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Dallas Buyers Club Considered

January 24, 2014

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Romantic Comedy

Jennifer Garner's doctor is interested and seduced by McConaughey's Ron Woodroof. They go out for dinner; he gives her a painting his mama painted. She gets frustrated by him, and knocks holes in the wall when she is trying to hang it. They go out on another date. He steals her prescription pad. She's not too angry. It seems that they fall in love. In this falling in love, he becomes more conservative. He does fewer drugs, he lives longer, he drinks less, he is no longer as homophobic or as transphobic as one can imagine. He becomes a better man, but there are limits to that desire to become a better man. They never fuck. Cocaine, heart attacks and dead trans martyrs can be shown on screen, but in Dallas Buyers Club, a pretty white girl risking sero-converting is a bridge too fair.

Erotic Drama

This is not one of those 70s films like The Last Tango in Paris or Swept Away where straight boys who do not understand who they are, or what they are doing, through a series of sexual acts, have their identities reaffirmed. The sex in those movies, or the irony of the sex in those movies, is though they are intended to be radically upsetting of the status quo, often reinforce a culture's fears of genital concerns. Though this movie features a number of nude scenes, the women who are nude are those who have been paid to be that way--they are strippers and prostitutes. Though there are scenes where his home is vandalized, his friends leave him, and he is violently oppressed for being HIV+ and therefore queer, by his service to the community, he gets better friends, more money, and a longer life. At the end of the movie, this redneck hustler even redeems the act of bull riding. The old life, of libertine pleasure is policed.


How Did Texas Get So Tiny?

Everyone has the perfect cowboy boots, bars serve that Gold label Coors, a Cadillac is bought and a Cadillac is sold, (and this is considered a an example of Woodroof's emerging capitulation to conventional morality). The accents are perfect. The film feels smeared with the sweat and grease of a too hot summer. It is a movie that is shot in half shots--through windows or doors, the back seats of cars, with too crowded frames, in all close ups or medium close ups, with jump cuts. Texas is supposed to be expansive, wide country, but this movie is so interior--even the hospital scenes have a collapsed paranoia. There is a scene of the rodeo, where 6 people are crowded around the stub end of a fence, each of them not having space enough to move. There is a scene at a bar with the same crowd of people, and the same lack of mobility. The hotel that he ends up doing his business out of, it is the crowded rooms that are emphasized, and not the vast expanse of parking lot and sky. When he makes a little bit of money, he is given a house, and the house itself becomes tiny. The film never does a pan or a sweep, or moves backwards, in a way that would suggest any real scale.

There is a scene, early in the film, which doesn't last more than 30 seconds. Kenny Rogers' Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town is playing. We see the dusky rose of a Dallas sunset, and one line of the song, and then we go back to an ill lit and claustrophobic home. The song is about a man who was paralyzed from the Vietnam War, and his wife--who steps out on him, because he cannot move. It is a song against the government, and about the nature of sex. It is a song that would be understood by people in Texas, but it is used here only as a wink and a nod, and on to the same misery. Imagine a scene, where the song just played, and McConaughey drove his car, lopping and slow, through an actual landscape--it might indicate how life is really lived.

Oscar Bait

Jonathan Demme make Silence of the Lambs, and the Jame Grumb /Buffalo Bill character was a nightmare, but was imbued with a strangeness, a set of characteristics, and played so well, that the word didn't seem cynical. We had Philadelphia, by the same director, whose presence was cynical--Tom Hanks, all American boy next door with the perfect husband and a death that was so noble that it was literally operatic. We had Boys Don't Cry, which got the bored drinking, riding around, and the landscapes of ennui and terror perfectly correct. But it was another martyrdom, and like the previously mentioned films, won an Oscar. More recently, we had Precious, dumb about race and dumb about class, and continued to make poor folks incapable of anything but a late Bette Davis kind of sociopathy. And now we have Dallas Buyers Club, which has the potential for being cynical, brash, smart--for making a lot of statements about how money works, or about how drugs work, or about how ugly Texas really might be, and there is a hint or a flirt. But Oscars got to be made, and money needs to flow, and making a movie is expensive. So, we are given the perfect doctor, the handsome lawyer, the transgendered victim dying and lovely, and a movie star slumming it for gold. But he has spent the last few years slumming, making transgressive, fuck-you movies of genuine power. Too bad this was not one of them.

In Seeing Death

In traditional accounts of martyrdom, the dying is deliberate, and seeing a body is a mark of autonomy. We see neither the bodies of Rayon or of Woodroof. But with Rayon, we see how it affects Woodroof, and how it adds to the narrative of treatment that he is (both financially and socially) pushing. The last scene we see of Woodroof, he is on the bull, working against the sickness of his body. The difference between Rayon and Ron's death is symbolic of how the movie thinks of Rayon as subject to Ron "heroics."

Imagine a movie about a rodeo fan who dies of AIDS and the failures of lost glory (Woodroof in really life never rode); imagine a movie where someone does good because of money and no one is ashamed of the capitalism; imagine a discussion of what drug use actually means, imagine a mainstream romantic comedy about AIDS that actually features fucking; or a Hollywood funded film where the sex isn't code for something reactionary; imagine a working class tale of Texan energy that doesn't force a claustrophobic smallness; imagine a movie where all bodies mattered. There are so many small details, and elegant edges to Dallas Buyers Club, but the film, because it wanted an Oscar, fails.

Anthony Easton is a writer, scholar and rodeo fiend.

For another look at the film, check out Visual AIDS Program Manager Ted Kerr's article, "47 Things I Talk About When I Talk About The Dallas Buyers Club" for In the Flesh.

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This article was provided by Visual AIDS.
See Also
13 Moments in Black Celebrity Activism
History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities
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