MOVIES : AIDS, Death and...

<i> David Ehrenstein is the film critic for the Advocate and the author of "The Scorsese Picture: The Art & Life of Martin Scorsese." </i>

“Fake death is OK in the movies,” says filmmaker Peter Friedman. “People like to be scared as long as they know they’re safe. Real death is OK too in terms of the nightly news--piles of corpses of people that we’ll never know. But this is different.”

This is “Silverlake Life: The View From Here,” a feature-length documentary, edited and co-directed by Friedman, about a gay couple facing the terminal stages of AIDS. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Freedom of Expression Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January, “Silverlake Life” (which has its theatrical premiere Friday at the Vista Theater in Hollywood before a nationwide release through Zeitgeist Films) has been a hot topic of discussion ever since.

Although the AIDS crisis has been examined with varying degrees of success in films, television shows, plays, dance, paintings and even symphonies, it is safe to say that it has never been regarded with the up-close intensity of this slice of HIV-positive life. Shot on video (and later transferred to film) in a first-person diary style, “Silverlake Life” records the everyday struggles of lovers Tom Joslin and Mark Massi to keep body and soul together as long as they can, in a filmmaking style that conveys a gut-level intimacy that somehow avoids mere exhibitionism.

Joslin was Friedman’s co-director on the project--a fact that sets “Silverlake Life” apart from any film or video about AIDS made to date. For at the climax of the documentary, Joslin dies. On screen. This event was not only anticipated by Joslin, but was intentionally woven by him--with the help of his lover and co-cinematographer Massi--into the fabric of the film.


A close friend of Joslin’s, Friedman is keenly aware of the precedents the film shatters, and the objections it is sure to raise from many viewers. Still, the 35-year-old filmmaker believes that the risks the film takes are both appropriate and necessary in the raising of public consciousness of AIDS as the epidemic enters its second decade with no end in sight.

Sitting in a West Hollywood cafe, speaking of the film with a mixture of professional pride and personal grief, Friedman is well aware of the fact that the people he most wants to see “Silverlake Life"--those still indifferent to AIDS--are going to be the toughest sell. He also knows that many of those at the epicenter of the epidemic may want to pass on it as well. Still, Friedman is not ready to write off any potential viewer.

“ ‘Silverlake Life’ involves two things this society tries to keep out of view--death and homosexuality,” he says. “I really don’t know what can be done about that resistance except to fight it by being honest. There’s so little honesty in this society when it comes to AIDS. On one level, there’s been this almost obsessive talking about it. But all that talk is about fear. People want to keep the disease at arm’s length. This film tries to break that down. This is a film about ordinary life. It shows what people have to go through on a daily basis with their illness--going to the store, visiting the doctor, dealing with their parents, trying to keep their relationships going.

“You know,” Freidman continues, “Sundance was great, but I found it strange that the description of the film in the festival catalogue didn’t mention the fact that Tom and Mark were lovers for over 20 years. They were just described as being ‘two men.’ That misses the whole point of the film really, because ‘Silverlake Life’ is a love story. Beyond AIDS, there’s a whole set of other issues the film deals with about gay relationships being unrecognized--made invisible by society. That’s one of the things Tom and Mark were fighting all their lives.”


As Friedman speaks in a clear and even voice, cut with an occasional tremble as he recalls specific incidents and emotions, his overall tone suggests that he hasn’t quite gotten used to talking about his friend in the past tense.

“I met Tom in 1976. He was my film teacher in my first year of college” says Friedman, who attended Hampshire College. “I know people always say that they had one teacher in their life that really affected them. For me, that person was Tom. He was the first openly gay person I ever met.

“I was midway through the semester, and Tom had never mentioned anything about his being gay. One day he invited me to see his film ‘Blackstar: Autobiography of a Close Friend.’ ”

The experimental documentary is about the early years of Joslin and Massi’s relationship and deals with Joslin coming out to his family.


“I was 18 years old and very closeted. I’d never spoken to anyone about homosexuality before. There was Tom, up on screen being very open--coming out to his whole family. There was even a scene of him in bed with Mark. Tom never really did a lot with ‘Blackstar’ distribution-wise, but it was shown at the Museum of Modern Art, and on WGBH, the PBS station in Boston. That prompted an invitation for Tom to appear on television with his parents and Masters and Johnson! Here was this man who not only admitted to being gay, but made a film about it!”

Friedman, who divides his time between New York and Marseilles, France, where he lives with his lover, a French research scientist, kept in close contact with Joslin and Massi over the years. But when Joslin called on Friedman’s help--to serve as “Silverlake Life’s” editor and, in case of Joslin’s death, co-director--it created a challenge for the filmmaker quite unlike any he had faced before.

