“Define Frenzy” is a series essays published throughout Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen. You can read previous essays here.
One of my favorite lines in many years in a movie is from BPM, when one member of Paris ACT UP, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) suggests, for the gay pride march, a cheerleading group to amplify the chants. His frenemy, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), shoots this down, decrying the “street theatre” aspect of it, and fellow moderator Max (Felix Maritaud) jokingly says that the act could evolve to include mimes. He says cheekily, “Poz mimes? A nightmare!” The outrageousness of the line and the film’s commitment to subversiveness can be translated to describe John Greyson’s revolutionary film Zero Patience. An AIDS musical comedy? A dream!
Released in 1993, less than a decade after Randy Shilts’ book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987), just over a decade after the New York Times first published reports of the rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals in 1981, and less than a decade after the death of Gaëtan Dugas (March 30, 1984), Greyson’s film captures the impossibly elusive but profoundly important aesthetic sensibility that defined what B. Ruby Rich would go on to call New Queer Cinema. Though the film—which follows an immortal Sir Richard Francis Burton (John Robinson), now in Toronto working at a museum, as he curates and researches an exhibition trying to scrutinize “patient zero” (the loose meme name of the formerly accused first person to seroconvert the AIDS virus, Dugas) and the virus itself, as well as the mononymous Zero (Normand Fauteaux), who traces his steps throughout his life as a ghost—is both sarcastic and earnest, it embraces camp while finding nuance and complexity in the AIDS era and early 1990s aesthetics. Zero Patience confronts fictions we’re told when trying to process, organize and react to the kind of trauma the AIDS epidemic wrought.
The myth of Dugas as the source of AIDS in the United States, which grew in prominence in 1982, has since been debunked by a number of researchers, and Shilts has expressed contrition at exacerbating the myth in both his book and the subsequent HBO film adaptation, but Greyson had expressed fascination with the concept of a “patient zero,” and the targeting of one individual, as the very myth began to permeate a public discourse. The film that would come out of his research combined critiques of the medical industry, criticism of AIDS/HIV stigma, examination of how museums try to capture and boil down historical narratives and what those curated stories tell us about our own traumas. All with musical nods to Pet Shop Boys, Cole Porter, ABBA, Simon & Garfunkel, and others.
Part of Zero Patience’s hook is its musical numbers, where the quality of the music matters less in and of itself than it does in the context of a reflexive homage to musicals before it, be they Top Hat or Singin’ in the Rain. These films are postmodern reference points, enmeshed in queer culture, with which the audience and the film’s characters would be familiar. In a song critiquing the pharmaceutical industry’s greed in light of their slow, ethically questionable research methods and prohibitively expensive medication, members of ACT UP dance around in what amounts to a cardboard set. But its basic backdrop is partially the point, both as a wink to the studio musicals of Classical Hollywood, made with millions of dollars and lots of crane shots, and as an indication of the lack of funds many AIDS patients had. The musical numbers’ low-fi quality is embraced, not compensated for disingenuously, and the film is fully aware of those limitations. These sequences present a kind of drag; the film is almost like drag itself: exaggerated, outre, conscious of its artifice so that its aesthetics become a kind of politics. HIV literally takes the form of a drag queen.
Burton jollily calls his exhibition the Hall of Contagion, his ambitions so grand he envisions a giant laser hologram of Zero. He reference point for his desired audience reaction to the exhibition is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s King Tut exhibit. Appropriately, the diorama places the handsome face of Zero, cheekbones carved like marble, on a wall, blown up, both a god and a devil. The beginning, the boss of it all. As Burton continues to explore the mythology, and interact with the ghost of Zero, Greyson continues to peel away at why such explanations for traumatic events in history are so commonplace: They’re comfortable, easy in the way that they allow a narrativization of trauma and a convenient way to point the finger.
Zero Patience exists mostly in antithesis to other AIDS films of the time, like Philadelphia, Longtime Companion and Parting Glances, which were (arguably) necessarily framed as melodramas, posited as a way to raise awareness in a society that was still content to ignore the swath of deaths to which the government had turned a blind eye. Zero Patience is fundamentally a bizarre concept—an immortal sexologist begins to fall in love with the ghost of the scapegoat of the AIDS crisis, while other members of Toronto ACT UP discuss activist strategy, deal with how the virus affects their personal lives, and sing about it—but Greyson dares to use a genre framework which has a long history of being a crucial part of queer cultural vocabulary, and subverts those tropes to articulate his own ideas about sex, gay identity, science, activism and, as Miss HIV sings, “greed, ambition and fraud.”
Towards the end of the film, Burton, re-recording tapes for his exhibition, says, “From the start, AIDS was not only an epidemic of medicine, but also an epidemic of blame: patience, gay men, prostitutes, drug users, Africans. These were just some of the so-called carriers, constructed by hysterical headlines and hypocritical governments.” Burton speaks into a microphone narrativizing the narratives of AIDS, inclined to elevate Zero as elusive poster boy and icon. But as his image explodes at the end of the film, the icon, easy to conceive as both victim and perpetrator, is no longer so categorizable. No longer just a signifier. Zero becomes human again.
The film opened to mixed reviews, with some critics, including Rita Kempley at the Washington Post, comparing it unfavorably to Philadelphia, arguing that the latter’s realistic approach to suffering was better because it was more serious and dealt with the “grim realities” of AIDS. A complaint of that nature misses Zero Patience’s point about what it means to be entertained: It’s a rejoinder to the sensationalized narrative about there being anyone to blame at all, an ironic retaliation to the concept that trauma must always be dealt with self-seriousness, and a call to action to be queerly rebellious.
Note: You can watch the whole film on YouTube:
Kyle Turner is a freelance writer and Paste contributor based in Brooklyn, New York. His work has also been featured in Brooklyn Magazine, The Village Voice, Slate and Little White Lies. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.