Buddies ★★★★★

Buddies, which can be rented or bought to stream here from Vimeo and is available on Blu-ray/DVD via Vinegar Syndrome or Amazon, was the first narrative feature to discuss the HIV/AIDS crisis. Shot in nine days on a $27,000 budget raised by director Arthur J. Bressan Jr. (who was also the screenwriter, producer and editor), the New York-set film concentrates almost entirely on only two characters: Robert Willow (Geoff Edholm), a 32-year-old AIDS patient and political activist receiving treatment in a Manhattan hospital, and largely apolitical David Bennett (David Schachter), a 25-year-old book typesetter who volunteers through his gay community center to be Robert's "buddy" and visit him regularly. Initially David is embarrassed and confused by how to act around Robert, who doesn't fit the image he had of a victim in need of help and guidance, but over time David forges a relationship with Robert that changes both of their lives and deepens their shared understanding of what it means to be a gay man in American society.

For historical value alone, Buddies is worth seeing, but it is also a beautifully constructed film with two wonderful lead actors. Knowing that Arthur J. Bressan Jr. and Geoff Edholm both died of AIDS not long after the film was made, in 1987 and 1989 respectively, makes the content of Bressan's production feel that much more urgent and necessary. It is a story driven by his frustration at AIDS patients being ignored and forgotten by the government, the healthcare system and by loved ones whose fears of contagion kept them away from hospitals and clinics. As I watched I thought a lot about one of my favorite singers, Klaus Nomi, whose friends were afraid to see him as he lay dying at Sloan Kettering Hospital Center in the summer of 1983, and I thought of Jobriath, the "first openly gay rock star" whose body was not found until over a week after he'd passed away in his Chelsea Hotel apartment during that same summer. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and Pride Month, Buddies' thesis statement remains as powerful as ever: we cannot abandon people in need of our love and support.

There are many reasons to be moved by Bressan's film, but I think my favorite part is the almost theatrical nature of having only two main actors. Many scenes center on David and Robert in the hospital room, while others show David alone (often heard in voiceover narration as he makes diary entries about his experiences), either in his apartment, walking on his rooftop or working late at night in his office; except for off-camera voices or just-out-of-view glimpses of other characters, the two leads are the only human beings seen up close. This intimacy highlights the isolation felt by Robert - and to a greater extent the rest of the stigmatized HIV-positive community as well as the entire LGBTQ+ community - even in a city of millions. But as David's bond with Robert grows stronger, more people around David come into focus. Bit by bit his world expands as he learns new definitions of compassion for himself and others, building to an emotional final scene that brings the story full circle and reinforces the messages that Arthur J. Bressan Jr. knew needed to be heard by the widest audience possible. If ever there were a moment to rediscover Buddies, it's the one we're living in right now.

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