Yesterday marked an important 25th anniversary. On April 23rd 1984, U.S. Health Secretary Margaret Heckler announced that Dr. Robert Gallo had discovered the cause for AIDS, a little known retrovirus we now call HIV. The press conferences and interviews that followed presented a confident Gallo - and promised to the nation was a vaccine within a few years. As you know, we have no vaccine, no cure, and oddly, last year the Nobel Prize did not go to Gallo for discovering HIV, but to Luc Montagnier of France.
A new film is making its way through film festivals this spring. House of Numbers dares to investigate the HIV/AIDS phenomenon by including all the important players in AIDS research - but it also includes voices of dissent - scientists, including Nobel Prize winners who question the role of HIV in AIDS. The film is causing quite a stir. Only days ago, at the Boston Indie Film Festival, a near riot broke out between people at a panel discussion. Hot words like "denialist" and "Orwellian" got thrown around. A civilized discussion was not to be had.
The orthodox scientists view HIV dissidents as dangerous to the public. They believe that to question the current medical paradigm is to promote unsafe sex and other reckless behavior - and that to forego pharmaceutical drugs in favor of nutrition and alternative therapies is to allow the virus to keep mutating and thus prevent vaccines and treatments from being effective. In a taped interview, men such as Mark Wainberg, former President of the International AIDS Society, have called for a constitutional amendment in the United States that would criminalize the act of questioning HIV/AIDS theories and imprison people so as to silence their dangerous assertions. And in some states, legislation has been proposed to quarantine HIV+ individuals who refuse HIV retroviral medications.
Dissident scientists believe that after twenty-five years, some new paths should potentially be explored. There are many people who have had HIV for over 20 years, never taken a drug, and never become ill. The CDC has continued to state for twenty years that up to a third of the HIV+ population is unaware of their status, and yet there has been no surge of these unknowing people rushing to the ER with AIDS defining illnesses as was seen in the early 1980s. And now, the leading cause of death for AIDS patients in America is liver and heart failure - from the HIV medications. In addition, there is no international gold standard for HIV testing; it is completely possible to test positive in one country and then negative in another - an odd reality given HIV is said to be a virtual death sentence without treatment. And some scientists make the claim that HIV has never been properly isolated.
I am excited to see this film once it's released on DVD. But the controversy troubles me - not the tension between the opposing views in the film (I love that drama!) - but the fact that director Brent W. Leung is being viciously attacked for having the audacity to allow dissident scientists to speak at all. He is also being accused of tricking orthodox scientists into participating in the documentary - not telling them he was going to present both sides. For his efforts I say, YOU GO, Brent! Freedom. Of. Speech. I applaud this filmmaker for having the journalistic hunger to travel the world for two years and then present what is a very important story.
Because again - yesterday was an important anniversary. Twenty-five years in the world of HIV=AIDS=DEATH. No cure. No vaccine. Lots of fear. Disproportionate numbers in the African American and African communities. The list goes on. Why not at least consider that something may have gone awry? Or somewhat awry? And even if people think that dissident views are ridiculous or silly - isn't it the right of anyone to practice free speech and exercise their curiosity as they see fit?
Here is the link to the website and trailer. Check it out. Weigh in.
In an interview, writer William Peter Blatty stated that if done wrong, this film could turn into a laugh riot. I giggled when I saw this, because for many people I know, it did turn out to be a laugh riot. I mean a little girl screaming, "Your mother sucks cocks in hell" is always good for a laugh. And when the film was re-released in 2000, there were notable snickers in the audience. The audacity of the film - and its place in pop culture is just too much for many a viewer to overcome.
Though understanding these responses, I still find the film thrilling. Director William Friedkin executes a completely unapologetic approach to the material. It doesn't play down to its audience like most films in that genre. It is a true horror drama. It also highlights issues that fascinate me. Who are the priests in an ever growing atheistic culture? The doctors. The film looks at atheism and science as a religion that can't cope with the situation at hand. At the same time, it doesn't paint Catholicism as perfect. The exorcism fails, forcing a trade with the devil; one is left to wonder where power truly lies when the credits role.
All that aside, the movie taught me to go for it. When you see the top - go over it and see if it can work. My artistic endeavors have always been on that line between heightened drama and absurd histrionics. And one must only watch Regan masturbating with a crucifix, forcing her mother's head between her legs, spinning her head to face backwards and saying, "You know what she did? Your cunting daughter?" to see that the "top" was set pretty high for me. HA!
