When AIDS Was Funny: Review

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When AIDS Was Funny
Directed by Scott Calonico
AD&D Production, Ltd.

Reviewed by T.J. Banks

Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes in a still from Scott Calonico's documentary short WHEN AIDS WAS FUNNY
Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes in a still from Scott Calonico’s documentary short WHEN AIDS WAS FUNNY

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he dots just don’t connect when it comes to Ronald Reagan and the AIDS crisis. He and his wife, Nancy, had numerous gay friends, and he opposed California’s Proposition 6, which was aimed at keeping gays from teaching in the public schools. But Reagan “absolutely did not act fast enough to address AIDS, and he certainly was not as forthright and public as he should’ve been,” activist James Duke Mason observes. Mason, whose father was a top campaign aide for Reagan in 1980, doesn’t see him as a “devil”; many others do.

“When AIDS Was Funny,” Scott Calonico’s documentary short, looks at the mishandling of the epidemic. The filmmaker/director has woven together audiotapes from three different press conferences (1982, 1983, and 1984) with still shots of patients with AIDS from the Bailey-Boushay House in Seattle. Reagan never appears in the film; like Godot, he is there but not there.

The two main “actors” are journalist Lester Kinsolving and Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes, who play off each other. The conservative Kinsolving keeps trying to find out what the administration intends to do about the epidemic, while Speakes comes back at him with snarky and evasive remarks. “In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?” demands Kinsolving at one point. Speakes never really answers him then or at any other time: he just keeps making cracks, and the rest of the press corps keeps snickering, an ever-dutiful Greek chorus.

The images of the patients provide a chilling counterpoint to these conferences. The most poignant of the images is that of a man holding another man who’s wasting away in front of the camera. It is a Pieta for our times, with all the sorrow and compassion of Michelangelo’s sculpture; and it reminds us that the latter is what these conferences were lacking.


 

For more information about the film, log on to: www.scottcalonico.com.


 

T. J. Banks is the author of Sketch People, A Time for Shadows, Catsong, Houdini, and other books. Catsong was the winner of the 2007 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award.