three short films on aids: the second wave
Mark Christopher (screenwriter and director) The Dead Boys' Club / 1992
Mike Hoolboom (screenwriter and director) Frank’s Cock / 1993
Tom Donaghy (screenwriter, based on his play, and director) The Dadshuttle / 1994, 1996 general release
Quite by accident, yesterday I watched three short films from the early 1990s that dealt, in various, ways with the issue of AIDS. What is particularly interesting to find such a cluster of films from 1992 through 1994 is that this came several years after the intense commentaries of the 1980s, including, in the US, the groundbreaking works including Arthur J. Bressan’s Buddies and John Erman’s An Early Frost, and the Canadian documentary No Sad Songs directed by Nik Sheehan, all in 1985; Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances (1986); and Norman René’s Longtime Companion and Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, both of 1989. In musical theater William Finn and James Lupine’s March of the Falsettos of 1981 must be mentioned in this context, and their 1990 second episode Falsettoland might be seen as a link between the later works I describe below (a film version of Falsettos appeared in 2017).
Of course other, smaller films and numerous documentaries continued to be produced in the intervening years. But the next significant group of films concerned with AIDS, along with the 1991 theater premier of part 1 of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America represent what has been described by some as the “second wave” of such films which began appearing in the early 1990s with the release of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993) and the three short films I review below, along with the Broadway premier of Kushner’s Angels (finally brought to the screen by Mike Nichols in 2003).
dancing into the past
Iowa-born Mark Christopher is best known today for his 1998 film 54 about New York City’s renowned Studio 54, a movie starring Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayek, Mike Myers, Neve Campbell, and numerous others which he later remade in a German-produced director’s cut in for the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, restoring 45 minutes cut from the original. It was acclaimed as a modern classic as opposed the mostly negative reviews received for the earlier version.
Before and since 54, however, Christopher directed three very well-received short films, most recently Heartland (2007), and earlier Alkali, Iowa (1995) and his first film, The Dead Boys' Club (1992) which have all been popular on the LGBTQ film circuit.
In his first film a young man, Toby (Nat DeWolf), recently graduated from a college in Wisconsin, is visiting his older cousin Packard (Erik Van Der Wilden) in New York City.
Packard is a gay man who has just lost his lover, John R., to AIDS, while his young cousin, although also gay, is shy and taken aback by the open sexuality of the New York City streets. Although he is clearly attracted to men he encounters, he cannot seem to carry through with their invitations, tossing away, for example, a scrap of paper a cute man on the street, Dick (Matt Decker) has just handed him with his telephone number, hinting of a sexual tryst.
Packard and his campy friend are busy packing up John’s possessions, a painful process for the older cousin as he is forced to face the remnants of their evidently fabulous relationship. In the pre-AIDS in which they lived, apparently John was a bar favorite, a sexually popular man who attracted nearly everyone he encountered.
We know this, however, mostly through the presence of a kind of ghost of the dead man located, queerly enough, in his party shoes, which Packard presents as a gift to his young cousin. The minute Toby puts on the shoes, reminding one a little of Dorothy’s ruby slippers or the red shoes which refuse to leave Victoria Page’s feet in The Red Shoes, he is suddenly transported to another time and place, a bar filled with beautiful, half-naked men who dance and greet one another with sexual aplomb, all of them definitely exuding a kind of animal magnetism.
Moreover, as Toby soon discovers, the minute he wears John’s shoes into public spaces, he too is suddenly transformed into a sexual being to whom nearly everyone he encounters is automatically attracted. The slightly plain-looking country boy immediately becomes a sexual object who others must possess and they, in turn, become themselves beautiful beings.
Toby first discovers this phenomenon when he visits a gym locker room where the man dressing next to him (Erik Estrada) suddenly becomes a bronzed stud who is immediately entranced by the country boy and is ready to rush him naked into the shower until Toby unlaces and pulls off the shows, when his visions vanish, although the now lesser attractive gym-goer is still willing to follow through the sexual encounter. Toby, however, stunned by the transformations he has just witnessed feels almost “haunted” by the magic shoes, leaving them purposely behind in the locker.
