Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Jeffrey Was Here

Purely by accident, I found myself watching two films within the same evening dealing with the AIDS epidemic. That they do so in such wildly different ways, however, made it a richly rewarding double.

I'm not quite sure where Christopher Ashley's Jeffrey fits into the world of gay cinema, but it was a strange viewing experience nonetheless. Made in 1995 - too late to be revolutionary, too early/small to skirt mainstream (although it's American box office of $3.5m suggests it struck a nerve with audiences, mostly likely New Yorkers) - this film takes a comedic approach to its subject matter, with moments for reflection and pathos. It's a curious film, for sure, and one that has its stage origins flaring at the peripheries, but one that succeeds by being completely its own beast and like no other that I can recall. It stars Steven Weber (you've seen him on television, no doubt) as a gay man who finds himself deciding to abstain from sex until the HIV/AIDS crisis dissipates. It's certainly a plot that would all but begs for wacky high jinks if it weren't for the prickly central issue, but it's still quite startling to see the topic being played with in such a flighty manner. That Weber's Jeffrey - Weber, by the way, looks remarkably like Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman at times and it was quite disconcerting to say the least - falls in love with an HIV+ man forms the rest of the film and the multitude of ways in which Jeffrey can be told he's missing out on a good thing because of his own prejudices.

What struck me most of all about Jeffrey was that it was so over-the-top in almost every way: Colours are vibrant, the characters are loud (oh hai there Bryan Batt from Mad Men), and there are so many funny cameos that it's easy to forget you're dealing with a subject that was and is still a very sore subject. I admit that it's definitely a-okay to watch Weber and Michael T Weiss act like cute lovebirds with one other, just as it's fun to watch everyone from Patrick Steward to Sigourney Weaver and Olympia Dukakis kick up their heals and sashay around with effervescent glee. As many films that err on the side of flamboyant tend to get, it's taste levels are questionable from time to time: a spirit from the afterlife? bizarro half-dressed fantasy sequences that attempt to break the fourth wall? Hmmm. In the end, despite some misgivings, it was quite refreshing how Jeffrey took such a different tact with the material. It never dismisses the tragedy of the events, but defiantly resists in letting the seriousness of the topic dictate its own agenda. Thankfully the actors are all game and it sounds awfully trite, but it certainly helps that it is competently made (which is something I can't say for some of the other queer films I've watched recently). B-

The subject matter gets a far more serious and detailed look in David Weissman's documentary We Were Here. Screening as a part of the upcoming Melbourne Queer Film Festival, this Oscar shortlisted documentary proves that no matter how many films are made on the topic of AIDS, there is always something new to learn. Less a straightforward history of the crisis that hit San Francisco in the 1980s than a series of talking head interviews with survivors of the era, We Were Here is an incredibly moving account of a time that truly does warrant the tag of a shameful moment in American history. We Were Here is both a film that mourns the loss of thousands of innocent people, but also a celebration of the people who unwittingly found themselves vital players in the fight against a curse that not only changed gay culture, but sexual culture the world over for as long as we'll live. Weissman, and co-director Bill Weber, have assembled a wonderful mix of people and simply allowed them to speak so eloquently about the subject that would essentially define their life. As one of the interviewees says, at least she can't look back on her life and she never did anything.

Recalling Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives and The Times of Harvey Milk, We Were Here is economical talking head documentary filmmaking at its finest. So much fascinating video, previously unseen by me, and photographs from the era are a constant fascination. We Were Here will stir up anger, fear, tears and joy; its existence always essential despite a plethora of other titles exploring the same thing and that is a telltale sign of a great film. B+

Check the MQFF website for screening details

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