It’s a Sin. Home, the final stop

19 February, 2021

Stigma is harder to shoulder than an actual illness. That’s what Susan Sontag said, I’m only just repeating it.

I don’t really know what was up with me in the few hours in which I went through a false-positive result and then a repeat test with a happy ending, but it’s clear as daylight that I wasn’t at all ready for what was supposed to have happened. HIV – since this is what I am talking about – was, first and foremost, promising to crush my social life, rather than my health. My blind fear was making me think of a brighter way of breaking the news that I had the virus, than thinking of available treatments. I digress, since any more on my story with HIV would trivialize actual experiences. But what I mean to say is that I have retained a certain sensibility towards the topic, and so it should be of no wonder, then, that I was driven to watch It’s a Sin, Russell T. Davies’ extremely popular miniseries. I mean, it’s not that it holds any kind of real promise. Truth be told, we’ve all seen films with young men (rather than women) whose ascendent paths are dastardly dashed by a random hook-up. But the wave of series that has lately washed over small screens across the world has a catch that is worthy of attention – they respond to their audiences’ needs almost immediately, lying one step ahead of studio films and two steps ahead of arthouse cinema.[1] The respective audience is represented, of course, by progressive youths, who have gotten so weary of centrist compromises. For them, a story of a man who is sick with AIDS in the ’80s is never going to have, for instance, a lawyer played by Tom Hanks as its lead character (as in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, 1993). Simple good intentions have become worthless. Behold: the headliner is now the voluble Olly Alexander, frontman of Years & Years, who is a frontrunner of this new generation’s vanguard of superstars who want to be your friends. 

Alexander acts as Richie Tozer, a small-town boy who moves to London to study for a Law degree. Of course, he’s not really interested in becoming a lawyer (farewell, Tom Hanks!). He will soon follow in the footsteps of his new friends and apply for Acting School in no time. And naturally, the change goes in dance moves, since, after all, college is far less important than London’s nightlife, as Tozer fully submerges himself into a long line of parties where he and his friends sweat out their anxieties caused by small-towners, the harsh words they received from their parents, failed auditions, cold silences, and frozen glances. Beads of sweat falling onto the dance floor, onto bar tops, and especially onto the bodies of nameless men. It’s the beginning of the ’80s, and HIV is little more than white noise on the news program, just another issue of the Yankees. But it won’t always be like that. And each episode adds yet another life to its body count.

Tozer’s friends are birds of a feather. Homosexuals, provincials, immigrants, non-white, non-binary, non-stop protesting against the norms, while their only common denominator is precisely their somewhat alien presence in the milieu of Thatcherist Britain. By and large, the director splits the narration between fragments from the lives of Richie – the aspiring actor, Roscoe – the Nigerian emigre that has run away from home and is now a bartender at the club where the gang is loitering about (Omari Douglas), Colin – the momma’s boy, the silent oddball who is working at a high-class costume store (Callum Scott Howells), and Jill – the trusty friend who is also an actress, the one who is just at the right distance to notice when and how AIDS turns from an abstract notion into a reality (Lydia West). With this deck of cards, Davies sets himself up as worthy – worthy of giving due respects, of recognizing the contributions of ethnic and racial minorities in the history of nightlife, activism, and the queer tragedy. The audience’s increasing demand for intersectional representations is yet another thing to which TV series knew how to respond quickly. Whether it’s pure marketing or it’s actual goodwill, only time will tell.

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Let’s not miss the chance to test the waters of the so-called inclusive (even neo-Marxist, if you will) distribution network. Isn’t Davies’ show centered on the drama of a young white man, even if he is a homosexual? Yes, it is. So what happens then? Well, his friends show up, since everything takes place in London, a space of cultural, ethnic, and racial intersections. And his friends are not simple set pieces of a mise-en-scene that aims at quelling any dissenting voices, they are characters that actually partake in the plot, and their bits of the story oftentimes implies a denunciation of the racism that is lingering in the air. Just as so many others, Richie’s parents are also racists. He’s one too, mind you, at first. “But are these non-white actors any good?”, skeptics might ask. And here I must admit that this double standard of evaluating actors is frightful to me. Some would give anything to eternally maintain the cult of (white) stars, but anytime anyone mentions a more diverse on-screen cast, they bare their fangs. What is so good about Greta Garbo’s acting? Is Lady Gaga truly irreplaceable in A Star is Born? Anyway, let me enter their game – yes, these actors are worthy, and, at the very least, Omari Douglas and Lydia West deliver a series of spectacular monologues, but also secretive silences, those elusive moments in which an actor sheds the skin of the script and has the camera all for themselves.

