Butcher’s Bill

Let’s never forget that this is the second time a Republican government presided over an epidemic and did nothing, and in fact Trump’s four months of inaction (followed by months of ineptitude) pale beside the Reagan administration’s conscious decision to ignore AIDS for years, as the cases climbed from hundreds to thousands, with an eventual international death toll estimated at forty million.

Hollywood also ignored AIDS, until Jonathan Demme’s PHILADELPHIA, written by Ron Nyswaner, and AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, directed by Roger Spottiswode and adapted by Arnold Schulman from Randy Shilts’ book. Both came out in 1993, the latter produced for TV by HBO (Hey, Beastmaster’s On!), but receiving a limited theatrical release here in the UK.

You can see why Hollywood was afraid: you could probably rewrite Robert Greig’s speech from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS to explain why unphotogenic fatal diseases that disproportionately affect a minority group might not appeal to a mass audience. It wouldn’t even be certain that a film on the subject would please a gay audience: PHILADELPHIA took brickbats for being squeamish about gay sex, with only a single, chaste kiss between the central lovers. And I think any praise it receives should be mingled with criticism that it took so long to appear. So you can’t win.

I have to rewatch PHILADELPHIA because I haven’t seen it since it came out, but I must say, the Spottiswode film, which I’ve only just seen, strikes me as its superior. Not in terms of decoupage — Demme had been continually improving for years when he made PHILADELPHIA, and his visual style is elegant and dramatic. But in terms of story.

It’s counter-intuitive that a diffuse, multi-character narrative would be more emotional and compelling than a tight, controlled, personal one, but in fact there’s precedent: A NIGHT TO REMEMBER is more frightening than TITANIC. And the sorrow is situated in the correct place, in the plight of a lot of real people rather than in a couple of fictional ones. The victims are not reduced to an exciting backdrop, or pushed offscreen altogether. In a story about something that impacted many, many people, a single protagonist probably can’t stand in for all of them.

The writers and director of ATBPO each have their own Scylla and Charybdis to negotiate, and they managed it with varying degrees of skill. The script has to create an urgency to a story that unfolds over years, in different countries and different strata of society. This it manages: it’s undoubtedly a flaw that one notices obvious bits of compression, where two dramatic bits of news arrive in a single scene. We know this is contrivance and condensing of a more scattered reality. But it works.

They also do a really fun thing, closing a scene with a character being discussed who we haven’t met yet, and somebody saying something that makes us excitedly think, “Oh, this next person’s going to be interesting!” and then of course in the next scene we meet them and they perform a bit of characterful stuff that shows what they’re like. Again, contrived, perhaps, but gracefully contrived and very entertaining.

Spottiswode doesn’t overcome his difficulties as neatly. We’re back to “the tracking shot in KAPO” again — twice in the first sequence, as Matthew Modine stumbles upon the Ebola outbreak, he pushes in on the actor’s horrified face, adding surplus drama to something that’s already dramatic on its own, something that wants to feel like documentary. Later, the flashbacks Modine experiences to this scene are carefully written to add a personal dimension to his professional struggle to get funding for AIDS research, but executed with soapy music and dissolves that make the thing very, well, TV-movie-like. I’m surprised by the ineffectualness of the technique, since Spottiswode is a former editor. Only at the end, when he uses cuts for his flashbacks, does a sense of PTSD immediacy get going, which even overpowers the efforts of Carter Burwell’s score to switch the channel to Hallmark. (I was amazed it was Burwell — I love his stuff, usually.)

There are potentially good ideas — the San Francisco gay community’s Halloween parade turns ominous with shots of men in skeleton/death disguise — a risky image to linger on, but a legitimate notion — but it doesn’t want clunking musical emphasis. It gets it.

The most effective scenes are therefore the dialogue/acting ones. The starry cast — this is like the GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD of disease movies — all get points for committing to do this. You can be sure Richard Gere’s agent cautioned him. Alan Alda gets to play a bastard, building on his excellent work in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and helping set a pattern of typecasting that continues to this day. Modine is his usual sincere, unshowy self — I really like him. Ian McKellan unfortunately can’t do an American accent but he’s always welcome. There are nice bits for Anjelica Huston, Phil Collins (!), Bud Cort and BD Wong.

