January 24, 2014
Dallas Buyers Club, like all movies, is available to be anything to everyone. This essay for Visual AIDS, writer Anthony Easton explores some of what is going on within the awards season favorite, providing an opportunity to consider what the film is communicating around a variety of issues, including Texas, trans bodies and drugs.
Dallas Buyers Club has all of the marks of making someone who cares about HIV/AIDS pissed off -- it has a straight protagonist, played by Matthew McConaughey, straight love story that includes Jennifer Garner, and a straight actor (Jared Leto) playing a trans character who teaches lessons of mercy and tolerance. Plus the straight guy with AIDS is a redneck, a homophobe, and might have gotten the virus through anonymous sex in the back of an eighteen-wheeler. But being pissed about all of this provides legitimacy to a film, a movie that pretends it knows what it is doing, or even what it is about. Even in the glow of all the awards Dallas Buyers Club is receiving, it is good to break it down, and think about what the film is really about, what it is really trying to say, and being honest about where it fails.
Rodeo looks good on film, especially that god's eye view of the bull rider in his chute with the animal. It's also a useful metaphor. Think of the half failed Jack Twist, in Brokeback Mountain, he doesn't quite succeed at rodeo, nor at picking up boys in the bar afterwards. And although he does succeed finding a wife in the back of a car, that never quite works out either. In these films, the shift and pitch of the bull, mirrors the shift and pitch of an unstable life. In Dallas Buyers Club Roy Woodroof is shot at the rodeo, four important times:
Director Jean-Marc Vallée shoots these scenes through the struts of the chute, or jumps quickly between wide and close up shots, or makes the whole scene crowded with people; he makes sure that the bronco rider is still there making it less iconic and more paranoid.
What it means to be a cowboy in Texas is to be more than a little sleazy. McConaughey in the last few years, working against his vapid rom-com reputation, has been making an encyclopedia of sleaze, often about the ways men act or talk about women, when it doesn't matter if they are there. (See how he teaches The Kid to strip in Magic Mike; the endless monologue in Wolf of Wall Street, closeted queer and rape victim in the swampsleaze opus The Paper Boy, the contract killer and dirty cop in Killer Joe) There are bits in Dallas Buyers Club that are as sleazy as anything in those films. He drinks, he smokes, he does coke and meth, he rips off his buddies, he has a lot of sex, sometimes with women he pays. He deals drugs enough on the side, that most people seem to know him as a dealer rather than as an electrician. The day that he is found to be HIV positive, he and a buddy fuck two women.
There is a scene where he watches his friend screw through an open door--it becomes a kind of act of recursive framing: Him, looking through the door, to a mirror, three bodies in a very tight space. He wakes up after the bacchanal, discloses to his friend and, drinks more. The movie tries a neat trick, ennobling a sleazy character through hardship -- Woodroof's HIV makes him want to help people
. A good things about that string of sleaze MM has done in the last few years, is that there were no efforts to make the characters either safe or palatable. Too bad that run couldn't have continued on into Dallas.
The first movie I ever saw about HIV/AIDS was The Band Played On, where the doctors played heroes, trying to find a cure. I have been living in the shadow of the disease for my entire 33 years, and know the doctors are not the only way of working through these issues. I know the AIDS denial movement, I know the ones that are convinced about the efficacy of plants, I know the fights about which care works better, and about the problems with meds and side effects. And, the history of those with AIDS versus those who are treating those with AIDS is still alive. If they are going to swing this movie into the murk of those debates, if they are going to make the historical movie they think they are making, it might be helpful to have some other conversation than just repeating AZT is poison, and the odd piece of set dressing. (Gran Fury's Reagan poster was a nice touch though).
In a pursuit of drugs, the movie goes from Tokyo to Israel, from New York to San Francisco, it goes down to Mexico, and there was one line about going up to Alberta. It talks about Leto's character Rayon and how much she loves intravenous drugs, and Woodroof's fondness for cocaine is communicated. It hints at being a movie about how drugs are transported, bought, sold, and distributed. It almost makes a point -- hat the mechanics of the state, and regulation of the state, flatten the difference between what is good and what is bad (note how Jennifer Garner's character flirts with arguments against the efficacy of AZT). Making a film about unregulated pharmaceuticals being the new Cocaine, that is a film with some potential.
Movies about the problems of money have existed since the silent films--from Eric Stroheim's Greed to Citizen Kane to Bonnie and Clyde to Risky Business. This film is about money -- with its cash in envelopes, card games, pockets full of hundreds, and even the idea of selling memberships. The movie feels like we are exploring quasi-legal cash money game and yet, one of the weakest scenes in the movie is where Rayon goes to her father at the bank. She asks for help, and their estrangement over her gender is made clear. Leto plays Rayon in a suit, and they talk about how much money Daddy has, and how much money Rayon needs -- it is not convincing. The "grey market" that keeps working class people afloat is absent from that scene, but it is present in the rest of the movie. The tension of green in plain white envelopes is never really addressed.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.