L’air du temps. Jokes about Barry Manilow and Isla St. Clair are doled out, hits by Kim Wilde and Alison Moyet are heard in the background, gossips about Derek Jacobi, or an oh-so-telling moment in which a weary-eyed doctor in a beaten-up suit explains that AIDS is the illness that claimed the life of Rock Hudson. Davies clashes the extravagance of Londoners with the sobriety of a British culture that is frozen in its traditionalism, which sets the stage for the moment in which the latter throws its hands up in the air and denounces the former’s moral bankruptcy. We know that AIDS is not a disease that affects a particular kind of person, but, from the get-go, it appeared as if it’s a plague of the cosmopolitans, of the libertines, and especially of the marginals. Tozer’s gang doesn’t know about it, or what to do about it. And that is the whole point: to look upon a few lost youths, who are drifting about and are, at times, reprehensible, rather than an activist nucleus that has answers within reach. Along the way, all sorts of people pop up – protestors, politicians, mobilized masses, irredeemable parents, tragedies, and even a mirror of stigma, of how it reflects from the exterior into the interior. One of Davies’ most gracious achievements is to insist on the weight of the word. AIDS is AIDS, the only thing is that it’s easier to write it on a sign than to say it out loud. The name of the disease is heard especially in hospitals, at protests, sometimes in the middle of a nervous breakdown, but it’s oftentimes translated into silences, metaphors, or tacit meanings (“Many boys are going back home these days”, Richie’s manager tells him in one of the script’s tours-de-force), dismissed simply as “that”, “America”, “London”, and so on. We know that it was wrong, and that metaphors do nothing more than to weigh things down, that silence only begets silence, it’s just that this is the way things were, and that’s where they still stand to this very day. The metaphors of yesteryear inspire, even legitimize the ones of today. The same goes for silences. It’s not that the show critiques them, on the contrary, it sets them up on a pedestal. We are so hungry for metaphors and implicit moral lessons that we don’t even see them for what they are anymore – mere detours. They might be pretty, poetical, nourishing even, especially nowadays, when we are delivered a set of ready-made words that should be part of the vocabulary of day-to-day survival, one that is quotidian, corporate, and online. Amid an austerity of speech, metaphors seem more emancipatory than ever. But one must use them carefully, because some topics are rightfully asking to be treated bluntly.

It’s clear that Davies has a lot to say, so it’s no wonder that he does so by skipping on some things. Keep in mind that he’s trying to cover an entire decade in five episodes. That drives him to power through some of its parts, to take narrative shortcuts whenever the occasion arises. The moment in which Richie hides away his stash of porno mags after his mom announces her intention to reorganize his closet might be endearing, but the moment in which he throws into the sea a pack of condoms that his father gave him is cringeworthy. Whatever goes, that’s not really the big issue. But I am left with the sensation that this obsession towards faithfully representing the ’80s has its false notes. Like the way each sequence is capitalized as a chance to deliver yet another pop song or pop culture souvenir, or a tense moment of acting; one can sense that something doesn’t quite add to it, that there’s a certain stuffy air in the final result. Maybe it’s not even possible to have a light discussion on these topics, – because what is (and must be) at hand is just drama and anger. I’m wondering if this ambition to make every moment memorable isn’t even quite natural when one is fighting against oblivion.

 

[1] The latter shouldn’t even depend on audience prospects, in my opinion, no matter how welcoming they may show to be.

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Călin Boto Călin Boto
Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies. At Films in Frame, he writes "Footnotes" - a monthly editorial published on a Thursday.