Two films about queer love frame grief as both intimate and political.
When the photographer Peter Hujar died, in November 1987, David Wojnarowicz filmed his dead body lying in the hospital bed. Hujar had grown thin from AIDS: his broad, boyish cheekbones were sunken and covered in an ashy beard, and his clavicle pressed against the limp fabric of the hospital gown. Wojnarowicz panned his camera over the body only seconds after Hujar died, and in the footage, his face still bears the traces of life: his eyes are half closed, but his mouth hangs open, as if it’s about to groan. There’s a fragility to the images of Hujar’s body. The hand resting on the sheet seems strangely narrow; the skin is papery and impossibly brittle, like half-melted ice.
Wojnarowicz, a multimedia artist whose autobiographical, intensely intimate work aroused admiration and provoked right-wing censorship during his lifetime, had known he wanted to make a film about Hujar’s death. But he didn’t work on the movie at all before the event; the Super 8 camera only came out after the curtain was drawn back around Hujar’s body in the bed. In another five years, Wojnarowicz himself would die of AIDS, but not before creating some of his most arresting work, much of it conceived in response to the loss of Hujar. Even so, his film was never completed. What survives is a four-minute black-and-white reel, the footage of Hujar’s body intercut with swimming beluga whales at the Coney Island Aquarium—an unexpected juxtaposition, but one that Wojnarowicz felt was fated. In the days after Hujar’s death, he was obsessed with capturing the whales, finally managing to sneak in his Super 8. Grief has a way of provoking strange impulses. In his diaries, Wojnarowicz said that the light of the whales’ twirling white hides against the darkness of the water was one of the most beautiful images he could imagine.
In November 2002, fifteen years after Wojnarowicz filmed Hujar’s body, Kris Kovick died in San Francisco. A cartoonist and performer, Kovick had gotten her first breast-cancer diagnosis eight years before, at forty-three—for much of that time, she’d known the cancer was terminal. Kovick had an aggressive charisma and an acerbic sense of humor; nothing was sacred. When she died, her memorial service was called “Putting the Fun Back in Funeral.” In the months after she first became ill, she’d written a cartoon called My Favorite Things About Cancer. (Entries included “Dykes think bald chicks are hot” and “Nobody asks you to help them move.”) One day a friend, the filmmaker Silas Howard, called to ask if he could come over to tape an interview with her. “Sure,” she said. “Come film the dead lady.”
The resulting documentary, 2006’s What I Love About Dying, is just more than ten minutes long. For much of it, Kovick sits in a folding lawn chair, cracking jokes. She talks about how she scored a bargain by arranging to have her body cremated for free by a mortuary science school; she jokes that she’s going to have her executor give her “spiritual friends” a bag of sand and pass it off as her cremains, so that they can have a ceremony with it. “You know I don’t want any part of that crap,” she tells Howard. She’s gregarious, gesturing broadly, laughing conspiratorially at her own jokes. Her humor gives her an aura of robust health, but at the end of the film, she emits a long, guttural cough. “That’s the death rattle, right there,” she says, catching her breath. “That’s the death rattle.” Just out of frame, Howard can be heard giving a sad, hesitant laugh.
Howard, who is trans, met Kovick when he was in his midtwenties, living as a butch lesbian in San Francisco and running a coffee shop called Red Dora’s Bearded Lady that had become a focal point for his circle of young queers. Kovick was in her forties by then, but she invited herself into the scene and began organizing regular performances at the shop. “She asked us if she could do some shows,” the shop’s co-owner, the artist Harry Dodge, says in the film, and Howard corrects him: “I don’t think she asked. I think she told us she was going to do shows.”
Kovick became a community fixture; people called her Uncle Kris. San Francisco was a very different city then, and many of the young queer people in Kovick’s circle were struggling: with artistic careers, with drugs, with making rent. “A lot of us were flying without a net,” Howard told me. But Kovick had a steady job at a print shop and an established audience for her writing and cartoons. It helped that she was older: she would frequently have people over to give them sandwiches and pep talks. At the Bearded Lady, she would bring in big-name readers like Masha Gessen and Alison Bechdel, and bill them alongside younger performers who needed exposure. There was a cover charge, but she always paid the performers out of her own pocket; she’d slip the door money to Howard and Dodge, who she knew needed the extra cash.
