How to Survive a Plague

The ACT UP/TAG documentary How to Survive a Plague, which has a theatrical release set for September 22, has an official trailer…

…as well as a tumblr of ACT UP images that also invites users to submit their own artwork about current issues. 25 years later, the posters that ACT UP and the associated art collective Gran Fury put together are not only arresting, but sadly still relevant.

Gran Fury poster from 1988. Source: How to Survive a Plague
Gran Fury poster from 1987. Source: How to Survive a Plague

All signs point to this film being an out-and-out tearjerker; the trailer alone made me cry. But the larger point seems to be not just to elegize a movement and the millions lost to AIDS, but to inspire a new generation of activists to address their own social justice concerns. In his review, Frank Bruni testifies to the film’s sense of hope for the potential of mass action to effect real change. Indeed, last year’s Occupy movement seemed to echo ACT UP in its tactics and targets, if not in the precision of its message, and the two groups collaborated on an action in April and one over the Fourth of July, and members of ACT UP Philly helped train Philadelphia Occupiers in direct action methods when the encampment was in place late last year. While ACT UP has largely faded outside of a few strongholds in the urban mid-Atlantic (ACT UP Philadelphia being the only continuously active chapter, by their own claim) the growing economic inequality in the United States coupled with the energy of Occupy protesters has some hoping that a new truly progressive politics might be possible in this country. Whether it will materialize, and whether it will in the end look anything like ACT UP or Occupy remains to be seen.

Incidentally, my goal in undertaking the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project and African American AIDS History Project is also to inspire, as well as to inform. Of course, the interviews that I conduct are a critical piece of the research for my dissertation. But beyond that, by recording voices that have been left out of many popular and academic accounts of U.S. AIDS activism and collecting digital copies of materials through the African American AIDS History Project site, we’re creating a repository of materials that will not only be available to scholars, but will hopefully inspire people to get involved with important issues at a grassroots level.

Cross-posted at the African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project.


Saturday Fun-Time Round-Up

1. My friend Ben’s December mix, You + Me, over at weiwabo, my friend Mon’s super-hip craft blog.  One of the tracks is a chillgaze* cover of The Hives’ “Hate to Say I Told You So,” and the whole thing makes for great writing music.  By the by, Mon is totally awesome and donated to Bike & Build to support my ride from Orlando to Fort Lauderdale over the Christmas/New Year interlude!  So go check her out, and listen to the mix!

She's crafty!

2. New video from Yelle for “Comme un enfant”:

Here’s the breakdown:



photo credit:


photo credit:

3. The Ronna & Beverly podcast, one of the few that I listen to religiously, and quite possibly the most consistently funny podcasts out there.  Jessica Chaffin and Jaime Denbo play middle-aged Jewish BFFs Ronna Glickman and Beverly Ginsburg, who host a podcast from Ronna’s immaculate living room in the Boston suburbs.  Although Chaffin and Denbo have been doing these characters at Upright Citizens Brigade for a few years and filmed a pilot for Showtime that was aired but never picked up, I first encountered them as guests on episode four of Julie Klausner’s also-hilarious How Was Your Week?, where the ladies discussed their favorite Holocaust films of all time.  Among the entries on Beverly’s list: Kramer vs. Kramer.

photo credit:

4. Speaking of Julie Klausner, I missed the live version of How Was Your Week? because I was at a conference in St. Louis, but a recording of that performance (including the aforementioned Jessica Chaffin as Lorraine Bracco) aired a few weeks ago as episode 36 of the podcast.  I listened to it in and around New York City on the day that I went to do research at the Schomburg Center only to find it closed because of Veteran’s Day.  (that was fun) Julie and Billy Eichner discuss casting for the upcoming all-black remake of Steel Magnolias brightened my mood, to the point that I had to listen in installments, because my frantic giggling was distracting to the other patrons at whatever coffee shop in Brooklyn I decided to make into my office for the afternoon.  So that was fun.

