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AIDS: Spreading the truth, HIV-themed films that broke new ground
by David-Elijah Nahmod

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An Early Frost ( 1985 )

Director: John Erman.

Teleplay by Daniel Lipman and Ron Cowen, based on a story by Sherman Yellen.

100 minutes. DVD distributor: Wolfe Video

The AIDS epidemic was raging in 1985. People were dying at rates that were unimaginable. When they looked back years later, survivors spoke of losing friends, sometime every single one of them, in the space of a few years. In the "gay ghettos" of major cities, it was not unusual to see scores of emaciated young people preparing for death. President Ronald Reagan wouldn't even say the word—AIDS. Televangelists screamed of "God's wrath." ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—took to the streets and demanded proper care for the sick, among other things.

In the midst of all this tragedy, NBC green-lighted An Early Frost, the first major film that attempted to deal with the realities of living with, and dying of AIDS complications.

Aidan Quinn played Michael Pierson, a successful lawyer who's come home to die. Both Michael and his parents ( Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara ) had to deal with a double coming out. "So you're a homosexual," says Dad. "And you have this disease."

For gay men in the trenches, it was the first time they had ever seen any attempt to honestly convey what they were going through. An Early Frost wasn't perfect. It was set in an upscale, single-race universe that couldn't possibly reflect everyone who saw it. But it was an admirable effort, and it opened doors. It was the most viewed television attraction in the country the night it premiered, garnering a 23.3 ratings share.

The film was infuriating, albeit for all the right reasons. One of the issues Michael has to deal with is his own sister, who avoids him and doesn't want him touching her baby, out of a false fear that her child will contract the disease. It could also be uplifting. When Michael has a seizure, he's denied ambulance service, again due to unfounded fears of contracting the disease. Dad looks at his son's convulsions, and puts his homophobia aside. He takes Michael into his arms, puts him in the family car, and rushes him to the hospital.

An Early Frost could also be heartbreaking, as when Michael is reunited with his partner ( D.W. Moffett ) who may or may not have given him the virus. Their love for each other is undeniable.

Prior to An Early Frost, AIDS was ignored by the entertainment industry. After it aired, AIDS became part of our lore. Numerous sitcoms, and even a daytime drama, As the World Turns, introduced story lines that dealt with HIV. Other TV films, and the Oscar-winning Philadelphia ( 1993 ) followed. But it all began with An Early Frost.

Longtime Companion ( 1989 )

Director: Norman Rene.

Writer: Craig Lucas.

96 minutes. DVD distributor: MGM.

At the 1990 Oscar telecast ( three years before Tom Hanks won his first Oscar for Philadelphia ) , viewers were treated to a scene from Norman Rene's Longtime Companion that perhaps they weren't ready for. As Sean ( Mark Lamos ) breathes his last few breaths, he's told that it's safe to go by David ( Oscar-nominee Bruce Davison ) his "longtime companion," the term used by The New York Times to refer to gay couples in its obituary section. "You can go now," David says gently, as he holds Sean's hand. "Let go … . " The very next scene in the film cuts to a memorial service. But it's not Sean's service, it's David's, sometime later.

As Longtime Companion begins, it's 1981, the day The New York Times first reported a strange cluster of deaths among gay men. As Blondie's "The Tide is High" blares on the soundtrack, gay men play on Fire Island. There are nine major characters, all but one of them are gay men. When the story ends, nearly a decade later, only three are left.

Over the course of the film's 96 minutes, the AIDS virus swoops down on a circle of friends and wipes them out, one by one. Few films have ever captured the horrifying realities of what it was like to be young and gay during the epidemic's peak. Haunting, chilling, and unforgettable, Longtime Companion spells it out in a no-holds-barred manner that shocked people. The truth is never pretty.

This film was one of the first time that cinema acknowledged, albeit briefly, that not all HIV victims were white. In a particularly tense scene, lead character Willy ( Campbell Scott ) goes to visit the buddy he's assigned to by the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City. He shows up to help Alberto, a young, ill and angry Puerto Rican man, take care of household errands. Alberto was played by actor Michael Carmine, who died at age 30, three days after the film was released,

Longtime Companion was Norman Rene's first theatrical film as a director. It was also the peak of his career. After making two more films, he succumbed to AIDS in 1996. He was 45 years old.

The Living End ( 1992 )

Director, Writer: Gregg Araki.

92 mins.

DVD distributor: Strand Releasing.

In 1992, writer B. Ruby Rich coined the phrase New Queer Cinema in Sight and Sound Magazine. The phrase was meant to define "queer-themed independent cinema" from the 1990s onward. The films in question were definitely not of the cookie-cutter variety. Gregg Araki's The Living End, a daring, politically incorrect thriller like no other, quickly became one of this new genre's defining titles.

Shot for a paltry $22,769, Living End is a road movie about two HIV-positive men. One of them is Luke, an aimless drifter and hustler who kills a homophobic police officer with a gun he loves to wave around. The other is Jon, a disillusioned movie critic who makes 25 cents a word. Feeling like they have nothing to live for, they go on a road trip, on which Luke's fondness for identity theft, breaking into ATM's and threatening people causes them more trouble then Jon can deal with.

Araki pulls no punches. The director completely ignores the rules of political correctness that had by then taken over the gay-rights movement. At one point, Luke is himself nearly killed by a psychotic lesbian couple, but he steals their car and escapes. In another scene that's played for laughs, a woman shoots her bisexual boyfriend when she catches him in bed with Luke. This is a mean-spirited film that wasn't meant to be viewed by polite society.

It's an angry film that works. By the time The Living End was released, millions had died of AIDS around the world. People were furious at the lack of government help. Like no other film before or since, The Living End captured the rage of a dying generation.

