Silverlake Life: The View From Here is a documentary concerning the body, its physical metamorphosis over time from complications stemming from AIDS, and the larger discourse of the ways in which society views and treats the body. It is an unflinching record of the day to day lives of two men, Tom Joslin and Mark Massi, partners of 26 years, who both are dying from AIDS. Unlike most films on AIDS, these men are not actors, these men are real, their disease is real, their lesions are real, the wasting we see is real, and the reactions of those they love and who love them are real, and those they come in contact with are real.
What strikes me most about this film is the graphic depiction of the way in which society treats bodies. There exists a strange dichotomy. The medical technicians who care for these men touch their bodies, touch their lesions; there is no sensationalism here, it is just factual; the state of things. The men themselves touch each others bodies, showing us painful eyelids encrusted with lesions. It is all matter of fact. As a much younger and healthy Mark Massi proclaims from a rooftop, “blatant is beautiful.” Contrast that physicalist sensibility, that extension of philosophical thought being the idea that it is our physical bodies which make us human for which we should not be ashamed, with the woman who runs the resort where these two go to relax. She wants to be accepting, she wants to do the right thing, but asks Mark to keep his shirt on in the pool so the other guests won’t have to see his karposi’s lesions. She is similar to John’s mother, who Mark describes as the typical liberal, she can say homosexual but feels sorry for us all the same.
The most amazing moment of this testament happens on 1 July in the film when, holding the camera on Tom lying in his bed with a shaky hand and sobbing, Mark tells us that Tom has just died. We have all witnessed death so often in the media that we have pretty much become immune to it. But this is the real thing, I don’t think I have ever seen on film a real corpse – the reality of it is powerful. This is where the film asks the question which we all face, asks it not only of us the viewers but of Mark as well. Which is what ultimately makes this film transcendent. We, along with Mark, having been a witness to Tom’s physical decline, must now grapple, along with Mark, what the meanings are surrounding his physical death.
The coroner comes and we see Tom’s body looking so frail, like those photos of corpses from Dachau, being handled like just another object as it is placed into the body bag. The coroner loads the bagged body unceremoniously into the back of the wagon, and even though he wears latex gloves, announces he needs to go wash his hands. We sense societies increased discomfort with the body in death. The essence of Tom is gone. What animated and made Tom Tom has left his body, leaving not only his body but hard questions: where did Tom go? is the mind separate from the body? is our logical belief in physicalism so easily destroyed with the death of one whom we care for and love? Mark addresses this question, even as he speaks to Tom’s ashes when he spills them on the floor, telling Tom he’s all over the place, telling us that Tom is dead, he is gone, that’s it, he doesn’t exist anymore – at least that is how he felt until Tom comes back to visit him.
So even Mark can not escape the discourse of dualistic thought which is that from which our discomfort with the corporeal arises. Which is why this film is powerful, it forces us to face Tom’s and Mark’s bodies, and in doing so forces us to face our own, stripping us of our cultural clothing to confront our physicality and wonder what it is which makes us who we are and why is it that we seem unable to embrace our physical being.