One of the earliest mainstream films to deal with the AIDS epidemic.
What is it?
A film, directed by Norman René, released in 1990. It was one of the first major films to deal with the AIDS epidemic, which was raging at the time of the film’s release.
That’s a big topic to take on, especially when you’re right in the middle of the crisis. What angle does the film take?
It’s set in New York City, and focuses on a group of friends and lovers, following them from 1981 through 1989, as several of them cope with illness and death.
The 1980s, huh? So, I guess one can expect a lot of big hair and bad fashions.
Yes. And the men all seem kinda overweight to me. I guess guys work out a lot more strenuously nowadays. These fellas all have big fleshy legs! I don’t know if I saw a single six-pack—
Getting back on track, John … Sometimes films that take on “issues” can be formulaic or sterile.
This one actually isn’t. It’s very much an ensemble piece, with a large-enough group of characters that one gets a real sense of an entire community dealing with an epidemic over a long period of time.
So did you, as a viewer, actually care about these people, if there are so many of them? Or were they all a bit interchangeable?
No, I did care about them. They’re a very likeable bunch. Actually, that was one thing that I found a bit unrealistic: this is an uncommonly calm and well-adjusted group of gay men! None of them are struggling with their sexuality, or with homophobia, or with sex addiction. There’s not a lot of bitchiness. They’re just a nice group of gay guys. They don’t cheat on each other. They don’t even appear to have families!
Maybe that’s why they’re calm and well-adjusted—
Stop! No, but seriously, the only problem they have to deal with is AIDS. There aren’t even any of the attendant horror stories that one reads about in accounts of the early years of the epidemic: men who literally made their coming out by getting AIDS, or parents suddenly showing up at the bedside of a dying son whom they’d shunned because of his sexuality, and then sidelining the son’s loyal lover. In Longtime Companion, one sees a functioning, vibrant, healthy gay community facing a single threat. There isn’t really any sense of a larger, heterosexual, often hostile mainstream society.
But you still liked the film?
Yes. I guess there are only so many horrors you can deal with in one film. And this one is powerful in the way it captures the awfulness of the AIDS epidemic: the sometimes swift deaths, the long, lingering, unpredictable ones, the pressure on caregivers and volunteers, the existential question of why any of this is happening. It’s all extremely heartfelt and well done. The film has some of the most honest scenes of illness and death that I’ve seen in movies.
So, despite the reservation about the aseptic portrait of the gay community, would you give this one a star (using the Michelin-guide 3-star system)?:
Yes, 1 star. This is a bit of a “hidden gem,” I’d say. I’d never heard about it until I happened to come across a mention of it in an article, but it’s well worth looking for.