While you might not guess that a hip-hop mockumentary and a musical about AIDS have a lot in common, there are several parallels between Rusty Cundieff's Fear of a Black Hat and John Greyson's Zero Patience. For starters, both films are the work of young, nonmainstream auteurs, each of whom wrote and directed his latest project. Both movies are nontraditional musicals, Cundieff's because of the musical genre and the faux-documentary format and Greyson's because of the subject matter. Each director scripted the lyrics for all of the songs in his film. And both films are by turns irreverent, angry, and looking to stir up a little controversy.
John Greyson is one very big reason you keep hearing that the cutting edge in film is to be found in gay cinema. Urinal, Greyson's meditation on the subject of sex in public restrooms, combined time-travel comedy, video art, political theory, and academic dogma in the service of a bizarre storyline that brought Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, Japanese author Yukio Mishima, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and Harlem poet Langston Hughes together in 1987 Toronto to investigate the phenomenon of washroom sex. In Zero Patience he fashions a musical comedy out of the story of Gaetan Dugas, the French-Canadian flight attendant cited in Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On as Patient Zero, a sort of HIV Typhoid Mary.
In Greyson's vision, Zero is a ghost stuck in a watery limbo shared by synchronized swimmers (who probably symbolize something really profound that went right over this reviewer's head) while he waits for someone to clear his name so he can rest in peace. Enter Sir Richard Francis Burton, nineteenth-century adventurer-author-translator (Arabian Nights) equally famous in his day for comprehensive studies of penis size. Burton has survived to the present thanks to a sip from the fountain of youth, and is currently employed as a taxidermist in a Canadian museum. His pet project, however, is the creation of a spectacular Hall of Contagion exhibit for which the centerpiece will be a sensationalistic tableau that hyperbolizes Patient Zero's culpability for the spread of AIDS.
Zero's ghost returns to Earth but can only be seen by the sexually repressed Burton, meaning the tormented spirit must enlist the taxidermist's aid to clear his reputation. Burton sees this as an opportunity to manipulate the ghost's appearance for his own dishonorable ends, but he is eventually won over, both philosophically and romantically, by the phantasm.
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If you think that premise sounds a little eccentric, wait until you get a load of the musical production numbers, especially the one where Burton's and Zero's assholes sing to each other. (You read that correctly.) Then there's the one where a naked male trio harmonizes about "popping a boner" in a bathhouse shower, and the one where a drag Miss HIV floating on an inner tube in a bloodstream full of competing viruses and outgunned T cells offers up a game Streisand impersonation. Busby Berkeley it ain't.
Give Greyson this much: He's audacious. You want to embrace Zero Patience for the sheer zest and inventiveness the director brings to the film medium. Unfortunately, however, for every over-the-top production number there's a lame counterpart that would be more at home in an after-school special. Too often Greyson lets the urgency of his message overwhelm his showman's better instincts; at times the characters lapse into preachy, activist dogma that feels less like entertainment than indoctrination. And the constant bouncing around from high drama to low camp is more than a little disconcerting.
Clearly, however, Greyson is a man whose patience has run out. He will use any genre necessary to get his point across. The film's title refers to this frustration as much as it does to Patient Zero. The director has had it with the greedy pharmaceutical companies, apathetic government officials, homophobic general public, and unprincipled news media who have made the battle to overcome this virus so much more difficult than it should have been.
Flying in the face of conventional thought on the subject, Greyson does not paint Dugas as a villain who defiantly spread the deadly virus through the gay bathhouses of New York and San Francisco in the late Seventies. Instead he portrays the airline steward as a scapegoat and possibly even a hero for his willingness to participate in early cluster studies and to candidly detail his experiences for medical researchers tracking the virus. It takes a lot of guts to contradict Shilts, whose heavily researched and widely respected text is the closest thing to a bible of the AIDS epidemic as can be found. But guts, as he's proven in all of his films, is a quality Greyson possesses in abundance.