Just because you are the first to be diagnosed doesn’t mean you started the epidemic. ~ Dr. Robert M. Grant, AIDS researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.
An erotic musical romance about the media’s scapegoating of homosexuals during the AIDS crisis? Why not? I started this film expecting a campy train wreck. I was pleased to find something heartfelt… which just happens to feature singing anuses.
In 1984 French Canadian flight attendant Gaétan Dugas was accused of bringing H.I.V. to America. He was dubbed “Patient Zero.” In 2016 scientists at the University of Arizona exonerated Dugas with evidence that the virus had already reached the U.S. as far back as 1971.
John Greyson’s 1993 surreal film Zero Patience puts Dugas’s ghost in conflict with Sir Richard Burton, immortal explorer. Burton is building an exhibit on Patient Zero for the Toronto Museum of Natural History. He initially demonizes Zero, calling him a “serial killer.” It’s up to Zero to change Burton’s mind… and win his heart.
I enjoyed this film more than I expected to. It’s obscure and worth of a spoiler filled recap.
Act One: Scapegoats
First a lengthy exposition dump. Sir Richard Francis Burton discovered the fountain of youth in the late 1800’s allowing him to continue his research on human and animal behavior at the museum. Now he’s losing funding for his Hall of Contagion. A paper airplane flies into his hand with a story about Patient Zero. We get dueling “I Want” songs.
Just Like Scheherazade: Patient Zero dances in a neon green purgatory. The tune is bittersweet and the lyrics state his goal plainly: “Tell the story. Clear my name. Why do they need someone to blame?” At the end he dives into a pool and re-emerges in the mortal world. I was all set to mock this film, but when I heard this song they had me.
Meet Burton. He’s arrogant.
Culture of Certainty: Burton convinces his boss to seek funding for an exhibit on Patient Zero with a silly patter song. Burton claims his cause is noble (“We will never find a cure till we isolate the source”) but can’t resist boasting of the glory his research will bring him. (“Let’s all be empiricists. Victors of the mind. Rulers of the stupid. Leaders of the blind.”)
No one can see or hear Zero as he wanders the city, revisiting a bathhouse, his mother, his doctor and his friend George. George is going blind from CMV despite the expensive drugs he’s being treated with. Burton will visit those same places to dig for information on Zero.
Pop-A-Boner: This film doesn’t skimp on the eye candy. Burton wanders Zero’s favorite bathhouse, terrified and fascinated by the “self-destructive” homosexuals he sees. A trio of naked hunks sing a cappella about bathhouse etiquette. They rip off his towel revealing a hidden camera over his junk, and kick him out. You might think this is the silliest moment of the film. Just you wait.
Burton interviews Zero’s friends and family. They defend him, saying he was no more promiscuous than many others his age and he submitted his journal of partners to the Cluster medical study. Burton edits their footage so they appear to accuse Zero of spreading the virus intentionally. Nasty bit of business this Burton.
Gilbert & Sullivan Pharmaceutical Co. has agreed to sponsor his exhibit. They fear ACT UP will protest. Burton’s boss asks him to invite ACT UP to join the museum’s advisory board. A worthless position that will help secure their silence.
Control: The ACT UP leader was one of the interview subjects Burton manipulated. She and her fellow activists submit Burton to a mock medical examination to show him what they’ve been subjected to. (“The AIDS biz just keeps growing…. profits continue to rise.”) They will not be joining his board.
Zero’s friend George blames himself for abandoning Zero in his final days. (“It was like he betrayed us. If the prettiest party boy could get sick than so could we… He died angry and alone because we were just too scared.”) Burton attempts to film George but is interrupted by Zero. Burton can see the ghost.
Act Two: Romance
Why can Burton see and hear Zero? Is it because he’s 172 years old? The movie rarely bothers to explain its dream logic. The characters simply go with it, and ask the audience to do so as well.
Zero wants the exhibit stopped. Burton says if he can find a way to capture Zero on camera he’ll let him speak his peace. They debate Burton’s 1885 writings on pederasty. He had argued there was no sodomy in Britain due to the cold climate. (“I had to present my homosexual research in such a way that was unthreatening to an English readership… Ipso facto I could publish without censorship.”) This conversation appears to be the primary reason the writer based his lead on Burton rather than a contemporary scientist.
Fearing that this ghostly “serial killer” will leave, Burton attempts to seduce him in a transparent hazmat suit. He’s too timid to go through with it so Zero gently turns him down.
