There have been far too few narrative feature films over the years which examine the impact of AIDS, despite its decimation of a generation of gay men. Jonathan Demme’s 1993 Oscar-winning Philadelphia is probably the most mainstream, while that same year Derek Jarman gave us his achingly moving Blue. The eighty-minute avant-garde audio experience, with nothing but a blue screen to accompany it, was designed to reflect Jarman’s rapidly-failing vision, which left him able to see only in shades of blue. The film narrates the pain, discomfort and tediousness of slowly succumbing to a relentless and vicious illness, yet it is a surreal and optimistic work, funny, defiant and without bitterness. Jarman died just months after the film’s release, aged 52.
In the US, eight years earlier in 1985, Buddies was the first dramatic feature film to address the AIDS crisis. It was to be the final work of Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. who died two years after its release from an AIDS-related illness at the age of 43. This was an extremely dark period, filled with misinformation and disinformation. The opening of Buddies alarms us from the onset, focusing on a hospital contagion list of ‘Isolation Measures’, which includes advice like, ‘keep your gown on’ and ‘the removal of objects from this room is discouraged’. Shocking to modern eyes, the list reads more like a toxic radiation warning than something you’d find in a place to care for the sick and dying.
We meet David (David Schachter), a corporate-type New Yorker who works as a typesetter, not exactly openly gay, but almost, the kind of man who is happy to have a male lover, but equally happy for most people not to know about it. For research-related reasons, David decides to volunteer for GMHC’s Buddy program, which provides company and comfort to gay men with AIDS, many of whom were completely alone. This is how he meets Robert (played by Geoff Edholm, sadly another victim of AIDS, he died in 1989 aged 33), a gay man who has lived very differently from David. From his initial glove-protected offer of a handshake onwards, David appears to be both fascinated and repelled by the dying man, he ‘isn’t what he expected’, he later admits when writing in his journal, he at first believes Robert to be oddly smug and is confused by his gallows humour. As time goes by though he is impressed by Robert’s emotional and sexual freedom, his openness, his sense of self.
As the days pass and David’s hospital visits increase, the two men come to understand that although they are stark contrasts, they are in fact two alternate sides of the shared experience of being gay in 1980s USA. Robert is political and progressive, open to challenging society’s injustices, he was rejected and disowned by his parents and subsequently created his own family and sense of belonging in San Francisco; he has enjoyed open relationships and lived life to the full, experiencing all that he can — he has lived more than David has and suffered more too. David is by contrast more reserved, fearful of what society may think of him, he has a boyfriend and his parents are aware of his sexuality and accept it; David feels clinical next to Robert’s spontaneity and passion. David is shown vigorously working out at the gym several times as Robert’s health deteriorates in his hospital room — it is almost a defiant act, a rejection of the illness around him.
Robert also becomes interested in the details of David’s life, partially as a way to escape the prison he is trapped in, to once again taste someone else’s freedom. He has things to teach the younger man and they grow close.
In its minimalism and theatrical feel, Buddies is reminiscent of a Bergman chamber drama. Most of the film takes place in Robert’s claustrophobic hospital room and no other characters are ever clearly shown; we hear them off-screen, as disembodied voices on the telephone, or see them hover on the periphery of the screen. This leads to the intimacy of the interactions between Robert and David feeling all the more potent, like they are completely disconnected from the rest of society inside the intensity of their new relationship.
Buddies concludes with an emotional, ultimately hopeful political call to action, a vital, urgent message to audiences in 1985 USA. It was only five days after Buddies premiered at San Francisco’s Castro Theater that President Reagan finally mentioned the word AIDS in public for the first time, while film star Rock Hudson died just two weeks after Buddies premiered. His was among the nearly six thousand deaths as a result of AIDS in the US that year alone. As we remember and honour those we have lost this World AIDS day, Buddies remains an important, groundbreaking work well worth revisiting.
By Alan Carlyle
On December 9th 2019 Peccadillo Pictures will be re-releasing Arthur J Bessan’s Buddies, newly restored and available for the first time in the UK on Blu Ray, DVD and On Demand. In select U.K. cinemas December 6th 2019.