It excites and saddens my senses when I discover a “lost” independent film. Sure, there is much to celebrate when something old is made new, but it’s also depressing in that the story faded away in the first place. Last year it was Cane River, this year, it’s Buddies. According to a New York Times article on its restoration and re-release, the movie was “the first feature film about AIDS” during the early and ugly days of hysteria over the epidemic. Written, Directed, and Edited by Arthur J. Bressan Jr – who had made the jump from making porn to crafting more mainstream narratives – Buddies was a production both small and bold, limited but brave. With a tiny crew and no time to waste, Bressan made something extraordinary, sensitive, and shocking for its present and our future.
Yes, there are story structure remnants as clear as day from Bressan’s porn stylings, with setups and establishing moments ripe for passionate action. However, given the subject matter, this would’ve been most counter-productive. The film is about two young gay men, David and Robert. David is a freelance typesetter who has volunteered with a hospital to provide company or be a “buddy” to Robert, an AIDS patient. It’s a most intimate interaction, being so close to someone so near death. We only ever see these two characters on camera the whole movie; others appear in photographs or off-camera audio only. Initially, the men are awkward and even distant to one another, but soon form a bond that goes beyond petty differences and philosophies.
David is a privileged yuppie, while Robert is (or was) a flamboyant activist. Often, they’ll argue over whether it’s better to be out loudly or quietly, and how best to handle relationships and political matters. Geoff Edholm plays the ailing Robert, a man not meant to be held to a hospital bed. We see pictures, and home films of him and his boyfriend having fun on a beach often interspersed between moments of discussion and revelation with David, who is assisting on an AIDS-related book that features articles ranging from “Gays are sinful” to “God made AIDS.” This offends Robert in one scene, to the point of losing breath and almost his life, just by way of getting louder and louder. Edholm plays his part holding nothing back, going right for the nerves just under the skin. He’s theatrical of course – Buddies could easily have been a stage play – but never scenery chewing. Whenever the dialogue gets too campy or lofty, Edholm adds some softness and assertiveness to liven up the dimensions.
While most certainly not pornographic, there is at least one sequence that heads in that direction. I fear that spoiling it here would hinder its power, so I dare not describe it too much. It was entirely not for titillation or snickering or exploitation, but for expressing kindness, for showing humanity, and for bridging a gulf between the audience’s stigmas and the film. Physical contact with an AIDS patient must’ve been taboo and scary sounding. Everyone needs to feel something, somehow, and often.
Buddies came on the scene in the mid-80s, and never saw a home release (until now). It’s incredible to know that such films, taking such chances on such topics, were made during their urgent eras. It’s sad knowing, however, that most weren’t recognized until re-discovery. At least this one is getting it’s due now. Buddies might be minimalist in production and design, but it’s grand and courageous at heart. While I can only speculate on how people will react to it today, I’d like to end this article with a quote taken from that New York Times piece, from the director’s sister Roe: “You know that fear and terror and bias and bigotry of those years? Love won.”
RATING: 4 / 5
Buddies is currently screening at Chalmette Movies and is now available for purchase on Blu ray/DVD combo.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved.