We first saw Zero Patience when it came out; I guess that means in 1994? I’d had generalized fond memories of it since then: what’s not to like about a musical about AIDS where the main characters are Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor: he drank from the fountain of youth and is working as a taxidermist in a Toronto museum) and Patient Zero? Though that sentence is more insensitive than I’d like—I’ve been fortunate to not have had any close friends die of AIDS, others may have quite a bit not to like about the situation—but still. I’ve listened to the soundtrack over and over since then, enough to remind myself of the movie’s basic plot and of the fact that Pop-A-Boner is a wonderful song, but I hadn’t actually seen the movie in the intervening 17 years.
Which omission we remedied last month. And: a wonderful movie, as it turns out. (With a lot of very attractive men in it, no surprise there.) And one that is moving in ways I hadn’t expected: I’d forgotten the details of the subplot involving George going blind (and I have a different context for that subplot than I did back in 1994), and Richard Burton’s transition over the course of the movie touched me much more than I’d thought it would.
But, for me, it still comes back to the songs. So:
First and foremost: Pop-A-Boner. I am a sucker for that sort of close harmony, and the lyrics are charming and witty; seeing it doesn’t add too much to listening to it, but the participants are certainly easy on the eyes. I don’t have a lot to say about this song, but it has been and will remain the main reason why I listen to the album as frequently as I do.
The second song that had stuck with me is the Butthole Duet. I can’t find a video of it to embed here, which is very sad: if there’s one thing better than a musical starring Patient Zero and Richard Burton, it’s a song in a musical that’s sung by the assholes of Patient Zero and Richard Burton!
I’d mostly liked the song in the past because I thought that idea was very amusing; musically, it’s fine, but nothing special. (Though the harmonizing in the bit about assholes, phalluses, and patriarchy crumbling is nice.) In the context of the movie, though, it’s quite a bit more poignant than on the CD.
Just listening to the song, you learn that Richard Burton isn’t into anal sex (at least receptive): he wants to be open-minded, but dislikes the idea at a fairly fundamental level, and puts an overly intellectual spin on the situation. Patient Zero, of course, approaches the topic with more enthusiasm and in a much more straightforward manner.
Which is all well and good, but the movie’s framing adds quite a bit to that interpretation. To begin with, before the song starts, Richard Burton shows up in bed covered head to toe in plastic. Which is great for a laugh, but it adds more depth to the scene in a couple of different ways. For one thing, he’s not rejecting the idea of anal sex out of hand: he’s presenting himself as willing to give it a go, he just wants to make sure he’s protected. (And, of course, looking ridiculous and de-eroticizing the situation in the process.) Which leads to the other thing, that there are (at least) two reasons why he’s reluctant: the scene opens up with him not wanting to die from having sex, and it’s really only as we get to the song that he starts to be more honest about his feelings, that he might have other reasons for his misgivings. And even the nature of those misgivings needs exploration: as he sings, “my taboos run very deep”: how much of his misgivings are culturally conditioned taboos versus personal preferences that are inherent in his nature?
So we start from Richard Burton presenting himself as wanting to give it a go but not wanting to die as a result; that facade starts to crumble almost immediately, but picking out what’s really going on in his feelings is hard, he has mental defenses that mean that it’s probably not even particularly clear to himself what’s going on. And, as somebody who overintellectualizes a lot of situations and who started first having sex at a time when AIDS was relatively new and was a death sentence, I can very much sympathize with this: it’s one of the tragedies of AIDS (albeit a small tragedy in the grand scale of that disease) that its presence makes navigating your sexual feelings, your sexual awakening that much harder. The emotional waves that sex is tied up with are bad enough when you’re not used to dealing with them (and if you’re pretty uptight to begin with), and of course non-AIDS diseases are problematic enough, and (switching over to straight sex) pregnancy is staggeringly important; antibiotics and contraception made those manageable, but then AIDS came along.
But even that isn’t the end of the story: just listening to the song misses the framing that the movie provides at the end as well as the beginning. Because Richard Burton really is starting to fall in love with Patient Zero; I’m not sure exactly what the two of them would work out physically, but my guess is that they’d find something that worked for them. Getting Richard Burton’s feelings about sex out on the table is important, but that doesn’t mean that he has to be ruled by his initial fears: talk things out, try things out, and something good will come of it. Again, though: AIDS makes this a lot harder. (Setting aside, of course, the fact that Patient Zero is a ghost who will disappear again soon!)
The last song I want to talk about is the one that plays during the opening, Just Like Sheherazade. Again, pleasant enough to listen to, and I actually didn’t think about it too much while I was watching the movie, either.
In the weeks since then, though, my brain has been coming back to it more and more. Because that song is all about telling stories, and that’s what my brain has been obsessed with over the last year. It first hit me when I was trying to figure out what was going on with my job search; since then, though, I’ve watched my feelings shift in different directions in response to the different stories I’m telling myself, I’ve seen mysterious behaviors on my friends’ parts come into focus once I learn what stories they’re telling themselves, I’ve seen the problems (and the potentially productive clashes!) that arise when different participants in an interaction are telling different stories about a given situation. So yeah, Sheherazade: tell a story.
And, of course, that’s a very powerful theme for a movie about AIDS. Because if you try to pretend that AIDS is simply a disease, that we can understand what’s going on by looking at it through a scientific lens (indeed, if you believe that the notion of a scientific lens is unproblematic in that context), you will be acting willfully blind. (In which light, I suppose it’s no coincidence that the movie has a subplot about going blind.) Because wherever sex and gay people show up, the country’s (I say writing as an American, though of course it’s a Canadian movie) puritanical streak will raise its head; and also wherever sex shows up, desire will start to swamp reason; and AIDS is not just any disease, if we don’t figure out how to cure it or at least control it (which we very much hadn’t back in 1994), lots of people will die, your friends will die, maybe you will die. It’s impossible to think about AIDS without multiple stories playing out in your heads; and you’d be sticking your head in the sand to think that you can do science without being affected by these stories, that (for example) the people participating (or wanting to participate!) in your experimental drug trials don’t have stories that are powerful, that are worthy of respect and admiration, to forget that they’re entrusting their lives and the lives of their friends and lovers to the success of your research.
Which means that, indeed, they may have zero patience for stumbles, for missteps, for prejudice, for greed. But wishful thinking isn’t enough: whether that lack of patience will transform into progress is not so clear. And it’s a mercy to occasionally relieve that lack of patience with a return to the pleasures of bathhouses, bodies, and three-part harmonies.
This post has not been revised since publication.