Silverlake Life: The View From Here–Bold AIDS Documentary

Sundance Film Festival 1993–Silverlake Life, the new documentary about AIDS, is one of a kind: a harrowing account of the devastating disease, recorded by two gay lovers from the time they were diagnosed up to their deaths.

The unflinching omnipresence of the camera and the probing honesty with which the couple talks about what it’s really like to live with AIDS make Silverlake a unique, first-hand journal.

Yet the work’s very qualities, a painfully serious subject matter and an uncompromising, matter-of fact approach, make it hard to watch, which unfortunately might confine docu to the fest circuit, public and cable TV.

The history of this unique documentary parallels the history of the disease as it afflicted Tom Joslin and his longtime companion Mark Massi, who function as both subjects and objects of their story. When Joslin, a former USC film professor and director, was diagnosed with AIDS, he decided to shoot a video diary, using a small Super-VHS camcorder. After Joslin’s death, the docu was completed by Peter Friedman, his former student and friend. Friedman and his associates have used state-of-the-art digital technology to transfer the video into a visually satisfying film.

It’s hard to think of another docu that conveys so vividly and authentically the magnitude and day-to-day suffering of life with AIDS. Using the format of a journal, Silverlake chronicles the gradual deterioration and debilitation caused by the lethal disease–the inclusion of dates and times accurately benchmark the effects of the virus.

Docu begins with Joslin’s loading of a cassette into a VCR, and talking directly to the camera about his love for Massi. It is followed with a recording of Joslin’s own treatment for KS lesions at the hospital.

The diary imparts graphically the chronic exhaustion of both body and mind, the routine hospital check-ups, the taking of drugs and their side effects, the preparation of prescribed food, the inability to sleep. It also renders the emotional and psychic impact of AIDS: isolation from society, anxiety about family and friends’ reaction, loss of memory, and depression. “What a way to live,” Joslin says, “What a way to die.”

In a rare whimsical moment, Joslin describes himself as a “Doomsday Aidser,” intentionally avoiding his medication. But his lover Massi fears that Joslin’s refusal to fight the illness will “leave me alone with AIDS to die by myself.” At times, Joslin seems more concerned about making his film than his own survival.

Most of docu is set inside the couple’s Silverlake house, where a good deal of time is spent in bed. There are few excursions, such as a Christmas visit to Joslin’s family in New Hampshire, an honest sequence that captures the need for parental support and the anxiety involved in getting it.

Silverlake also poignantly integrates footage from Joslin’s earlier docu, Blackstar, about his life as an openly gay man, which caused “a little consternation” among his family when broadcast on PBS.

One of docu’s most mortifying scenes shows in close-up the on-camera death of Joslin and its aftermath: closing his eyes, putting the 60 pound body in a plastic bag. This harrowing scene is counterbalanced with a touching and ironic tale of how Massi was finally embraced as a legitimate member of Joslin’s family–after his lover’s death.

Though the filmmakers are always aware of the camera, there is nothing hopeful or life-affirming about this journal–the couple makes no attempt to portray their battle as heroic. Indeed, Silverlake differs radically from other AIDS docus, such as Voices from the Front, about gay activism, or the Oscar-winning Uncommon Threads, about the fight against the lethal disease.

Some viewers may fault docu for not dealing with the broader socio-political contexts: lack of government support, indifferent and discriminating society, rigid medical establishment. But this is entirely consistent with the filmmakers’ goal to produce an in-depth, sharply focused account.

If there are any messages to be drawn from Silverlake, they have less to do with personal courage than with the nature of this gay relationship. What sustains Joslin and Massi during the most horrifying moments is their true love, passion, and commitment. It is therefore ironic that in his death certificate, Joslin’s status is recorded as not married, even though his 22-year bond qualifies as marriage in every sense, outlasting in durability the average straight marriage in the U.S.

(Docu Black&White/Color)

A Silverlake production in association with Channel Four Television and J.P. Weiner, Inc.
Produced and directed by Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman.
Co-producers, Doug Block, Jane Weiner.
Camera, Joslin, Mark Massi, Elaine Mayes, Friedman; editor, Friedman; music, Lucia Hwong (additional music, Fred Gilde).

Running time: 99 minutes.