Metro Weekly

State of Health

Reel Affirmations 2006

Review by Sean Bugg

Rating: starstarstarstar (4 out of 5)

Saturday, 10/14/2006, 1:00 PM
Shorts presentation, $9 at Goethe Institut Inter Nationes

A LESSON LEARNED may not always be a lesson remembered. At least, that’s what you may think after ”State of Health,” which combines a brief documentary on the work of pioneering AIDS reporter Randy Shilts with a longer look at the impact of crystal meth use on New York’s gay community.

Reporter Zero ( ) retraces some of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, sketching the fear and panic that characterized the early ’80s as the scope of the disease came into terrifying focus. Much of that focus was provided through the reporting of Shilts, who as an openly gay reporter had already made a name for himself climbing the ladder at the San Francisco Examiner.

Shilts was fiercely competitive — an ex-lover who was a fellow reporter recounted being excited at both of them having stories on the front page one day, and Shilts pointing out, ”Mine’s above the fold.” He was also tenacious, and he kept on the story even as, in some cases, he became part of the story.

While Shilts’s AIDS reporting and resulting book And the Band Played On are landmark achievements, Reporter Zero seems torn between historicizing AIDS and exploring Shilts as a reporter and person (the film never even names Shilts’s book on the military’s anti-gay history and policy, Conduct Unbecoming). And for those familiar with the history of the epidemic, some of the interviews will remind that even after decades of time and thousands of deaths, some people still have personal scores to settle.

Jay Corcoran’s Rock Bottom ( ) contains some startling moments as it chronicles the lives of a handful of crystal meth users in and around New York City. Most consider themselves addicted, and Corcoran captures the vicious cycle of use, sobriety and relapse.

For many of his subjects, crystal is the drug that allowed a rediscovery of sexuality after years of life with HIV — ”the perfect drug for an HIV-positive gay man in a midlife crisis,” says one. The link between sexual desire and crystal is explicit — for one man who’s clean and sober, it means a continuing feeling of loss. For another it means having to find a new way to even conceptualize sex in a way that doesn’t require the hyper-eroticizing effects of the drug.

Most audaciously, Corcoran follows CJ, a former porn star, into a night at a sex club where the tweaked-out addict proceeds to have sex with a succession of men even though his penis has ”stuff leaking out.” Later, CJ invites the filmmaker over to capture the tail-end of a 12-hour sex session with Gio. Claiming he’s negative, Gio proceeds to bottom bareback for the HIV-positive CJ.

Unsurprisingly, Gio’s last appearance is in a casket, dead from a combination of drug use and diabetes.

As you can guess, Rock Bottom is not a subtle film. Corcoran, for the most part, stays on his side of the camera — just allowing his subjects to speak generally ends up with them saying far more than they likely ever intended. Whatever your feelings about drugs and sex, Corcoran shows that, for at least some men, crystal is an escape that all too easily turns into a trap. — SB

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Shelf Wood
State of Health
Sean Bugg is Editor Emeritus for Metro Weekly.

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