Peter Friedman’s first film, 1985’s Wizard of the Strings, garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Short. He followed this auspicious beginning with a number of accomplished documentary films on a variety of subjects. But he is perhaps most famous for his collaboration with fellow documentarian Tom Joslin on Silverlake Life: The View from Here.
For many, Silverlake Life is the superlative film about AIDS, considering the personal and political implications of the epidemic. The 10th anniversary DVD release of Silverlake Life by Docurama gave us the opportunity to talk about the ongoing AIDS epidemic, the politics and philosophy of science, and film’s role in advancing social change.
PopMatters: The promotional blurb for Strange Attractions [Friedman’s production company] says it produces “portraits of extraordinary people, gay and AIDS related issues, contemporary biology, and subjective essays on matters such as humanity’s relationship to nature, to mortality and to existential questions.” How have you made these connections cohere in your films?
Peter Friedman: I am not sure all of these do cohere; these are the subjects that interest me. I am more interested in nature than in science, a distinction that eludes many people, including scientists. Nature is just what exists. Science is the human activity of analyzing and understanding nature, and also attempting to predict and control it. Science does offer a powerful set of insights into how nature behaves, and so some knowledge of science can be enormously useful to someone who wishes to contemplate nature seriously. The value of this aspect of science is usually overlooked in favor of more urgent matters, such as curing disease or advancing technology. But contemplation is generally undervalued anyway, in my opinion.
PM: There are difficult implications in your film Death by Design‘s investigation of cellular suicide and biological mortality in relation to “gay and AIDS related issues. “In his Nature review, Peter Tallack states: “To be sure, cells in an organism are clones of one another, and so many commit suicide in the genetic interests of the group as a whole. But it is doubtful whether people in a city kill themselves to promote the interests of a societal surperorganism. And, as is pointed out, a cell can really be said to commit suicide only in the sense that it participates in its own death; it doesn’t actually decide to die.” In some ways, the film seems to dovetail with ongoing homophobic discourses about AIDS; that the epidemic is both natural selection and scientific proof of divine sanction, that gay men in particular have participated in their own deaths in a history of irresponsible sexual promiscuity that has “caused” the epidemic, etc. What counter-argument would you offer about the connection of Death by Design to AIDS and gay related issues?
PF: I see no way to guard against misappropriation of data, insight, revelation, or any other information. I just keep trying to do my best to produce work of some depth and value, which assumes the audience to be intelligent. How can you prevent someone from twisting your words? The bigger risk is to allow this possibility to intimidate one into self-censorship.
Homophobic discourses on AIDS can cite “evidence” wherever the perpetrators want to find it. That doesn’t mean their evidence is based on anything other than feeble-minded, knee-jerk ideology, or that it even qualifies as evidence in any genuine sense. Death by Design is a film about nature. In nature, cells do in fact commit suicide in the interests of the group as a whole, the group being what we call an organism (a plant or animal). But my film never suggests, nor do I believe, that there is any reason to regard the behavior of cells in an organism as a model for human society. Evolution invented complex organisms, and at least one of them, humans, developed social systems that value individuals. Indeed, it is because cells are clones and therefore lack meaningful individuality, that they were able, collectively, to create something greater than themselves: individuals that matter. The idea that individuals should then turn back to cells for moral guidance is absurd. The impulse to do so reflects an inability to look at nature as nature, rather than as God. This in turn reflects a powerful and widespread denial of our own nature as animals, and as mortal.
I could go on, but I’ll leave it at this: I flatly assert that absolutely nowhere in Death by Design, or in nature, is there any “evidence” whatsoever which supports any homophobic discourse about AIDS. The real connection of Death by Design to gay and AIDS-related issues is threefold:
1. Silverlake Life is, in part, about what happens when one’s body falls apart. Death by Design is about what happens when it doesn’t. Both films are about the roles death plays in life. AIDS is touched a little on in Death by Design, and there is a gay subtext but it’s very subtle.
2. Cell death as portrayed in Death by Design probably plays a role in the biology of AIDS. Too many immune cells die when they shouldn’t, possibly by a cellular suicide mechanism. Infected cells don’t die when they should, possibly by circumventing this mechanism.
3. This one is purely personal: My lover Jean-Francois is a biologist. Silverlake Life took me away from home so much that our relationship was endangered. Afterward, Jean-Francois took a sabbatical and we collaborated on a film about biology, in part to save our relationship. We are still together, after 15 years.
PM: In Silverlake Life, there are two scenes that set the tone for me. The first is of a very agitated Tom recording himself in the car as Mark makes stop after stop to run errands, which ends with Tom stating how he hates “being a nice guy.” Then, after the couple takes a trip to the record store, we find Mark back at home dancing by himself to the new music he’s bought. Mark refuses to do anything differently for Tom because he is filming; he acknowledges Tom and the camera, but just dances away, not mugging or trying to make room for it in his movement. Can you talk about your decision to include these scenes?
