Opening the Vancouver Queer Film Festival next Thursday (August 9), 1985 tells the story of a gay man visiting his conservative Christian family in Texas three years after leaving for New York.
Implicitly a film about the AIDS crisis, the sad, elegant feature is striking for its authentic sense of time and place, even more so when you consider that in 1985, writer-director Yen Tan was a 10-year-old boy living in Kuala Lumpur. That’s a long way from Reagan-era Fort Worth.
“I’ve soaked up a lot of stuff after living here for two decades,” says the filmmaker, reached by phone at his home in the Lone Star state’s great creative hub of Austin. “I think I really understand what makes people tick here, how they talk to each other—and how they don’t talk to each other.”
1985 is full of people not talking to each other. As Adrian, Gotham’s Cory Micheal Smith shows up for Christmas bearing lavish gifts and a handful of painful secrets. Virginia Madsen dotes as Mom, but Dad (Michael Chiklis) can barely look his son in the eye. It doesn’t help that little brother Andrew (Aidan Langford) has recently developed a taste for theatre and, uh oh—Madonna!
Shot in 16mm black-and-white, Tan’s film might remind viewers of a less arch, ’80s-era Jim Jarmusch, with the pacing here designed to reveal inner lives that are richer than we think. In the kindness it extends to all of its characters—especially its “stereotypically bigoted dad”—1985 recalls Roger Ebert’s famous description of cinema as an “empathy machine”.
Tan quips: “In some ways I think that 1985 was one way for me to reconcile this idea of a good person who still voted for Trump.”
Of course, it was a different style of cryptofascist who occupied the White House 33 years ago, while a specific kind of fear and prejudice was directed at a community ravaged by the so-called “gay plague”. Building on an acclaimed short he made in 2016, Tan based 1985 on stories he heard when he worked for a company that bought insurance policies from the terminally ill, not long after he relocated to the States in the mid-’90s.
“This was right before the breakthrough cocktail drugs happened,” he says. “It sounds really morbid, but I never would have been able to interact with these people otherwise.”
While that explains much of its narrative veracity, Tan has come to realize, as 1985 makes the festival rounds, that the film’s soul is uniquely his. And possibly Marty McFly’s.
“It’s come up a few times—why did I make this film set in 1985?” he says. “And I realized that 1985 was a very significant year for me personally because that’s the year that I first had an inclination that I was gay. And I would sort of credit Michael J. Fox for that.”
Say what now?
Tan laughs, explaining: “I just remember really wanting to be Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, but then also thinking I wanted to be with him in Teen Wolf. But coming to terms with my feelings for another man crashed against Rock Hudson’s very public death, also in 1985. I think, being Malaysian and seeing that, I was, like, ‘I’m gay, and I’m going to die of AIDS.’ In the mind of a 10-year-old, that’s how I put it together, that was the way I connected it. It was an emotional scar.”
Bear all that in mind as you watch. Tan’s film is a weave of private stories and period beats, but it might vibrate most as a letter to his own childhood—something that brings an especially powerful payload to its final scenes.
“In some ways I’m almost going back in time to tell my 10-year-old self, ‘Hey, being gay doesn’t mean AIDS,’ ” he offers. “'Those are two different things and being gay by itself can still mean you can have a life of happiness, finding love—all the things that everyone wants.' This is only something I realized after talking about the film over the past couple of months. And I was like, ‘Oh gosh, this is actually the real intention behind the film.’"
1985 screens at the Vancouver Playhouse on Tuesday (August 9) and the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Friday (August 10). The Vancouver Queer Film Festival runs from August 9 to 19.