Buddies (Arthur J Bressan Jr., 1985)
A monogamous straight-laced gay man in New York City nervously volunteers under a “buddy” program to spend time with another gay man lying in a hospital bed succumbing to AIDS… to discover a genuine friendship soon developing, as well as a questioning of his own decision-making against the more adventurous and outspoken life the dying man led.
What an interesting time in filmmaking, in which some just-above-amateur level NY filmmakers could rent a 16mm film camera and some cheap equipment, shoot under less than ideal conditions (using real city sound with the background noises dropping in and out all over the place as we cut between shots)… and yet still manage to muster up some fairly major festival play, do some time in a handful of legitimate art-house theaters, leading to write-ups in lots of alternative city weeklies, including the Village Voice, and actually muster up at least some kind of audience attention. From such free-spirited independent urban idealism the likes of wild-man filmmaker Abel Ferrara was spawned, as well as less celebrated figures like, herein, Arthur J Bressan Jr.
Buddies is said to be the first film that directly dealt with the AIDS epidemic and it obviously meant a lot to Bressan Jr., an interesting director I literally knew nothing about before seeing this film (thanks, yet again, to that adventurous – as in wildly all over the map, but never uninteresting in their choices – programming duo of the M: Les Maudits series); his output, while mostly consisting of gay porn shot in the 70’s and 80’s, was interspersed with some highly praised features that explored various aspects of life dealing with that once-forbidden love that dared not speak its name – including a documentary focused on the tumultuous gay rights movements of the 70’s with Gay USA (1978) and the fictional plight of a young boy seeking out an older gay man to escape domestic torture in Abuse (1983).
While not particularly well lit or shot, there is a heart that grows throughout at the center of the simply told Buddies, making the film ultimately quite moving (helped along by a sensitive string score, that has the slight flaw of being too omni-present; a bit of restraint would have made it stronger, rather than give the feeling the director was leaning on it in ways he didn’t need to).
While both main performers (Geoff Edholm and David Schachter) come across initially awkward (not helped by the aforementioned oft-distracting sound drops, as well as a kind of too deliberate, amateurish-feeling back-and-forth line delivery), they grow more ingratiating as the narrative unfolds, as we learn more about them, and they grow closer with each other, almost as if they themselves inhabit their roles more as the film goes on. By the end, as the obvious, though still tragic and affecting, conclusion approaches, the simple monologues of truth each deliver to other reveals a surprising depth to their performances.
Bressan Jr manages some nicely realized images later in the film, with the uptight “buddy” Robert (Edholm) imagining it as being himself who shared all of those loving moments (at play, frolicking on the beach) from David (Schachter)’s old 16mm home movie footage they watch together in the hospital room that show a time when the wild living David was healthy, and in the youthful throes of love and lust. It’s a nice conceit of the film, that even though David’s tragic fate is tied directly together with the loose and free life he led, the monogamous Robert begins to pine for it (we wonder if his relationship with his long-time boyfriend he lives with will survive by the end of the film), living vicariously through his new dying friend.
While I can’t say this type of overt ‘message’ movie is ever really my favorite, in this case, coming from where it did, at a time when Reagan’s administration was doing nothing but expressing homophobia, with Hollywood remaining entirely silent, in the face of the crisis, with the filmmakers obviously coming from not only a place of deep commitment (well, clearly, as both director Bressan Jr and actor Edholm would both tragically die from AIDS complications within four years after the film) but from a desire to make a poignant and well-realized film (within the ironically oft-freeing limitations of cheap, on-the-quick NY filmmaking), it’s an admirable effort and worthy of some re-appraisal.
Props should go to distributor Vinegar Syndrome for restoring and putting the film out, though, I have to say, it seems a bit odd that the only home such a milestone could find would be a label specializing in rare and forgotten cult, horror and explicit sexploitation oddities. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the output of Vinegar Syndrome, but – other than sharing the filmic time and space of much of their distributed films — the subdued, non-explicit Buddies doesn’t really seem to fit the mold as far as I can tell.