When I mentioned I was reviewing Zero Patience to a friend she said “Ah, the singing buttholes film”, which is what it’s best known for. But despite that scene being very funny and understandably memorable, and which I’ll discuss in a bit more depth below, that’s an awful lot more to Zero Patience, a 1993 film from John Greyson which explores how just one individual was initially blamed for the AIDS outbreak, how ridiculous a concept that was, and also how people react and respond to dealing with people with the disease.
Unconventional from the beginning, the film sees Richard Francis Burton (John Robinson) working for a museum, and devising a new exhibition about AIDS. Burton was a very famous Victorian sexologist who died in 1890 but in the film’s reality he found the fountain of youth and will live forever, it’s an unusual idea but it lets Grayson establish the fact that this is a movie that will play with story telling conventions (which he doubles down on when a paper air-plane flies on screen and gives Burton the idea for his new exhibition), and allows him to make the unusual strangely usual too, as we see when Patient Zero (Normand Fauteux) is suddenly back in ghost form but only Burton can see him.
Initially Burton considers Zero (as he’s named in the film) to be a serial killer, someone who deliberately infected others in a carefree manner, but slowly the two men build up a relationship, and end up falling in love. While this is going on a group of activists, some of who are HIV positive, are initially helping Burton with the exhibition, but when they see the direction it’s taking they begin to plan a way to change everything he’s doing, something Burton slowly becomes on board with as his feelings towards Zero change.
Taking on such issues could have resulted in a very dark and complex film, or an overly melodramatic one as many movies which tackled AIDS were in the nineties, but Greyson takes the opposite direction by making it a bright, surreal and very funny movie which also happens to be affecting too. AIDS of course has devastated many lives and the film does address this as we see the slow decline of a sufferer from the condition, but it also celebrates the lives of people who just happen to have contracted the illness and it’s all the better for it as it tells the stories of people who were often shunned by the media.
The songs are all pretty much fantastic, upbeat numbers that sound a bit like indie pop at times (with one bearing a distinct resemblance to late 80’s R.E.M.), and their catchy and infectious nature (no pun intended) let Greyson explore various ideas and concepts in an amusing manner, making it all the more palatable to anyone who back when the film was released may have been offended by such frank discussion of sex and sexuality. Which seems strange to write in 2019, but back in the early 90’s many were completely freaked out by the disease and any mention of it somewhat sadly, which is why the aforementioned singing bottoms song is such a fantastic one, as two anus’s flirt and discuss the nature of gay sex in an open and honest manner, and it imparts it’s message in a non-preachy way.
As well as being filled with some very witty dialogue, beautifully staged songs (some of which are a tip of the hat to numbers from classic Hollywood musicals), what it has to say is clearly important, from the need to clear Zero’s name and establish the fact that blaming one individual for the outbreak of the disease is absurd (especially given that it was soon after discovered that many died from AIDS decades prior to him), but also when it comes to how people react to homosexuality and how pharmaceutical companies exploited the illness. Plus it comes complete with a very touching love story, which makes this sometimes strange, often sweet and thoughtful movie an incredibly lovable one as well.