Parting Glances

July 4, 2011

Two lovers romp in Manhattan; an afternoon tryst back at the townhouse; some anxieties over an impending separation. These are the common concerns displayed in the opening minutes of Parting Glances.

That the two lovers happen to be men is both important, and not important, to the filmmaker Bill Sherwood. On the one hand, Sherwood is frank—particularly in putting his love scene at the beginning of the film—about saying, Look, this is going to be a story about people who are homosexuals (most of them, anyway).

On the other hand, Sherwood stresses the people part. His main characters happen to be gay, and he proceeds from that premise into an altogether universal and human story—Parting Glances is something like a low-budget Woody Allen movie into which some gay figures, all distinct from one another, happen to have wandered. His film neither flaunts homosexuality nor apologizes for it.

That’s news, because in most of the gay-themed films of the last decade or so, homosexuality is very much the only subject of the film. In films such as Making Love and a spate of TV-movies, a character dramatically comes out of the closet, precipitating much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands. Then everybody sits around and talks for 90 minutes while the violins play gloomier and gloomier.

None of that nonsense here. Just 24 hours in the company of some lively, witty people: Michael (Richard Ganoung), a book editor, who’s grappling with his hurt over the next day’s departure of his roommate Robert (John Bolger), who’s going to Africa on an indefinite job for the World Health Organization.

In the course of the evening and next day, they attend a dinner with Robert’s boss and a riotous, all-night going-away party thrown by a friend (Kathy Kinney). Michael also deals with another source of soul-searching: his old friend Nick (Steve Buscemi), who has AIDS.

Now, to say that a character has AIDS immediately conjures up visions of heavy-duty message-mongering; as in the current Broadway AIDS plays, or the TV movie An Early Frost, for instance. Parting Glances refuses to play that game. Nick is a vital, funny, irascible character, neither a symbol of a cause nor a cute survivor.

And his wit is indestructible; when Robert refuses to visit him, Nick points out the irony of a guy working for the World Health Organization who’s afraid to be around sick people.

Nick is superbly played by Steve Buscemi. While Bolger, a regular on “The Guiding Light,” is a bit of a stone, and some of the supporting players are erratic (a common hazard of independent filmmaking), Buscemi, eyes bulging and skin shrunken, is eminently capable of his role’s comic-dramatic range.

Parting Glances is the debut film for most of these actors, and for writer-director Bill Sherwood. A musician and former Juilliard student, Sherwood has a musical sense of structure in his screenplay—he doesn’t waste much, and he often sets riffs (visual or verbal) going that will pay off much later in the film.

Sherwood’s main victory—and this is hard to do—is taking a previously specialized subject and making it into a film for everybody. That’s a mighty impressive debut.

First published in the Herald, February 1986

A really delightful and savvy movie, and the only film from Bill Sherwood, who died in 1990. See the film, and you’ll understand this was a true loss. Buscemi did fine for himself after this; it was obvious from this performance that he was somebody special. When I think of the amount of attention that Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It got a few months after this movie opened, well, I don’t begrudge it anything, but Parting Glances was at least as deserving. And by that I mean, more deserving. Looking at this review today, it reads very much like a careful act of walking the reader through something they might find unfamiliar or threatening, in the hope of making it, if not familiar, at least unthreatening. I probably would have written it different it I’d been writing for something other than a general-interest daily newspaper, and I’d certainly write it different today. But from 25 years on, I stand by its approach. And Happy Independence Day.