Jenni Olson

Vintage 1994 Reflection: Mark Finch on 'Philadelphia'

Filed By Jenni Olson | December 01, 2011 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History
Tags: HIV/AIDS history, LGBT film, LGBT history, Longtime Companion, Mark Finch, Parting Glances, Philadelphia

In honor of World AIDS Day here is Mark Finch's 1994 reflection on the original theatrical release of Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia.

Mark Finch (1961-1995) was an LGBT film critic, festival programmer, film distributor and advisor who championed LGBT film and filmmakers throughout his career including in his roles as founder philadelphia.jpgof the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, director of the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, director of Frameline Distribution and British Film Institute distribution director.

Philadelphia didn't make me cry, until the last ten minutes.

Crying at movies has a pretty bad rap. It's okay to laugh noisily or scream with fear, but if you issue a sniffle you're a pariah. Only a few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a semi-humorous item on the odd spectacle of men bawling at movies. Somehow we are meant to be ashamed of being lachrymose in the dark.

But we all need to weep, and the catastrophe of AIDS is certainly something to sob about. Since AIDS appeared, it's hard for me to see any movie about loss, or death, or suffering, or illness, and not to find metaphors for AIDS. Shadowlands, Fearless, Remains of the Day--you name it, and I've invented an allegory.

Now, with Philadelphia, here's a Hollywood movie that really is about the subject, and it doesn't let you cry.

Some people might want to be made angry by a film about AIDS, of course, and that has great validity. But if I was honest, I'd have to say I just want to wail. Philadelphia teases people like me. By omitting standard TV movie scenes, Jonathan Demme keeps you on orange alert, ready-revved for a cathartic moment to dampen your ducts.

In the last ten minutes, it comes.

More after the break.

Tom Hanks's screen family is saying goodnight to him as he lies in his hospital bed. His straight brother starts to hug him, and suddenly finds himself strangled by unexpected sobs. The brother can't speak. It's an amazing moment, spurring audiences everywhere to plangency and lament.

Tom-Hanks-Philadelphia-580x386.jpgMy other reaction was a little more academic, a snippy quibble with Philadelphia's publicity campaign which claims it as the first Hollywood movie about AIDS. While Philadelphia deserves credit for many things, its achievements need to be put in perspective.

First of all, let's deal with the hype. Philadelphia is not Hollywood's first AIDS foray. This suspicious honor belongs to a slew of mischieveous money-makers from the mid '80s onward--what I like to dub the Hollywood Subtext Set. Among these are body horror stories like The Fly, Lifeforce and Fright Night (the initial revulsion reaction), as well as fantasy melodramas like the bizarre Joel Schumacher companion pieces Flatliners and Dying Young.

The Subtext Set is quite different from the movies I find unintentionally allegorical. The Fly and Dying Young intentionally play around with the idea of AIDS, without actually naming the disease. I mean, Julia Roberts nursing cancer-stricken Campbell Scott, fresh off the set from Longtime Companion. Hello?

Pitched against the Subtext Set, Philadelphia comes off looking really good. But let us not ignore network television, which has been pumping out old-fashioned, talky tales ever since Aidan Quinn 'fessed up to puritanical pop Ben Gazzara in 1986's An Early Frost.

AIDS is TV's knee-jerk tearjerker. The epidemic narrative has been to late-'80s TV what the coming-out story line was to the early '80s, culminating in HBO's And the Band Played On. Philadelphia also needs to be measured against these goggle-box gargantuans. In all the Hanks hype, everyone seems to be forgetting that far more people spend an evening with Dan Rather than with a date at the local cineplex. Even if Philadelphia becomes 1994's Jurasssic Park, most Americans will still be more familiar with AIDS from "Oprah" and "One Life To Live."

In Europe, the AIDS-themed TV drama is a major industry; in England alone, Claire Bloom, Miranda Richardson and most recently Helen Mirren have all played the wives of HIV positive hubbies. All of these fictions are designed to make us mourn, but in offering multiple identification figures (the mother, the father, the doctor, the researcher) they rarely succeed in this ambition.

It's quite tempting to let Philadelphia's publicists get away with their giddy self-congratulation, just to see what Hollywood's next move will be. We're told that if Philadelphia does boffo box office, then watch out for more AIDS-themed films. I can't wait: Sharon Stone as a monogamous lesbian mom with tumbling T-cells, struggling to get PWA benefits? Tom Cruise as a burnt-out ACT-UPer who falls for the communications director at Burroughs-Wellcome (played by Will Smith)?

The wish to embrace Philadelphia is understandable. For most Americans, Hollywood is still the locus of all social signification. If it's not enacted by a major movie star, it doesn't exist. In the argument for equal time, Philadelphia takes us all one step further in the right direction.

But abroad, Hollywood is taken a little more irreverently. Lesbians and gay men, too, have good reason to be a little cynical. Queer filmmakers have been chronicling the epidemic since it began. From Parting Glances onward, independent gay-made movies have combined integrity with melancholy, and they've managed very well without Tom Hanks, thank you.

SMALL_Buddies.jpgOne of the best independent movies is Arthur Bressan's last film, Buddies, made in 1986, by which time 11,000 people had died from AIDS in this country. (For the record, that figure in 1994 is over 204,000.) Buddies is a love story between a dying activist and his initially naive caregiver. Bressan uses a limited budget to advantage; every prop becomes a symbol, minimalism becomes moving. The result is eau de Douglas Sirk.

Philadelphia reminded me of Buddies in its incessant close-ups; unlike Demme's signature use of this cinematic standby, Bressan and other low-budget pioneers have to use close-ups out of necessity. Philadelphia is also the first big-budget or mainstream movie to be at least half as smart as the gay ones that have preceded it.

Ultimately, I liked Demme's dry-start drama for the same reason I like Arthur Bressan's micromelodrama: when you're allowed to cry, you cry honestly.

Ten North American gay-made movies about AIDS:

Parting Glances dir. Bill Sherwood 1985
Buddies dir. Arthur Bressan 1986
Common Threads dirs. Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman 1988
Men in Love dir. Marc Huestis 1989
Together Alone dir. P.J. Castellaneta 1990
Tongues Untied dir. Marlon Riggs 1990
Longtime Companion dir. Norman Rene 1990
Voices from the Front dirs. Testing The Limits 1991
The Living End dir. Gregg Araki 1992
Zero Patience dir. John Greyson 1993

Find out more about Mark Finch at the Mark Finch Memorial Facebook page.

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