He quickly dresses, suddenly discovering that in his pocket he still has his unopened packet containing a prophylactic. Horrified by the fact, he puts on the other man’s shows and scurries off, his lover of the previous night turning over to reveal a couple of opened packets, making it clear to the audience that they had actually practiced safe sex, even while Toby remains ignorant of the fact.
But Toby is now seriously troubled, particularly when Dick shows up with the shoes and demanding his own be returned. Scared by what the shoes do to him, he tosses them out the window where they immediately are scooped up by a street vendor who places them among the books and records for sale.
After the funeral ceremony for Packard’s lover, Toby approaches his cousin to ask whether he believes that things can be possessed, like people, houses—shoes. Packard only laughs at the strange question, but admits that it is a difficult time for everyone.
What we realize, obviously, is that John’s shoes reveal a past before AIDS when, as those who lived in the open sexual world of the 1970s and early 80s have mythologized it, everyone was young and dazzling, ready to tear off their clothes with a single glance. I was there; and it’s true, I assure you!
Soon after, we see Toby purveying the street vendor’s albums, while covertly eyeing the magic shoes sitting nearby for sale. Although he has a record album in his hand, he quickly puts it back with the intention of buying back the shoes. But as he reaches for them another boy grabs them, another young man who soon may also be transported momentarily to a place from which those who might confirm its existence have mostly disappeared.
the body believes only in the present
Canadian director Mike Hoolboom had done several short films in the 1980s devoted to different aspects of the body, including White Museum (1986), From Home (1988), and Eat (1989). But after being diagnosed with AIDS upon attempting to donate blood, Hoolboom became involved with a Vancouver based group of “People with AIDS” (PWA) where he met a young man whose lover was dying of the disease, and Hoolboom began work on a script about the new friend and his sense of humor in relationship to the disease which Joey (or by some accounts Alan) maintained throughout what he described as a mostly joyous and happy relationship.
Retaining that sense of humor, the resultant work, Frank’s Cock, narrated by then unknown actor Callum Keith Rennie is almost shocking in its straightforward expression of a gay couple’s meeting, sexual activities, and growing sense of finality.
The unnamed narrator characterizes himself as a teenager who when he came out wanted to be the "Michael Jordan of sex" or "Wayne Gretzky with a hard-on” until he met Frank at a group sex session, older than him, almost 30. Interested in fantasy Frank gave the young man several alternatives for what their relationship might constitute: “Coach/rookie, sailor/slut, older brother/younger brother, father/son.”* “I picked ‘older brother/younger brother,’ and well, we’ve been together ever since.”
The narrator goes on to further describe his new lover, hinting at his partner’s love of exaggerated story-telling in his recollection that Frank never had a problem being gay. He began his sexual activities as a baby, so he claimed, while trying to wank-off the baby in the next wicker basket.
“My parents weren’t big on gay. You remember the ad with the preacher holding a shotgun standing beside his son? The preacher said “If I found out my son was gay, I’d shoot him.” And the son said “I kinda think he’d like to shoot it in me.” Well, it was kind of like that.” He had a girlfriend in high school named Donna, he tells us, and when his parents found out he was gay they blamed it all on Donna. “Like she was an ambassador from the country of women, and she’d fucked up somehow.”
With his new lover, so our narrator tells us, he felt immediately “at home” with Frank’s rather large penis firmly planted in his ass.
But Frank also evidently did serve as a kind of older brother for the young man, showing him how to open a bottle of beer, as any Canadian can, with his teeth (some of which he evidently loss in the process of learning). He showed him how to build a box-kite, and how to make an omelet “that would rise to the size of a man’s head.”
