A couple months ago at the MoPop Pop Conference, I presented a paper on the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub exactly three years ago today. A portion of the paper pivots around Elizabetn Bishop. I wrote:
As I’ve gotten older and my tolerance for many things broadens, a line from her valedictory villanelle “One Art” rattles around my head with the stubbornness of an Ariana Grande hook. “Then practice losing farther, losing faster.” An injunction. As imperative and weirdly transparent as David Byrne ordering listeners to “watch me work!” in 1978. Well, beginning in 1981, a gay community that had seen a remarkable acceleration of if not heterosexual respect then its mainstream visibility, saw the fallen around them: slowly at first, then they—we—lost farther, lost faster. Brothers who died at hospital furtively stuffed into garbage bags. The speed at which an ex we high-fived on Christopher Street on Tuesday was dead on Saturday. His parents wouldn’t take the call.
We lost farther, lost faster. It became, if not an art, then a craft. A practice.
In a new documentary about the plague years, the nurses at San Francisco General Hospital’s world-famous AIDS ward created by Cliff Morrison speak about themselves, colleagues, and patients without originality. Although a few have retired or moved on to other jobs, they project the modesty of men and women on whom the Angel of Death has left their mark. They don’t act for the camera. Laboring in twelve-hour shifts without quite adjusting to death rattles or Kaposi sarcoma, they offered macaroni, hugs, and smiles for patients whom parents and lovers had abandoned. The nurses’ spouses and lovers needed reassurances too. “We didn’t know we weren’t getting the disease,” a nurse reminds the audience, for they worked during the early years when even the most sophisticated hospitals hadn’t yet proscribed gloves and masks for casual contact — one of the many changes of law that the AIDS crisis wrought.
Devoted to the talking head in medium shot and the montage of file footage, Ward 5B is similarly unambitious, succeeding on the basis of doggedness and — this is important — a workaday empathy. Good people find pleasure in doing good, the film suggests, even when the good wears them down. David Denmark, nurse, says that he drowned the pain in alcohol every night. The patients in Ward 5B were sent there to die. (“A very, very unpleasant death,” nurse manager Alison Moed Paolercio says with characteristic understatement). You’re here to care for people, not cure people. To establish the sense of loss, directors Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis choose Blondie’s “Dreaming” as the soundtrack to archival film of bustling Castro Street in the late seventies. “This is our day, this is our day,” says an out-and-proud reveler surrounded by mustachioed hunks holding the hands of lovers.
As many times as I watch sequences like this over the years, I can’t shake a foreboding that often tastes like despair. The reckoning was coming. A conservative backlash accumulating clout, support, and mail-in funds since the Ike era would witness its greatest triumph in the election of Ronald Reagan. Ward 5B shows how the political trade winds blew much of that vitriol into the hospital. For Republican congressmen like William Dannemeyer the extra compassion the AIDS patients became — you guessed it — “special treatment.” Lorraine Day, one of the more sinister real life personages to appear in recent film, at first explains with an admirable lack of cant her reasons for testing for AIDS before surgery. Then she drops the phrase “political correctness.” Alarms should sound. Water finds its level: Day, a Holocaust denier who believes that Jews run a one world government, later married Dannemeyer (in 1989 the congressman read into the Congressional Record graphic descriptions of gay sex in what is surely the first time the term “rimming” entered a public document; Chaucerian mountebanks like Dannemeyer obsess over sex as much as they condemn it).
But the stories about Ward 5B don’t require enemies for focus. Caregiver Rita Rockett shares anecdotes about her hospital Sunday brunches, bringing burgers and pasta and soda. Hank Plante, one of the few openly gay reporters, shakes his head in admiration at the shrewdness with which the nurses insisted on getting the hugs and kisses with patients on film (she received hate mail for hugging one while pregnant). The banal horrors of precaution for once failed one nurse, called Jane Doe, who contracted HIV after a failed needlestick. She’s shown alive later in the film as if for suspense purposes, in one of the film’s lapses in judgment. Rudimentary framing also turns Day into a stock villain. Longtime Paul Haggis watchers will recognize these elements as typical of his bludgeoning kind of filmmaking, but for the most part he and Krauss defer to the intelligence of their subjects. “They did good things,” Paolercio says about her staff. Ward 5B ensures that their deeds will not be interred with their bones.