'Zero' a musical sendup of AIDS angst

July 22, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Zero Patience" must be some kind of a first and maybe a last: an aggressively gay Canadian musical-comedy about AIDS.

The film, which opens at the Charles today, means desperately to be brazen, outrageous, camp and edgy; after all, how many movies will be made in which a musical number is sung by two male rectums? It's "Rocky Horror Picture Show" on angel dust.

It's built around a somewhat provocative notion. Sir Richard Burton -- not the actor but the 19th-century English explorer, duelist and linguist -- is working in the Toronto Museum of Natural History as a taxidermist.

Why is he still alive? The technical reason is that he had an encounter with the fountain of youth; the more telling explanation is that writer-director John Greyson needs a figure to stand for the straight world's antiquated, quasi-archaeological approach to the issues of homosexuality and homosexual culture. To this purpose, Burton is made to order.

He's working on something called the "Hall of Contagion," an exhibit documenting the world's plagues. Needing a masterstroke, he decides to build the exhibit around "Patient Zero," the French-Canadian airline steward who was identified in Randy Shilts' "And the Band Played On" as the world traveler who first imported the AIDS virus from Africa to the United States and Canada.

Of course, Burton's goal is sensationalist and sexist: to portray Zero as a kind of architect of AIDS, a symbol of homosexual irresponsibility and lust who ultimately was the Typhoid Mary of his generation. What he doesn't count on is that Zero's ghost is still hanging around and that he, Burton, will fall in love with him, discovering his own gayness and reorienting his political as well as his sexual orientation.

John Robinson plays Burton with a good deal of bounding zeal that can't disguise a fundamental cluelessness. Normand Fauteux is Zero, suitably beautiful and defiant.

You may or may not buy the ultimate argument -- that Zero was innocent, that AIDS did not begin in Africa but as some kind of conspiracy, that AIDS itself is not the killer but merely one element present in infected bloodstreams -- but you will buy the film's outrageousness, its strongest value.

Besides the singing rear ends, the movie features a lot of bad disco music set to soft-core gay porn -- too much time in the showers with the boys for my tastes, admittedly somewhat limited -- and numbers that insist that you remember them. The best involves a cheerfully tasteless parody of those health films from the 1950s in which Miss AIDS (a gaudy transvestite played by gay activist and victim Michael Callen) floats amid balloons in a swimming pool that represents the bloodstream.

The lyrics are all forgettable -- that is, if you can understand them (the sound and music blur together) -- but the thing has a buoyant loopiness to it that gives it an unforgettable drive.

* TC The restored version of "Midnight Cowboy" is also playing at the Charles this week. I was not able to see it (the print didn't arrive in time), but it recalls a time in American movie history when movies really mattered. Dustin Hoffman plays Ratso Rizzo, a scurvy hustler on the streets of New York, who falls in with a Texas stud named Joe Buck (Jon Voight), as the two of them try to survive, with increasingly diminishing results.

The movie, originally receiving an X rating, is powerful, funny, touching and strange, all at once (it won the Academy Award for best picture of 1969). Astonishingly, it came out of the studio system, not the independent movement. Hard to remember when such a thing was possible.

Hear Hunter's reviews

To hear Stephen Hunter's reviews of current films, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6250 after you hear the greeting.

"ZERO PATIENCE"

Starring John Robinson and Normand Fauteux

Directed by John Greyson

Released by Cinevista

Unrated

***

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