A diary of love and dying in superb 'Silverlake Life'


June 15, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Television has never seen anything like "Silverlake Life: The View From Here," the documentary that launches the sixth season of "P.O.V." at 10 tonight on Maryland Public Television (Channels 22 and 67).

"Silverlake Life" is the video diary of the day-to-day life of a gay couple dying of AIDS. Sound grim? Be warned: It's more than grim. At times, it's grueling to watch.

But it's also one of the greatest love stories TV has ever told. It celebrates the commitment of this gay relationship in a way that should shame anyone who thinks marriage is possible only for heterosexuals.

"Silverlake Life" is a sad, sweet, splendid love song that you will feel in your heart long after you have stopped watching the pictures of death.

The documentary was started by Tom Joslin, a filmmaker who taught film and video at Hampshire College and the University of Southern California. Joslin's students have been nominated for seven Academy Awards and include Ken Burns, director of "The Civil War" series on PBS.

Joslin began the "Silverlake" project after his lover, Mark Massi, became infected with HIV. Silverlake is the name of the Los Angeles neighborhood where the two lived.

But then, Joslin found out he was HIV-positive, and the illness took its toll more quickly on him.

After Joslin died, Massi kept the camera running and ultimately brought in one of Joslin's former students, Peter Friedman, to finish the film and edit the more than 40 hours of raw footage. Joslin and Friedman share producer and director credits. Massi shares a cinematographer's credit with them.

The background about who was pointing the camera at whom is important because "Silverlake Life" takes the video camera further into death and relationships than it has ever gone on TV. It challenges and redefines notions of intimacy, courage, voyeurism and privacy for non-fiction TV.

For example, there is a stretch near the end of the two-hour film where the camera remains fixed on Joslin's emaciated remains just after his death.

This is not an actor lying there in the makeshift bed on the living-room floor of the couple's apartment. This is a real man who has just died a horrible death. The camera's unblinking gaze seems a violation of some kind at this point, and you want to get up and turn it off or at least point it elsewhere.

But, by then, you can't. The filmmakers have you in their control. And they have succeeded in making you witness the devastation and horrible reality of AIDS. The image of what is left of Joslin's flesh might be the most powerful, resonant, disturbing and profound of the year on TV.

"Silverlake Life" was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Freedom of Expression Award. And that's important to know, too, because seeing Joslin die in a theatrical setting as film critics and festival-goers did is one thing, but seeing him die on the small screen in your living rooms is another. TV doesn't like dealing with the reality of death. TV executives believe it leads viewers to tune out. Seeing Joslin's corpse is going to shock some viewers.

Those viewers who trust the filmmakers and give themselves up to "Silverlake Life" are in for one of the richest TV experiences some of them will ever have.

There's humor, wit, wisdom and love along the way. There's a final dance of affirmation that will make your heart break, cry, soar and sing about life, love, death and the human condition.

I dreamt about "Silverlake Life" for several nights after I saw it. I can still close my eyes and see many of the images that Joslin's video camera captured.

Sometimes, I wish I couldn't see some of the pictures so clearly. But, in the end, I'm glad that Joslin, Massi and Friedman made me see.

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