the idea of sex
by Douglas Messerli
Arthur J. Bressan, Jr. (screenwriter and director) Buddies / 1985
There seems to be something almost creepy about comparing LGBTQ films about AIDS. The numerous films about the disease and its impact on the gay community (several about which I’ve already written and the many more on which I will focus over the next few years in my Herculean-like endeavor to comment on every LGBTQ-related film in cinema history) all ought to be awarded a special place simply for the courageousness of these nearly impossible attempts to dramatize the inexpressible sorrow and enshrined in an archive to which everyone should be strongly urged to view (particularly the young such as characters in Jordon Firstman’s Call Your Father  and Ethan Fox’s The Sublet  who argue something to the effect of “Why does every discussion about being gay have to begin with AIDS?”). Some of these works, however, admittedly explore the issues more effectively and profoundly than others, an example being Arthur J. Bressan’s Buddies (1985), the first major film to focus on the subject.
Released in late September 1985, two months before the NBC movie, John Erman’s equally ground-breaking AIDS film An Early Frost, Bressan’s film was a shout in the dark before gay and lesbian organizations had begun to fully coalesce around the issues. At the time of the movie there was evidently not even an AIDS clinic in the city of New York.
The young man, David Bennett (David Schachter) who has volunteered through a local gay and lesbian center to become a “buddy” to the now friendless Robert Willow (Geoff Edholm) does not even quite know what’s expected of him or how to approach a man who has a disease that many still thought was contagious through airborne particles (much like situation with COVID-19 today, which of course does require a mask). Dressed up in protective gear, Robert jokes “Say, they really got you all dolled up for your grand entrance.” When David answers they told him to wear this—as he removes the mask, takes off the gloves and finally removes his protective paper gown—“to be on the safe side. Shouldn’t I?” the sick man’s answer establishing his contrarian nature which at first slightly irritates the meek and conformist typesetter: “Well, you know what they say, if they give you lined paper write the other way.”
We immediately realize that the relationship between the two of them will not only be, as Bette Davis might put it, a “bumpy flight,” but that the so-called pilot will learn how to fly from his presumed passenger. As David admits that he’s never done “this thing kind of thing” before, his would-be buddy incredulously realizes that David has volunteered, asking perhaps the most important question of the film, “Why?”
David makes his first stab at answering—“I don’t know really. I mean, I’m gay but that’s no big thing. I don’t have any friends who have AIDS. My lover Steve, he’s had two friends who’ve....”—“Died,” interrupts Robert, “you can say it.” Indeed, throughout the rest of the film David slowly learns through Robert’s brilliant mentoring the answer to not only why he has agreed to undertake this voyage—and it is truly a voyage of the spirit and the heart—but for better and worse what it truly means to be gay in a society that still cannot open its mind to totally embrace queerness.
“Why?” obviously is a question also which anyone stricken with AIDS has to ask him or herself again and again, as Robert, who has already suffered pneumonia twice and is now fearful of never being able to leave his hospital bed again, surely has pondered. The questions of “why me?” “Why now?” Or with gritted teeth inquiring, as Robert later does in the film, “Why are so many gays being meaninglessly punished for love?” and “Why do others perceive my love as a sin?” “Why did I unintentionally cause my own death by simply acting in the most natural way that a human being can express that love, by having sex? Or, finally, the question any queer must ask throughout their lives, a question Robert presumably thought that he had long ago laid to rest, “Why am I gay? Why was I born different from the majority of human beings on this earth?”
The answer he surely has arrived at is self-evident: there is no answer. For as Gertrude Stein expressed it in a different manner, “There is no question.” And it is Robert’s recognition of this fact and his ability to look back upon his life with the joy of living that helps even a man laying prone on a hospital to guide his fellow traveler into a gentle landing, permitting him to truly recognize the power of being himself.
Indeed, despite his extremely ill condition, Robert is quite intelligently capable of handling a situation which most of us might never have been able to, particularly being thrown out of his apartment by his current lover and left to die on the streets of New York which does not yet have sufficient programs to deal with the increasing number of young gay men coming down with the disease.
But then Robert has lived a rather remarkable existence, having long lived with a gay activist, Edward, the love of his life. Accordingly, the patient asks questions of David that he has never even asked himself, some seemingly very basic such as “When did you know that you were gay?”—one of the earliest questions any new gay friend might ask—which David thinks is a “weird question,” alerting us to just how closeted, despite his open admission of being gay, the volunteer truly is.
As Robert explains, in the first in a long series of gentle educational challenges to his buddy, “I think it’s [the question] basic. A person’s real identity. Sex is what makes you “in or out. Hot or cold. You know, where your passion is. It’s not everything, but it’s a big piece of the puzzle.”
And gradually the puzzle of both of them begins to be put together. Even at this moment, as David remembers his first boyfriend and his parents open acceptance of him, Robert reveals another sad incidence of his life recounting that when he told his parents about his sexuality in 1971 they disowned him. “It’s like one of those silent films where the father throws his kid out into the storm. Except it was me. And it was California sunshine.”