For Wojnarowicz, Hujar had been a similar figure. When they met, in Manhattan’s downtown art scene of the seventies and eighties, Wojnarowicz had already experienced a life of nearly unfathomable suffering. He was homeless as a child, turning tricks in his teens, and addicted to heroin by his twenties. When he was doing sex work as a kid, most of his clients were much older, and though some were kind to him—he writes about one man, a lawyer, who took him home and fed him dinner—most were not. He was beaten, drugged, robbed, and raped. Eventually he became so emaciated and filthy that he couldn’t get a decent trick. A few times, before he was able to move into his sister’s apartment, he would sneak onto the roofs of Manhattan tenement buildings in winter, to sleep curled up against the heat of the chimneys. In the morning, he would wake up covered in soot.
It’s shocking that through this he maintained not only a hunger for human closeness but also an acute sense of what kindness requires. He wrote prolifically, and his art—raw, explicit images—dealt with urban anonymity, queer sexuality, and above all, loneliness. Amid all of this, he met Hujar—older, more established as an artist, and possessed of a personal calm that Wojnarowicz was not accustomed to. Their sexual relationship burned out, but they soon formed the kind of platonic partnership that we still don’t have words for: they were muses, mentors, best friends. They lived together sporadically, both nearly destitute, in Hujar’s loft at Second Avenue and Twelfth Street. Peter became the most important person in David’s life, and perhaps his only source of stability. It was Hujar who told Wojnarowicz to pursue painting, and who persuaded him to give up heroin.
Hujar wasn’t always kind. Like Wojnarowicz, he’d had a violent childhood, and he carried a reservoir of rage that could spill over unexpectedly. But he had a way of calming people. This is evident in his photographs, black-and-white portraits of arresting intimacy: Susan Sontag reclining with her arms behind her head; Ethyl Eichelberger in gorgeous drag as Nefertiti; Wojnarowicz bare-shouldered in half-darkness, thick lips parted. His most famous photograph is of the Warhol star Candy Darling, dying of lymphoma at thirty. She lies in her hospital bed, fully made up, her arms tossed seductively behind her head, her blonde hair falling in a smoky wisp on the pillow. In the foreground, a rolling hospital meal tray is heaped with flowers. It’s a beautiful, defiant image—but in its anticipation of Wojnarowicz’s pictures of Hujar, dead and limp in his spotted hospital gown, I find it almost unbearable to look at.
By the time Hujar died, he and Wojnarowicz had made multiple portraits of each other. Taking a picture—or making a film—is at base an act of preservation. You capture a moment, a person, as they are right then, and in so doing, you shield that moment against decay. But the reality is that time goes on: you can’t keep someone the way they are after the camera stops rolling. Wojnarowicz received his own HIV diagnosis in the spring of 1988, but it is likely that by the time Hujar died, he was already infected. He died in 1992. In an essay about AIDS, Hujar, and the cruelty of watching his friends die, Wojnarowicz had written, “If I could attach our blood vessels so we could become each other, I would. If I could attach our blood vessels in order to anchor you to the earth to this present time, I would. If I could open up your body and slip inside your skin and look our your eyes and forever have my lips fused with yours, I would.”
Before he got sick, Wojnarowicz spent a lot of time at the Chelsea Piers, having and observing anonymous sex. Like other gay artists of the time, he painted murals and scrawled poetry on the dirty walls. In his diaries, Wojnarowicz writes about cruising with a disarming, reverential sweetness. Sex is never “fucking,” always “making love.” The piers were an unlovely place—in his diaries, he recounts the smell of piss and how he carried a razor for protection—but they represented the chaotic, hedonistic kind of queerness that he called “a wedge against a world that was rapidly becoming more and more insane.” He understood cruising as a possibility for intimacy and shared pleasure, a way to be less alone, and it instilled his life with sporadic tenderness that he cherished. In “Being Queer in America,” an essay about his own life, he writes of being “woken up a number of times slightly shocked at the sense of another guy’s warm skin and my hands, independent of me in sleep, tracing the lines of his arms and belly and hips and side.” He marveled that such an experience was even possible. “How the world is so much like a dream sleep,” he wrote, “with my glasses hidden somewhere along the windowsill above the bed.”