“Prior to this film I made a half-hour documentary called ‘Fighting in Southwest Louisiana,’ ” Friedman says. “It’s a portrait of a rural mailman in a small town who’s openly gay, and has been open since his teens in the middle of what most gay people would imagine to be one of the scariest places in the world. He’s also HIV-positive and open about that too. It played on a number of local PBS stations but hasn’t been broadcast nationally yet. That was a fairly straightforward piece.

“ ‘Silverlake Life’ was something else entirely, because while it was started by Tom, all the final editing decisions ended up being mine. For example, it was my idea to use clips from ‘Blackstar’ to explain more about Tom and Mark’s life together.


“When Tom conceived of ‘Silverlake Life’ he thought at first that it might be a series of half-hour television shows. It was supposed to be, in part, a portrait of the neighborhood--that’s where the title comes from. It was also supposed to center on Mark, because at the time he started it, Mark was much sicker than Tom. Making a film about Mark’s illness was a perfectly natural thing for Tom to do because, as an artist, his way of dealing with just about anything was to make a film about it. Then when Tom became sick himself, he incorporated that into the film. Eventually Tom and his illness became the main subject of the film.

“Tom and I kept in constant contact right up to just before his death, but I know that if he had lived to finish ‘Silverlake Life’ he would have done some things differently. He would have narrated it a lot, and edited in clips from TV medical shows like ‘Ben Casey.’ He would have used Rutger Hauer’s death from ‘Blade Runner’ or the ‘house of pain’ sequence from ‘Island of Lost Souls’ with Charles Laughton to comment on AIDS. That was his style. But then if he had lived . . . it all would have been completely different.”

Left with 35 hours of only partially edited material to edit, Freidman found his task complicated not only by Joslin’s death, but Massi’s as well.

“Mark died right before I started editing,” Friedman notes sadly. “His death isn’t mentioned in ‘Silverlake Life.’ I decided I didn’t want to do something like put a note in a title card at the end of the film about his death, because I didn’t want to trivialize it or reduce it to an appendage.


“During the editing I was given material that was shot of Mark after I last saw him, and material that was shot of friends of Mark’s cleaning out the apartment after he died. One of those friends has AIDS himself. There was a shot of him talking on the phone about going to Switzerland for treatment while other friends are packing away Mark’s and Tom’s ashes for storage. You might think I could have just added that on, but there’s a whole other film in that footage about the way AIDS just keeps going and going and going. Maybe I’ll go back and put another film together out of that material, but . . . not right now.”

Right now Friedman is trying not only to launch “Silverlake Life” commercially, but to see if it can be used to raise AIDS awareness on other fronts as well. “My dream is to show it to Bill Clinton,” he says, smiling.

“I’ve been encouraged by the reaction to the film so far. Sundance is such a commercial atmosphere, and I was surprised by the number of people there who came up and told me that they liked it. Many of these people had had direct personal experience losing someone to AIDS or to cancer or other illnesses. I had thought they wouldn’t seek out a film that would remind them of their pain. The fact is people want a forum. They want their experiences validated in some way, and apparently ‘Silverlake Life’ has helped.”

Still, not all of the response to the film has been positive. The manager of a New York theater known for showcasing independent films told Friedman that the film would repel audiences, and she “wasn’t running a charity operation.” Then there was the major film festival that turned down “Silverlake Life.”


“That was the strangest reaction I’ve had so far,” the filmmaker recalls. “It came in three parts. First I was told that the festival’s board of directors felt the film wasn’t of sufficient ‘entertainment value.’ It was described as being ‘therapy for the audience.’ Then I was told it was a ‘director-driven’ festival, and since the film lacked a clear ‘author’ it didn’t qualify. But the most bizarre statement was left for last. I was told that this was a film Tom and Mark would not want shown--that they were just making it for themselves. I was speechless when I heard that. Tom spent eight months working on the film and circulating proposals to every funding source he could think of, and he didn’t want it shown?”

At the same time, Friedman knows that there are some spectators who might object to “Silverlake Life” on somewhat more justifiable grounds.

“The only real reticence I had in making this film is that people who are sick have this need for hope, and ‘Silverlake Life’ might be seen by them as some kind of loud announcement of hopelessness. I can’t really tell what benefit the film will have for people with AIDS on a personal level. I hope it will help but. . . .”

Friedman pauses for a beat before he continues speaking.


“There’s a friend of mine,” he says softly, “who is very ill. He keeps asking me for a cassette of ‘Silverlake Life.’ I say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll give it to you,’ but I keep not doing it. He’s very mad at me for trying to ‘protect’ him.”

Friedman pauses again.

“He’s right, you know.”