Saturday 7 December 2019

Friends in need: "Buddies"

Returned to UK screens this week in the wake of World AIDS Day, the 1985 drama Buddies is both an evocative artefact of its time and a demonstration of the then-emergent American independent movement's natural affinity with marginalised subjects. Somewhere between 80-90% of it is a two-handed chamber piece in the off-Broadway tradition, confined to the New York hospital ward where the HIV+ Robert (Geoff Edholm) first meets David (David Schachter), the "buddy" assigned by a local gay men's centre to lend this pariah a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on. It's by no means as high-octane, but what follows is every bit as much a buddy movie as the same year's Volunteers or Spies Like Us, watching two slightly mismatched personalities as they come to find common ground: the blond, unabashedly queer Robert - a risktaker in word and deed - coaxing the dark, cautious typesetter David into letting down the guard signalled by the layers of protective clothing he first appears in. Remember this was a movie made amid a climate of fear, fostered by the Reagan White House's stubborn or squeamish refusal to provide much in the way of statements on what was a rapidly developing public health crisis.

By contrast, writer-director Arthur J. Bressan Jr. was pushing for consolation and recognition, using the nervy David and the confrontational Robert to initiate a dialogue about the gay experience as it was in 1985: how far the movement had come in the preceding decades, how far it still had to go, and how this would be the end of the line for so many. (One pointed formal flourish: the credits roll over a computer printout of the names of those who'd passed from AIDS in the preceding years. A minute of this rollcall goes by, and you realise the printout hasn't got much past twelve months.) Buddies feeds into 2017's expansive French drama 120 Beats Per Minute - its throughline is David's hesitant progress from church mouse to drum-banging activist - but as a microbudget indie venture, it's inevitably more interiorised, with characters who might seem terribly alone even if they weren't in medical isolation. It's framed by a diary David keeps, through which you sense Bressan striving to articulate and archive an experience that couldn't have made much sense at the time, much as Keith Haring did with his later murals, or Cleve Jones did with his AIDS memorial quilt. The film can seem clunky in places - David's day job allows Bressan to work in gobbets of editorial on mid-Eighties word processors - but it's sustained by quietly moving performances, especially from the Michael C. Hall-ish Edholm. Bressan died in 1987 of AIDS-related complications; Edholm two years later, likewise. What they achieved with Schachter in that mock-up hospital room has survived as an attempt, at a desperate moment, to understand their own situation, while reaching out to connect with others. Buddies wears its heart on its sleeve, just next to its lesions.

Buddies is now showing at the ICA in London, ahead of its DVD release this Monday.

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