In an essay about Wojnarowicz, the writer Olivia Laing refers to this dreaminess as a sense of “smear,” the collapsing of boundaries that comes with intimacy or intoxication. But you can also think of this smearing that happens in queer spaces as a merging of the actual and the possible, the way things are and the that way they might be. When I spoke with Silas Howard on the phone, he told me of a time in the early nineties when his friend, the artist and performer Justin Vivian Bond, was struggling to make rent. Bond was despondent, stressed. Kris Kovick took her to an ATM and withdrew the money for her. “What you’re doing is important,” she told Bond. “The world needs you.” At the time, affirmations of queer and trans people were all but nonexistent. Jesse Helms had introduced a bill declaring that gay people should be quarantined; Louie Welch, the onetime mayor of Houston, had said on live television that one way to solve the AIDS crisis was to “shoot the queers.” Many of the young people in the Bearded Lady circle had come to San Francisco after being thrown out of their homes. The wider world did not value people like Bond, but Kovick did. Telling this story, Howard got choked up. Kovick had taken a world that was cruel to these young people and etched in it the possibility of compassion.
Queer or not, many people carry with them a sense of being unlovable, and this sense can make kindness feel shocking, miraculous. If the friendships they had found were possible—if Kris thought you were important enough to pay your rent, if Peter thought that your art was beautiful—then other possibilities became easier to believe. This is what queer friendships can be: an expansion of the world. In What I Love About Dying, Kovick recounts a prank she played on Howard years before. She came to him with a flier for a show she was calling “Together Forever.” She had booked a pair of twins, conjoined at the head, to perform at the Bearded Lady. They were remarkable performers, she said, but there was a caveat: she wasn’t sure that they would really show up. “They were always fighting,” she says, “because one of them was a folk singer, and the other one hated folk music.” When Kovick tells the story, the camera shakes slightly with Howard’s laughter. But what’s more remarkable might be that everyone believed her—that they trusted her so completely.
About halfway through What I Love About Dying, it becomes clear that Kovick is planning to commit suicide. “I don’t wanna die a sick person,” she says. “I wanna die here, in this,” and she gestures around at her backyard. There is a garden behind her; she is sitting in the bright California sunshine. “I mean, it’s beautiful.” In another clip, the writer Michelle Tea leans forward on a red couch, looking off into the distance as she considers Kovick. “It was another kind of role modeling,” she says of Kovick’s frank confrontations with death. “She put on a brave face for us,” Harry Dodge says later, choking back tears.
Howard told me that in the months before Kovick died, as she gathered her people to her, there was some tension between her older and younger groups of friends. Everyone was filing in and out of her house, competing for her remaining time, rushing to claim her. “It was like, who are all these people?” he said. Her obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle tried to acknowledge them all, with a long list of survivors recognized as “chosen family.”
Likewise, Wojnarowicz’s relationship with Hujar defies easy categorization: their closeness twists and expands the boundaries of a “friend.” “A teacher of sorts for me,” David called him. “A brother, a father.” For my part, I always suspect that David was still in love with Peter when he died: there is a fierce tenderness to his writing about Hujar that I don’t know how to otherwise place. But maybe I just lack imagination. This, after all, has always been the promise of queer politics: that another kind of love is possible. At the end of Wojnarowicz’s unfinished film about Hujar’s death, an actor, representing Hujar, is lifted up by a group of men who pass him along over their heads like a crowd surfer at a rock concert. The scene is meant to signify Hujar’s passing from our world into the next—a world that we can only hope deserves him more than this one did.
Moira Donegan is an assistant editor at the New Republic. She lives in New York.