It’s rare that I see a film that’s completely and entirely unlike any other film I’ve ever seen: largely because most films take from the vast pool of inspiration and visual shorthand created by every film that preceded it, whether the filmmakers are aware of it or not. So many movies are copies of one another, or color-by-numbers genre installments, which is why I’m in a state of constant disappointment around them.
The 1993 AIDS musical Zero Patience, however, breaks the mold completely, in the best possible way. I don’t often feel seen by the movies I watch (at least, not in a good way) but from the moment I pressed play on John Grayson’s offbeat masterpiece, I felt that I was being spoken to, and ever since I’ve been recommending this movie to everyone I meet, describing it as “one of the most Henry movies you’ll ever see.”
The premise, admittedly, is extremely Henry: in this alternate history, 19th-century explorer and sexologist Richard Burton (not to be confused with the actor) is alive and well after a “run-in” with the fountain of youth. Since the early 1900s, he’s been spending his time quietly working in the taxidermy department of a Canadian natural history museum. Sometime in the early 90s, he decides to do an exhibit on the infamous “patient zero,” the flight attendant of legend who was randomly blamed and scapegoated for (erroneously) being labeled the first person to bring AIDS to North America. We’ve since moved past this founding myth, but in Canada in the early 90s, not disclosing your HIV status could land you in jail, and “patient zero” was still seen as enemy number one by a world desperate to pin the blame of AIDS on one single, sexually-promiscuous person.
Burton—who also rose to infamy in the Victorian age for his translations of the Arabian Nights and experiments regarding penis size—finds himself at first dispassionately interested in the story of “Patient Zero,” until the ghost of “Zero” himself shows up. He’s been suspended somewhere between “existential limbo and the primordial void,” and now, for whatever reason, he’s back on earth, wandering around, visiting his old haunts and friends. But they can’t see him. The only person who can perceive him is Richard Burton, who decides to base a new exhibit in the museum around Patient Zero as a kind of “serial killer.” It takes getting to know Zero, and starting a romantic relationship with him, to change Burton’s mind. But of course, the public still wants to believe in AIDS as a kind of whodunnit, tracing back to one single “perpetrator.”
The story-within-a-story of a nation struggling to tell the “story” of AIDS can’t help but be appealing. The fact that it’s a musical also brings things together in an especially rageful way. For a generation of gay men sick of being killed, ignored, and then blamed for their own affliction, it feels like the most natural thing in the world to design a musical based off of the Scheherezade tale. When the film opens, a child recites the familiar story of the king’s wife to death unless she could provide an interesting-enough tale to tell her husband that night. She does, and keeps on spinning stories each night after to save her life, and out of that, the story goes, comes the “1001 Arabian Nights,” which Burton translated into English in 1888.
In the next scene, we see Zero the ghost, singing “tell my story/save my life” in a bizarrely REM-style pop song. It’s the kind of chaotic mix of influences here that I love the most: the idea that a prudish figure from the 1800s would fall in love with the ghost of a wrongly-criminalized French-Canadian flight attendant and end up singing about it in a museum setting where taxidermied animals start coming to life and f*cking each other. The African green parrot—another AIDS scapegoat accused of “starting” the plague—becomes a butch woman asking for a cigarette. She points out the inherent racism of blaming everything on Africa, another “wrong” story about AIDS.
The fact that much of the action takes place in a museum—the place where our cultural myths and often factually-inaccurate beliefs are decided upon and enshrined for years on end—is also telling. This isn’t just a musical, or an AIDS drama, or even—as in the case of Jeffrey—an AIDS comedy. It’s an attempt to wrest the narrative of AIDS away from the straight establishment. This is a necessary activity both in 1993 and today, since straight people can only think in terms of “victim” and “perpetrator,” good vs. bad, clean vs. sinful. The film is an attack on binary thinking, on straight filmmaking practices, on everyone who feels that filmmaking has to adhere to some kind of inherent respectability politics.
Zero Patience is a movie that throws everything at the wall, and lets it stick. It doesn’t care if it’s messy, at times confusing, often ridiculous, and defiantley light on a subject that couldn’t be heavier. Most importantly, it understands time in a specifically queer way. It sees how we are haunted by our own founding myths and misunderstandings. And it puts our lives in conversation with the world of the past. This is always what I’m looking for: works that throw out the entire notion of linear time, distinctions between the living and the dead, and ideas about the past as a somehow fixed, museum-like place rather than an ever-shifting tableau of attitudes and behaviors. Why screw around with art that assumes the past is dead and no in constant conversation with the present?
It also doesn’t hurt that there’s an entire number sung by talking butt puppets. I told you this was a very Henry movie.
The word “irreverent,” I think, is one of the highest points of praise there is. So much of cinema fails by toeing the line—by being too polite, or too scared to deviate from a perceived norm. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than work that plays with history, that invites and encourages anachronism. For years, I’ve been trying to write a novel that attempts to do everything that Zero Patience achieves flawlessly. I realized, while watching it, that what I really want to do is make a book that’s actually a musical, or make a movie that’s secretly a book. I want to pervert forms and combine things that shouldn’t make sense together, and that’s part of why it’s so hard to work on this thing that I know will never really be finished. But isn’t that what making art is all about? Trying to do what you’ve been told is “impossible?” Trying to make the thing that’s too weird, too unaesthetic, too in-your-face to be marketable?
Maybe. That’s part of the problem: I don’t know. I’m too entangled in the marketplace. Maybe I don’t have the balls to keep my work as weird as I want it to be, since I already feel alienated enough and I know I need to sell something eventually, even if I fundamentally don’t believe I have anything to give that can easily be sold. It’s Pride season right now, something I’ve always had a hard relationship to. Sometimes I feel like Pride is what straight people actually want from us, despite it being discussed in our history as a seminal riot. It was, but it is no longer. If you’ve lived long enough to hear the name “Marsha P. Johnson” uttered by a straight boy on TikTok by way of explaining why he wears nail polish, well—maybe you’ve lived too long. Maybe being gay was always supposed to be about f*cking ass, and the minute that became less than subversive, so, too, did our collective identity as queer people. Now everyone’s writing YA novels and memoirs and TV shows about how wonderful it is to be gay and I have to wonder: why is my work—and my life—so miserable?
These are the things I think about daily. But then, when I’m on the verge of trying to change everything I am for a shot at security and comfort, I see something like this, and I remember how it feels for something to really get you. The loneliness doesn’t completely go away, but it mellows a bit.
I remember how we can’t give into being ordinary, or being celebrated by banks, or being hated by politicians. We have to keep being defiantly weird in the face of a society that would have us castrated or dead.
Movies like this do that, and then are forgotten. But luckily, the story of a film is never over, not really. They can be rediscovered, resurrected, made new for an audience that’s finally really ready to hear what they have to say. Yes, even when it’s hard to hear.
Especially then. ♦
Zero Patience is streaming on the Criterion Channel as part of its Pride spotlight.