This was and escape for my 22 year old mother and her 4 year old son. We saw the film 17 times in the theatres in 1977 and 1978. I could not get enough. Like so many other young kids, it was the explosion of imagination. And its simple themes pulled from the fairy tales I already loved. It taught me that the definition of "win" is not always what it seems. I was horrified when Obi-Wan raised his saber and allowed Vader to kill him - but it shed light on how there's always a different option...one that is truly noble.
What's very important to mention is that the first time I saw Star Wars, we entered the theater in the middle of the trash compactor scene. In 1977, you paid to go in and could sit through the reel as many times as you wanted provided there were enough seats. So we walked in right in the middle and I was immediately thrilled by this cliffhanger moment. There could not have been a better teacher of rising action and mini-climax. My heart was racing - and I loved it. Ironically, I now suffer from major anxiety issues - maybe it's the walls of a trash compactor about to squish me. In my work, I love that sort of rapid acceleration - and I also love epic notions of light and dark.
This comedy of the underdogs still makes me laugh. It combines truly hilarious performances with some sharp writing and a theme that anyone can relate to. Well...that I could relate to in 1980. Though not fully understanding my sexuality - I was not the typical boy by any means. And I found most men utterly distasteful - the way they treated women, the way they strutted about, they way they spoke in righteous cadences out their fat asses, all the while pretending to wear crowns - or in my region, Texas cowboy hats. I felt smarter than all of these idiots - and their sons who loved to make fun of me for not being athletic, for using my hands too much, for having a little sugar in my step. And I found ways to conquer them - through my academics and creative achievements. But what I really wanted to do was tie them up and make them look like the buffoons they were. So seeing Dabney Coleman's Franklin Hart in S&M Garage Opener Drag was very satisfying to the sissy in me. And I aligned myself with Lily Tomlin's Violet - strong but helpless in this world of dick swinging morons.
I find myself attracted to themes of the underdog - the disenfranchised - the abused - the forgotten. I also find my comedic taste to border on the silly and absurd. There's a moment when Franklin Hart comes into the office after everyone thinks he's dead and Violet has a sort of comic spasm which involves her trying to catch a piece of paper that has flown out of her hands. I love that stuff - silly and absurd mixed with sharp wit.
Self-examination often seems an absurd enterprise. The idea that one can possess any level of objectivity regarding one's own puzzle pieces is an idea bound to fail in experimentation. But alas, on this day I find myself curious about influences over the years. And though I'd like to assign them as primarily influential in my career endeavors, I have become increasingly doubtful that a separation between my daily life trek and that of my artistic pursuits exists at all. The things that inform my daily life are always the things that inform my artistic life. Oh, hell, let's stop with the dichotomic differentiation...it's just my LIFE.
In terms of the actual influences, however, I will employ a method for creating the list. And of course, they will all come from art. (I could go on and on about the influences of my family - but good god, why?) So...I have looked at film, theatre, music, and visual art. And within these four I have looked at extremes in style - for I've come to notice that I see myself as a funky concoction - the result of some recipe made by a poor working mother forced to throw the remnants of the pantry into a pot and call it supper. It makes for a funky meal. And I am a funky set of maddening contradictions...to myself...and to so many others.
I will compose a post for each one. The first will be up soon....
A founding member of Playwrights West, Matthew B. Zrebski is a multi-award winning playwright, composer, and producer-director whose career has been defined by new play development. He has served as the Artistic Director for Youth Could Know Theatre, Theatre Atlantis, and Stark Raving Theatre - all companies specializing in new work - and since 1995, has mounted over 40 world premieres. Matt has had many of his own plays produced and has been twice featured in the Portland Center Stage JAW Festival. He recently received three consecutive commissions from Oregon Children's Theatre. In addition to his work in professional theatre, Matt is a passionate advocate for arts education. He teaches playwriting through the Literary Arts WITS program and serves a teaching artist in residence for the Visions and Voices program at Portland Center Stage. He is also the instructor for PCS's adult playwriting courses and is periodically a visiting professor at Pacific University. Mentored closely by Paul Walsh and Lou "Luigi" Salerni, he holds a BFA from the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University.