Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Robert's Rules

It's really dumb to reduce a person's life to a blog post, but Robert Hilferty, who died suddenly July 24 after a months-long suffering from a head injury, was one of my more pivotal early friendships among the ACT UP tribe.

Peter Staley writes about him for the POZ blog. The two were the Cutest ACT UP Couple hands down.

David Adler remembers Robert, and includes a short video of him dancing in the streets of Morocco.

Michael Petrelis posted a string if emails that tell the specifics.

The Village Voice and New York Magazine have links to his recent articles. But his own blog collects them in a better order.

Time Out NY includes an obit and a clip of Robert interviewing author William Gibson.

My connection with Robert goes back to my first days with the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, when he was boyfriends with Peter Staley. Robert could out-talk anyone, and his erudite charm inspired me to look beyond the lockstep rhetoric of activism and gay rights. I was also a freshman arts writer by then, and he offered advice and flirtatious camaraderie.

It was at an early organizational meeting for the infamous Stop the Church demo that Robert handed me his video camera, since he knew I'd worked on films. I got to shoot a few minutes of footage for what became Stop the Church, his controversial mini-documentary of the St. Patrick's Cathedral protest. When the PBS show POV cancelled its scheduled airing of the video, I interviewed him for the San Francisco Sentinel (I was still in NYC). I'll find that article among my boxes of files and scan it, or among my Word files.

I think Robert would be amused by this description of his video, from the National Alliance Against Christian Discrimination:
"Robert Hilferty's film, Stop the Church, won an award for the 'Best Commentary' at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Mr. Hilferty is a member of Act-Up, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. This film is filled with epitaphs against the Roman Catholic Church because of its position on homosexuality. The church is described as hypocritical and filled with hate. One man on the film states that the 'Catholic church is an archaic, anachronistic, futilist leftover which practices ritual sacrifice on the bodies of gay men, lesbians, women, and people of color.'" (Scenes from the Documentary PBS Yanked, Washington Post, Aug. 14, '91 at C-1.)

Robert also shot the hilarious documentation of TAG activists placing a huge condom over the DC-area home of Jessee Helms.

Anyway, Robert went on with his life in New York, continuing to be a successful arts critic. One of the stories I found online was his feature article about choreographer Merce Cunningham, who died only a few days after Robert.

In the midst of this odd flurry of celebrity deaths, Robert's passing has struck me hardest. Perhaps because I recall how naive and impressionable I was when we met, how great a turn my life took in those days, how the power of the written word, the media moment, the vibrancy of well-placed anger, and how it could each effect change. Perhaps it's the suddenness when someone your own age dies. Perhaps it's the remorse of not staying in touch.

I remember some post-ACT UP meeting group dinner where pretty much everyone else had grown tired of our rapid-fire dialogue about some arts theory or criticism. I don't remember what it was about, just that he could argue some point with such persistence, and still smile and joke about it.

Music critic Alex Ross states that Robert Hilferty was "an elegant writer, a passionate listener, a gifted filmmaker, and an uncommon bright spirit, whose beaming face was a fixture in New York concert halls. I hope his wonderful film about Milton Babbitt, Portrait of a Serial Composer, will soon be released."

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