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Feb. 14, 2017

Revisiting the Virus: Poignant Glimpse Into AIDS Epidemic Disturbs and Delights

This past Monday night, Doc Films screened A Virus Knows No Morals (1986), a pioneering movie in the history of queer cinema, in conjunction with the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. The film, which Doc showed in its original 16mm format, is a cinematic reaction to the tragic early mishandling of the AIDS epidemic.

Doc screened Virus as part of the ongoing series called “Film and AIDS: Early Queer Responses to the AIDS Epidemic.” The series includes such films as The Living End (1992), Blue (1993), and Philadelphia (1993), to name a few.

A Virus Knows No Morals was criticized upon its release for including some comedic moments. One scene in the movie features a chorus of “nurses” in drag, singing a blithe and cheery song advising gay youth that their “fate is in [their] hands,” while one “nurse” makes certain suggestive gestures off to the side.

Some scenes in the film are striking in their hyperbole. One scene features a heterosexual couple getting progressively more turned on as they discuss the spread of the AIDS virus. Another scene features one “Professor Doctor Blood” giving a sex-ed presentation about condom use, wherein she dips models of condom-free and a condom-wearing penises into a vat of AIDS-infected body fluids; the Doctor watches with glee as the condom-free penis swells and erupts into a boiling mess.

Ultimately, however, Virus is concerned with eliciting empathy for AIDS victims. A female therapist tries to convince a dying AIDS patient to strangle his own mother, who confesses to her son that she “hates all men,” including him. The film portrays a German homosexual man as endlessly persecuted, even when trying to get medicine or therapy, or when trying to seek help in a desperate moment from his own mother. In another scene, a gay bathhouse owner in the film tells his mother of his AIDS diagnosis and is met only with derision, and an accusation that he has ruined her reputation.

One comes out of the film with a newfound respect for the struggle faced by AIDS patients at the start of the outbreak, who were treated as “punished” by God, and denied disease research funding because of societal stigma. I had trouble leaving the theater without seeing images from the movie burned into my mind: syringes lying in tins of blood, used condoms hanging on trees. The movie brings to mind these horrific sights and sounds from within the realm of a disease-ridden culture, while simultaneously adding levity to them.

A Virus Knows No Morals is a part of the Film and AIDS: Early Queer Responses to the AIDS Epidemic series at Doc Films, which screens a different movie every Monday this quarter at 7 p.m.

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