The importance of the film Buddies cannot be overestimated: it was the very first narrative feature made about the AIDS pandemic. Like many of the first films that dealt with the AIDS crisis, it was made by a filmmaker who would later die of the disease. The director was Arthur J. Bressan Jr., a filmmaker who originally started out making gay porn in the ’70s. However, alongside his porn work he made many documentaries on gay life, most notably Gay USA, plus with two features, including Buddies.
The title refers to a scheme run by gay health clinics, which would assign a volunteer to act as a buddy to an AIDS patient in major cities, who could help when they were too sick to care for themselves in their last days. The actor David Schachter, who plays the buddy, did some research about buddies before he made the film, and after the production would end up being a buddy himself. This all adds to a sense of the reality of the pandemic that really few films except documentaries on the subject have.
The film itself is structured like a play, which was a deliberate choice but kind of inevitable given that it’s mostly shots of two guys talking and being friends while one is dying in a hospital bed. One of the most interesting aspects of the film, and something that makes it different from most films that depict the disease, is that there is a sexual chemistry between the two men, with the buddy developing a crush. This probably comes out of Bressan’s background in porn to some extent, because he wouldn’t be minded to shy away from it, but it speaks of the authenticity of the characters and makes it more than just this little movie about somebody dying of a horrible disease.
The clash of the two characters’ ideas about being gay is extremely well thought out. The buddy, David (David Schachter), is a slightly yuppie-ish apolitical Jewish guy who gets assigned Robert (Geoff Edholm), a political radical who was involved with the gay liberation movement of the ’70s. It adds a lot more power to what is an incredibly short feature of 79 minutes, which could easily have just been these two guys talking until one dies. It adds an incredibly believable journey that David has to go on. It’s also a film with doesn’t hold back its anger about the despicable way the Reagan administration handled the crisis: the film starts and ends with a typed list of people who died of the disease. It’s blunt, but necessary.
Overall, Buddies is a vital document of its time, but for years it has been unavailable. It disappeared almost immediately after a small run in mostly arthouse theatres, with its most famous screening at the world-famous Castro Theatre in San Francisco. It’s a film that is ripe for rediscovery, and seems to have caused a bit of a stir due to this re-release, with screenings at the Castro and New York’s Quad Cinema last month, and a big screening at L.A.’s famous LGBTQ film festival Outfest next month.
This Blu-Ray release from Vinegar Syndrome includes some excellent interviews with the star David Schachter and gay film historian Thomas Waugh. The content includes the actor’s personal remembrances of making the film, and Waugh puts it in its rightful place in the history of queer cinema, and specifically films on the AIDS pandemic. The disc also includes the trailer and a stills gallery, plus the film on Blu-Ray and DVD.