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
(Landmark Century) B-
Reeling International Film Festival