“Buddies” Is the Gay Classic You’ve Never Seen

One of the most exciting LGBTQ releases of 2018 is actually a film from 1985.

Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.’s final film, Buddies (the first feature film about AIDS) has been freshly restored by the prestigious Blu-ray label, Vinegar Syndrome, and will have a limited theatrical and film festival release (including a world premiere at San Francisco’s LGBT film festival and a week-long run at the Quad Cinema in New York City starting Friday June 22) before hitting Blu-ray on July 31.

The Context: The Sad But True Reality of Digital Delivery

I’m proud to have played a small part in bringing this film back to audiences once again. It’s a very long story, but I’ll share with you the shorter version and a bit of context.

One of the lesser-known facts of our current digital delivery movie landscape is that so many films have not made the leap to digital and have essentially been left behind. Most movie fans are surprised to learn that some of the most important LGBTQ films of the 1980s and ’90s remain unavailable on digital platforms. One of the most surprising of these is one of my favorite lesbian films of all time: The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (I actually went ahead and bought the DVD a few weeks ago to be able to show it to my teenage daughters).

“But how can this be?” you may well ask. Larger services like Netflix and iTunes recognized long ago that the majority of their revenue will always come from the most popular major studio releases. Smaller services like Fandor, Film Struck, and WolfeOnDemand remain valiantly dedicated to filling the gap, but with the baseline cost of an HD digital film scan clocking in at a $5–10,000 minimum price tag, the makers of these older independent films more often than not find themselves unable to deliver the required format to these platforms that would make their films available again.

There have been many individual success stories over the years with important restoration and re-release work being done by individual filmmakers (especially with the help of crowdfunding campaigns to underwrite the costs). Independent distributors have also stepped up to make older films available—companies like Strand Releasing, Milestone Films, and Wolfe Video. With important work also being done by nonprofit initiatives like IndieCollect and the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation (note: I’m a founding member of the Legacy Project advisory board).

Image courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome/Roe Bressan/Frameline Distribution

The Latest Success Story: Buddies Makes the Digital Leap at Last

One of the most interesting mysteries with regard to Arthur Bressan’s Buddies is the question of why it essentially disappeared these past 30-plus years while Bill Sherwood’s 1987 film Parting Glances, on the other hand, has remained the preeminent beloved mid ’80s AIDS narrative.

There are three primary explanations for this.

First and foremost, Parting Glances was blessed with the gift of a small independent distributor that understood and cared about the film and its audience. First Run Features carefully and thoughtfully has kept the film available over the years—investing in new releases on VHS and DVD (though notably at this point the film is not available on digital platforms beyond the educational streaming service, Kanopy).

Originally released by New Line Cinema, Buddies came out on VHS back in the day but quickly fell off the radar as New Line went from being a very small specialty distributor in the mid ’80s to a major player in the ‘90s. Other than a brief appearance on “Netflix Instant” back in 2010 the film has been completely unavailable.

It’s only now through the extraordinary efforts of Vinegar Syndrome and Frameline Distribution, and the dedication of Bressan’s sister Roe Bressan, that Buddies is finally being restored and re-released.

The second significant factor here is that Parting Glances was also blessed with a rising star. Actor Steve Buscemi would gradually go on to indie film stardom, while Buddies lead actor Geoff Edholm tragically died of AIDS just a few years after the film was released; and his Buddies co-star, David Schachter never made another film.

The third sad but true explanation, one has to confess, is that until recently the tale that Buddies depicts hit just a little too close to home. By and large, audiences were not clamoring to spend 90 minutes in a hospital room bearing helpless witness to a once vibrant gay man now dying of AIDS.

A few years back we finally began to see a collective cultural readiness to revisit this era—with audiences seeking out the amazing trio of AIDS activist documentaries: How To Survive a Plague, We Were Here and United in Anger. Not to mention recent narrative features like HBO’s The Normal Heart and last year’s BPM.

Image courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome/Roe Bressan/Frameline Distribution

The Film Itself: Buddies as Gay Time Capsule

Thankfully, after its 30-year absence, Buddies is finally taking its rightful place in the spotlight. As not only the first narrative feature about AIDS, but also unquestionably one of the best. It is also an incredible, almost documentary-like, time capsule: A vital, vibrant message from the gays of 1985 to the gays of 2018.

Robert (Geoff Edholm) is a California gay activist who has been diagnosed with AIDS and abandoned by his friends and family. David (David Schachter) is his assigned “buddy” from the gay community center. As the film unfolds within the confines of Robert’s New York City hospital room, Bressan’s cinematically economical approach showcases simple dramatic dialogue encounters with his two lead actors to give a sense of immediacy, directness and passion. Though only a few years older than David, Robert’s activist wisdom sets him apart as a special gay archetype—he is a hero for the ages whose spirit will inspire the initially apolitical David and, ultimately, will inspire us as viewers as well.

As a writer-director, Arthur Bressan was considerably influenced by classic Hollywood filmmaker Frank Capra (he even interviewed Capra for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine back in the early 1970s). At its heart Buddies clearly reflects the earnest individualistic optimism of such Capra classics as Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And like the best of Capra, Buddies manages to capture the emotional and political resonance of an entire era while vividly conveying an ethos of personal political engagement that touches the heart. Capra’s wholesome all-American values included a deep affection for individual activism and protests. Bressan’s updated-for-the-’80s pre-ACT UP All-American values vividly display the Capra influence—which is nowhere more evident than in the film’s final scene.

I urge you to seek out Buddies at one of the film’s many upcoming screenings. Look for it in June at Frameline in San Francisco and at the Quad Cinema in New York City and also on Blu-ray July 31, 2018. Plus keep an eye out for it at LGBTQ film festivals and other venues across the country in the coming months. It will eventually be available on digital platforms but probably not until 2019 so go ahead and buy the Blu-ray now if you can’t endure the wait.

Image courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome/Roe Bressan/Frameline Distribution.

Jenni Olson is a is one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a co-founder of PlanetOut.com. Her latest film project is "The Royal Road."
@JenniOlsonSF