Several of the less famous names are just as impressive. Jeffrey Nordling is outstanding as Gaetan Dugas, the so-called “patient zero” of AIDS. In a way, the movie is perhaps too scared to deal with this figure in more than a couple of scenes, because he’s that dangerous character, an unsympathetic victim who knowingly infected numerous men — at least according to Shilts’ book. But a new documentary, KILLING PATIENT ZERO, casts him in a very different light. Nordling is so charismatic, I’d have loved to see more of him.

The movie is powerful, informative and compelling enough to survive a closing montage with Elton John singing and WAY too much focus on celebrities. I was ready to overlook quite a bit because of the movie’s courage and lucidity and compassion.

AND THE BAND PLAYED ON stars Pvt. Joker; Capt. Benjamin Frankin “Hawkeye” Pierce; Professor Ernst Lodz; Joëlle, la scripte; Dr. Chuck; Palmer; Buster; Harold Chasen; Leslie Slote; Dixie Dwyer; Tess Trueheart; Morticia Addams; Sephus Purcell; Walter Abundas; Vincent Van Gogh; The Lazy Woman; Captain Ken Narlow; Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr; Clark; Col. Stonehill; Gandalf; Allen Dulles; W.W. Beauchamp; Terry the Toad; Edwina Cutwater; Dr. Henry Wu; and Lee Iacocca.

12 Responses to “Butcher’s Bill”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “Philadelphia” was Demme making reparations for the transphobia of “The Silence of The Lambs.” It “explains” how Tom Hanks “got AIDS” though a brief single shot of the exterior of a gay porno theater. As Gene Kelly says in “Singin in the Rain,” “Dignity — Always Dignity!” That said here’s the one Truly Gay sequence in the entire film.

    Regarding “Sullivan’s Travels” I think of Joel McCrea’s speech about “Grim Death gargling at you from every street corner” which we have today thanks to Covid-19. AIDS meanwhile has gone down the Memory Hole. It’s best theatrical and cinematic representation remains “Angels in America.” Al Pacino did a swell Roy Cohn in Mike Nichols television version. The great Nathan Lane has recently done it on stage in a revival.

    I knew Roy Cohn’s chauffeur. He’s dead too.

  2. Demme said he didn’t want to freak out the audience he was trying to appeal to, and I guess maybe his film helped steer a few people away from hardcore homophobia. There has been a wonderful shift in the Overton window so that overt hatred of gay people is now largely relegated to the dog whistle department. A step in the right direction. But what helped Philadelphia as propaganda hurts it as art.

    I suggested a pandemic-themed podcast to Fiona but she points out everyone’s doing that, along with quarantine-themed ones. Still, she’s been reading up on AIDS and the 1918 flu, which hilariously Trump keeps calling the 1917 flu, presumably thinking of Sam Mendes’ awful film.

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    My Pandemic specific viewings include CONTAGION (which has now proven to be the most important movie by Hollywood in the last ten years), a movie I loved when I saw it on first viewing, and which now strikes me as a masterpiece, among Soderbergh’s best (alongside Che and Traffic, and Side Effects). You mention that dramas with multiple characters are not as emotionally impactful as a few. Contagion is an exception to that. Also rewatched THE SEVENTH SEAL, which also has a documentary quality now. Another one I am seeing, is a USSR classic ”Nine Days in One Year”, Mikhail Romm’s movie about atomic scientists. There’s this great scene about a researcher who talks about being exposed to radioactive elements, and how even though he can’t see it, he knows he’s dead or close to death. Romm’s other great film, “Ordinary Fascism” is also worth revisiting in this time.

