Zero Patience

Strand Releasing,

John Grayson

John Robinson, Norman Fauteux, Dianne Heaterington, Michael Callan

Unrated, 100 minutes

The Politics Of Blame
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, August, 2007


In the early 1990s, several comedic approaches to AIDS stories began to appear. 1993 was the year that Paul Rudnick premiered his hit play Jeffery (filmed in 1995) and Canadian experimental filmmaker John Grayson unleashed Zero Patience on unsuspecting gay audiences.

I have admired Grayson ever since first viewing his 1995 masterpiece, Lilies. Lilies was a one-of-a-kind film that embraced its theatrical roots (having stage legend Brent Carver in the film didn't hurt) to create its own reality. In his earlier Zero Patience, his sense of the surreal hits a raw nerve by using AIDS as the subject of a political musical.

Yes, you heard right. A musical. Even if you find that idea distasteful you will be swept up in the marvelous absurdities of this film after a few minutes. Remember how the best of all the 1960s atomic bomb films was Stanley Kubrick's "nightmare comedy," Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb? Laughter and satire can be powerful tools in the right hands and, during the 1980s, Grayson cut his teeth on a series of short ACT UP videos.

Zero Patience begins with a bizarre anachronism: the famous explorer, Sir Richard Francis Burton, is still alive and working as the chief taxidermist for the Toronto Museum of Natural History. It seems that he did actually find the Fountain of Youth back in the 1800s. Burton once shocked genteel London with his translations of Tales Of 1,001 Arabian Nights and The Kama Sutra, not to mention his studies of penis size in different cultures. He is preparing "The Hall Of Contagion," an exhibit on plagues throughout history. When a slashed budget denies him the "Dusseldorf Plague Rat" (which would have been the "Shroud of Turin" of his collection), he hits upon another idea: AIDS - using Patient Zero, the man who supposedly brought the disease to North America, as its centerpiece.

Meanwhile, "suspended somewhere between existential limbo and the primordial void," a young athlete is performing gymnastics with a large disco ball to an Esther Williams water ballet. He is Patient Zero and he sings "Tell the story/clear my name/why do they need someone to blame?" He dives into the water and emerges in the real world inside a hot tub with three beautiful men who do not see him. He is a ghost and invisible - except to Burton when their paths inevitably cross.

The early 90s was a time of much agitprop in the first wave of the new queer cinema. Zero Patience, as it subverted musical conventions, was one of the most outrageous examples. A group of ACT UP activists sing about their HIV status before breaking into an elaborate production number about the greed of pharmaceutical companies. A trio of naked men trill an a-capella number about "When you pop a boner in the shower" to Burton, who is doing undercover research in a gay bath house, his video camera doubling as his phallus. A stuffed African monkey in the museum comes to life as a leather-clad lesbian to demand, in song, why she is blamed for transmitting AIDS to humans. Finally, the famed drag performer (and then-longtime AIDS survivor) Michael Callan appears on a microscope slide as HIV herself to exonerate Patient Zero.

The underlying theme seems to be the dubious "art" of laying blame. Gaetan Dugas, the French Canadian flight attendant who came to be known as "Patient Zero" is the film's focal point. Due to a flawed cluster study, Randy Shilts, in his extensively researched And The Band Played On (1987), blamed Dugas; even suggesting that he deliberately spread the disease once he knew that he was sick.

Zero Patience doesn't even refer to Dugas by name - the character is actually called Patient Zero in the film. Instead Grayson revels in poking fun at all the finger pointing. The monkey gave AIDS to humans, the media blames gays, Haitians and drug users, ACT UP blames the drug companies. And Burton, obsessed with blaming Patient Zero and depicting him as a remorseless killer, re-edits the truth, taking quotes from interviews out of context, pissing off the local ACT UP chapter in the process.

Another theme involves visibility. It was often written that AIDS made gays visible to the world at large. This is symbolized here when Zero's ghost speaks with HIV (Michael Callan) and then becomes visible after being splashed with the virus through a microscope's eyepiece. Meanwhile, one of Zero's former lovers is going blind after getting no results from the most expensive AIDS drug on the market. This drug, by the way, is a cash cow for Gilbert & Sullivan Pharmaceuticals - who is also sponsoring Burton's "Hall of Contagion" exhibit.

Zero Patience often pushes the boundaries of good taste but so did early John Waters. At first I could have done without the "Butthole Duet" but when I got to Burton's lyric about it being "An insult to The Empire/When I take it up the bum" I couldn't stop laughing. The clever lyrics reference the patriarchy and Freud, not to mention a few very unflattering references to how gays were often viewed in the press in the 1980s.

More over the top than Lilies, Zero Patience is another one-of-a-kind film from that tumultuous birth period of the New Queer Cinema in the early 90s when the anger of ACT UP erupted on the screen. Zero Patience isn't perfect by any means. The camera is sometimes in totally the wrong place during some of the musical numbers. The bad framing might be due to the fact that this DVD is not letterboxed (shame shame) and we're not seeing the entire image. But, obviously, the musical numbers do not have the gloss of a Fred Astaire film - despite some clever choreography. You also have to listen really closely at times to make out all the lyrics.

But its charms far outweigh its flaws. The film is usually very funny. Burton is a trip as he angers each of his interview subjects while trying to prove that Patient Zero was a serial killer; when no one will give him what he wants he takes their comments out of context, completely changing the meaning. His humiliation, when he is later forced to seek out ACT UP's endorsement of the exhibit, is priceless poetic justce. But even ACT UP doesn't escape Grayson's pointed barbs when they arrive, Keystone Kops-style, to sabotage Burton's Hall of Contagion. Finally, the uneasy friendship between Burton and Zero is nicely developed; when they finally kiss there are fullblown fireworks.

This is a film whose reputation I have known for years. I wish I had seen it on its first release as I am sure it would have hit me on a more visceral level. Still, despite its flaws - and also knowing that it would have been much more shocking over a decade ago - this is a remarkable film. Warts and all, Zero Patience should be seen by anyone with an interest in our cinematic history. Love it or hate it, you won't say "been there done that."


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