Today we live in “a potential radicalizing moment,” artist and activist Avram Finkelstein said in a recent interview, [A&U, January 2018]. We find ourselves at “a critical junction” between two generations—a generation that survived the AIDS crisis and is still here to tell the story, and a younger generation that has a unique opportunity to learn firsthand from these survivors and, thus, continue telling the early history of AIDS.
Today, there’s also an intergenerational schism, in particular in the gay community, a schism that might undermine the legacy of the AIDS story and of the first AIDS activists. Many believe that, in order to protect this legacy, we need to build an intergenerational bridge, a way to communicate between the two generations. After Louie, a new film by Vincent Gagliostro, attempts to put down a foundation of that bridge, to ensure that the story of what happened during the early epidemic lives on.
Vincent Gagliostro is known for his work on films like How to Survive a Plague and After Silence. He is also an artist and an activist, one of the original members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). After Louie is his first feature movie. The cast and crew include co-writer and actor Anthony Johnston, Tony Award-winning actor Alan Cumming [A&U, January 2004], Zachary Booth, and production designer Avram Finkelstein.
Hearing about the film, I decided to attend After Louie’s New York City premiere at Cinema Village. Copies of the first ACT UP action (from March 24, 1987, in New York City) calling for a “Massive AIDS Demonstration” were carefully placed on each seat. After the movie, director Vincent Gagliostro, and a few members of the cast, including Alan Cumming, Zachary Booth, David Drake, and Anthony Johnston, showed up to further discuss the movie and take a few questions from the audience. In the audience, as if to complete that panel of young and veteran artists and activists, was Larry Kramer, who received standing ovations.
After Louie approaches AIDS history from two opposite sides—from the perspective of the early years of AIDS, as well as from today’s perspective, when fighting AIDS doesn’t feel like being in a war. After Louie explores today’s intergenerational divide, as well as that intergenerational bridge. After Louie also explores universal feelings and emotions defining human nature—love, loss, rage, hope and hopelessness, our fears and insecurities—fear of change, as well as the ability and necessity to embrace change, fear of ending up (and dying) alone—and the challenge of coming to terms with our mortality. After Louie is also a story about friendship, acceptance, and about community. It’s a story about survival, about our purpose in life, and the hope that our legacy will live on.
Alan Cumming gives a superb performance playing “a version of” Vincent Gagliostro. Inspired by Gagliostro’s own life, After Louie tells the story of Sam Cooper (Alan Cumming), a fifty-something year old ACT UP activist and artist who finds himself alone, seemingly trapped on one side of the intergenerational divide. While trying to keep the story of the early AIDS epidemic—and the fight—alive, he faces a world without an AIDS crisis to fight, with friends (gay and straight) who have moved on with their lives, and a younger gay generation appearing to take for granted everything that his generation had fought so hard to achieve, only a few short decades ago.
Haunted by the past and by the memory of a friend, William (David Drake), whom he lost to the AIDS crisis, Sam pours himself into making a film about him, in an effort to keep his memory alive. Or maybe Sam wants to solve “the puzzle” that William talks about in an old “reel.” After all, After Louie begins with William presenting Sam with that puzzle: “Try to make sense of this for me. It’s a puzzle. I leave you with a puzzle.” In a way, the movie, itself, attempts to solve “the puzzle” not only for Sam, but also for many AIDS activists and survivors, as well as for those whom they’ve lost to the epidemic.
But it seems that, at least in the After Louie narrative, Sam is the only one still interested in solving that puzzle, telling the story, keeping the memory alive. And as he becomes consumed by his film project, he also finds himself alone in it, yet again.
On the other side of the intergenerational divide there is Braeden (Zachary Booth), a young man with a “memento mori” tattoo, because “we all die eventually.” Braeden is in an open, but loving relationship with Lukas (Anthony Johnston), another young man, who, as it turns out, is living with HIV.
As their paths collide, their views in life and on the AIDS epidemic also collide. While Braeden accuses Sam, thirty years his senior, of trying to recapture his youth, Sam explains his reason why: “When I was your age, all my friends were dropping like flies. I went to funerals twice a week. We fought for things that really matter.” Then he accuses Braeden’s generation of not doing anything.
The intergenerational divide comes through throughout the movie, and not always in a subtle way. After the movie, the panel explained their decision for not being subtle. “It’s a conscious moment to have all that spelled out,” Anthony Johnston said.
Asked if the movie helped him better understand the ACT UP generation, Zackary Booth said, “I honestly don’t think that I can [fully] understand. I hope I’ll never have to understand it.” Johnston reiterated Booth’s response.
But along with that intergenerational divide, expressed so powerfully in the movie, comes a sense of mutual acceptance, and understanding. And it all starts with Braeden’s words to Sam: “I don’t take it for granted!” He thanks Sam for what his generation has done. He says “Thank you” twice—first, maybe just to get Sam to stop talking, the second time, really meaning the words.
The most powerful scene in After Louie, I thought, shows Sam in a moment of total rage and despair that nobody seems to care anymore, using red chalk on white wall to write down the names of people lost to the epidemic. He doesn’t stop writing until the entire wall is full of names.
The scene shows the scope and the reach of “this awful disease,” Cumming commented about the making of the writing on the wall scene, during the panel discussion, explaining that he actually knew some of the people whose names he was writing on that wall. “In the wide shot, Vincent [Gagliostro] would shout at me [and sometimes spell out] the names that he knew.” It was not pleasant, but powerful. What got Cumming were the people who didn’t have a name. Instead of a name, he’d write something like “the sexy boy that lost his hair.” He mentioned that nowadays he tries to learn the names of people he meets because, if something like the AIDS epidemic happens again, he’d like to know their names.
And there’s more. A few people in the audience recognized some of the names written on that wall during that scene.
After Louie is a powerful story about the past, present and future of AIDS, told in an intimate and emotional way. “I wanted to tell the truth,” Gagliostro said, on the panel. “I wanted to create a space for my writers and actors to bring their [stories] into [the movie].” And mentioning the writing on the wall scene in particular, he added, “it’s the first time I’m actually giving these people a proper eulogy.”
After Louie is now available everywhere. Find out more at www.afterlouie.com. Learn more about Vincent Gagliostro at www.vincentgagliostro.com. Read more about the first ACT UP action at www.actupny.org/documents/1stFlyer.html.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.