Well into the third decade of the AIDS epidemic, films like Longtime Companion, An Early Frost and Philadelphia, as strange as it may be to imagine, have become period pieces. People aren't expiring quite so quickly anymore, thanks to new anti-viral drug "cocktails." Lives that in years past would have ended in a matter of months have been extended for years. Nonetheless, there's still no cure, the cocktail doesn't work for everyone, and in far too many cases it works for a while, then stops. So people are still dying of AIDS -- just differently than before. And that's the subject of Thom Fitzgerald's compelling new drama The Event.
Set in New York in 2001 (with the events of 9/11 acting as eerily unacknowledged just-off-screen presence), it centers on a young cellist (Don McKellar) whose sudden passing under circumstances similar to that of several other HIV-positive gay men has drawn the attention of the district attorney's office. As a young assistant DA (Parker Posey) interviews the deceased's friends and family, she learns that his death came as the climax of a well-planned celebration and was in point of fact an assisted suicide. Moreover, she learns that such suicide parties -- called "events" -- have become increasingly common.
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In and of itself, this phenomenon isn't new to the movies, as Randal Kleiser's 1996 film It's My Party dealt with just such an affair. The difference is that Kleiser had happened upon this phenomenon in its infancy. Now it's fully grown, and, as Fitzgerald shows, almost accepted.
Kleiser's film, while dealing with a group of friends, centered on the final coming together of an estranged couple, as one of them faces death head-on. Its warm atmosphere is in sharp contrast to what Fitzgerald delivers here, as The Event utilizes the format of a "police procedural" detective story, with every flashback offering more details about what just happened and why in a deliberately dry style. And rather than the coming together that Kleiser dramatized, Fitzgerald shows a coming-apart as the suicide affects each character differently. As the cellist's mother, Olympia Dukakis starts in a recognizable mode of maternal understanding, then goes beyond it -- in that she becomes as protective of her son's right to take his life as she is to let him live it. There's also considerable contrast between the deceased's uptight older sister (Joanna P. Adler, deftly sketching a character who wishes she were a lot nicer than she is) and free-spirited younger sister (Sarah Polley, who's particularly uproarious in a scene where she performs in a vaginal spray commercial). And that's not to mention Rejean J. Cournoyer as a drag queen who's far more insightful than his devil-may-care demeanor would suggest. But most important of all, there's Brent Carver as the deceased's chief caregiver.
Rare is the film about gay life that steps outside the box of youthful sexual passion and standard-issue romance. There are all kinds of gay relationships, and here we see one that's far less common than many imagine -- between two men who, while never becoming actual lovers, form a bond that's as deep as ordinarily understood love. A classic burnout case, exhausted by years of caring for the sick and dying, Carver's Brian moves through the cityscape like a ghost. Like all the "event" participants, he's part of a network of close friends. Yet death leaves him as emotionally isolated as Posey's sympathetic assistant DA -- who Fitzgerald suggests may, through the investigation, have come to understand the deceased more than most of those who actually knew him.
The grace and simplicity of her performance (matching those of Carver and Dukakis) embodies the exhaustion so many have felt in the face of this plague that has decimated several generations and left behind another of shell-shocked survivors. Dealing with the plague often seems impossible. But films like The Event go a long way toward offering what's necessary to get out of bed every day, put one foot in front of the other, and just live.