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One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave: Secrets from the Dolly Madison Room

Jonathan Demme-produced docu "One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave" invites its audience, without artifice or affectation, into the day-to-day experience of gay men living with AIDS. Pic eavesdrops in tearoom fashion on patients' conversations at a clinic in New York's West Village, giving as much time to banality as to bravery. Technical poverty will limit exposure, but the film's honesty should secure it a niche on public TV.

Jonathan Demme-produced docu “One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave” invites its audience, without artifice or affectation, into the day-to-day experience of gay men living with AIDS. Pic eavesdrops in tearoom fashion on patients’ conversations at a clinic in New York’s West Village, giving as much time to banality as to bravery. Technical poverty will limit exposure, but the film’s honesty should secure it a niche on public TV.

Detractors who slammed “Philadelphia” for soft-pedaling the story’s gay elements for mass-market consumption may find the reality base they felt was missing in this frank, decosmeticized flip side.

Like “Silverlake Life,” this docu wields a devastating emotional impact that comes from watching one of its subjects (co-director Juan Botas) gradually fade and die. In both films, the home-movie immediacy makes the sense of loss even more palpable.

Botas’ humor and openness make his hospitalization and subsequent death (recorded primarily via its effect on his fellow patients) a quietly harrowing experience. But “Banana Peel” risks allowing a large chunk of the audience to tune out before they feel its real impact.

The major burden directly follows the main titles. A voiceover relates Botas’ initial impulse to film conversations between patients, actively preparing the audience for the funny, life-affirming, heroic exchanges. What comes next is inevitably a letdown — basically a long stretch of engaging but unexceptional banter, compromised by raw sound recording that makes much of it unintelligible.

In the meantime, the visual limitations imposed by a Hi-8 video camera being passed around a drab office interior don’t go unnoticed.

But as staff and patients of the clinic become more familiar, and the warmth and solidarity between them is expressed, the film slowly comes into its own. Discussions of love, loss, preparation for death, and attitudes to AIDS are often poignant. Observations about the generation of gay men coming out in the age of AIDS add another somber dimension. The only giveaway of the modest project’s Demme-monde citizenship is its astute use of Anton Sanko’s delightful music, which starts out jauntily but gradually bends the same basic riff into a more soulful commentary.

One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave: Secrets from the Dolly Madison Room

(DOCU -- VIDEO)

Production: A Clinica Estetico, Joanne Howard production. Produced by Jonathan Demme, Peter Saraf. Directed by Juan Botas, Lucas Platt.

Crew: Camera (color), Victoria Leacock, Botas; editor, Platt; music, Anton Sanko. Reviewed at From Sodom to Hollywood, Intl. Gay Film Festival, Turin, Italy, April 17, 1994. Running time: 80 MIN.

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