For a stretch of time in the 1980s and ’90s, the word buddy meant, in modern gay life, someone who had agreed to be a friend to a man dying of AIDS. A buddy visited. Listened to stories. Told stories. Laughed. Cried. And above all, tried to make sure that the frail man in the bed knew that he had not been forgotten. That his passing would be noted. And mourned.
In the 1985 film Buddies, writer-director Arthur J. Bressan Jr. did a simple yet radical thing: He told the story of one such friendship and, in the process, made the first feature-length drama about AIDS. Shot on 16mm film in nine days, Buddies earned respectful reviews and a few festival prizes, but has faded from view over the years. Bressan died of AIDS in July 1987; now, thanks to the efforts of his sister Roe Bressan and film historian Jenni Olson, Buddies has received a 2K digital restoration from Vinegar Syndrome. Thirty-three years after its initial release, the film remains as affecting as ever.
In a New York hospital, 25-year-old David (David Schachter) dons a surgical gown, mask, and gloves to visit Robert (Geoff Edholm), 32, who is sick, alone, and filled with fury at a society that’s turned its back on dying gay men. The two couldn’t be more different. Polite and quiet David has been with his boyfriend for five years. His parents have embraced his homosexuality. Robert asks rude questions about sex, speechifies about politics, and has only sad stories to tell about his own coming out. “It was like one of those silent films where the father throws the kid out into the storm.”
Robert is a bit too real for David, but the younger man sticks with it, and as the days and months pass, the two grow closer. In a painfully resonant scene, Robert tells David of a visit by his first and greatest love, and weeps at his failure to express his deepest feelings. The chance will never come again, and Robert knows it. The scene is beautifully played by Edholm, who went on to perform in the marvelous “AIDS Alive” Persons with AIDS theater piece before passing away in 1989.
Bressan’s career covered a fascinating mix of genres. He made porn films (with heart), as well as documentaries (the classic Gay USA), which surely accounts for Buddies’ unexpectedly layered textures. The film opens and closes with the screech of a dot matrix printer typing out a health department list of men who’ve died — there’s the sense that the printer will never run out of names. At one point, David brings home movies from Robert’s apartment, including Super-8 footage of Robert and his lover running on the beach. Later, in his mind’s eye, David sees himself on that beach, running beside Robert, for whom he has feelings he can’t fathom and can’t avoid.
Buddies was made from fury — Bressan was outraged by the Reagan administration’s murderous apathy. But also, I suspect, by the filmmaker’s longing to have himself and all queers be seen by the larger world as fully human rather than as malformed creatures not worth saving. For all those living with HIV today and getting the help they need — including this reviewer — that makes Bressan heroic, and the return of his classic film to our screens a cause not for sorrow, but for celebration.
Directed by Arthur J. Bressan Jr.
Opens June 22, Quad Cinema
Click here to sign up for our weekly film and TV newsletter.