Buddies

(USA 1985)

Initially, nothing about Buddies jumps out as remarkable. I never heard of the film, screenwriter/director Arthur J. Bressan Jr., or anyone involved. It feels like it was thrown together and pumped out in a matter of days, like a porn. At best, it’s as if Ed Wood were aiming for Jean-Luc Godard; at worst, early John Waters doing an Afterschool Special.

Technically, it’s messy. The camerawork is choppy, darting crudely from character to character. The script is amateur, preachy, and at times emotionally manipulative. Except for a few scenes, the acting is stiff and overdone, like a Fifties B-movie or a soap opera.

All that said, well … I’ll borrow a term from a different and much later movement: it gets better. This film really got to me. For all its low budget shortcomings, Buddies packs an emotional whollop. Truth and heartfelt sincerity shine through, and they go a long way in making the sum here much greater than its parts.

The film follows David Bennett (David Schachter), a Manhattan guppy in what appears to be a happy but bland and maybe safe monogamous relationship, who volunteers to be a “buddy” for another gay man, Robert Willow (Geoff Edholm). Robert is dying in an AIDS ward. As a buddy, David is there to offer a helping hand or an open ear with the hope of ensuring that Robert doesn’t feel forgotten (https://www.villagevoice.com/2018/06/18/buddies-remains-an-urgently-moving-study-of-life-and-death-in-the-aids-era/).

At first, their interactions are uncomfortable and perfunctory; this is usually how it goes when trying to connect with a total stranger. The two don’t have all that much in common: David is quiet, cautious, and reserved; Robert is out, spirited, and definitely someone who has been around the block. Tinged with an outlying jealousy and perhaps a scintilla of superiority, David finds Robert to be too much: all his talk about sex and politics (not to mention his rage) turns him off. David isn’t invested in this relationship, forced as it is.

The ice breaks when Robert tells David about the love of his life. Touched and maybe finally able to relate, David opens up and starts listening to what Robert tells him.

I didn’t quite care for where Bressan ultimately took David. Still, he (Bressan, not David) is an astute observer of human nature. He touches on attitudes that tend to prevail when one person in a relationship is, shall we say, in a better position than the other, and he demonstrates how judgment can rear its ugly head. I like that Robert is unapologetic, which redeems him in the end.

Buddies is a film that takes on significance once you consider its historical perspective. It was the first American feature film to address the burgeoning AIDS crisis, back when it was called a “gay disease” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_J._Bressan_Jr.). It deals with AIDS head on, and it did so during Reagan’s first term. If it feels slapped together, there’s a reason for it — Bressan, a fairly prominent porn director, was dying when he made it. His sense of urgency is palpable.

This screening, a brand new digital restoration, was the first one we attended at Reeling. It is a fitting choice because Buddies was the same festival’s opener the year it was released (http://reelingfilmfestival.org/2018/films/buddies/).

With Damon Hairston, Joyce Korn, Billy Lux, David Rose, Libby Saines, Susan Schneider, Tracy Vivat

Production: Film and Video Workshop

Distribution: New Line Cinema, Vinegar Syndrome

81 minutes
Not rated

(Landmark Century) B-

Reeling International Film Festival

The Be All and End All

(UK 2009)

‘Beautiful’ is not a word that comes to mind when describing male relationships, especially one between two working class teenagers in Liverpool. The Be All and End All, though, is just that: a beautiful story about friendship.

15-year-old Robbie (Josh Bolt) is stuck in the children’s ward of a hospital. No one will tell him what’s wrong with him. He complains to best mate Ziggy (Eugene Byrne) during one of his daily visits. Ziggy sneaks a peek at Robbie’s chart and finds out he has cardiomyopathy, something he can barely pronounce. He researches it online and learns it’s a fatal heart condition. As any good friend would do, he tells Robbie, who has a wish: he doesn’t want to die a virgin. As any good friend would do, Ziggy hatches a plan to get Robbie laid—a few plans, actually. Robbie can’t leave the hospital, which proves to be a challenge. But that’s what friends are for.

The Be All and End All occasionally dips into Afterschool Special mode and has a few underdeveloped story lines, but director and producer Bruce Webb keeps it real. He composes a surprisingly honest and emotional work out of a simplistic script using mostly inexperienced actors. Webb strikes the perfect balance between humor—bawdy and otherwise—and serious drama without getting ribald, morose, or sappy (that rather maudlin soundtrack is another story). It’s a real feat considering the subject matter; this is a film that easily could have been a disaster without just the right touch. Bolt and Byrne are brilliant; their characters and the friendship between them are authentic. I felt everything they went through—even when their thick brogues were hard on my American ear. Liza Tarbuck is great as Tina, the stern but compassionate nurse watching over Robbie.

I first caught The Be All and End All when it screened at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2009, and I loved it. I watched it again to see if it still works—it does. It’s a finely executed story that’s funny and serious, and it tugs at the heartstrings in all the right ways.

100 minutes
Not rated

(Home via Amazon) B+