In looking at the theme of Contagion in Angels in America, perhaps we can be aided by also looking at this same theme in pop culture. The first movie that came to mind for me when I thought about the AIDS epidemic was Kids by Larry Clark (1995). In its day, this movie rose to infamy due to its graphic nature and the age of its cast/subjects, most of whom were young skaters hanging around Washington Square Park. The movie was also Harmony Korine’s screenwriting debut, an opportunity created after Clark asked Korine, a 19-year-old skater, to capture the crazy haphazard modern life of teens in New York City.
The story of the movie revolves a few 16 and 17-year-old characters, namely Telly, Caspar, Jennie, and Ruby. Telly, obsessed with having sex with virginal girls sometimes as young as 12 and 13, is infected with HIV but doesn’t know it. The summer before, he had sex with Jennie, and Jennie finds out she is also infected (by Telly) after she goes into the clinic for STD testing. Throughout the movie, Jennie tries to stop Telly from infecting his next victim, who is, in this case, Darcy, a 13- year-old virgin and younger sister of a friend.
Darcy and Telly at the swimming pool.
(points to lesion) “What’s that?”
“That’s my triple nipple.”
Earlier in the movie, the attitude towards the disease can be seen in a speech from a boy in Telly’s gang. In this scene, they’re all sitting around, getting high, and bragging about their sexual conquests and proving their superior knowledge about women. When they get onto the topic of condoms, the boy starts ranting,
“That’s the whole thing though, you know what I’m saying? All you hear about is disease this and disease that. Fucking everyone’s dying and shit. Yo, fucking, that shit is made up. I don’t know no kids with AIDS. Y’no what I’m saying. Ain’t no one I know that died from that shit. It’s like some weird make-believe story that the whole world believes.
Very ironic. He’s going to have a lot of dead friends soon. After the speech, the boys at the roundtable yell out in delight that they don’t care about condoms, they just want to “fuck.” The attitude towards AIDS is drastically different from Angels in America in one aspect. No human in AIA dares to laugh in the face of the disease. Some deny it, some run away from it, some fight it with all their might, but no one tries to provoke it.
This film is placed and was shot in the 90s, a decade or so after Angels in America. America is far gone from Reagan and at this time under President Bill Clinton from the Democratic Party. In New York City, a group of teenagers are unruly and ruling this turf, where we may have, a decade ago, seen Joe and Louis talking together on a bench and Harper camping out with her insanity as company. Kids, like Angels in America, also brings under scrutiny the moral situation and degradation of the United States, the theme of contagion and how one deals with death, and the life and struggles of a subculture. When it comes down to how they all deal with the disease, the film does not give much insight into their lives. Throughout the entire movie, Telly never realizes he has AIDS and continues to have sex with other people. Jennie’s identity as a HIV-infected individual is never really shared with many people other than the audience and the doctor. Caspar unknowingly infects himself. Perhaps the entire film can be encapsulated in the last four words of the film.
“Jesus Christ, what happened?”