“IF I DIE OF AIDS – FORGET BURIAL – JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE F.D.A.” – Slogan emblazoned across the back of David Wojnarowicz’s jean jacket at an ACT UP protest in 1988.
A year and counting into a public health crisis that has solicited only the barest minimum of help (and spitefully, harm) from federal governing bodies, there is the feeling, at least among many queer history-literate Americans, that we’ve been somewhere near “here” before. The HIV/AIDS epidemic that ballooned in the late 1980s under a casually, devastatingly cruel presidential administration—and never fully went away thanks to the sky-high price of preventative drugs like PrEP and refusal of universal healthcare—is one of the most frequently acknowledged touchstones of contemporary queer history. While COVID-19 is an epidemic of a different contagion and variance, the societal ills surrounding it are all too familiar if the social media-borne re-circulations of headlines, slogans and protest art are anything to go by. For those who need it most, there is once again a combination of yearning for guidance and an incredulousness at the repeated lack of action from those at the top. Simultaneously, the mandating of queer death by a right-to-center government insidiously connects to a self-constricting Puritanism.
Wojnarowicz, a new documentary from director Chris McKim (Freedia Got a Gun), traces this link between censorship of identity and medical neglect through late artist, writer and ever-relevant spitfire David Wojnarowicz’s legacy. The film, produced by WOW Docs/World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato & Fenton Bailey (of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame) concerns itself with piecing together a chronological Wojnarowicz biography—from birth into an abusive household, to death from the complications of a vicious disease, or what Wojnarowicz would call the mechanical workings of “an infected society.” McKim sagely uses Wojnarowicz’s extensive archive of tape-recorded monologues and voicemails over much of the artist’s visual work, so that Wojnarowicz is largely narrating his own life post-mortem. As one of his many admiring colleagues states, Wojnarowicz was a genius, so listening to him reason through life, sex, death and humanitarian crisis is enough cause to recommend the film, even if the doc’s editing doesn’t trust its archive as a main font of intrigue.
Bolstered by interviews with friends, relatives, lovers, curators and admirers, the documentary sketches out as much of Wojnarowicz’s personal history and impact as it can fit in under two hours. Unfortunately, this does mean it speeds through upbringing, and many other pieces of Wojnarowicz’s life, at a sometimes dizzying clip that would be better suited to a mini-series. Through siblings and Wojnarowicz’s own accounts, it describes an unhappy, physically and verbally abusive childhood, a life-saving move to live with their mother in Hell’s Kitchen and Wojnarowicz’s constant running away to become a Times Square street hustler.
Though the documentary begins with a bold impression of the artist giving impassioned interviews around the pulling of federal funding from an exhibition deemed too “political” (read: homosexual), Wojnarowicz’s accounts of this earlier period of sex work are what form the most effective entry to his intertwining of the personal and political. Over tape recording, Wojnarowicz details an interaction with a particularly “creepy-looking” client, whose desperation nonetheless moved Wojnarowicz to kiss him on the mouth—something the client confessed to never having experienced. Lucid fury may be one of his signatures (and something the documentary’s sporadic, layered editing style aims to emulate), but his unusual understanding of the universal necessity of pleasure and recognition are what flesh out Wojnarowicz’s personhood.
Among the highlights of what this produced are Wojnarowicz’s approach to the conniving, fickle fine art world. Rising in the same wave that swept up more commercially recognized names like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wojnarowicz’s graffiti depicting life as a war zone was first as underground as one could get, decorating condemned piers, subways and the ceilings of slapdash “gallery” parties. When his pieces started to become du jour, garnering $3,000 price tags and invitations to the Whitney Biennial, Wojnarowicz faced either succumbing to or throwing sand in the grinding capitalist gears he so despised—ultimately choosing both. In one delicious story, he was paid a hefty commission to install an exhibition in the basement of Adriana and Robert Mnuchin’s brownstone (yes, the father of Steven Mnuchin). He created a gorgeous, apocalyptic scene that’s mixed media included garbage from off the street, and only the freshest New York City cockroaches.
While Wojnarowicz’s devotion to one-time romantic partner and lifelong soulmate Peter Hujar, his enduring relationship with Tom Rauffenbart and his physical decline in the presence of fellow artist Marion Scemama all pull at heartstrings, the most enduring element of the film is his connection of censorship to legislating homosexuality out of existence. “Tongues of Flame,” Wojnarowicz’s invited installation at Illinois State University, became the centerpiece of since-ousted Republican stalwart Dana Rohrbacher’s rage against the National Endowment for the Arts. Wojnarowicz’s decontextualized “pornographic” art joined the works of Robert Mapplethorpe, and helped Republicans set the stage for the federal halt of individual funding for any artists that would come with the lawsuit of the NEA Four.
Wojnarowicz’s response—to accusations of federal funds being used for politicized art—was to rear back at the senators who thought art about AIDS could ever be decoupled from political rage over a lack of access to healthcare, and to point out that their censorship of any mention of homosexuality was the political act. One particularly horrific case Wojnarowicz pointed to was a Republican congressman’s attempt to completely censor a brief on hate crime statistics against LGBT youth because it contained the word “homosexual.” Though the film quickly moves on, that pipeline of Christian-backed moralizing to actual, legal erasure stands out in today’s continued “for the children” panic defense, which persists in everything from attacks against sexually explicit online spaces and trades, to attempts to scare trans youth out of reality.
Where the doc suffers is in its fervent desire to transmit as much information as possible to its viewers, and to do so in a style that both references Wojnarowicz and maintains interest in a mostly archival film. It’s impossible to actually capture the entirety of Wojnarowicz’s repertoire, activism and depths of personality in one film, and the rapidity with which Wojnarowicz skips from one period of his life to another is cause for rewind. Similarly, while the riotous nature of Wojnarowicz’s work is successfully emulated by use of his noise/punk band 3 Teens Kill 4 on the doc’s soundtrack, the frenetic nature of the visual editing sometimes pastes over what it’s trying to feature. Instead of being illuminated, visuals are obscured, and interviews with Gracie Mansion, Fran Liebowitz, Nan Goldin and other crucial attendees to Wojnarowicz’s life are reduced to the pithiest clips. There’s a sense that the film doesn’t always trust its own source material, or the audience’s attention span, even with their incredible access to the artist.
Overall, however, the viewer gets an essential introduction to Wojnarowicz—enough to foster a desire to look more deeply into his own, numerous written accounts of his life, and to examine their own upholdings of moral decency in art, sex and access to an unencumbered life. Wojnarowicz will hopefully move younger audiences to stop relegating the lasting impact of the AIDS epidemic to a thing of the past, and to instead recognize that the impulse to designate decency is merely a corrupted link in a long chain of people who would much rather us be too embarrassed to forcefully claim our own right to exist.
Directors: Chris McKim
Release Date: March 19, 2021
Shayna Maci Warner is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.