Monday, April 28, 2008

IFFB 2008: Sex Positive

I have to admit, I'd never heard the term "sex positive" before seeing this film. I kind of like it, both for what it and the corresponding "sex negative" mean, but because it's a useful reminder that all groups attempt to use language to cast their opponents in a negative light, and persecuted/minority groups are no exception.

Anyway, this was my first film of the night - I saw it before Jetsam, but it's usually harder to write a review of a documentary with just pen, paper, and program. In this case, not so much - I was actually able to write this up without further reference. Ah, well - one lives and learns.

Sex Positive

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 April 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

In another recent documentary about a man preaching the gospel of safe sex (Darling!), there's a line about how condoms are a matter of simple hygiene. It seems like a simple and obvious thing to say now, but there's an argument to be made that this line of thought may not have taken root in America's gay community if not for a former S&M hustler by the name of Richard Berkowitz.

Berkowitz will tell you this; he's a chatterbox when the camera is rolling and we soon learn his life story: Growing up in upstate New York, he thought his dalliances with other males was something he would grow out of, but college saw him out of the closet and writing editorials protesting hate speech by Rutgers' fraternities. After school, he wound up in Manhattan, living the life of indulgence that characterized the late nineteen-seventies, falling into S&M by accident and then finding it profitable. As the early eighties came, people started dying in large numbers. Berkkowitz was diagnosed with AIDS, and wound up working with virologist Dr. Joseph Sonnabend and musician Michael Callen to educate the community on the disease and how risk could be mitigated. The message was not popular, to say the least.

Director Daryl Wein does a good job of painting a picture of the late-seventies/early-eighties New York City gay scene. It comes across as a singular moment in time, when this culture of promiscuity was able to be accepted as normal, between prior years' conservatism and the fear that the disease later created. We hear how the scene created ideal conditions for an epidemic as well as the panic and grief that follows in such an epidemic's wake. There's a well-crafted sense of chaos, especially when what seems like common sense advice in retrospect is ignored and discredited by people who don't want to compromise their own lives to save them.

Wein lets Richard and his friends tell the story first-person; the film consists almost entirely of interview footage where the picture occasionally breaks away from the person talking to show photographs from the period. Indeed, even the archival footage tends to be interview footage of a sort - Richard and others appearing on talk shows of the time to discuss and debate their views. as Richard is a charming, engaging speaker, but we see just enough of other people (including his elderly mother, who still seems a little puzzled by her son's homosexuality) that the movie doesn't wind up feeling like an autobiography.

In fact, Richard Berkowitz is so likable that the audience may not realize what a slanted version of the story its been fed until Wein crams all the footage that portrays Richard as something other than a saint into the end of the movie. Early on, for instance, Berkowitz mentions that he wound up spending some time in Miami during the eighties, presenting it as the gay establishment driving him out of town; it's later portrayed as something akin to a year-long bender, and part of the reason why Sonnabend and Callen got fed up with him. Both he and the film occasionally fall into the trap of thinking the New York City is the entire world, with Berkowitz's efforts more important to that place than being as universal as is occasionally implied. There's also the tricky matter that much of Berkowitz's and Sonnabend's evangelizing centered not just on the need for safe sex, but that AIDS was a multifactor syndrome rather than having a primary cause in the HIV virus. Sometimes the movie seems like it wants to try and fight that battle again rather than point out that the same preventive measures are called for in either case. Also, it sometimes seems like the movie would more logically be about Berkowitz, Sonnabend, and Callen as a group, and focusing primarily on Berkowitz is playing to his ego.

This may just be an issue of editing and inexperience; Wein is young and working on a feature about a friend of a friend. It makes the filmmaking seem clumsy and presenting all the shades of gray in one chunk does more to discredit what came before than it should. Maybe if Wein had made more of an effort to present Berkowitz as a complex figure throughout, rather than the guy who was right despite his colorful background, the whole film would have been more satisfying.

Also on EFC.

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