COMMON THREADS: STORIES FROM THE QUILT
AIDS is treatable, but as of this writing not curable. There was a time though when the mere mention of AIDS created a terror to anyone who heard it, let alone anyone who was diagnosed with it. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, ties five AIDS patient stories, along with their families, to bring us individual faces to this plague.
We get stories as individual and varied as those who tell them. Dr. Tom Waddell, former Olympian who helped found the Gay Games. Robert Perryman, struggling drug addict but devoted family man. Jeff Sevcik, film fan and partner to film historian Vito Russo. David Mandell, Jr., a tween hemophiliac. David Campbell, landscape architect. As we weave in and out of who each of them was, we hear from their loved ones, ranging from lovers to friends to parents.
Common Threads follows a structure with each storyteller: we start with how they met (or in Mandell's case, his early childhood), then on how they contracted AIDS and finally up to their dying days. Some of their storytellers do not have the disease, such as Sara Lowenstein, a lesbian whom Waddell fathered a child with. Others, however, are also HIV-positive, such as Sallie Perryman, Robert's wife.
Intermixed with these five individual stories are news reports on the growing crisis, along with narrator Dustin Hoffman reading the increasing number of people who have died of AIDS. We start with 355 in 1981, then see each year increase to 1,235 (1982), 3,933 (1983) up to 55,388 in 1988. As the numbers grow, we end Common Threads with the unfurling of the massive quilt on the Washington Mall, those left behind able to grieve their loved ones, and those not directly affected to ponder the massive loss.
It is impossible not to be moved by these stories, and it was wise of directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman to showcase a variety of AIDS deaths. It makes clear that this disease is not strictly and solely one that impacts a small group. Though we do have three gay men featured (Waddell, Sevcik and Campbell), we do have a straight man (Perryman) and a minor (Mandell). As such, we do get those must vulnerable: gay men, hemophiliacs and drug users. However, we also see that those in "less vulnerable" groups can also run the risk of acquiring the disease.
We see how Sallie Perryman, calmly, almost serenely, tells us that she too tested positive. This was a straight black woman, devout in her faith, yet AIDS will claim her too. We also see, perhaps jarringly but necessary, Campbell's lover Tracy Torrey, a Navy officer who was closeted but who is clearly in the final stages of death. It was a brave act to show Torrey (who died before the film was released) speak his own tale as well as that of Sevcik, the love of his life.
Another partner, Vito Russo, was also HIV-positive but healthy-looking. He was more outspoken in his activism, making clear that both his and Sevcik's diagnoses pushed him to be vocal about the disease.
One of the most moving moments is perhaps one of the oddest. It is when David Mandell, Jr. (who lived to be 12) has a video chat with the character ALF. It takes a lot to make one get teary-eyed at seeing a child talk to a puppet, but I found it deeply emotional. Mandell was a big ALF fan, and while we know ALF can't do anything, seeing the alien from Melmac offer words of hope and encouragement to his fan got to me.
Common Threads is barely political. We do get mention of Russo's activism, some of the slow to no action from the Reagan Administration and from those who saw AIDS as a punishment. However, those were few. Instead, Common Threads was more focused on the individuals who died of AIDS, and those they left behind.
If I found things to criticize, it would perhaps be the Bobby McFerrin vocal score, which sometimes seemed a bit much but not a dealbreaker.
Sadly, AIDS has been all but forgotten. The red ribbons, once ubiquitous at any awards show, have been long relegated to video archives. Even now, seeing the paranoia AIDS caused early on might be seen as more a curiosity than anything else. Common Threads can be seen as a time capsule on early AIDS fears. It can be seen as a chance to see those who lived and died from it speak to us.
It should be seen, period. AIDS is still with us, and just because one can live with AIDS does not mean people are no longer dying of AIDS. It is true: we are bound by Common Threads.