There’s something about Larry. I’m not sure exactly what it is—whether it’s his fiery brand of activism, his equally incendiary dramatic acumen, or something else – and Jean Carlomusto’s documentary “Larry Kramer In Love and Anger” doesn’t get us any closer to pin pointing exactly what it is about the activist, playwright, and icon that makes him so fascinating. There’s a hint of it, a genuine prod at that idea of unraveling his iconography, in the first five minutes, filled with as much passion and rage as Kramer himself, but it quickly dissipated and becomes unwieldy and, worse, conventional.
To be absolutely fair, “Larry Kramer In Love and Anger” is not a bad documentary, it is simply middling. It’s a film that acknowledges that Kramer is a multifaceted person, or at least presents him as such, but never seems able to really examine those facets thoroughly nor cohesively. There’s an odd distance to it all: we see, through archival interview, Kramer speak about growing up a shy, introverted child grow into a shy, introverted college freshman at Yale who then attempts suicide. Then we see a screenwriter go from an Oscar nomination for “Women in Love” to “Lost Horizon.” Then we see Kramer at the front lines of the AIDS Epidemic. And though we understand these many people to be of one body, there’s no understanding of that transition, of how they’re related, or how they move fluidly with one another. It’s as if the audience is expected to just accept that these many faces are on the same gem.
And though it foes its best to place Kramer within the cultural context of the AIDS Crisis, it has this inability to actually create a tone of suspense or foreboding or urgency. It observes Kramer’s sound and fury, from his involvement to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to The Normal Heart to ACT UP, but the film is unable to actually emulate that urgency, passion, or anger, or love. That’s perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the doc: for a film so enamored of its subject, treating him as this godfather of an aspect of the queer rights movement, the film itself feels like it wants to be as important in honoring Kramer, but lacks the push and vehemence needed. In addition, Kramer is treated as if he’s the father of an aspect of the queer rights movement, and yet the film skips over Stonewall entirely, which would be helpful at least as far as historical context goes, and necessary had Stonewall had any particular impact on Kramer, whose new book The American People, Volume 1: The Search for My Heart: A Novel seeks to tell the history of gay people.
Just as frustrating, its reliance on archival interviews for Kramer’s story and perspectives seem like, to those even peripherally aware of his work, it makes the film kind of stale. To ask Kramer how he feel about today’s queers and their brand of activism is something that’s worth watching no? We get a clip of the impassioned speech he gave in 2004 about young gays and lesbians, a bit of a screed. But it’s been over a decade since that speech, and gay and queer culture has mutated with the internet: on the one hand, the way that gay men meet one another has changed drastically, perhaps fulfilling another one of Kramer’s unfortunate prophecies. Yet, conversely, the arrival of the Internet has also granted a space for queer voices outside of the mainstream to speak, to move, and to create change. Hashtags aren’t just a reductive kind of “slacktivism”, but a very real way to create and continue conversation, and incite action.
But Kramer is really left to a montage of “look how important, and hard to deal with, he was” talking heads, without enough effort to really deconstruct who he was. There are hints at this, as I mentioned: the first five minutes before the title card; the occasional juxtaposition of Kramer’s story or perspective and scenes from plays he’s written. But even the segment on his controversial novel Faggots seems rather half-hearted, only reinforcing his greatness without a) asking why it is great or b) challenging that greatness. One gay activist, and former sexual liberationist, acknowledges that his novel felt like an “I told you so” come the AIDS Crisis: that should be material enough to probe at the various complexities and contradictions of his character, but it isn’t.
It ends messily, on a note that seems to, at least narratively and thematically, come out of nowhere. But when Kramer articulates his disappointment that few people seem to proudly identify as gay and make it key to their personhood, when a half hour earlier he declares that being gay shouldn’t be reduced to their “cocks”, I have to wonder: what, to Larry Kramer, does it mean to be gay? He spends as much time arguing that gay people are useful to society: lawyers, artists, filmmakers, etc. They’re people. And the outside world has no understanding of this alienating identity that results in being cast off. But when gays carve out a culture for themselves, however detrimental the end result is, he condemns them. His condemnation is reasonable to a point inasmuch health concerns. But his contempt with the sexual liberation of the gay rights movement is not an ideology I share politically, even if I personally identify with it as a misanthrope. So, gayness is never actually defined in the film, either in the context of what Kramer thinks it means, or what it means to the rest of us.
I’m not at all denying the important of Larry Kramer on society, particularly within queer history. But “Larry Kramer In Love and Anger” promises more than it delivers. “Vito,” another HBO doc about his contemporary Vito Russo, far more effectively is able to parse through who Vito was and what the world around him meant to both him and to the audience. Yes, we do see Kramer in love and anger, but the film never gets to be in love and anger with him.