The recent past, somewhere 25 or 30 years ago, is becoming History. A jumble of chaotic and competing impressions is being thinned out, given order and apparent causality, until it feels more distant than recent memory, more intriguing and coherent. The ordinary and invisible details of life, hemlines, hats and hairstyles, become palpably odd as the near past undergoes the process whereby it becomes, as one British novelist has written, “a foreign country.”
The forging of history has been advancing through the darkest years of the AIDS crisis, through the 1980s when the disease was new, dimly understood and widely terrifying, into the 1990s in which the plague spread and decimated a generation of gay men before the introduction of powerful new drugs in 1995. A revival of a classic play about the early days of the AIDS crisis, new documentaries that tell the history of AIDS activism, a continuing engagement by artists and curators with cultural responses to AIDS and, of course, anniversaries — including last year’s 30th anniversary of the emergence of the disease — have kept the visceral story of AIDS before the public, even as it has become a chronic or manageable disease.
Yet something is changing. Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” which ran at Arena Stage in July, unfolds like a history play, full of strange references to arcane things like the telephone book. The footage seen in the powerful documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” about the activist group ACT UP, feels decidedly archival and historical — is that a breadbox or a cellphone? — to eyes used to the clarity of hand-held digital cameras. There is metamorphosis in the texture of memory, the smells, soundtrack and taste of it, as the age of AIDS looks as remote as the sun-drenched, leached-out colors of old Vietnam War films.
It’s not just that the 1980s and ’90s are slipping ever further into the past. If cultures remember the past in any way analogous to how individual people do, we seem to be at the moment when it’s safe to pull out the old photo albums, thumb through images of lost love and departed friends and submit to the full weight of emotional reminiscence. We live in a culture in which we argue over what happened five seconds ago. But the AIDS years are rapidly becoming settled history, with nostalgia creeping into how an older generation remembers them and the shock of surprise as a younger generation learns them for the first time.
David France, the director of “How to Survive a Plague,” has seen the phenomenon firsthand at advance screenings of his film, which opens Sept. 21. An older generation that lived through the worst of the AIDS crisis has broken with a self-imposed moratorium on thinking about death and disease, and a younger generation is experiencing the film as an introduction to a chapter of history that, for different reasons, many people have conspired to forget.
“What is becoming plain is that people who didn’t experience the plague years have an idea that something really awful happened, but it got better — that the system took care of it,” says France. “What they don’t know is the real revolutionary work that got done, in part by AIDS activists.”