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Flashback Against AIDS: Retro-Activism in HBO's The Normal Heart

by Ethan Tussey

by R. Gabriel Dor for IN MEDIA RESRyan Murphys 2014 adaptation of Larry Kramers 1980s stage play The Normal Heart translates a canonical cornerstone of early queer cultural politics to HBOs subscription cable brand of quality gay and HIV/AIDS themed programming with a sexy, slick style associated with Murphys televisual authorship. The autobiographical period drama embeds layers of history and memory around activist-writer Kramers protagonist-double Ned Weeks. In the first date scene with Felix, a Midwestern transplant to Manhattan who now critiques culture for The New York Times, dialogue about a shared nostalgia for chintz and Weeks obsession with Holocaust history gives way to a highly edited flashback sequence of their first meeting at a bathhouse, recounted by Felix and forgotten by Ned. What begins as a pastiche of the historical ad for Mans Country complete with a retro voiceover by a male announcer transitions into more live action memory, accompanied by a disco soundtrack and the haunting undertone of AIDS loss.
The video clip here is the original ad which Murphy reconstructs in the HBO film using Ned and Felix as models. The Normal Heart's faithful mimesis of the images, music, and voiceover evokes nostalgia for a pre-AIDS past of liberated sexuality and uncompromised masculinity. The inevitable association of sex with death in representation of the 1980s crisis and early activist responses becomes a contentious site of division between Weeks and the Gay Men's Health Crisis, who fought too hard to fornicate freely just to give up in shame and abstinence. Here sexuality is transgressive and dangerous, politically and medically, reinforced by the Award-winning makeup depicting the ravages of the disease.
The incorporation of the sex-charged commercial into Murphy's adaptation of Weeks' 1980s era play disrupts and diffuses the queer activist politics into nostalgic gay consumer desire for an edenic moment of 1970s sexual freedom and the hairy hunks of pinups past. Giving way to the scene of the first sexual encounter between Ned and Felix at Man's Country, followed by their more intimate recoupling, the commercial integrates with the foundational moment of the film's leading love story. Looking longingly through contemporary lenses at layers of tragedy, triumph, and taboo, Murphy delivers new audiences a beautified elegy to a monstrous moment.

Using the clip

by Ellie Sanders Wright


This could be a bit of a long shot but we would very much like to use this clip in out documentary.

Do you know who we should speak to about using this clip?

Look forward to your reply.

The 1980s and Man's Country

A commercial about gay bathhouses

from Man's Country New York Commercial 70s A Gay Bathhouse (1970)
Creator: N/A
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey