A Searing, First-Person Look at the AIDS Crisis Told Through the Eyes of a Couple

A Searing, First-Person Look at the AIDS Crisis Told Through the Eyes of a Couple
From Silverlake Life: The View from Here (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Silverlake Life: The View from Here debuted in 1993 — a time when demonizing queerness was a bipartisan hobby, and the AIDS crisis was mainly discussed through statistics. The film, co-directed by Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman, is Joslin’s video diary, shot as he and his partner Mark Massi were dying of AIDS. The documentary won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, and the public television series POV broadcast it later that year, for which it won a Peabody Award. After that, the film largely faded out of public memory. (Currently, it is not legally available to stream, although .) But it remains a crucial record of daily life in the depths of the AIDS crisis.

Most of Silverlake Life was shot after Joslin and Massi’s diagnoses, and Joslin documents with an obsession. He takes his camera to endless doctor visits, as they count lesions and smirk through New Age exorcisms. But he also films Massi doing laundry, in the pool, dancing in the living room. It’s a diary of the day-to-day struggles of posthumous life. Early on, they have a session with a couple’s counselor, which Joslin also records. Massi confesses that he can feel exhausted by Joslin, and he’s particularly worried that he keeps skipping his meds; sometimes he seems to be focused on filming above all else. And indeed, occasionally the viewer can’t help but feel frustrated on Massi’s behalf. But that’s their business.

From Silverlake Life: The View from Here (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Devastatingly soon, Joslin is in hospice. So Massi takes over most of the filming, capturing a stream of friends and family as they come to say their goodbyes. When Joslin dies, just moments later, Massi picks up the camera and points it at his body, recording even as he can’t stop wailing. He keeps it going as the coroner comes and gives him a death certificate, as workers squeeze Joslin into a bag and take him away. This moment stuck with me for days after I first saw Silverlake Life. It seemed crazy. Massi is no filmmaker. This is not his movie. What could drive him to pick up the camera when it must be the most painful thing in the world? This is filmmaking as a desperate, senseless act of love.

To call these scenes “beautiful” almost seems inappropriate, given their content, but it’s hard to deny. And that beauty is inextricable from their intimacy, and from the specific circumstances of who was behind the camera. How would Joslin’s death play out if it had been filmed more traditionally? What if a professional crew was embedded with the couple, American Family-style, as part of an outsider’s well-intentioned attempt to document the AIDS crisis? That might make such a scene feel exploitative. Or what if the situation was simply reversed, and Massi died before Joslin? If Joslin were shooting such a moment as a continuation of his project, it would likely seem a little perverse. He couldn’t stop worrying about his movie for even one second? With Massi in control, we are free from such concerns.

From Silverlake Life: The View from Here (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

But there is another reason it matters that Massi is the one filming. Making a documentary is more than a record; it is also a request. Each shot is the filmmaker telling us what they think deserves a response. What does Silverlake Life ask of us, then? Films that depict suffering generally ask for our sympathy. Shots of violence in Aleppo or overdoses in North Philly are meant to bring in an audience that may feel far removed from such things. It can be wrenching, but by now such images are also familiar, and our response is often relatively straightforward. When we watch Massi grieve, however, that question becomes much harder to answer.

In 1972, John Berger about war photography, trying to understand the effects of the graphic depictions of violence which filled the news. “They bring us up short,” he wrote. “We try to emerge from the moment of the photograph back into our lives,” and “as we do so, the contrast is such that the resumption of our lives appears to be a hopelessly inadequate response to what we have just seen.” He thought this depoliticized the violence, rendering the images inert because they flatten the experiences they depict, that they are “utterly discontinuous with normal time.” The events seen in the photos are not comprehensible to the people experiencing them either, but unlike the viewer, they feel that incomprehension. So looking at this pain, the viewer does not understand it, instead feeling shocked but disconnected.

If Joslin were recording Massi’s death, this would be what we experience: the perverse dissonance between the worst moment of Joslin’s life and his attempt to make a movie about it. But Massi is not searching for moments of pain to ask the viewer to reckon with them. In an act of love, he is simply recording. And so the distance between Massi and the audience collapses. In this way, Silverlake Life is singular. It captures the emotional and mental discontinuity of loss — moments of inarticulate feelings or even craziness — like few other films.

From Silverlake Life: The View from Here (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Right after Joslin’s body is taken away, the film cuts to Massi discussing a self-help guide he got from his counselor. He says sarcastically that he is in the “anger” stage of grief. Flipping through the book, he mocks its cheesy poems and bland pronouncements, occasionally stopping to reflect on what he’s going through. Toward the end of the scene, he looks into the camera and says: “This is day two after Tom died.” This surprised me when I first saw the film, as I assumed much more time had elapsed. Why was he still subjecting himself to the camera? In the next scene, Massi makes a mess when he unboxes his partner’s ashes. “Tom, you’re all over the place!” he exclaims. Many documentaries run aground trying to navigate the space between normality and tragedy. Not this one.

And what does that mean politically? Considering war photography, Berger decided, “It is not possible for anyone to look pensively at such a moment and to emerge stronger.” But how does one emerge from Silverlake Life’s portrait of loss? Well, slowly. When I saw it in a theater for the first time a couple of years ago, I stayed in my seat afterwards, sitting quietly for a few minutes even after the credits ended. When I finally stood up and turned around to exit, I found that the theater was still full.

is available on DVD.