Failing to communicate about AIDS
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"An Early Frost" was a groundbreaking television movie when it appeared in 1985. It was the first mainstream film of any kind to deal with the emerging AIDS crisis. It starred Aidan Quinn as a Chicago lawyer who goes home to tell his "respectable" family (Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara) that he is gay and has AIDS, trying to win their ambivalent support, knowing his disease is a death sentence. This TV movie was a huge critical and ratings bonanza, nominated for 14 Emmys, winning four. Because there was widespread public ignorance about the disease, the movie was a disguised public service announcement arguing for more humane treatment and acceptance of PWAs by providing basic facts about the disease and how it is spread. The new film "1985" is just released on DVD by Wolfe Video, a winning Showcase feature at this year's Frameline. Its theme of a PWA, Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), living in New York, returning to his religious parents (Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis) in Fort Worth, Texas, attempting to tell them he is gay, almost identically replicates the plot of "An Early Frost."
It speaks to how far the nation has come on this issue that the words gay and AIDS are never uttered in the movie, yet viewers will pick up the clues instantly. As opposed to "Early Frost," which practically had to shout the word AIDS, "1985" achieves its greater sophisticated elegiac impact through innuendo and restraint, by what is not said, actually underlining the disease's devastating impact.
Written and directed by the talented Malaysian/now Austin filmmaker Yen Tan ("Pit Stop") and photographed by the gifted cinematographer Hutch using black-and-white 16mm to give a home-video effect as well as a timeless feel, but metaphorically showing what a "black-and-white" issue AIDS was at that time, "1985" is less an AIDS drama than, to quote the famous line from "Cool Hand Luke," "a failure to communicate," with the characters' inability to connect or relate with each other, and admit there is anything wrong, giving it a universal appeal "An Early Frost" lacked. Regardless of whether Adrian can find the actual words to tell the family his truth, he knows this is probably his farewell, which at times overwhelms him as well as the viewer.
Two other supporting characters are essential to Adrian's story: his younger brother Andrew (Aiden Langford), who is probably gay, having given up football for the drama club, and who is surreptitiously listening to forbidden Madonna cassettes, but resentful that Adrian cancelled his visit to New York, undoubtedly to keep his own gay life secret; and Carly (Jamie Chung), his high school best friend, a Korean-American standup comic who desperately wants a physical relationship with Adrian, even though he can't reciprocate. The fact that Adrian has AIDS is slowly revealed, mentioning he's recently attended six funerals of friends, as well as his lover dying of the disease.
From the first scene at the airport where Adrian greets his father Dale, a Vietnam veteran, we sense they're ill at ease. Dale wonders how "three grown men could live together like they're still in college." To his credit, Tan doesn't create a stereotype of the homophobic father; he's trying to give loving support to a son he feels is drifting away. Adrian's mother Eileen is more welcoming, even as she attempts to push Adrian into the arms of Carly. Towards the end she can say, "You don't have to tell me until you're ready, but I'll try to be ready when you are," hinting she's not oblivious to his plight. Yet the unconditional love Adrian is seeking from his family is not there, revealing the pain of not being deeply and truly known by those you love, especially when facing death.
At times, despite humorous interludes, "1985" is unbearably sad. Adrian leaves a letter to Andrew essentially mentoring him as a gay brother (implicitly suggesting how much we lost when an entire generation of gay men were wiped out), and has Carly promise to tell him the truth "later on." So much heavy emotion is conveyed without words, but with close-ups of the actor's faces in muted shadows. All the performances are of the highest caliber. The openly gay Corey Michael Smith is outstanding, and his individual scenes with Madsen and Chiklis are heartbreakingly riveting. The introspective nature of "1985" highlights how hopeless those early years of the AIDS crisis were, steeped in fear, bigotry, and denial. Yet because of the reemergence of conservative right-wing values and their accompanying intolerance, the film seems as relevant today as it might have in 1985. With "1985," Tan has produced his masterpiece and arguably the best LGBTQ film of 2018.