God's Got Me Pissed: Positive Love in Bill Sherwood's PARTING GLANCES
Bill Sherwood’s 1986 gay classic and Sundance winner Parting Glances pulses with life while standing under the shadow of death. The title pulls a double meaning: Robert (John Bolger) is about to leave for Africa on business, leaving his boyfriend Michael (Richard Ganoung) in the lurch; and their friend and Michael’s ex-lover Nick (a young Steve Buscemi in his debut), an ex-musician, is slowly dying of complications from AIDS. Writer-director as well as violinist Bill Sherwood died in 1990 in NYC of AIDS complications, with Parting Glances as his only film.
Michael comes to Nick’s place ready to make dinner for his friend as Nick’s listening to classical music while watching MTV. Chopping up green onions, Michael cuts his finger and goes to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom for some disinfectant. He sees the mountains of pill bottles behind the mirror. “Have you used that knife lately?” Michael asks Nick, a weighted question: he momentarily becomes worried if there’s a chance he could contract HIV.
“I want you to have my sunglasses,” Nick says, and Michael says, “Stop it.” Nick seems ready, in ways, to accept his upcoming passing, though his glibness may reveal a deeper unease. Michael tries to feed Nick a green smoothie, and when Nick asks what about a mutual friend, Greg—”He didn’t last six months.” “That’s because he didn’t take proper care,” Michael says. “Will you stop being so sincere?” Nick says, “You drive me nuts with this shit.” Nick tries to convince Michael to play cards and when Michael slips out, Nick lets the cards fly up and fall on the floor. The next time, Nick is seen listening to and reading the lyrics for a Mozart opera that Michael just gifted him… “What is this deadly chill?” the words read.
Michael and Robert go to dinner with Robert’s boss, argue in a cab, come home, and fuck. Contrasting with this moment of connection is a solo vision of Nick appearing on a flickering TV screen: “Sorry I didn’t tell you about it beforehand, Dad, but you would’ve freaked.” The camera pans to show Nick recording himself, making a video tape for his loved ones, describing what he’ll leave them. Robert and Michael make their way to Joan’s going away party for Robert. Nick sneaks a Coca-Cola alone in his apartment, before sensing a strange presence in his place. It gets him out and over to the party.
The film unfolds with modern takes on Wildean aphorisms. “Hetero men have a gene missing or something,” Robert’s friend confides to him. The characters argue about Proust (“There is always one who kisses and one who is kissed,” Betty paraphrases), live in the luxury of classical music while digging in trash for antiques (Michael squealing “Ooh, garbage!” remains a delight). The story, told over the course of 24 hours, glitters.
Nick arrives at the party, and approaches his friend Terry and the conniving Douglas. Douglas pulls away as Nick touches him, sparking an unspoken but deeply-felt unease that permeates the interaction. Nick jabs at Douglas’s figure, saying, “Looking trim,” only for Douglas to twist the knife in Nick’s direction by saying, “You too.” Nick, suffering from AIDS, becomes literally untouchable to many prejudiced others. The cruel irony is that Nick lacks the time to let others get comfortable with his illness. Robert refuses to see Nick before he leaves on business, and at the party they don’t meet up. Michael later confronts Robert about it, insisting that Robert is afraid he’ll catch “it.”
The words “HIV” or “AIDS” are rarely spoken; a mutual gay friend who’s recently left the seminary tells Nick that he was sorry to hear that Nick’s “ill.” What could it feel like to be dying, and to have those near you tiptoe around it? At the party, ostensibly for Robert, all eyes seem to be on Nick.
When I first watched Parting Glances, I got the DVD from 25 cent rack at the Philly Free Library. I’d never heard of it but the combination of the library’s rainbow sorting sticker on the side, Steve Buscemi, and the reviews on the box won me and my quarter over. The film, despite its openly morbid themes, became comfort food watching, and it never depressed me, though it brought me to tears many times through viewing after viewing, mostly on the dearly-missed FilmStruck.
A friend of mine described Y Tu Mamá También as a movie in which he originally thought of it being about the two boys (Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal) whose stories begin the film, and take up most of the screen time, before time and further viewing revealed to him that the story was about the woman (Ana Lopéz Mercado), who’s brought into the story innocuously but her arc takes over the narrative by the end, and she’s made the biggest imprint on the audience. Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 masterpiece, much like Parting Glances, makes no bones about its focus on life and death from near the beginning of each film. Each film begins with eroticism and sensuality permeates, and also thoughts of death loom heavy on the minds of some of the characters.
My first watch of Parting Glances had me thinking the story was about Michael, and his journey to make peace with his friend Nick dying of AIDS. Around the same time I saw 1995’s Jeffrey on FilmStruck, another height of the AIDS-era-in-NYC dramedy (albeit done nine years later). Jeffrey centers around the titular character (Steven Weber) who swears off sex in fear of contracting STIs, especially HIV. Shortly after, he meets Mr. Right, a guy he sees at the gym and asks out, a guy who soon discloses that he’s HIV+. The movie follows Jeffrey as he slowly, excruciatingly makes peace with his dream guy’s poz status. Sparked with wonderful performances by Patrick Stewart, Sigourney Weaver, and Nathan Lane, Jeffrey seems to position Jeffrey as its main “subject” and his would-be lover as “object.”
An unreliable narrator may provide narrative pleasures, but layered and rich things happen when the viewer becomes unsure who is the protagonist or narrator after all, a la The Great Gatsby. That’s how it ran for me over my many viewings of Parting Glances; after learning of the loss of Bill Sherwood to AIDS, it brought a new dimension of viewing to me. The film opens with Michael and Robert, but ultimately, perhaps we see others through Nick’s eyes more than we realize. As with my previous essay for Film & Fishnets, “Boy Crush!” on Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain!, the text makes my job as an essayist easy for me. I see my job as pulling particular threads through the film, enough narrative details to paint the picture for one unfamiliar to Parting Glances, and enough analysis to hold the attentions of anyone who’s loved the movie as much as I have.
