Sex Positive

Time Out New York Project: Issue #715, June 11-June 17, 2009


Dir. Daryl Wein. 2008. R. 75mins. Documentary.

Most of the points of interest in Sex Positive are entirely accidental, as if they emerged from the confrontational ether that surrounds director Daryl Wein and his primary subject, Richard Berkowitz. A vocal AIDS activist and former S&M hustler, Berkowitz is a mess of contradictions and a mess in general—nearly destitute, living off disability and a forgotten figure in the early-’80s struggle to promote safe sex within a mostly hostile gay community.

Wein doesn’t treat Berkowitz like a martyr, nor does he go for snarky, one-sided judgment. Familiar figures in the AIDS-awareness movement, like Larry Kramer, Michael Callen and Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, are shown in as revealing and often unflattering a light, and their character complexities only pile up as Sex Positive goes on. At best, the doc achieves the unsettling, psychologically piercing omniscience of a Henry James novel, specifically that masterful portrait of New England activism, The Bostonians.

Yet the film is founded on shaky, near-exploitative ground, something mirrored in the agitated handheld camerawork by Alex Bergman and in Berkowitz’s offhand comment about the good this film could do in encouraging safe sex. He seems to have signed on for a lump-in-the-throat infomercial, not realizing that he’s instead being given a most astringent dressing-down.—Keith Uhlich