Larry Kramer in Love and Anger is ostensibly a biography of author and LGBT activist Larry Kramer, who was driven by his anger, about the injustices in the world, and his compassion for the people he saw suffering. Although it chronicles his life — from his difficult childhood to his passionate advocacy to stop the AIDS plague — what’s remarkable is the way that it is a glimpse into a certain time and place, a certain subculture, the atrocities they faced, the attention they didn’t get, and the ways in which Kramer helped and hindered the cause.
Kramer grew up in a time when coming out to one’s parents was practically unthinkable, let alone something that could happen without drama — consider Josh Thomas forgetting to come out in Please Like Me and think how far we’ve come. He was a shy and insular kid, not least because his father bullied him, calling him a ‘sissy.’ He had a supportive older brother, who brought him back from the edge more than once, never wavering, but even his love and affection had its limits: he knew enough to send Kramer to therapy, which he needed, but at the time, that was also synonymous with curing him of his homosexuality.
Kramer found his niche when he moved to the big city, but while he found himself sexually liberated, he was troubled by how much of gay culture was predicated on hookup culture. It bothered him that men treated each other like meat and valued casual sex over emotional connection, because sexual freedom had been denied to them for so long. It made him furious. When he wrote the controversial novel Faggots, which addressed these concerns, he found some of his biggest critics within the gay community, who felt — as he explains in the film, incorrectly — that he was trying to put them back in the closet. He was trying to see past the rebellion and toward what would make gay men happy in the long run.
Through a series of interviews — historical and recent — with both Kramer and people who knew him, director Jean Carlomusto crafts a reverential portrait of the man and the situations he found himself in. Kramer is often held in close-up, head held high, castigating whomever is responsible for the injustices faced by the LGBT community — sometimes it’s even members of that community. This is not to say that the film doesn’t treat Kramer’s anger as a flaw, too. Through an offhand comment by Kramer or someone who knew him, the film may hint at how it’s caused him pain, or that he’s hurt the cause now and then because of it. But the film devotes so much more time to how his anger drove his fight than the negative implications of it, that even the friends lost over it seem inconsequential by comparison.
The majority of the film focusses on Kramer’s work on the AIDS epidemic, which he insisted should be referred to as a plague, considering how many people were affected, how quickly it spread, and how little was being done about it. He was an early proponent of safe sex and frustrated that public health measures weren’t being taken to popularize and destigmatize it. While he was watching more and more of his friends get sick and die, he saw that the government was choosing to not do anything about it. AIDS was conveniently affecting people the establishment didn’t care about. This was infuriating to him, so he became an activist and leader. He wrote plays that took stock of what was really happening; he was never more critical in them than when he was writing the characters that were his surrogates.
By taking us into the activist meetings where strategizing happened, and by hearing Kramer’s colleagues recall what it was like at the time, we discover horrifying details that haven’t been well reported on. In the 1980s, when gay men diagnosed with AIDS went into the hospital, they were treated rudely and inhumanely. Because so much was unknown about the disease and how it spread, initially, they would often be refused care by a medical professional. If they were admitted to the hospital, they could wait hours for a bedpan to be changed. Kramer worked with a gay men’s health organization to bring volunteers into hospitals to take care of their own, because if they didn’t do it, nobody would.
By laying bare the horrors of dealing with AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, Carlomusto infuses us with the same anger and impatience that Kramer felt. It’s effective as a reminder of how little time has passed and how far we still have to go, but it’s also part of why we see his anger as almost purely a virtue. It drove him – and drives us — to make things better. And the sheer breadth of people interviewed, across generations, is perhaps the best indicator of what a significant impact he had on so many lives in the LGBT community.
Although Kramer is now living with AIDS at 79, and we first meet him present day in hospital, struggling to survive, Carlomusto has crafted a triumphant tale. Kramer found love and companionship in a partner he married — the very thing he first worried was impossible in the gay culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s. He wrote plays, like The Normal Heart, that are still being performed today, that continue to resonate now even as they were of the moment. And he’s still working, still writing, still looking to change the world. The man we meet today is much calmer and happier than the man captured in videos in the ‘80s, shouting on television to make himself heard. But then, so much in the world has changed. Perhaps that wouldn’t have been possible had he not been so vigorous and vehement in his convictions in years past, utterly unafraid of stirring up trouble if it could help him make the progress he knew was needed.
Larry Kramer in Love and Anger screens in the Documentary Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival on 1/23 at 3PM (Temple Theatre), 1/24 at 12:30PM (Redstone Cinema), 1/24 at 9:30PM (Rsoe Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City), 1/27 at 12PM (Sundance Resort), and 1/30 at 11:30AM (Prospector Square Theatre).