PF: My interpretations of what Tom specifically wanted played very little role in shaping the film. I just couldn’t get through it that way (I tried). I was true to his spirit, his relentless openness, and his politics, which I shared and which I pretty much inherited from him anyway. But ultimately, I just had to make the best film I could, and I was well equipped: I knew something about AIDS, about gay relationships, about the injustice gay people face, about anger, and thanks largely to Tom, about art and about filmmaking.
To take the scenes you mentioned: Tom was genuinely furious at his inability to function normally. But he was also an artist making a film, so he did several takes of that scene! I considered showing that, but I decided it confused and weakened the main point about his fury, which was more important. Tom, I suspect, would have included more than one take in the film, had he lived to edit it. Mark’s dance, for me, was perhaps the most important scene in the whole movie, because as I see it, he wasn’t only dancing, he was defying death.
PM: The DVD’s new “Epilogue” includes footage of discussions immediately after Mark’s death, about your role in finishing the project. Why was this important for you to include now? Did you have questions at the time of the original about your authorship and authority?
PF: I personally had no anxiety about the original release, or about authorship or authority, because I knew everything that had happened. However there were occasional questions raised about my claim to be “co-director” of a film I didn’t originate or shoot much of. A director is someone who says “yes” or “no” and who bears final responsibility for these decisions. I did shoot a small part of the film, but even if I hadn’t, I sat in the editing room and said “yes” or “no” (to myself, mostly) dozens of times a day for 15 months. I made hundreds, maybe thousands of directorial decisions. Tom’s absence meant I was, by definition, co-directing. Anyone who has spent months or years turning dozens of hours of unscripted footage into a finished film knows how much directing happens in the editing room. Mainly the decision was based on my judgment that the story of how the film got made was appropriate to append to the story of the film, since the film was about its maker’s death.
PM: The other question the “Epilogue” answers is “What happened to Mark?” It recontextualizes the film’s politics, especially in light of your and Elaine’s comments on the continuing tragedies of the epidemic worldwide. The original release seemed less politically engaged, except for the swimming pool scene, where Mark declares he is “being political” by showing off his KS. What is your sense of the film’s political engagement in 1993 and today?
PF: I disagree that the original release was less “politically engaged.” The scene you referred to where Mark shows off his KS, is the only scene where he (or the film) explicitly claims to be “political,” and Mark says it jokingly. Everything about that film was political, it just wasn’t explicitly claiming to be so. For example, I put a shot of Tom’s death certificate in the film. It is an extreme close-up which pans down the page. On the soundtrack I put my question to Mark “How long were you two together?” and his answer “22 years” as the camera stops on the death certificate words, “Marital Status: Never Married.” I consider that political, even if it doesn’t announce itself as such.
PM: Recently, the CDC released a report that 2002 saw the first significant increase in AIDS cases in the U.S. since 1993. What might account for this spike in AIDS cases, 10 years after the height of AIDS in America?
PF: AIDS is complicated, biology is complicated, medicine is complicated, statistics are complicated, so I can only say: The strength to be rigorous about safe sex practices fluctuates in individuals and in society, and what is safe is itself a gray area. I don’t know anyone who has really mastered that once and for all. But mostly, I think the reason for the increase in infections is that denial is one of the most powerful forces shaping human behavior, and it comes in waves. AIDS is an abstraction for a lot of younger people. One thing we learned in the ‘80s is how easy it is to imagine it can’t happen to you. And then it does.
PM: Given these trends, do you think that Silverlake Life has renewed urgency for American culture?
PF: Of course, I am happy about the DVD release because, as an artist, I want my work to survive this technological transition. But yes, I do think that Silverlake Life still has something to contribute to the culture. Even though, fortunately, we see far fewer gay people in American today dying in the horrible ways Tom and Mark died, AIDS has not gone away, nor has homophobia, nor has the fact of death and the necessity to face it, nor has the power of love.
PM: In an interview in the Village Voice around the time of the release of Silverlake Life, you said, “Social change can come from individual acts.” How do you see your work as a filmmaker promoting social change?
PF: If I didn’t believe films had the power to promote social change, I wouldn’t make them. Activists said, “Silence = death.” Films are a way to break the silence. Films propagate ideas, and set examples. Isn’t that where social change comes from, at least in part? Most of the characters in my films are role models—people who have confronted a thicket of hard questions and found or made a path through it, which others can then follow or be inspired by.
I respect real activists enormously. I also detest posturing by people who position themselves as “political.” I have met very few people who really live their politics, though I have met some so I know it can be done. It’s much easier to criticize the world than to critically examine your own life and adjust your choices to reflect your principles and your principles to reflect your capabilities (and why expect others to do what you can’t?). This is what I try to focus on, in addition to trying to keep my artistic and ethical integrity while making a living in the film and television industry.