“Frank had a thing for omelets. I guess he got it from his dad. His dad signed for Viet Nam and he got caught behind enemy lines in Phnom Penh and got bread and water and a hole in the ground, no light, no food, no people. And you know how he managed? Eggs. He thought of every way you could cook them, bake them, boil them, fry them, souffle them. And when he got out he went to a restaurant. He ordered an omelet, a six-egg omelet. He ate it. Had a heart attack. Died right there in the restaurant. Frank always said it was a good thing, because the rest of his life would be such a let-down.”
The two apparently have great sex, Frank often making appointments with his younger lover to have sex for the entire day. The narrator truly enjoyed the seemingly endless sexual activity except that Frank insisted upon listening always to Peter Gzowski's “Morningside” radio show during sex, making his friend sometimes lose his concentration.
But the end, as one might expect, is painful as the narrator tells us that he and Frank have now been together for nine years. “In December will be our anniversary, our 10th. But I don’t know if Frank’s going be around to see it. ...He’s lost a lot of weight. He’s got these marks on him, that’s the Kaposi. But when you talk he’s inside the same as ever. I talked to him this morning. He said “The body does not believe in progress. Its religion is the present, not the future. ...He was always saying crazy things like that.”
The engaging story-teller ends his 8 minute tribute to Frank with two simple sentences. “I’m going to miss him. He was the best friend I ever had.” And through his gentle unwitting eulogy, by the end the viewer also feels he now knows something about Frank and certainly shares the joys and sorrows of the handsome young narrator so brilliantly portrayed by Rennie.
Hoolbloom’s film received numerous Canadian and international accolades. Critic Janis Cole of Point of View described the work as an "extraordinary experimental documentary" that is "as bold as the title implies" and a strong argument for the widespread dissemination of short films. And scholar Thomas Waugh in How Hollywood Portrays AIDS argued that the work was one of a "great AIDS triptych," together with Hoolboom's later works Letters from Home (1996) and Positiv.
*The alternative fantasies that Frank outlines are once again examples of a few of the tropes of gay pornography deconstructed also in films such as Francis Savel’s Équation à un inconnu (Equation to an Unknown) (1980) and Constantine Ginnaris’ short work Caught Looking (1991).
a future of which no one dares speak
Playwright and director wrote several plays and produced two LGBT works, the feature film Story of a Bad Boy (1999), and the short Dadshuttle before turning to more commercial ventures such as Precious (2009), Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021), and the highly successful TV series Empire.
His LGBTQ short Dadshuttle, adapted from his own play, is a work of doublespeak, wherein a father (Peter Maloney) and his gay son (Matt McGrath) are driving from their home where to the train station where the son, after his visit to his family in Philadelphia, is on his way home to New York. From the very beginning we comprehend that nothing truly will be communicated between the two, yet a great deal is expressed nonetheless that lies behind their verbal dodges and linguistic twists. It begins with what might have been easily answered:
Son: And why did they call him Yank?
Father: Oh you know, there’s, when he was a kid
he used to...I don’t know
Son: They just called him that because he...
Father: It was a name he got somewhere along the line...
but we worked for them for something like 25 years....
Even in this brief interchange, we already perceive that nothing will be answered, nor any possible completion of their sentences proffered. Both are evidently afraid to say the obvious, that perhaps as a boy he masturbated regularly. But we also recognize that for the most part, what they speak about is meaningless.
The son isn’t even quite sure of what his father actually does for a living. Perhaps he builds skyscrapers, yet he no longer works directly in construction but mostly meets with people. Is he a union negotiator? Does he suggest variations in the buildings construction or their codes? The son will never discover the answer.
The father talks endlessly about small family matters, growing up with 15 related family members in one house, how is wife drags him to various tourist destinations such as The Edgar Allan Poe house, which isn’t actually Poe’s house but a replica, and isn’t a building in which Poe lived...etc. Later on he begins a similar monologue about Clara Barton’s house.