    I also read Defoe’s ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’, and am reading John Kelly’s book about the Black Death ‘The Great Mortality’. Defoe’s Journal is rather unnerving because the same stuff he describes — the “shutting up of houses” (aka lockdown), the economic impact, the rise of unemployment, the conspiracy theorists, fear-mongering and quackery, and even other social distancing measures and the way shopping is affected — is exactly what daily life is now for those who are self-quarantined.

  4. A friend who works in a lab said of Contagion at the time, “Very good film, and almost certain to come true, unfortunately.” How right he was. And yet the current level of crisis in the UK and US was by no means necessary: Soderbergh couldn’t have predicted the pandemic coinciding with sociopathic populists being in power.

    Ken Russell’s The Devils combines the physical corruption of the plague with policical and religious corruption, and feels very now. I can’t recall how plague-y Pasolini’s Decameron is. And our deserted campuses make me think of Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future.

  5. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Soderbergh’s Contagion does anticipate populism with Jude Law’s character. At the time many saw that guy as being an attack on internet, now it’s exact. Law’s character is the forerunner of Alex Jones, Steve Bannon, Dominic Cummings and so Trump and Johnson. And at the end of Contagion, despite enabling so many people to die…he gets away with it, gets out on bail and goes back to spreading hate and anti-vaccine rumors. Apparently he was based on that English fraud, the one who started that autism hoax about vaccination in the Lancet.

    The Devils is great. Pasolini’s The Decameron doesn’t feature the plague (in Boccaccio the storytelling is an escape from the plague and so hardly touches on it). Jacques Demy’s THE PIED PIPER OF HAMELIN, which is an underrated movie, sets the fable during the black death and deals with the antisemitism of that time.

  6. Patrick Wahl Says:

    You are really messing up your timeline. 4 months of inaction followed by months of ineptitude takes you back to the fall, when nothing was known, I don’t even think it was a thing in China at that point. As recently as March the mayor of New York was encouraging people to go to a movie. I think closing down the US economy does not count as doing nothing.

  7. Well, we now have reason to believe Trump knew of the outbreak in November, so my messed-up timeline (I confess it) is slightly closer to being accurate than it was.

    Trump is guilty of complete inaction from late last year until the end of January, when he imposed a loophole-filled ban on people entering the US from China.

    “Closing down” large parts of the US economy does count as a positive action, but the ineptitude (and bad faith) has continued to this present point and is sure to go on, because the man can’t change who he is.

  8. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    IF the 45th Potus had reacted promptly and sanely, there would not have been a need to shutdown the economy to such an extent. There hasn’t been a shutdown of like nature in South Korea and Taiwan because they reacted in time and got ahead of this and they were able to organize accordingly. If 45 hadn’t axed Obama’s Pandemic Response protocols, which was put in place, to avoid situations getting to this point, things would have been different.

    Regardless, in any case, this would have been a difficult thing for anyone in that position. You look at England, where Johnson made a mess, and France where Macron likewise did so. Macron is a centrist liberal (a French Tony Blair more or less) but he was just as bad a crisis actor as his more right wing colleagues on the Atlantic. Merkel has done the best in Europe in handling this. So Trump hasn’t been exceptional in his delayed response and so on. He has been exceptional in his stupidity, in his mercurial behavior, his obvious lying, and total lack of responsibility.

  9. Asked about the rallies he held in Feb and March: “I haven’t been out of the White House in months!”

    Macron did SOME things right, but the overall effect was weak. Germany’s infection rate looks high but only because they did massive testing. As a result, their death rate is one-tenth of ours, because they detected a lot of people who were asymptomatic. We still have hardly tested anyone (and yet the official infection rate in my tiny area is close to 2%, and in reality no doubt much higher).

    Part of the difference between countries who performed well versus those who messed up, asides from being governed by women obviously, is the level of trust between government and citizenry. Hard to have a lockdown in a disorderly nation…

  10. I remember a film Parting Glances which I felt delt with the crisis well but I don’t think got much of a distribtution outside art house cinemas. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parting_Glances

  11. Yes, that was an early and acclaimed one. Independent films could be expected to cover the crisis better than the mainstream.

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