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Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt
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by John Smith

4 stars

This film is told with much emotion, a strong, clear story thread, and a group of distinctly presented characters. While it is not excessively subjective, footage is edited and ordered into a trajectory that builds to an extremely emotional climax.

It's a high budget film, with crane shots, a music score, and narration by Dustin Hoffmann. In other words, it has the structure and style of a traditional Hollywood fictional narrative film. This is a clever choice of style. At the time of its production, the "real" stories and emotions of the AIDS epidemic were unnoticeable behind the hysteria that went with the disease.

Using a conventional, mainstream film style helps to appeal to mainstream sensibilities, while also rebalancing the ostracism given to sufferers of the disease. It works to place AIDS and its sufferers in a conventional context, in marked contrast to TONGUES UNTIED, which is defiant in its differences.

The interviews are gripping. Five people speak of their experiences watching a loved one die of AIDS. Three of the deceased are gay men, one is a heterosexual man, the other a hemophiliac child. Good choices, reflecting the demographic spread of the disease in the 1980s. The interviewees - lovers and parents - talk from the heart, and their stories are supremely compelling. Three are themselves infected with HIV, one dying during the filmís production, the other two dying after. Like stars from a film, they are each given a still picture credit at the filmís end, posing by their loved onesí finished quilt panel.

The quilt itself is an inspired choice of subject, for it makes for such a powerful narrative tool. For example, it links the interviewees together - they are all making panels for the massive quilt laid out on a regular basis to such effect in Washington DC. Also, the tradition and handiwork involved in producing the quilt balance the lurid controversies associated with the disease, and, again, forges a link between two previously estranged areas of American life. Visually, it is beautiful, powerful, and works as a cohesive image.

For me though, even more exciting are the filmís inclusion of news broadcasts, television specials, speeches from political press conferences and doctors speaking from their offices, during the early years of the epidemic. (These great cultural artifacts had me leaning closer to the screen, literally on the edge of my seat with excitement. Here, in chronological order, were the hindsight-free, now fascinatingly naive-sounding, words of those in the media, government and medicine. Reagan is seen dodging the question at an early press conference, and doctors talk of their confusion, fear and ignorance. Peter Jennings, looking youthful, is seen telling viewers about "a strange new disease among homosexuals" in the first twenty minutes.

Midway through the film, he makes what I would consider one of the great soundbytes of the twentieth century, right up there with "One small step for mankind", Hitlerís oratory, or Churchillís "fight them on the beaches.". "Its called AIDS," he says, while introducing a breakthrough news special in 1984. "Over a hundred thousand Americans are infected with it. So why is it, that we never hear anything about it?"
Iím not aware of any other resource that contains all of these marvelous sounds and images. Gay communities come out from the disco to make solemn candlelit marches. The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s is my personal obsession, and these hard to find pieces of cultural history are one of the reasons why I have seen this film countless times.)

Though the film generates sympathy, it is not subjective or manipulative. The subject matter is powerful enough. How much the inclusion, and specific placement, of the above mentioned historical footage, as well as footage of the making of the quilt panels, influences our perception of what is being said by the interviewees is difficult to say. After all, the historical footage is not doctored, and the quilt workshops have been in existence for almost twenty years - the original is still open, on Market Street in San Francisco, and when I visited it last year, people were hunched over sewing machines affixing coloured messages just like they were in this documentary. I feel we do see the "real" AIDS Ė for once unadorned with controversy and politics, and able to appreciated as a biological tragedy.

Some subjects have a larger than life sense about them, and AIDS is certainly one of them. The cultural, political, biological and social ramifications of the disease are Byzantine indeed. This film judiciously chooses just one aspect - the Quilt, and sticks to it like glue. So, it is possible to refute claims that the film excludes contrary opinions on these grounds. I would say Common Threads is highly "real". I do want to see other sides of the AIDS epidemic explored on film, but I think they have to be explored one by one.

Itís a shame other quality documentaries on AIDS have not been produced in the numbers they could be.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=5895&reviewer=305
originally posted: 04/22/02 08:16:41
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User Comments

3/07/06 jordensgirl1@yahoo.com beautiful and heartbreaking it needs to be seen by everyone 5 stars
9/07/04 Mark D Fulwiler Good, very moving film 4 stars
3/28/03 Jonah Falcon Who would have thought ALF would bring one to tears? 5 stars
1/06/03 Jonah Falcon How can you discuss Common Threads and not Bobby McFerrin's score?!?! 5 stars
4/25/02 simpolton (toxictrunks@yahoo.co.uk) is my e-mail address spassticks could do better 5 stars
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