Today’s cinema adventure: Parting Glances, the 1986 first (and only) feature by writer/director Bill Sherwood, hailed as a landmark in the history of gay cinema and also notable for featuring actor Steve Buscemi in his first major film role. Made on a shoestring budget in 1984 and finally released two years later, it was chosen as the first movie to be restored by the Outfest Legacy Project in 2007, and it still stands today as one of the most refreshingly authentic representations of gay life yet to be seen on the American screen.
Shot entirely on location in New York, the film follows a young upwardly mobile couple, Michael and Robert, through the events of a 24-hour period; Robert is preparing to leave for a two-year work assignment in Africa, while Michael, facing the prospect of being left alone, ponders the uncertainty of their future together- as well as the inevitable demise of his AIDS-infected ex-boyfriend, Nick, with whom he still shares a deep bond. As the couple attend a dinner party with Robert’s boss and then a farewell gathering with their friends, the movie gives us a cross-sectional slice-of-gay-life view of mid-eighties New York, using the various interactions and activities of its characters to explore not only the relationships at its center, but also the concerns and issues that affect them as a community and as individuals.
One of the primary reasons for the importance of Parting Glances, of course, is the window it provides into the days when the AIDS epidemic was at its height; it was a time when being diagnosed with the disease was, in essence, a death sentence, and the gay community was being ravaged. This humble little film was one of the first to deal with this issue, and certainly the first to treat it with candor rather than with alarmist sensationalism. Though only one of the characters is afflicted by the virus, it is clear through the conversations and situations we are privy to throughout that it’s a situation that deeply affects them all; it hovers around the edges of their lives like the ominous Don Giovanni-inspired specter that appears to Nick in a few key scenes, a factor in everything they do, say, or plan. Despite its omnipresence, however, the subject of AIDS does not receive the kind of dour and mournful treatment one might expect, particularly from a film made in the midst of its darkest hold on the hearts and minds of the gay community; nor is it handled with the precious, maudlin sentimentality of so many of the movies that came after. On the contrary, though its weight and seriousness are never in question, Parting Glances takes a disarmingly light-hearted approach to the disease: Nick does not play the morose and tragic victim; his ultimate decline and fall are a given, but, for now at least, he is still relatively healthy, and his brash, vibrant personality is the heart of the movie. He faces his fate with staunch acceptance, yes, but also with a hearty helping of gallows humor and nothing-to-lose directness. The dire eventuality of his situation is implicit, and this film feels no need to hammer the audience with it; its focus, rather, is on the present moment, and the opportunity it affords for taking stock, seizing the day, and perhaps most importantly, tending the needs of the heart.
Though AIDS looms heavily over Parting Glances, it is by no means the only subject with which the film concerns itself. The central storyline, after all, deals with the relationship of Michael and Robert, and its future- or its lack of one- is not contingent on a life-threatening disease; rather, it hinges on their own respective ambivalence, their fear of commitment, and their ability to be emotionally available to each other. In short, the obstacles in their joint path, though they may be somewhat obscured or confused by the comparatively minor attendant factors of same-sex unions, are the same ones faced by any couple, gay or straight; the film does an admirable job of underlining this universality, placing the pair in juxtaposition with other couples, straight and not-so-straight, throughout its proceedings, and while it makes no judgments regarding the validity or moral superiority of any of these relationships, the dynamic between our two protagonists seems to stack up at least as favorably, more or less, as any of the others. Michael’s relationship with Nick is also a key factor here- their easy chemistry and bantering rapport contrast sharply with the often strident interactions of Michael and Robert, opening up questions about compatibility and the line between romance and friendship- particularly among same-sex partners. There are plenty of non-romantic relationships on display here, too: Michael and several other characters connect closely with Joan, the “hag” who hosts the going-away party and serves as a sort of combination best gal-pal and den mother; there’s also Robert’s boss and his wife, who bond with Robert and Michael, respectively; Robert’s former high school girlfriend, now married but still a confidante; and a number of other friends and acquaintances who interact with the couple and each other throughout the course of the film. All of these exchanges offer insight into the social tapestry of this insular community, and key us into the pulse of this specific time and place, as well as revealing the repetition of timeless patterns and themes within the sphere of human connectivity, gay, straight, or anywhere in between.
