Monday, January 30, 2006

Philidelphia* * *


I was bruised and battered -- I couldn't tell what I felt
I was unrecognizable, to myself -- I saw my reflection
in a window and didn't know my own face
Oh brother are you gonna leave me
Wastin' away -- on the streets of Philadelphia
-- "Steets of Philadelphia" Bruce Springsteen
Click here to listen to the Philidelphia theme music


I suspect that Philidelphia is one of those films that everyone has heard of, but few have actually seen it. Why is this film even in the pop-culture consciousness? Well, here are my suspicions: a) Tom Hanks' Oscar acceptance speech, b) this was a very PC and very topical film at the time as it came out when AIDs was coming onto the national scene, and c) it was one of the first big Hollywood films starring a Big name (pun intended) on a gay couple. At the time, the story of a young lawyer fired because he has AIDs and successfully defended by a homophobic lawyer was a courageous bit of filmmaking, and Hanks taking on the role of a gay man in a film where he gets all cuddly with Julio Banderas (yes, that actor) was a courageous career move too. And yes, this film probably did some good at softening popular views about gay men with AIDs. So I think as a film making a social statement, it is very good, and yes I cried at the end.

Thing is, I tend to be very critical of films that make social statements, and I think that if you have an agenda it is very hard to do good, honest art and story-telling, which for me is at the core of great films in the dramatic genre. Philidelphia had an agenda and as such is full of too many compromises for me to not be critical. Some of the instances of Hollywoodification:

**The homophobia of the lawyer (Washington) defending Beckett (Hanks) is revealed as simply prejudice. By that I mean, he just didn't know any gay men or have any gay men close to him (friends, family). By defending Beckett and seeing his suffering, he loses the basis of his prejudice. I didn't buy that. This idea of people transforming from intolerance to tolerance so easily is a Hollywood plot crutch -- along with knights on white horses.

**In the plot, Beckett gets AIDs by going ONCE to a gay-porno theater and having an anonymous quickie. The 1980s were a hayday of promiscuity in the gay community and HIV-infection was highest in the bathhouse frequenting segment. So by choosing as the protagonist a man who was otherwise monogamous is both subtly misrepresentative and panders to a particular visciousness that was being pedelled on the AM-radio talk-shows: "all people with AIDs are promiscuous perverts and thus deserved what they got". This is a logical argument of the form: if A then B, if B then C therefore if A then C. Philidelphia countered the argument by saying it's not true that if A then B. But it never, never asks the viewer to question the fundamental and pernicious 'if B then C' argument.

**Beckett and his partner never kiss, nada. It's not that I feel any particular interest whatsoever in seeing such a scene, it's just that this was a major cop-out. Yet another example of softening the edges of this film.

**The scene where Beckett is holding and cuddling the baby is over the top. I felt like I was watching a propaganda film. Over the speakers: "You cannot get HIV by touching." Ok fine, fine, I got Reagan's brochure on AIDs.

I was in college in the 1980s in the San Francisco Bay area. The AIDs epidemic was a huge event in my young adulthood. I did not know anyone personally who died of AIDs at the time (although I learned later of men I knew at the time who did) and I don't even remember talking about it much with friends -- except maybe when Reagan sent out the AIDs brochure to every family in America. But I was certainly reading the weekly newspapers out of SF, and AIDs was a huge deal. I did feel like I was witnessing a human tragedy. It felt very real. It did not feel like an abstract news story.

I think this is why I feel angry that Philidelphia painted Beckett as monogamous with a loving long-term partner whom miraculously he didn't infect. By never challenging the viewer to question whether promiscuous homosexuality in any way deserves a death sentence, it is implicitly saying, let's cherry-pick the names off the AIDs-quilt.

Ok, that's my not sugar-coated and excessively critical review. I think it is as much a critique of Hollywood's protrayal of social issues as anything else.