, director Gus Van Sant (who made one great film, Drugstore Cowboy, which he followed up with two of the all-time worst movies ever made, My Own Private Idaho and the abysmal Gerry, which has the same place in the credits of recent Best Actor Academy Award winner Casey Affleck as Grease II had in Michelle Pfeiffer’s) and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who between them came up with the O.K. but heavily sanitized biopic Milk, in which tall, gangly, Gay Harvey Milk was played by short, wiry, straight Sean Penn (though as I joked when I reviewed Milk for my movie blog, maybe Van Sant and Black considered Penn an “honorary Gay” because he’d been married to Madonna). Despite Van Sant’s proclamation in the production notes for Gerry that he doesn’t like films that emotionally involve the audience — “Holding audiences in their seats: Why is that a filmmaker’s job?” he asks. “I think there are a lot of ways of enchanting audiences, but I’ve noticed that today, no matter what the subject is, the filmmaking is exactly the same, whether it’s a really depressing story or one about a guy who saves the world. It tries to get a rise out of the audience, and it’s got to be exciting. Everything a filmmaker does is an effort to make it exciting for you as an audience member” — When We Rise, or at least the first part thereof, is at its best when it is at its most exciting, vividly dramatizing the horrendous risks involved in being Queer, and especially in being “out” and open about it, in 1972. (One aspect of this film was personal to me; it made me glad I didn’t come out until the relatively “safe” time of 1982, a decade later, at the tail end of the first decade of Queer liberation and before AIDS not only threatened our lives but scared the shit out of us and reinforced the homophobes’ argument that we were committing “crimes against nature” and, as Pat Buchanan put it, nature was taking its revenge against us.) Though Van Sant’s attempt to poach on Alfred Hitchcock’s territory by remaking Psycho was an epic box-office bomb, here he shows himself a capable suspense director, especially in the scenes in which the younger, baby-faced twink incarnation of Cleve Jones confronts police and finally gets Gay-bashed.

Aside from its intense emotional moments, When We Rise is perched unevenly between “official history” and a richer, deeper treatment of its subject; Black and Van Sant were all too well aware when they were making it that this was likely to be just about the only chance the story of the Queer movement was going to make it to a major commercial TV network, and they tried as hard as possible to present the history according to the orthodox Queer leadership’s consensus — though I give them major points for acknowledging that it didn’t all start with the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969 (elsewhere I’ve pointed out that not only was there a continuous Queer activist movement in the U.S. from 1950, 19 years before Stonewall, but virtually all the major landmarks in Queer activist history happened in my home state, California — about the only ones that didn’t were Stonewall and the founding of the very first Queer-rights organization in U.S. history in Chicago in 1924). When We Rise works best when it presents the political and personal dilemmas of its characters as individual choices —when it offers them as people rather than exemplars of a movement — and it’s at its weakest when it tries to go for the Big Picture and present their individual struggles as symbols of the broader whole (like the scenes in which Roma tries to recruit Gay men to support her radical feminist march against police violence against women, and the other women involved turn on her because they regard men, all men, as their enemy).

I’m looking forward to the next episode, scheduled for this Wednesday, March 1 at 9 p.m., but I’m also dreading how the series is going to present AIDS — of which the orthodox view has become that it was a terrible disaster and a major human tragedy, but it also did the Queer community a service in that it helped break down the barriers between Gay men and Lesbians (Lesbians famously rallied around their stricken Gay male comrades and, with the life expectancy of Gay men plunging faster than the stock market during a depression, largely took over leadership of the movement) and it ended the intense period of sexual liberation that followed the explosion of the Gay male movement in the early 1970’s and scared us all back into embracing monogamy and demanding marriage and the right to raise children. While the Queer movement isn’t the only civil-rights movement in history that started on the fringes of its community among the people who had the least to lose, and then moderated itself as more and more people with established jobs and well-off lifestyles followed the trail blazed by the pioneers, it’s probably the only one that tells such a highly moralistic story about itself, as if it needed the lesson of a deadly disease associated with sexual experimentation and freedom to be scared collectively back to the established social values of committed relationships and what the more radical, liberationist Queers used to call “straight-aping.” One silver lining in the terrible dark cloud of AIDS was that it demonstrated to the world that Gay men did form committed and enduring relationships — all those scenes of people showing up at hospitals and demanding to see their dying partners helped break down the barrier of alienness and alerted at least some of straight America to the fact that we love each other and form the same bonds of caring and mutual emotional feeling as they do — but it’s come at a cost in that the history of the 1970’s has been rewritten as a morality lesson that the wages of nonmonogamy are literally death. It’s one reason why I held back from full support of marriage equality for quite a long time — I didn’t want Queers who choose not to get married and don’t want to commit to just one sex partner isolated and shamed the way all too many straight people who make that same choice are in their community — and despite my own history of a 22-year relationship and a legal marriage of nearly nine years to that person, it still bothers me that Queers who don’t want to get married are made to feel like second-class citizens within our own community.

Aside from that, When We Rise is also yet another one of those cultural artifacts that plays quite differently in the era of TrumpAmerica than it would have a few years ago (or would now if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency); while it still seems unlikely that America is going to change as radically in its attitude towards Queers as Germany did when the Weimar Republic fell and was replaced by the Nazis (almost overnight Germany changed from being the most accepting country in the world towards Queers to one that viciously repressed us to the point of including us along with Jews, Gypsies and Communists among the populations they wanted to exterminate), the administration of President Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence has signaled that on Queer rights, as on just about every other part of the progressive agenda, they’re going to throw the arc of history into reverse and bend it towards injustice, repression and prejudice in the name of making America great again — at least for white straight men with money.