It might seem like there’s a lot going on in Parting Glances, and of course, there is; but despite its busy agenda, it never feels as if it were packed too full, nor does any of it seem forced. Thanks to Sherwood’s witty, flowing screenplay, all the major issues and themes work their way unobtrusively into the dialogue, weaving through the conversations naturalistically and convincingly instead of being introduced as didactic rhetoric; these are real people discussing their lives, not mouthpieces presenting a case, and as a result, the movie feels like a stimulating party instead of a public debate. This organic quality is enhanced all the more by Sherwood’s engaging cast, who are clearly having a wonderful time as they present us with a wide variety of familiar “types” (as opposed to stereotypes) within the gay and gay-friendly community. As Michael and Robert, respectively, are Richard Ganoung and John Bolger; both are attractive and likable, but they are not a cookie-cutter couple- each has their own distinctive persona, and they both clash with and complement each other in a highly realistic and believable manner. Kathy Kinney plays Joan, providing a grounded, female presence with a character that rises above potential cliché; she is both insightful and incorrigible, and she conveys- subtly, and without self-pity- the resignation of a life possibly lived vicariously through her friends. Also memorable is Adam Nathan, as a self-assured young “twinkie” who sets his sights on Michael; ready to claim the world from an elder generation that is not willing, quite yet, to give it up to him, he succeeds in being endearing instead of insufferable, and his scene with Nick on the stairs outside the party is a highlight of the film. The standout performance, though, comes from Buscemi, who does a remarkable job of playing Nick; the character is doomed but delightful, a combination which could easily seem glib and artificial in the hands of a lesser actor, but he pulls it off superbly, making it clear that his sardonic wit and his edgy personality are part and parcel of who he is- not an affectation in response to his status as a member of the walking dead- and that underneath them there is a large and generous heart. His desire to leave behind a legacy for his friends goes beyond the material items in his last will, semi-substantial though they may be (he is, it seems, a minor rock-and-roll star); he actively means to make a difference in their lives, and Buscemi’s work allows us to see the genuine love at the source of these efforts. Lest we think his Nick is too good to be true, though, he still manages to get across, in little ways, here and there, that he is not altogether okay with what is happening to him, despite his brave face; but this never gets in the way of the positive energy he exudes throughout. It’s a performance that should have made Buscemi a star, much sooner, and would have, no doubt- if the movie had been more widely seen.
There are numerous other enjoyable qualities here, not the least of which is the way the film captures the look and feel of mid-eighties New York; this is no surprise, of course, considering that is when and where it was filmed, but some credit is still deserved by the production designer (John Loggia), the art directors (Daniel Haughey and Mark Sweeney), and the set decorator (Anne Mitchell) for deciding what should go into the series of well-appointed homes and apartments that provide the setting, as well as to cinematographer Jacek Laskus for deciding how to film it, with special kudos to all involved for making it look so polished despite the bargain-basement budget. Also contributing to its evocation of time and place are the soundtrack choices, a combination of songs by Bronski Beat and original, very posh-sounding piano music by Mike Nolan, with some operatic selections thrown in, by way of Nick’s LP player, for good measure.
It seems somehow wrong to say that a movie made at the height of the AIDS crisis, featuring AIDS as a major subject and set among the gay community, is entertaining and fun; but that’s exactly what Parting Glances is. Though it is unquestionably dramatic in its overall scope and intention, it makes sure even the heaviest matter is carried along by an effervescent current, and precisely because it doesn’t continually remind us of how poignant and moving it should be, it ends up being extremely poignant and extremely moving- particularly, I might add, for those who have lost friends like Nick in the long battle with AIDS. As its title suggests, this is a movie about saying goodbye, not just to the dead, but to the living as well- the continuation of Michael and Robert’s relationship is by no means a sure thing at the end, after all; but bittersweet as it may be, it is also a film about moving forward. The script clips along, the actors and the camera are constantly in motion, and the entire flow carries us through to the end, leaving us with a tangible momentum. People come and go, things change, but the world keeps moving, and maybe part of what Parting Glances suggests is that our only real way of leaving something of ourselves in the mix is to make sure our lives touch those of the people who surround us. In this day and age, it’s possible to watch Parting Glances and entertain the hope that Nick will be one of those lucky survivors who managed to hang on to life until medical science caught up enough with the disease to at least stave off death, and that he, like so many millions today, could still be out there thriving as an HIV-positive man. If so, he would be luckier than the film’s creator, who passed away from the disease in 1990, without making another film and without surviving to see the way this one was embraced and revered by his own community, as well as by the larger cinematic world. His movie stays with us, however, and through it, he continues to touch lives today. So perhaps, truly, he was a very lucky man indeed.