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‘Zero Patience’ (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 10, 1994

If silence equals death, "Zero Patience" is not about to succumb anytime soon. A screamer of an AIDS musical from writer-director John Greyson, the film sets out to debunk scientific theories on the origin of the disease. But with its cast of hunky, healthy-looking hoofers—all of whom are supposed to be ill—the work seems to deny some of the grim realities.

A lewd, crudely scored hommage to both the MGM musical and the music video, "Zero Patience" isn't going to bring Jesse Helms to the theater, much less mainstream fans of the more heartfelt "Philadelphia." At least the hero of that film looked sick, dealt with his illness and allowed the audience to sympathize.

Greyson's fantasia, however, has only one sympathetic character—a French teacher (Ricardo Keens-Douglas) who loses his eyesight over the course of the film. He also performs one of composer Glenn Schellenberg's prettiest songs, "Positive," with the kids in his classroom. But then he is not the hero of this story, which focuses on Sir Richard Francis Burton (John Robinson), a Victorian explorer who, the film tells us, drank from the fountain of youth and is currently employed as a taxidermist by Canada's Natural History Museum.

The 170-year-old Burton has just put the finishing touches on a diorama featuring the African green monkey when he decides on a new centerpiece for his Hall of Contagion. With dreams of regaining his glory dancing in his head, Burton sets out to create a multimedia display centering on Patient Zero (Normand Fauteux), the French Canadian flight attendant whose promiscuous life was chronicled in Randy Shilts's 1987 bestseller, "And the Band Played On."

Burton sets out to prove the theory that Patient Zero introduced AIDS to North America. But Zero, now a ghostly hard-body trapped in a heavenly swimming pool, is determined to stop Burton, whose homophobic approach is certain "to perpetuate bigotry and fetishize blame." To wit, the ghost appears to Burton, who soon becomes his lover and so develops an enlightened view of Zero as "the heroic slut who inspired safe sex."

For those who complained about the lack of boy-boy sex in "Philadelphia," this film presents a carnal cornucopia of pinwheeling privates and singing rumps that offer tips on bathhouse etiquette and debate the merits of anal sex. There's also a much sweeter scene—not that that would take a lot—between Robinson and Fauteux, who begin their affair in the diorama after the African green monkey (played by Marla Lukofsky) dances off with her friend the parrot.

The monkey, who accuses Burton of "trying to pin it on some other species," denies that the AIDS virus originated in Africa. Likewise, Miss HIV (the late Michael Callen as a virus in drag) urges Burton and Zero, who spy her under a microscope, to be wary of scientific myth. She is joined by a chorus of other viruses—syphilis, CMV and others—in the lyrical suggestion that HIV alone cannot cripple the immune system. It seems noteworthy that all the disease carriers are feminine.

The blame for the epidemic, however, is gender free, if familiar: Homophobic governments, greedy pharmaceutical companies and the Victorian prejudices in the public mind. But many of Greyson's arguments might have been better served in a documentary.

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