Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer's End
1996, NR, 90 min. Directed by Monte Bramer.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., April 24, 1998
One imagines that even in the direst moments of his slow death from AIDS, the resolutely good-humored writer Paul Monette savored the irony of reviews pegging him as a “late bloomer.” It was, after all, the ghastly blighting force of terminal illness that inspired his mid-life development from a marginal poet manqué into an award-winning literary lion. Still, the flowering metaphor wasn't entirely off the mark. As Monte Bramer's tough, lucid, big-souled documentary attests, there's an almost primal quality of triumph in the moment when a mind wired from birth for artistic expression finds its true subject. For Monette, that was the AIDS outbreak of the early 1980s. Like an icy night wind, the epidemic roused the gay pretty boy preppie from 20 years of personal and artistic slumber, inspiring a string of brilliant books capped by the coming-out memoir, “Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story” (which won the National Book Award) and “Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir.” Using the serviceable if unoriginal format of talking-heads testimonials from friends blended with still photos and videos of the subject, Bramer paints Monette as a man whose inability to face a core element of his own identity -- his homosexuality -- barred him from any real self-knowledge until early middle age. AIDS not only forced Monette to deal with his sexuality but filled him with an obsessive urge to divine some kind of meaning from the enveloping horror and chaos around him. As one subject says, in times of sadness and loss, artists like Monette do us the invaluable service of turning raw sorrow into eloquent, healing “lamentation.” In a way, this film works like a nonfiction version of Norman René's Longtime Companion (1990), another movie that manages the trick of universalizing the responses of gay men to tragedy in their midst while at the same time unleashing a defiant manifesto of queer identity that straights are compelled to take or leave on its own terms: Tender suburban domesticity and hard-muscled boys on the side; apron strings and cock rings. The best thing Paul Monette has to offer is Monette himself. With his calm, rational eyes peering out of a face that gradually collapses upon itself over a decade of taped interviews, he seems the very image of reason incarnate. Even his fits of hyperbole (declaring Pope John Paul II the most evil force in the world) seem forgivable because of the pure, unimpeachable moral fervor behind them. No matter how many times we hear it said that art redeems all our human failures and gives us the only immortality we can count on, it's a faith that fades without constant reinforcement. Paul Monette deserves our sincerest tribute for providing so much of that emotional nourishment during his 50-year life. And for delivering that tribute with such vigor and clarity, Monte Bramer deserves a good measure of the same.