Julie and Billy, who may or may not be my pretend husband. photo credit:

Bonus: The trailer for Billy Eichner’s show, Billy on the Street, which is set to premiere December 22 on Fuse, the network that brought you the professional career of William Hung…

…and the show Pants Off Dance Off, which inspired numerous house parties and a whole lot of pictures that are inappropriate to post here.

And that’s it.  Have a good weekend, people!

*I just made that up.  You’re welcome.

UPDATE: Never mind, “chillgaze” is actually a thing, which is just silly.

No jest.

1079, 388.

You know when you run across something in the intertubez that makes you want to grab the person sitting nearest to you and shake them because it’s just SO EFFING AWESOME and you want someone to share it with right away, even if that person happens to be the unfriendly coffee shop hipster at the next table who has been giving you the side-eye for ostentatiously mouthing Kylie Minogue lyrics for the past 45 minutes while they try to read Crying of Lot 49?  No?  Because that was totally the reaction I had to this article from the New York Times about The Decemberists’ new video for the appropriately-titled “Calamity Song.”  The video dramatizes what is probably the best single scene from David Foster Wallace’s massimum opus Infinite Jest, in which the students at a Massachusetts tennis academy simulate nuclear war through a game called Eschaton that involves lobbing “5-Megaton” tennis balls at athletic gear representing the combatants’ (AMNAT, SOVWAR, IRLIBSYR, SOUTHAF, and IRLIBSYR being more or less self-explanatory) strategic targets, all laid out on a map encompassing several tennis courts.  We get Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy as Michael Pemulis/The Peemster, grand don and progenitor of Eschaton, drummer John Moen as aspiring sportscaster Jim Troeltsch, and keyboardist Jenny Conlee as a pink-wigged Ziggy Stardust cum DFW himself, as well as child actors playing Otis P. Lord, who runs the Eschaton show from his computer cart, Evan Ingersoll, who brings on the real chaos by launching a ball at Ann Kittenplan, who in the video looks quite a bit more diminutive than the novel’s steroid-addled version.  Director Michael Schur opted not to end the video with Otis P. Lord’s head inside of a computer monitor because “They’re all flat screens, and you can’t put your head through a flat screen.”  I only wish he had included the jockstraps re-purposed as MRVs.

Short as it is, this post involved a lot of Googling since I don’t have my copy of IJ handy.  In the process of searching, I came across this massively detailed diagram of the book.  Regular readers of this blog (hi, Grandma!) know that I have an abiding, albeit pedestrian, interest in maps and cartography, which perhaps explains part of my affection for IJ, given DFW’s extensive use of motifs of maps and mapping.  Also, here’s a link to the io9 post that originally led me to the Times piece.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put my head through the monitor.

Sweetie darling, no.

Via Jezebel (from which I get approximately 73% of my daily news): Absolutely Fabulous, one of my favorite television shows of all time, is coming back for a new season later this year.  The only emotion I can muster in response: ugh.

Don’t get me wrong, I love AbFab.  A lot.  Like, a lot a lot.  (but not alot)  But let’s face it: this was a show very much of its time, and it doesn’t translate well to the current moment.  It’s probably true of most good shows that earlier seasons are stronger than later ones, but in the AbFab case this is compounded by the fact that the show was so rooted in the 1990s.  While it’s true that some of the shows main themes–relationships among women, class performance, and the problem of aging in a culture that fetishizes youth–remain relevant (it’s hard to imagine a world in which they aren’t), much of the show’s humor stemmed from Patsy and Edina’s unwillingness to break with the excesses of their youth in the 1960s and 1970s.  Now, twenty years on, youth and pop culture focuses our nostalgic energies on the very time in which the show debuted.  Will new episodes be able to speak to anyone not already familiar with the show’s earlier iterations?

