Archive for Randy Shilts

Butcher’s Bill

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2020 by dcairns

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.