Silverlake Life: The View From Here
Village Voice, June 15, 1993, p. 45.
Silverlake Life: The View From Here (Tuesday, 10 p.m., WNET) is quite simply the best feature-length film or video about AIDS to date. Granted, works like An Early Frost and The Living End don't offer much competition, but Silverlake Life is stunning by any standard - moving, witty, and emotionally nuanced. Equally important, it may be the landmark crossover film that inspires not just sympathy but empathy for people with AIDS.
Gay filmmaker Tom Joslin conceived the film as a video diary after discovering that he was seropositive. Following Joslin's death, his AIDS-afflicted lover, Mark Massi, delivered 40 hours of footage to Joslin's friend and former student Peter Friedman. (Joslin had long hoped that Friedman would complete his end-of-life's-work.) The 34-year-old, Academy Award-nominated documentary maker then spent 15 months editing the tapes, as well as shooting additional footage. The resulting movie has won awards at the Sundance, Berlin, and San Francisco film festivals; it will receive its simultaneous broadcast debut on PBS's P.O.V. series and French and German television. Already in theatrical release in major markets (including Los Angeles and Philadelphia, but not New York), this is yet another indie production-on-a-shoestring that should make the networks and studios weep.
An intimate chronicle of Joslin's everyday life, Silverlake Life opens with Massi's recollection of Tom's death, including his inability to close his lover-of-22-years's eyes immediately after his demise. The film is no disease-of-the-week movie, though. It's a love story, and, as with so many love stories, one of the lovers dies. But before that happens we're treated to endearingly romantic scenes, including a kiss that prompts a twinkly-eyed Tom to turn to the camera and say, "Now that's a good-night kiss. I bet you people don't get those."
Silverlake Life - the name comes from Tom and Mark's Los Angeles neighborhood - is also a story about physical diminution that will seem all too familiar to anyone who has nursed a gravely ill friend or relative. In one feverish, past-midnight monologue, Joslin confides his fears that his sleeplessness will preclude the next day's long-planned outing to an auto show leaving him "doomed to bed." Perhaps the most harrowing sequence presents Tom in the backseat of his car, furious at the amount of time an unwell Mark is taking to do the numerous errands required to run their household. There's no shortage of disturbing reality here, and the gritty physicality of these scenes manages to validate the herculean efforts of so many caregivers.
Nor is there any shortage of art in Silverlake Life. While Friedman makes important political points about the absurd necessity of the barely living re-filing MediCal claims that demand debilitating personal appearances, or recounts a supposedly friendly innkeeper's demand that Mark wear a shirt to keep his KS lesions hidden from other sunbather-guests, such issues don't drive the movie. Friedman reveals Joslin's life by presenting the people closest to him - his friends, his doctors, and, not surprisingly, his family. Like so many queers, Joslin's relations with his family were strained. But unlike most of us, soon after coming out he made a film about his homosexuality that recorded his parents' ambivalent reactions. Excerpted in Silverlake Life, 1976's Blackstar not only provides some welcome distance from Tom's painfully devastated condition, but also contextualizes the tragedy of the epidemic that followed so hard on the heels of gay liberation's giddy promise.
When Tom's brother happily opines at the memorial service that "perhaps it was Tom's destiny to die to complete Silverlake Life," we know that he's missed the point about the permeable boundary that (barely) separated Tom's life and his art. Another mourner expressed a more apt, if less elevated, interpretation of the meaning of a life: "[Tom taught me] about illness, loss, giving up, enduring, and about the boundaries of love." So can this film.
He Was A Friend of Mine
ROBERT ATKINS: Tell me about your relationship with Tom Joslin.
PETER FRIEDMAN: I was a student and protégé of Tom's at Hampshire College...He wasn't just a great teacher, he was also the first openly gay person I'd ever met. He was a cult figure on campus, the guy who made it cool to be openly gay at this hip school. I was in the closet and got into film because of his example.
ATKINS: When did you agree to make Silverlake Life?
FRIEDMAN: Tom asked me to do it when he developed the project after he was diagnosed in the mid '80s, but it was never formalized. Besides, I couldn't hang out for years at a time with him in Los Angeles; I live in France.
ATKINS: What happened after he died?
FRIEDMAN: Five months after his death I went to L.A. to see the tapes and shot the last interview in the film with Mark, his lover. We watched the tapes together, but he wasn't ready to let go of them yet. A couple of months later he sent them, and then I took two months to decide to do the film. I knew it would be a long haul, and it did end up taking more than a year. I only started editing after Mark died, which was a year after Tom's death….I think I was afraid of the tapes.
ATKINS: Why did it take so long?
FRIEDMAN: I had to overcome the inclination to try to do what I thought Tom would do. I also had to decide what role I should have. Should I narrate? There's a limit, after all, to how much I'm responsible for this film. And then I had to try to find a movie in all of that footage.
ATKINS: Meaning that you had problems of story and character development to resolve?
FRIEDMAN: Exactly. So I felt intimidated and alone during the eight months I spent in my basement [editing room] in this little fishing village outside Marseilles.
ATKINS: What would Tom think of the film?
FRIEDMAN: He'd be thrilled at all the attention it's getting, but it's certainly not the film he would have made. His style is quite different. He planned the film to be a portrait of his racially and economically diverse neighborhood. There was going to be a walking tour of Silverlake tracing its Hollywood connections; he wanted to use old clips from Blade Runner and Ben Casey - it would have been funnier...I did stick with his title, though.
ATKINS: You've recently completed another film about HIV, haven't you?
FRIEDMAN: Yes, it's called Fighting in Southwest Louisiana and it's about an openly gay, HIV-positive mailman who runs a bed-and-breakfast I stayed in. Even in these hostile surroundings, this salt-of-the-earth guy has made a place for himself...It's playing the public television, gay festival circuit.
ATKINS: Do you think of yourself as an activist? Are other people beginning to treat you like a spokesperson for people with AIDS?
FRIEDMAN: Well, I'm not part of groups, and I don't demonstrate. I would never tell The Village Voice that I'm an activist [Laughs]….I tend to agree with Mark when he says in Blackstar that the "personal is political." I think social change can come from individual acts. Or do you think maybe that's just an excuse?