One also has to wonder how the show will deal with the current economic climate.  I think the show’s earlier run felt very 1990s in part because of the conspicuously consumptive and self-absorbed atmosphere that matched up with the apparent economic expansion of the Clinton/Blair years.  Even then, Edina’s affluence always seemed tenuous and put-on, so will Jennifer Saunders (her writing partner Dawn French doesn’t appear to be involved, although Joanna Lumley will return as Patsy Stone) show us how she deals with the Great Recession?  Would it be gauche to do otherwise?

I’ll concede that the show was about much more than aging hipster ladies–Edina’s relationship with her daughter Saffron, and the inversion of the parent-child dynamic both fueled the laugh track and in a small way rang true for me as an only child of divorced parents growing up in household where my mother felt more like a partner in crime than a disciplinarian.  So that aspect of the show may certainly retain its relevance, and no doubt the focus on outsize, dramatic female lead characters will continue to please its fanbase of gay men and the women who love them.

Case in point:

At least the self-absorption remains relevant.  You’re reading a personal blog, after all.

Oh sweet Christ, they made Eddie Willers black.

It’s actually happening: Paul Johansson’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is coming to the big screen, and on Tax Day, no less.  That’s about as subtle as writing a book in which the last bastion of classical liberalism is called Patrick Henry University.  Oh wait, that’s been done.  Anyway, you can watch the trailer here.  What strikes me most about it is not that a story centered on the railroad industry doesn’t really make sense in 2011, nor the level of film-making gravitas that Johnasson brings to the project from his long tenure as a director for One Tree Hill, but the fact that they made Eddie Willers black.  Sweet.  Tap-dancing.  Christ.

For the uninitiated, in the world of Atlas Shrugged, Eddie Willers works for the iconic Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, and more specifically as assistant to its heiress-magnate Dagny.  The two have known each other their entire lives, having grown up together as playmates, with the knowledge that eventually she would run the company and he would work for her.  Though lacking the vision and brilliance of the main protagonists, Willers recognizes their superiority and gladly serves as Dagny’s subordinate, just as his father and grandfather served Dagny’s forebears.  If memory serves, and it will have to since I don’t have a copy of the book handy, Rand describes him as being blond-haired and blue-eyed, which would certainly put him in good company with about half of the book’s good guys.  In general and especially in Atlas Shrugged, Rand only wrote good and evil characters, the former being rather predisposed to have Nordic features.

I had never considered Eddie Willers’ race to be in question until I was having a conversation with a young Rand devotée during a high school trip to the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge (that’s a story for another day) and she said, seemingly out of nowhere, “You know, I always thought of Eddie Willers as black.”  I was somewhat taken aback.  Issues of hair color and complexion aside, when Rand was writing the book in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it would not have made sense for an African American boy or man to occupy occupy Willer’s positions, whether socially or in terms of occupation.  This reality was not at the forefront of my mind–I had never imagined Eddie Willers as anything but white, but then again I grew up in San Diego and went to a high school with almost no African American kids.  If I imagined the characters that meant so much to me at the time in such a way as to reflect my social experience, roughly one-third of them would have been Latino, one-third Asian, and one-third white.  However, in the book as written, only copper baron Francisco d’Anconia is Hispanic, and his family name suggests a colonial European (as opposed to native South American) lineage.  As for the rest, although they embody a variety of physical types (always so as to reflect the soundness of their inner character) they are most definitely white Americans.

Which brings me back to my point: based on the trailer and the film’s IMDB page, they only changed the race of one major character, and it was the one in a position of hereditary subordination.  Does anyone else see that as being at best a horrible oversight?  There are plenty of black conservatives in this day and age–couldn’t we update this story by casting Condoleeza Rice as John Galt and making Dagny into a later in life lesbian?  Paging Meredith Baxter Burney!

I am John Galt, and I am crushing your head.

I’m sure this isn’t the last you’ll read here about what is sure to become the campiest book-to-film adaptation since Mommie Dearest.  Over the holidays I read Jennifer Burns’ wonderful intellectual biography of Ayn Rand, and I’ve been meaning to share my thoughts about it here.  Until then, I leave you.