While the central plot of Bill Sherwood’s one movie, Parting Glances, concerns the relationship between the bookish Michael (Richard Ganoung) and his hunky lover, Robert (John Bolger), its heart lies in the bond between Michael and Nick (Steve Buscemi), a charmingly mordant rock’n’roller with AIDS.
The dialog in this early example of independent American cinema is a bit stiff in parts—none of the players had much big screen experience—but Buscemi’s brilliance as a character actor, a curious meld of James Dean and Bugs Bunny, infuses the project with a lithe, low-key, comic poetry akin to the vibe that Jim Jarmusch was inventing at the same time. (And it didn’t take long for Jarmusch and Buscemi to find each other.)
Parting Glances takes place on Robert’s last night in New York before flying to West Africa, where he has accepted a two-year work assignment. Over the course of the evening, which involves a dinner with his boss, a roll in the hay with Michael, a fabulous going-away party thrown by their painter friend Joan (Kathy Kinney), and a workout at a disco, the lovers reveal their affection for each other but also their very different temperaments. Nick’s illness becomes a litmus test, with Michael making pit stops at Nick’s apartment to cook for him and bring him records (he is turning this gaunt, leather clad rocker into an opera fan) while Robert stays away from the doomed man, defending his cowardice by insisting that Nick knew about AIDS and continued to live dangerously. Robert is running, from Nick and AIDS and from other things as well.
The film supports both the sweetly sardonic Nick and the slightly nerdy Michael, the Midwestern boy with a moral compass. Michael defies certain stereotypes of gay representation in being playful, thoughtful, and average-looking, while at the same time adored by his friends and pursued by the youngest and prettiest boy at the party. He and Robert are both somewhat compromised by the need to make a living: Michael is editing the novel of an acquaintance with no talent, while Robert works for Cecil (Patrick Tull), an insinuating, old-school queen resembling Gomez Addams. At the same time, their world is rich in both love and friendship, a richness that romantic commitment will not diminish to a vanishing point.
Sherwood, who himself died of AIDS four years after the film was released in 1986, executes a neat sleight of hand in Parting Glances: the prospect of Nick’s disappearance hurts hard, even as the film often feels like a light-footed sprint around the fountain.