Buddies

Buddies ★★★★★

Didacticism perfected as a living testament. The first feature film about AIDS is brutal (for we see men slowly dying in front of and behind the camera) and emotionally overwhelming (for we feel their presence, and we slowly realize that these are among the most special and ghostly moving images crafted, the reason why the medium exists). Buddies is an act of bearing witness, one that upsets and informs and loves, one that is meant to upset and inform and love. These are personal moments being preserved for the historical record: These are some of the pain-wracked queer faces that the American government, that America collectively, refused to acknowledge/respect/love in the 1980s—and still, in large swaths, don't. "Restraint" is one of the key words for why this is so powerful, but that word threatens to cloud over Bressan Jr.'s furious, awe-inspiring bluntness within stasis and a ritualized didacticism. It is a miracle that it holds together so well, so soft and delicate the glue between shots, so simple and bare the découpage. You'll never forget one image of a hospital room, lit like a Vermeer, emptied, but filled with rage, confusion, and the storm of tears of the audience around you. Bressan, Jr. works with a remarkable clarity of vision, as do his actors, who putter in the heady, rare, paradoxical state where they are neither symbolic nor literal.

MoMA Q&A afterwards with the lead actor David Schachter, Bressan Jr's sister Roe, and the filmmaker Jenni Olson (who showed her mesmerizing 1998 short Blue Diary before this; an inspired pairing) was eye-opening, to say the least, and gave much needed context:

1) Arthur J. Bressan, Jr (writer-editor-director) was a huge fan of the films of Frank Capra (he treasured a signed copy of the Meet John Doe screenplay, and he talked to the man himself for Interview magazine in the early 1970s)—which makes so much sense in retrospect; most of Buddies's stylistic and thematic force is a strong misreading of Capra's stories. Bressan, Jr. is as far away from Hollywood glitz and glamor as a narrative film artist can be (even Cassavetes hews to a naturalism that Bressan violently rejects—and, come to think of it, Cass was also a surprise Capra acolyte), yet still with the peculiar urgency and manic despair of Capra's films that gets undertalked in favor of his wildly overrated optimism. I have in mind Buddies's final shot—one of the most upsetting final shots I have ever experience, a call-to-arms, swelling image borne out of malignant, lonely hopelessness. Combined with the end-credits list of all the known victims in America of AIDS up until September 1985 (endless names, dates of death, and the same "DECEASED/AIDS" next to each name), I could not stop my convulsive sobs.

2) The film was written by Bressan, Jr. in only 5 days; it was shot in 9 days, 3 of which were the scenes in the hospital (all shot in chronological order); Bressan, Jr. edited the film on a Moviola in his Chelsea apartment.

3) The film premiered at the Castro Theatre on September 12, 1985, five days before Reagan first actually acknowledged the epidemic of AIDS by name.

4) Bressan, Jr. died of AIDS complications on July 28, 1987, about eight months after he received an H.I.V. diagnosis, which itself was a little over a year after the Castro premiere. Geoff Edholm, who plays Robert, would also die of AIDS complications two years later (1989).

5) David Schachter quit acting, became a prominent AIDS community activist in the 1990s, and is now the Dean of Student Affairs and Admissions at NYU Wagner.