Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993)

According to the Centers for Disease Control statistics, 1993 marked the high point of number of AIDS cases in the United States (80,010). It is hardly surprising, thinking back on the impact AIDS was having on U.S. culture and the controversies surrounding the epidemic, that 1993 was also something of a banner year for AIDS-related film. Philadelphia and And the Band Played On were among the films released.

By far, the best of the lot was Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman’s Silverlake Life: The View from Here, recently released on DVD by Docurama. Justly praised upon its release, the film garnered a number of festival awards, including Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize. Unlike the two melodramatic and revisionist films mentioned above, Silverlake Life is brutal in its straightforward representation of AIDS as intensely personal and always political.

Shortly after he and his lover Mark Massi were diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, filmmaker Tom Joslin began a film and video diary of their experiences, including their inevitable (at the time) decline from the disease. After Joslin’s death, longtime friend and former film student Peter Friedman was bequeathed the task of completing Tom’s project. Friedman edited down hundreds of hours of footage into a tight, pointed, and immensely affecting 100-minute documentary.

Silverlake Life details the quotidian difficulties of living with a disease that wastes you away from within. We are privy to how even the most mundane tasks are made nearly insurmountable by the ravages and exhaustion brought on by AIDS. At one point, Tom films himself resting in the back of the couple’s car while Mark runs their errands. He’s mightily pissed off at Mark, who’s been promising to take him home, but keeps making just one more stop. While Tom is obviously agitated, it’s also clear that he’s primarily frustrated by his increasing physical limitations and the ever-present specter of his own death, and that he’s displacing these fears into anger at Mark.

But Silverlake Life isn’t an angry film. It’s actually a traditional romance, though a tragic one. Throughout, we get a sense of the pair’s deep love (in one scene, before turning off the lights for the night, Joslin films the couple’s goodnight ritual, as Mark gently covers Tom’s face with kisses, saving his lips for last; Tom smiles, looks directly into the camera and says, “I bet you don’t get goodnight kisses like that”) and their 22-year history together. This is suggested in excerpts from Joslin’s 1977 PBS documentary Black Star: Autobiography of a Close Friend, chronicling Tom’s coming out to his family, their meeting Mark for the first time, and their perceptions of the men’s relationship.

At the same time, Silverlake Life isn’t overly sentimental. What we can never forget is they are both dying. We watch Tom at the doctor’s office, getting CAT scans, listing off his herbal and pharmaceutical drug regime, and we see their bodies always in decline. Joslin and Friedman never shy away from showing the physical toll of AIDS. And in this, the film launches its most direct social and political challenge.

In a culture where sexuality and pleasure are strictly regulated, and where AIDS is overcoded with morality and metaphor, confronting a complacent public with the physical reality of AIDS is a political act. Tom Joslin and Mark Massi knew this. At one point, at a resort in Palm Springs, we watch the couple swimming. The owner of the resort asks Mark if he will keep his shirt on, as the Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions that cover his torso, front and back, are disturbing the other guests. For a few more minutes, Mark sits on a ledge by the pool, and flexes his back into the sun, further highlighting the lesions. Tom asks what he is doing, and Mark replies, “I’m being political.”

The continuing political significance of Silverlake Life is brought into clearer focus in the new “Epilogue” by Friedman and Elaine Mayes included on the Docurama DVD. Another friend of Joslin and Massi, Mayes recorded footage of Mark’s decline after Tom’s death, which is where the original version ends. It’s fitting that Mark’s own life, death, and the loss of his lover are here given the sort of attention afforded Tom’s experiences.

The “Epilogue” also, importantly, reminds us that the AIDS epidemic is far from over. It’s a much needed wake-up call for the U.S., where many can afford the pricey drugs necessary to slow the disease, and who like to think that AIDS mostly happens somewhere else, like Africa or Southeast Asia. Addressing an imagined “Why the ‘Epilogue'” question, Friedman and Mayes assert that AIDS still affects their own and their friends’ lives. AIDS remains a global epidemic that is complicated by intellectual property laws and transnational pharmaceutical company money-grubbing.

On 28 July of this year, the Centers for Disease Control released new data that show a 2.2 percent increase in AIDS cases in the United States in 2002. While this translates to only a little over 1,000 new cases, the social and political significance is huge. It’s the first time since 1993 that AIDS cases have seen a significant increase, and suggests that many of our attempts to “manage” the disease (through safer-sex education, for example) may be failing. In the context of this resurgence, Silverlake Life: The View from Here takes on added importance, as the film reminds us not only of the disease’s personal effects, but also, the many other, ongoing costs of AIDS in America and around the world.