Color, 1985, 78 mins. 57 secs.
Directed by Arthur J. Bressan Jr.
Starring David Schachter, Geoff Edholm
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Made less than four years into the recognition of America's AIDS epidemic, Buddiesmay not have the mainstream recognition of films like Longtime Companion, Parting Glances or Philadelphia but can lay claim as the first dramatic feature ever made on the subject. Shot on a shoestring in New York, it was a passion project for director Arthur "Artie" J. Bressan Jr., a documentarian, activist and adult filmmaker who had scored a minor critical success on the art house circuit with the excellent and now almost entirely forgotten Abuse. For this film he put together what amounts to a two-man show for his leading men, with other actors mostly appearing on the periphery and often never even showing their faces. It's a ragged but powerful piece of work, inexplicably out of circulation for decades but finally back to take its rightful place in film history.
Inspired by working on a book about the statistic of AIDS, freelance typesetter David (Schachter) decides to volunteer as a buddy to a hospitalized patient. He's assigned to Robert (Edholm), who's suffering from pneumonia and has already been abandoned by his partner and his parents, and decides to keep a candid diary of his thoughts. Living with a lover of five years, David is put off by Robert's personality at first but soon builds a connection to him that starts to affect his day-to-day life and his own sense of purpose.
Given that it opens and closes with a dot matrix printer running off a seemingly endless list of names claimed by AIDS over a three-year period, this film is obviously going to be an emotional ride from the outset. However, it's also extremely well made and quite funny at times, building up the rapport between the two main characters step by step in a believable way that really hammers the impact home without being preachy or cliched. It's also an effective call to arms with a palpable sense of anger and frustration running underneath, not in the punked-out way of later films like The Living End but coming more from a place of terror and urgency. Knowing that Bressan would himself be gone in two years with Edholm also passing away in 1989 gives the film an even stronger punch, something that can't be recaptured by more recent takes on the subject like the filmed versions of The Normal Heart and Angels in America. It's also unique among gay cinema for the time in its restraint and might even qualify for a PG-13 rating today (even when they briefly watch a vintage porn movie on TV in the hospital room, actually one of Bressan's earlier films). This isn't a polished film or the kind of thing that would win Spirit Awards, and that's actually just the way it should be.
Apart from a tiny handful of TV airings, Buddies vanished entirely from view after its initial theatrical run in a few art houses in major cities in the mid-1980s. Its revival on Blu-ray and DVD as a dual-format release is bound to be a revelation for a lot of viewers, with a pristine transfer from the original 16mm camera negative that looks far better than a lot of other '80s indie films now on home video. The DTS-HD MA English mono audio (with optional yellow English SDH subtitles) sounds good considering the mix is very basic, consisting of dialogue, occasional string music, and some thunderstorm sound effects. The new "Making New Friends" (32m31s) features Schachter, one of the few surviving primary participants, recalling his time on the film and his relationship with Bressan, whom he had briefly dated earlier and admired greatly as an artist. If the film hasn't already gotten to you, this interview most definitely will in the last ten minutes as he recalls the deaths of both men and explains how he felt a need to do good in the world with a major career change following suit. Intense and very moving. "The Importance of Buddies" (20m29s) with film historian Thomas Waugh charts the film's development by Bressan after his breakthrough doc Gay USA and his work in the marginalized adult film scene, as well as its pivotal role in gay cinema using drama, humor, and a frank look at eroticism to tackle a subject that hadn't really been explored on a movie screen. A gallery of production stills and press coverage from Schachter and Jenni Olson's collections is also included along with a trailer touting the film's premiere at the Castro.
Reviewed on July 24, 2018.