The son cannot comprehend why the family reunion picnics are always held in famous gravesites such at Gettysburg battlefield, as the father attempts to explain that his wife likes to make candles, but later, after the son seems confused, clarifies that she likes to watch the candlemakers at Gettysburg make candles.
There is an entire conversation about a relative who gets “frequent flyer passes” that are good only on the train. The man travels back and forth endlessly on the train, getting up and going without saying anything his kids. The son cannot even find out why he, whoever he might be, doesn’t talk to his kids other than the father’s proclamation that the whole family is just crazy.
There are incomplete sentences spun out about the son’s brother, Marty, who’s disturbed evidently that no one told him that their mother is seeing, apparently, a psychiatrist. No one around them, the father insists, ever go to psychiatrists which the son understandably finds impossible to believe.
A later mention of the other younger brother comes back into the conversation with the father’s statement that “He’s getting better you know. All his friends come to the house.” He evidently has a girlfriend, but he never calls her; she only calls him. Again the communication breaks down without us discovering what in Marty getting better from, or what might have previously been wrong with him. Our only clue is that is seems to be very much like his mother.
And as issues about the boy’s mother creep into the conversation, the father keeps moving away from them to further describe visits, other family members, and pieces of furniture they have recently purchased.
It gets even worse when the son begins attempting to ask if when comes home at Christmas he can bring someone home with him. It takes several tries to even get that question posed, which the father immediately deflects by saying that he needs to ask his mother about that. But the son finally breaks through to say that he would like to have Paul over, who the son’s father keeps confusing with a waiter who has spilled something over him at one time in the past. The son attempts to explain that Paul is not that waiter, but is a waiter.
Slowly as the father rattles on about the Edgar Allan Poe which is not a house, we begin to perceive that the son wants to invite Paul to the family Christmas because he is all alone, and from there we begin the realize, despite the barrage of miscellaneous interruptions what the father seems to refuse to comprehend, that Paul is the son’s lover.
After a sudden interruption by the father about “all this stuff”; “We’re still reading about all this stuff, for years now....People magazine keep having these articles about these young guys who work in New York City...girls now too....all these young people they get sick and they don’t get better.” And suddenly while the son is now insistent about correcting his father’s notion that he works in a bar, we realize that the elder is talking about AIDS.
Finally, the son shouts out, that he doesn’t need to worry. “I take care of myself....” And finally as his father goes on and on about “all this sickness,” he cries out “I don’t have sex. I don’t have sex.”
The significance of that outburst finally begins to explain to us that Paul, his lover, indeed has AIDS, the reason for the son no longer having sex. And slowly, in between endlessly meaningless harangues on anything that crosses the father’s frightened mind, his son reveals that he too has gotten tested.
We never quite find out if he is positive or negative since the two have a ridiculous discussion about the ambiguity of those words—the father is convinced that “positive” means good. But we can glimpse the boy’s fear. And it slowly dawns on us that his father is equally worried about the health of his wife, the son’s mother.
Neither ever express their feelings or even convey the truth of their partners’ conditions to one another. But we now recognize that this shuttle between son and father has been a voyage very much like Charon rowing the dead to the underworld.
We can almost be certain that neither father nor son will see one another again except perhaps at a funeral, and perhaps not even then, since if the mother dies first, the son will surely be occupied with his dying lover; and if Paul dies, the family will surely not wish to attend a funeral in New York City.
For a few seconds, now and then, it almost appears that they have communicated something below or above the torrent of intentional miscommunications. Yet as they finally arrive at the door to the underworld, they have nothing left to say but to awkwardly signify their love.
For me, this is the saddest story of the three, even though, unlike the other two films, no one in this work has yet died, and we truly know nothing about the mother or Paul—or Marty or the dozens other family members they superficially list. We just know that both father and son are scarred, terribly frightened beings, unable to even communicate their fears to themselves let alone to one another.
Los Angeles, March 19, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (March 2021).