Zero Patience ( 1993 )

Director, writer John Greyson.

100 minutes.

DVD distributor: Strand Releasing.

Shortly after his death from AIDS, French Canadian flight attendant Gaetan Dugas ( 1953-1984 ) achieved notoriety as "Patient Zero," the man who allegedly introduced the HIV virus into the Western World's gay male community. A 1984 article in The American Journal of Medicine traced the first cluster of HIV infections in New York to an unnamed flight attendant who brought the virus over from his many sexual encounters in Africa and Europe. Dugas was named in Randy Shilts's book And The Band Played On ( 1987 ) . Shilts chronicled the history of HIV's spread across the Western world, and portrayed Dugas as a sexual sociopath who delighted in infecting others. Shilts further alleged that Dugas called himself "the prettiest one."

Scientific study has since proven the Patient Zero theory to be false. No one is sure when or how the HIV virus came to the U.S., but there are now documented cases of isolated AIDS deaths which date back to the 1960s, including that of a 16-year-old boy named Robert. Robert's death in 1969 baffled doctors. In 1984, the same year Dugas died, Robert's frozen blood samples tested positive for HIV.

With Zero Patience, openly gay director John Greyson attempts to exonerate Dugas, in the format of a musical comedy. Zero Patience is a strange film indeed: it chronicles a love affair between Dugas' ghost and Sir Richard Burton, the 19th century explorer who shocked Victorian society with his writings on the sexual habits of the various countries and cultures he visited. Burton was believed to be an experienced bisexual.

In Greyson's film, Burton still lives in 1990s Toronto after an encounter with the Fountain of Youth. As he prepares a museum exhibit on world epidemics over the years, he brings "Zero," an unnamed Dugas, back from the dead. This strange film features, among other things, a pair of singing rear ends, and a splashy musical number featuring colorful viruses. Yet the basic real-life facts offered by Greyson are sound ones. While Dugas was without question part of the first cluster of AIDS cases, which made headlines around the world, he couldn't have single-handedly introduced the virus into the general population. In a scene set at an ACT UP meeting, Greyson suggests that in 1982, Dugas actually cooperated with researchers who were trying to pinpoint the cause of the disease.

Alternating between funny, bizarre and thought-provoking, Zero Patience is another example of a gay filmmaker who is unafraid to throw caution to the wind and speak his truth.

3 Needles ( 2005 )

Director, writer: Thom Fitzgerald.

127 minutes.

DVD distributor: Wolfe Video.

At last, a film which unequivocally states what AIDS activists have been shouting from the rooftops: AIDS is not a gay disease. Anyone can get it. Canadian auteur Fitzgerald offers an impressive low-budget film set on different continents and featuring a cast of major players. The cast includes Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis, Lucy Liu, Stockard Channing, Sandra Oh, and X Men heartthrob Shawn Ashmore.

The film presents three seemingly unconnected stories. In rural China, the entire population of a village becomes infected when they donate blood on tainted equipment. In a small African Village, HIV is spread through dirty needles. In Toronto, a straight porn star ( Ashmore ) fakes his own blood tests and infects seven co-workers. In order to provide for her son, his Mom deliberately injects tainted blood into herself so she can collect on an insurance policy.

Many characters become infected during the course of the film's two hours, and most of them die. All of them are poor people struggling to survive. Not one of them is gay. Only a handful of them are white. Many of them are women.

3 Needles is a dark and depressing film that's difficult to sit through at times. It's doomsday scenario is relentless, yet it's must-see viewing. In a world where anti-gay religious leaders continue to play the gay blame game, here's a film that shows us what's really been happening worldwide for decades. Particularly impressive is how polished and expensive the film looks: Fitzgerald shot it for $2 million. It was barely released Stateside.

See this important work now, and share it with friends.

Pedro ( 2008 )

Director: Nick Oceano.

Writers: Dustin Lance Black, Paris Barclay.

90 minutes.

DVD distributor: Wolfe Video.

There's no question that Pedro Zamora was put in this world for a purpose. This beautiful young man, raised in Miami's Cuban refugee community, contracted HIV when he was 17 years old. Four years later, as his T-cell count plummeted, he was cast in the MTV reality series The Real World: San Francisco. In full view of millions of viewers, Pedro sparred with a homophobic roommate, fell in love, married his partner Sean, and educated people about AIDS. His star burned brightly, but briefly. As his Real World episodes began airing, Zamora lapsed into his final AIDS-related illness. He died on Nov. 11, 1994, the day after his last episode aired.

Screenwriters Paris Barclay and Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black ( Milk ) weave an unforgettable portrait of courage. They don't sugar-coat anything: the ugly homophobia, and racism, of Real World roommate Puck ( Matt Barr ) is dealt with frankly—Puck was voted out of the house by the housemates. The tender love story between Pedro and Sean ( Dajuan Johnson ) is sweet, touching, and profound. In 1993, one didn't normally see gay weddings on the tube, much less one that was mixed race. Pedro the film is quite a tearjerker: when Pedro's homophobic Dad watches his son marry Sean on TV, the elder Zamora's eyes well up with tears. No doubt viewers of Real World—and movie watchers—were crying with him.

The film also shows the deep friendship that developed between Pedro and Real World roommate Judd Winnick ( Hale Appelman ) , a straight man who spreads Pedro's message and legacy to this very day.

Alex Loynas is superb in the title role. He gives life to a beautiful, long-departed young man who was in a hurry. Pedro Zamora danced as fast as he could. He accomplished far more in his 22 years than most people could in a century.

Wolfe Video's DVD of Pedro offers three of Zamora's Real World episodes.

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