***hole Duet: Burton and Zero share a bed but cannot sleep. Their anuses sing a duet about Burton’s fear of anal sex. The lyrics are both vulgar and philosophical. (“If the ***hole ain’t so special than the phallus can’t be either. Patriarchy would crumble if we started getting wiser.”) By the time the song is over the men are falling in love.
We’re five songs in and have heard the best of the lot. The rest of the score is a little bland by comparison.
Positive: George’s subplot takes focus. He’s kept his job as a school teacher despite slowly losing his sight. He challenges the ACT UP leader on her anti-government, anti-doctor claims arguing she’s just as eager for a scapegoat as they are. There’s a human cost to Burton’s political and philosophical debates.
Contagious: Zero agrees to participate in Burton’s study if Burton can find a way to bring him back to life. The supernatural rules of this film are hazy at best. Zero rages at the African Green Monkey in the museum exhibit saying she caused the disease. The monkey, and her fellow animals, turn into club kids. They sing that the theory has been discredited yet the myth remains. They’ve been scapegoated as much as anyone else. The animals tear the clothes off the leading men (thank you) and place them in the exhibit case.
The exhibit includes a painting of drowning sailors. Their ship was burnt down for fear of plague. The naked sailors come alive and cling to each other for warmth. Burton and Zero consider getting dressed, then think better of it. They make love as the storm from the painting thunders above them. I found this the sexiest moment in a very sexy film.
Act Three: Redemption
Miss HIV’s Scheherazade Reprise: Zero puts his blood sample under a microscope. Miss HIV is a glamorous drag queen with a high falsetto singing voice. She delivers a PSA on safe sex and claims she’s been found in U.S. bloodstreams “as early as the 60’s,” long before Zero contracted her. The blood sample splashes on Zero and, for a brief moment, he can be seen on camera. He tells the camera “I’m innocent. I’m not the first.” Burton believes him and begins work on a new presentation.
BURTON: AIDS is not only an epidemic of medicine, but also an epidemic of blame…. Patient Zero should actually be claimed a hero of the epidemic. Through his cooperation in the 1982 Cluster Study he helped prove that AIDS was sexually transmitted.
Six or Seven Things: Zero is not impressed. He wanted life, not a legacy. If he cannot return to the land of the living he no longer wants to haunt it. (“I want to be dead again.”) He leaves the museum and the two sing about the things they meant to tell each other. This song felt like a missed opportunity. The love rings true but the lyrics are generic. They could be sung by any couple, not two men with vastly different life spans who’ve gone through major changes of heart.
Sadly Burton’s discoveries have come too late. His boss shows the original presentation to the press. A projector displays images of Zero while the altered interviews condemn him of murder. Burton denounces it, claiming “Patient Zero is a myth” but he is ignored.
Zero Patience: That night the ACT UP activists break into the museum, tie up the security guards, and vandalize the display. They have Zero Patience for propaganda. The security guards break loose of their chains… and tear off their clothes. Sure. Why not? This ends the eye candy portion of the program.
Remember George? He has now lost his sight. One of his students comes to visit him in the hospital. The camera has focused on this student throughout the film, though his significance escapes me.
Burton and Zero return to the museum to find the vandalized exhibit. Burton apologizes to Zero for not stopping the press conference.
Burton: I was wrong. And I’m sorry.
Zero: I’m sorry too. I know you can’t make me alive.
Special effects come out for a rushed finale. Zero merges with the projection and sings a reprise of the title song. He asks Burton to light his cigarette, then uses the smoke to set off the sprinkler system. The projector explodes and the smiling image of Zero fades. As for poor Burton? His future is uncertain as it’s time for the credits to roll.
AIDS and the Cinema
Philadelphia (1994) viewed the AIDS crisis through the eyes of a straight lawyer. The New Queer Cinema viewed it through the eyes of defiant queer protagonists. Buddies (1985), Parting Glances (1986), Longtime Companion (1989), Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), Poison (1991) and The Living End (1992) are all worth another look. And the Band Played On (1993) is too, though it would continue the Patient Zero myth.
The unique genre mixing, extensive nudity, dated science and finger pointing ensure that Zero Patience is not for everyone. Still I found myself part of Greyson’s target audience. Zero’s a sympathetic, albeit passive, character. Burton has the greater arc, learning humility and embracing his sexuality. They make a likable couple to build a story around. The film has anger, humor, sex appeal and a point of view.