As the list of the deceased keeps moving up the screen and the unmistakable sound of the dot matrix printer shows no signs of stopping, the strings double down on the emotional content in the confronting beginning of BUDDIES. From 1985, this underground indie masterpiece has been remastered for a modern audience. Both the audience who remembers and new generations who are urged into hear and know.
Filmed in less than a week in the dark days of blaming and hate before the American nation cared about the people who were dying of aids (I refuse to capitalize it), this film is not merely a document of its time. It is a standalone film of drama and emotion with a watchability which never flags.
David has, for reasons he doesn’t himself understand, become a buddy. These volunteers, like the long running Ankali Project here in Sydney, were teamed with a person with HIV. Buddies provided companionship and help with the day to day aspects of dying … as it was seen to be then. When David first meets hospital bound Robert he is garbed in all the protective gear he is required to wear. Ignorance abounded about transmission. The physical protections come off quickly but the emotional walls David has built around himself take longer to crumble. We witness this through his interactions with Robert but also through the voice-over readings of his truth diary. The other characters in the film are voices, blurred shapes or merely the spoken of. This is an intimate story.
David, yuppie, politically nonaligned and in a relationship with Steve, is a typesetter currently working on a compendium about aids. Form is more important to him than content and the film is littered with text. His consciousness will raise as Robert’s reality clashes with the dry words. Robert is beautiful, politically active, and abandoned. We are immersed in their current lives as each learns from the other.
Director, Producer, Writer and Editor Arthur J Bresson Jr created the film with input from friends who had aids and their words echo in a truthful and searingly honest account of its time. Hard to watch in places, with its reflection of gay hate, words like God’s revenge and plague still pain the watcher even at this distance. Bresson was driven to make the film quickly and managed with a budget of US$27,000 to create a grounded document which avoids the tropes that we came to expect of later big budget productions.
The acting here is terrifically emotionally engaging. As Robert, Geoff Edholm, is sassy and vulnerable, politically engaged and politically impotent. His decay is not as graphic as modern audiences might expect of an HIV/aids death yet as tragic, senseless and emotional as any contemporary rendering. Robert wants change, even in David, and will fight to the end. As David, David Schachter empathetically travels the growth arc of the piece with a subtle reflection of interior chaos and a focussed intensity of expression. Never swept up by emotion or maudlin with caring, his is the intellectual response to what was happening in 1985 in America.
This new 2K digital version from Frameline has been deftly restored with a truthfulness to its time by Vinegar Syndrome and it is gorgeous to look at. The film’s timelessness has been preserved along with the period elements of its creation. The stonewash denim feel to the palette and the static claustrophobia of framing is beautifully retained. Single shots and reaction shots tell the story and the use of cuts rather than fades etc are augmented with the tilts and pans and pullins of 1980’s filmmaking.
Apart from the themes and narrative there are some fascinating cinematic elements, like the shots over the rooftops of Manhattan and the coyness in representation of sexual practices. There is one very intimate scene, which still resonates today, which is elevated from the carnal by the violin and cello of the very effective score (Jeffrey Olmstead). A score which also includes some superb single note piano. Also extremely effectively inserted into the film are phone rings. One holds one’s breath every time.
With that kind of inevitability why watch this film? Why watch it if you lived through it? Why watch it if you didn’t? Actor Geoff Edholm died in 1898 of aids. Creator Arthur J Bresson Jr died of aids in 1987. Five days after the film’s premier showing, the American President, Ronald Reagan, said the words for the first time when the first diagnoses had made in the late 1970s.
The printer scrolling the names is slowing but not yet still.