Back to the party: Klaus, a German artist, asks Joan if Nick is indeed dying. Joan dodges the incredibly callous and inappropriate question. Klaus says Nick is “pregnant with death.” He confides in Joan: he’d like to stage a play in which all of the performers have a terminal illness. “Can you imagine the intensity?” he says, before pulling Nick aside to talk to him.
Standing up, pissing in Joan’s bathroom, Michael, tipsy, recalls an image of Nick on the beach in a leather jacket, looking like a scrawny James Dean with deep-set circles under his eyes.
Klaus’s heterosexual, artistic imposition upon the party seems to turn the whole night sour. The score goes grim and atmospheric. He walks down a red-lit hallway and Nick grabs him by the throat from behind, pulling a knife on him. “Now that was a quite a performance,” Nick says after Klaus says “Don’t!” Nick tells Klaus to pull strings to get Joan a gallery show, and he’ll appear in Klaus’s sick masquerade of a theater piece, “looking all gnarled and terminally ill.”
More red lighting falls down the stairway when Nick leaves the party, before he’s surprised by Peter, a young twink who’s been chasing after Michael. “I’m a wolf in twinkie clothing,” says Peter. The two end up sitting in the stairwell, smoking, and talking. Nick talks about his good old days tearing up the town with Michael. Times like this remind you that for us queers, someone can feel like an “elder” even if they’re ten, fifteen years older than you. Peter tries to get Nick to come out drinking with him, but Nick turns him down.
The night continues at a gay club with the classic Bronski Beat track “Why” pulsing. Nick, lying in bed, gets a call from Robert. Robert, trashed and shirtless with bleeding eyeliner, is calling Nick to tell him that he’s sorry he didn’t get a chance to say good-bye before his flight for Africa in the morning. “I’ll send you a letter,” Robert says, and Nick says, “Send me a giraffe, all right? I could use a giraffe around here.” The double meaning becomes painfully clear: Robert is apologizing for not saying good-bye, period. To Nick. To his time on this Earth.
Here things get weird and narratively playful. Daniel Haughy appears as what’s listed in the credits as Commendatore - Ghost. He appears in fog in a knight’s outfit, in silver face-paint like a sinister Tin Man. “Rapist, rapist,” the Ghost whispers to Nick, who protests, horrified. He removes his faceplates and reveals himself as Greg… “Heaven’s real boring,” Greg whispers. “Hang on as long as you can.” “Okay, why are we whispering?” “Spookier that way.” The ghost warns him that if he travels, don’t forget… “What?” Nick says.
Right before Robert is supposed to get in a cab to go to the airport in the bleary-eyed light of the morning, Michael wigs out, takes Robert’s keys, and throws them in a bush. Michael accuses him of wanting to stay away from the harsh reality of Nick dying, and Michael going through that. Michael says he’s gonna go on a tear when Nick dies, that he’s gonna take his rage out on doctors and politicians and priests. Here one might see both Sherwood’s “rage against the dying of the light,” his anger at so-called friends or allies like Robert who blame him for his own illness. The care and concern his real friends, like Michael’s character, might have had for him. And the confusing, complex, swirling mess that is this life and losing it.
“God, I don’t know if you exist, but if you do, you’ve got me pissed!” Nick yells to the heavens, towards his apartment’s ceiling. Michael comes over to make Robert food (many a friend or sweetie has said to me, “Making food is my love language”). Nick, frustrated about everything, smashes something to the floor. Michael and Nick devolve into shattering plates in Nick’s kitchen while classical music blasts. The dam has to burst somehow, and it does, playfully but with rage and passion.
While Michael goes home, sits down to edit, and finally begins to work on his novel, Nick travels by train in his classic leather jacket look. Nick calls from Fire Island, a place he and Michael had spent many delinquent times together, fucking with Douglas and his hoity-toity crew and busting up his summer home. It’s late summer, it’s become cold, especially near the water. But this call troubles Michael to his core: Nick says he can’t take it anymore, and Michael gets convinced that Nick plans to kill himself. Michael, terrified of losing his friend, charters a plane—damn the costs—to catch up with Nick.
Michael finds Nick standing on the beach, runs up to him. They start talking about where is Europe from here? Alaska? Finland? Africa?
The story ends with Nick smiling and talking, standing among the dunes behind the summer homes, before the waves pulling in and out, in and out.
Annie Mok is an author-illustrator and musician (Annie Mok & the Knight Dreams, formerly in See-Through Girls). Annie is a queer trans woman who is white/mixed (Irish/Chinese/Colombian/etc). She deals with Bipolar II and complex-PTSD in her life and work. Annie, New Jersey-raised, graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design with a BFA in Comic Art in 2009. She then spent a stint in Chicago, making mistakes that led to her 2015 Ley Lines #1 comic book, Unholy Shapes. She received a 2014 Leeway Foundation Transformation Award. In 2015 she co-starred in Carman Spoto's feature film Phaesporia. Annie tweets @heyAnnieMok.
She lives in occupied Delaware/Lenape land AKA Philadelphia.
Contact Annie's agent, Adrienne Rosado, for business inquiries.
Annie's client list includes Rookie Mag, Autostraddle, Image Comics, Boom! Studios, DC/Vertigo,The Comics Journal, ZEAL, Penguin/Random House Canada, Seven Stories Press, Sui Generis Health, St. Stephen's Human Services / Homeless Against Homelessness, and the Red Umbrella Project.