That last word might in fact define Robert’s personality. He never sees any of the many tragic events he has had to undergo for what they were but merely as nearly perceives them as inevitable occurrences. Later Robert describes even that childhood event, which looking back, “was horrible,” as something positive. “At the time I fell right into the world of dawning gay liberation...and Edward’s arms.” There is accordingly no rancor or anger in his voice. Edholm brilliantly portrays Robert with almost always a sad, slightly regretful smile upon his pale face topped by golden hair. And later, after David retrieves Robert’s personal photographs, letters, and clippings from the apartment from which his current lover has turned him out, we begin to realize that with Edward at least he did actually live a kind of glorious life.
As we gradually witness these photos and hear more of their adventures, finally seeing films when David sneaks in projectors, we begin to realize not only the enormous likeability of this pair, but their importance to those around them. They represented not only the beauty of gay life but its growing recognition of its identity and desires. Is it any wonder that such a “match” might burn itself out, Edward’s actions having worn him down as they are taken over in other ways by a now much larger community. David laments at just how badly the men in Robert’s life have treated him.
When soon after David brings him the galleys of an essay he is typesetting, an article that concerns a religious point of view that sees AIDS as something the gay community not only has brought upon themselves but deserves, the usually gentle Robert becomes terribly agitated as he asks do such people “really believe that God wants me here?” until he begins coughing, losing his breath, David having to call the nurse simply to save him. For the first time David realizes than for some people ideas matter even more than life itself. “He seemed literally more ready to die that to shut up. I’ve never met a person like Robert Willow.”
When he later brings Robert some porno tapes and a player (all of which the doctors and nurses eventually demand be removed) David begins to perceive the importance not just of sexuality but of standing for the survival of the beings behind that important part of the human puzzle.
One of the most important incidents in this film, it might be argued, is the moment when David, after sitting for a few seconds watching Robert trying to masturbate to the porno tapes he’s brought him and noticing the 32-year old man’s difficulty given his isolation from both the disease and the fact that he has not perhaps been even embraced by anyone for months, joins him on the bed, simply touching and holding him as if he had become a kind of surrogate lover. It is perhaps the first time we truly begin to admire David as much as we have already fallen in love with the true hero of this sad narrative.
Yes, this scene is didactic, but in such a film fighting, as Bressan surely saw it, a desperate struggle—he would later lose his own life to the disease—it is a necessary lesson, one which helps in the education of a young gay sceptic like David, or perhaps even like me since I now see myself at that time as sharing several aspects of David’s situation, including his good fortune at a time when so many others were suffering like Robert. In 1985, the year this film premiered Howard and I moved to Los Angeles, he having just been hired as the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At the very first gathering of museum trustees and important collectors, Howard introduced me as his companion, and we were immediately accepted as a couple without a tremor of even the most cosmetically lifted of chins.
A bit earlier in Bressan’s work a similar illuminating scene is played out. David suddenly asks Robert a question that reminds me of the possibility that the character Emily Webb is offered in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. “If you could be healthy, I mean completely healthy for one day, what would you do?”
“No strings, just 24 hours like magic?” Robert asks.
“One day, yeah. What would you do?”
His answer—with its longing sense of detail and its surprising deviations of our expectations—is almost as painful to hear as Emily’s day is for us to witness:
“Well, I’d be with Edward. Not in the past, like in the movie [the short clip they’ve viewed of Edward and Robert on the beach]. But here. In New York City. But we’d be lovers. And we’d get it on ‘cause there’s no one I ever had who was as hot as Edward. This, of course, is a purely personal preference. But we’d be together. Breakfast. Shower. Then go out for a walk. Central Park. Okay. But, this is a little weird, but at an offbeat time, about 2:00, I’d take the People’s Express and I’d fly to Washington, D.C. And I’d have a 2 x 4 and a Magic Marker and a piece of cardboard. And I’d be a one-man picket outside the White House. Just a gesture, you know. Very Don Quixote. And I’d write something on the cardboard like ‘America, AIDS is not a gay disease. It hurts everybody. Release all the money for research and care.’ And then I’d go back to New York. And I’d be with Edward. We’d have a great dinner. Then hit a couple of piano bars for a few songs. And then go home and fuck our brains out. [He sheepishly grins.] My happy day by Robert Willow.”
One morning when David arrives to talk with his buddy, the bed linens are being cleared away, Robert having died in his sleep. The hospital, as Steve tells David soon after on the phone, is sorry that they weren’t able to reach him to tell him the news before his arrival. Steve is worried about his lover. “Come home,” he begs. But David demurs. He needs a little more time. He’ll be home for dinner. The Gay center also calls, asking him come in, but David insists he’ll be there the next morning. In the very last scene of the film we see David picketing the White House, a cardboard sign held erect in pride.
School is over, and alas so is the life of the teacher and friend David has grown to love. Now has become the time to transform those lessons of love into real life acts.
Los Angeles, February 2, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).