FILM / No way to treat a malady: And The Band Played On: Sheila Johnston on unruly ambition in And the Band Played On and weak eroticism in The Diary of Lady M

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The Independent Culture
Everyone hates And the Band Played On (12). The writer, Randy Shilts, whose massive 600- page chronicle of the dawn of Aids inspired the film, attacked it before he died of the virus in February. The director, Roger Spottiswoode, quit the project during post-production (although his name is still on the credits). Gay viewers disliked it for mutually contradictory reasons: Martin Delaney, a San Francisco Aids activist, said it presented a 'deeply insulting' view of the gay community as 'rowdy, noisy people fighting only for sexual licence'. The New York Times wrote: 'The movie ends up with a gallery of gay boy scouts.' Strange.

This maddeningly unruly picture is much less successful, on its own terms, than the simple, tightly focused Philadelphia, but it's also much more ambitious. Shilts, the first journalist to be assigned full- time to the Aids beat, tracked the arrival of the disease in every detail, and the combination of factors - political, cultural and scientific - that helped it spread.

The film makes a fair stab at capturing that complexity. Ronald Reagan flickers on television monitors in the background, a shadowy villain splurging the Federal Budget on defence while cutting back on public health programmes and R & D. But the film is not an anti- Republican tract: the Democrats don't altogether emerge with honour. Nor do the blood banks, who drag their feet when it comes to testing their wares, nor do some sections of the gay community, which viewed Aids as a passing scare and lobbied against the banning of the bath-houses which bred the virus. Nor does the scientific fraternity. Alan Alda plays the researcher Robert Gallo with relish, as a man with 'bad guy' tattooed on his forehead: he's more interested in a Nobel Prize than in collaborating with other teams.

The film would so much like to be a straight, clean-cut medical thriller about the search for a miracle cure: it keeps flashing up datelines and body-counts as markers in the race against time. But then Hollywood convention would demand a triumphal ending, and everyone knows we can't have that yet. Even with hindsight (the film is set in the early 1980s), the beast is so big, so bewildering. And so, And the Band Plays On becomes more like a drama-documentary, with all the disorder and lack of resolution of actual events - a number of scenes are shot in quasi-doc style, with a very shallow focus, blurry objects in the foreground, and a single camera ambling from speaker to speaker.

This also means there is no neat narrative structure. In the atmospheric opening sequence, set in 1976, Matthew Modine, a World Health Organisation worker, stumbles into a mysterious plague in a Central African village. It's a spooky, almost science-fictional scene - the doctors like spacemen in their face-masks, the torrential rains, the desperate, barely recognisable, barely stirring bodies - but then an anti-climactic caption flashes up: 'This was not Aids,' and you wonder, 'Yeah, so what's this scene doing in the movie?'

People flit past palely. Modine, who goes on to become a public health researcher, is the nominal hero, but the script's idea of fleshing out his character is to reveal a weakness for jelly doughnuts. At home, he's always alone in his perfunctorily furnished bedroom. There's an odd vagueness about his sexual orientation. Although you wouldn't mind this flimsiness in a documentary, in a feature film it's frustrating. Ian McKellen is the other main figure, an ever-so-responsible gay activist who is politically unimpeachable, in a caring monogamous relationship, and one of the film's duller characters.

Apart from them, the closest anyone comes to an inner life is Richard Gere as a figure loosely based on Michael Bennett, the director- choreographer of A Chorus Line. He gets the film's two most imaginative point-of-view shots: the nightmare vision of a Hallowe'en parade transformed into a Mexican Day of the Dead cortege, the gaudy drag queens shrivelling into black-and- white skeletons; and the dawning realisation that the dance routine he's working on is a dress rehearsal for his own funeral. Gere was the first major star to commit to the project when it was sitting on the back burner, and it is with a sense of being cheated that, after a few brief scenes, we suddenly read his

obituary.

Ah yes, the celebrity cameos. The movie teems with them: Phil Collins as a sleazy bath-house proprietor, Anjelica Huston as a doctor, Lily Tomlin as a public health official, Steve Martin as the brother of an Aids victim. Some viewers dislike them: it is all fine and dandy to guest in The Player, but, they feel, And the Band Played On should be exempt from grand showbiz gestures. But, while this might be a pathetic display of solidarity in a town where a major Hollywood star has yet to creep out of the closet, it's a start. I enjoyed seeing A-list actors in the sort of small supporting role they would never otherwise accept. And they got the film made.

The Band is out of date, others grumble, but then it only ever intended to chart the early rumblings of an international Holocaust before we understood its full enormity. Two scenes featuring quaint period props bring that home. In one, an Aids patient toys with a Rubik's Cube: 'Why do they make things like this that no one can ever solve?' he muses listlessly. Later, watching a colleague play Pac-Man, Modine has a revelation: like Pac- Man, the virus is eating up its victims' T-cells] These moments are corny, clumsy DIY attempts to explain the unexplainable, but they have a curious poignancy - ah, the foolish games that used to occupy us] If only Aids had become as irrelevant.

The Diary of Lady M (18) is an identikit sex-flick title (note the initial, as in The Story of O; the inklings of aristocratic degeneracy, as in Lady Chatterley - the diary's coy promise of intimate revelations). And this is a preposterously cliched, would-be (but not-at-all) titillating film that charts the sad decline of Alain Tanner, once a respected arthouse director: his films Jonas, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, Messidor, Light Years Away and No Man's Land were all well received here. This was written by Myriam Mezieres as a vanity vehicle for herself, playing a cabaret singer on a voyage of erotic self-discovery. I started out noting down the worst lines but soon gave up; I was transcribing the script.

(Photograph omitted)

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