Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989)

Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

It’s about as simple as a documentary gets. A few ambient shots of something like birds flying or a sunset, occasional home movies, more photographs, pans across quilt squares, some footage of people reading names, talking heads. I use this a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever meant it more when I say a high schooler in an intro AV class could have put this thing together. From a technical perspective, Common Threads is truly basic stuff. There’s a cut to a close-up of Vito Russo which just about took my breath away because Epstein and Friedman had kept the camera at a distance from him for all of the previous appearances he had in the film. It’s that kind of movie, where a close-up is a flourish. That’s why Common Threads is one of the finest documentaries I’ve ever come across, one of the few American documentaries that can stand alongside The Thin Blue Line or Koyaanisqatsi, albeit slightly shorter than they are. Like Word Is Out, another fantastic documentary which couldn’t have been made more simply, Common Threads recognizes what Louis Sullivan knew: “form ever follows function, and this is the law.”

The function of Common Threads is explicitly political. The AIDS epidemic, which could not have been more obviously dangerous in the 1980s—a 100% fatality rate among patients from a disease which could be transmitted easily without the bearer having any apparent signs of it—was ignored for crucial years because of the people who got sick from it first. Out of the five subjects of the documentary, three of them were gay men. Tom Waddell (whose story is related by his wife, Sara Lewinstein), Jeffrey Sevcik (by his lover, Russo), and David Campbell (by his lover, Tracy Torrey). Of the three people who shared their stories, two of them had AIDS themselves. Russo would live to see this documentary completed, but would not live long enough to see Epstein and Friedman adapt his book The Celluloid Closet. Torrey did not even live that long; his name is shown on the NAMES Quilt near Campbell’s towards the end of the film. Russo argues, as many others have and would, that the criminally slow response of the American government to AIDS was based in prejudice against homosexuals, a hatred that made them so stupid that it seemed to believe that just because it was primarily affecting gay men didn’t mean it could only affect gay men. Epstein and Friedman walk a fairly thin line here, and do it successfully. While the story of AIDS in the 1970s and early 1980s must start with the way that the gay community was obliterated by it, they recognize that the vast spread of the disease required storytelling and recollection which showed that heterosexual people, as well as people who weren’t sexually active, could contract AIDS as well.

The other two subjects, Robert Perryman (by his wife, Sallie Perryman), and David Mandell (by his parents, Suzi and David), represent other groups particularly ravaged by AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. Perryman was a drug addict, and Mandell, who died before he hit his teen years, was a hemophiliac. Sallie Perryman is the second talking head we come across, and the Mandells must get as much screen time as anyone else in the film. Like Waddell, Perryman was a father. While the story of how Waddell and Lewinstein, both homosexual, got together to have a child is more unusual than the more traditional story of how Robert and Sallie did, the film is plain about the way that AIDS robbed two daughters from different circumstances of their fathers before they could ever know them well. David’s story is the kind of pure tragedy that a propagandist seizes on. In one interview, Suzi expresses the terrible choice in front of her as the danger of contracting AIDS through tainted blood transfusions became more widely known: significantly lower David’s quality of life for who knows how long, or take the risk. She takes the risk, and who can blame her.

From what she and her husband report, David seemed to have made a kind of peace with it himself, making a point of enjoying what he knew would be his last Christmas. There’s a clip of David talking via monitor with ALF, which is a very ’80s thing to do, and David seems to be enjoying himself okay. It’s the one time we see video of him around his final age, and what’s so brutal about the clip is the way that ALF (I guess it’s Paul Fusco back there, but who knows) gets very serious with David at the end of the conversation. Promise me you’ll only think positive thoughts, ALF says, pointing at David. He promises. David’s death is reported to us while we see a picture of him standing next to another kid, presumably a similar age to him. The other kid is taller, stronger. David is shrunken and, though smiling, his body clearly doesn’t have much to give. What happens to him is not unlike what happens to Torrey, whose interviews with the directors are different than everyone else’s. Where Lewinstein or Perryman sit up, Torrey is prone. His face is pocked from some skin ailment. Clearly, the career naval officer is too weak to hold himself up any longer. The government, Epstein and Friedman show, may have been invested in purging the Tracy Torreys in their midst; what else could explain its slow response? (A couple years earlier, Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On made a comparison of the government’s response to a single outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease and its response to AIDS, and you can guess which of the two received more attention.) To do so, it required the deaths of David Mandells. In Common Threads, it’s a trade-off that the government made willingly, and it doesn’t take more than a little juxtaposition to bring that out.

Of the interviewees, only Russo has some commentary for the camera about the negligence of the government. In a moment of frankness, Suzi Mandell even recounts her hesitance to start volunteering her time to put together pieces of the NAMES Quilt because of an uneasiness she felt with gay people. Common Threads is there to be political, to fire bullets at the Reagan administration without the sound of it leaving the room. But as angry as Russo was, as provincial as Mandell admits to being, Common Threads also functions as a ninety-minute wake. Lewinstein emphasizes how much it saddened Waddell that this child he had wanted and hoped for would not be able to remember him beyond the vaguest recollections. On the other hand, the competitive spirit of an American Olympian and the founder of the Gay Games transcended even his death; she recounts listening to a tape that he left her in which he needles her about their racquetball games, telling her that he let her win. Sallie Perryman remembers that Robert didn’t mind changing diapers, but it fairly well grossed her out. Russo talks about Sevcik’s dreamy temperament, the way that he loved The Member of the Wedding because he could see himself in Julie Harris’s performance of an outcast desperately wanting to be let in. Common Threads is not a teary movie, which surprised me a little as I watched it. Lewinstein gets a little choked up in there, as does David Mandell, but for the most part people hold their composure as they talk about their loved ones killed by the 20th Century’s most horrifying epidemic. No one suggests that making the quilt patches (an activist choice, and one that is not made in isolation for multiple people interviewed) is what’s helped them mourn, but it’s impossible not to make that connection on our own. Common Threads believes in the dignity of grief. People talk about the people they love who are no longer there to receive it. The camera sits still and takes it in.

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