Sunday, March 2, 2014

Surviving the plague

Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club (still in theatres after several months, and also available now in other formats) is up for several Oscars this year, including for best picture, and by the time this article appears may have won at least two of them, most likely for best actor and supporting actor. I didn’t get round to watching the film until last week, having felt it had “wait for cable” written all over it. Basically, I think that was right. The film’s not dull or irritating, but there’s little advantage to actually watching it over just reading about what it depicts; quite the opposite, because the approximately two hour running time would allow you to absorb a much wider slab of history than the film provides. Put another way, on this occasion the film’s pictures aren’t in any way worth a well-chosen thousand words.

Dallas Buyers Club

Set in the late eighties, it’s a portrayal of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a heterosexual who becomes ill with AIDS at a time when it’s barely understood except as a gay disease. Given thirty days to live, he bets everything on AZT, still in highly controlled trials at the time but perceived as a potential wonder drug, and bribes a hospital employee to smuggle it out to him; instead of curing him, the drug nearly overwhelms his metabolism. A renegade doctor in Mexico brings him back from the brink, opening his eyes both to better treatment options, and to the money-making potential of smuggling unapproved drugs into the US; later on, this leads to founding the buyers’ club, an attempt to finesse the law by selling monthly memberships rather than directly dealing in drugs. Business booms for a while, but the authorities are soon climbing all over him, in what you might see as a typically bureaucratic obsession with saving desperate and dying people from acting on their own risk assessments.

As it happened, it worked out well that I’d delayed watching Dallas Buyers Club for a while, because I ended up seeing it in the same week as the recent documentary How to Survive a Plague, which is currently showing on SuperChannel. Constructed mainly from archival footage, that film covers much the same period and concerns, depicting the evolving fight against a slow-moving Food & Drug Administration for access to treatments. Although it highlights some pivotal individuals, How to Survive a Plague is most distinguished by its portrait of a community, united in unimaginable loss and fear, but also at times deeply divided about strategy and tactics.

The broader story

In contrast, Dallas Buyers Club is very much the story of one man, and even if it’s a broadly true one (as usual, people have raised various quibbles about accuracy), the narrative barely touches on the broader story of AIDS in America. That is to say, just as a film like Cry Freedom chose to tell the story of apartheid by concentrating on the travails of a white liberal, and relegating Steve Biko to a supporting character in his own story, Dallas Buyers Club barely has a gay person in sight, except as background extras and bit players. The main exception is Rayon, a transgender woman played by Jared Leto, who becomes his business partner, using her contacts to help him drum up business. Leto is said to be a near-lock for the Oscar, which I don’t really understand; it may be a capable physical transformation (for one thing, both actors lost a significant amount of weight) but Rayon always seems like a collection of traits rather than a fully realized person. Still, it’s not as if the film is any more artful in its heterosexual characters, primarily embodied by a thuddingly rendered opposition between a good doctor (Jennifer Garner) and her FDA tool of a superior.

The conception of Rayon seems like a throwback to a time, not so long ago, when a straight actor wouldn’t play a gay person without heavy coding and signposting to avoid any confusion about fact and fiction. One of the film’s more interesting aspects is its depiction of a Texas subculture where homophobia isn’t just prevalent, but seems to be a key component of social discourse. Ron becomes estranged from his former crowd, and later runs into a former buddy in a grocery store; the friend seems inclined to take a stab at burying the hatchet, but the way he chooses to do it is by throwing a random slur at the nearest deviant in sight (who happens to be Rayon). As with the seemingly rampant sex, drugs, drink and gambling that seems to define the group, it’s not a stretch to wonder what underlying emptiness and identity confusion underlies such obsessions (according to Wikipedia, the real life Woodroof may have been bisexual, which if so seems like a regrettable omission, and hard to justify except as an instance of running away from complexity).

Radical treatments

The film is most appealing when it’s being wayward and hard-headed – and it does a relatively good job of avoiding sentimentality: Woodroof’s initial antipathy to homosexuals (whereby the writers allow themselves to lay out a mini encyclopedia of colourful euphemisms) dissipates somewhat, but it remains more about the money and his own survival than about altruism. There are moments when you might think you glimpse the chaotic darkness of a 70’s movie, but they never last very long (in one of the best moments, Woodroof perks up at the sight of a girl among his typically all-male clientele, because it’s a chance for mutual beyond-risk sex). McConaughey’s performance is strong and unfussy, but seems well within the comfort zone he’s established with his recent performances (which admittedly is a pretty electrified zone). But already I find I’m running out of things to say here; the film, basically, just isn’t very stimulating.

It seems to me that radical subjects demand at least somewhat radical treatments. As How to Survive a Plague passionately depicts, for some communities, AIDS comprehensively rewrote everything. Our society has an entirely decadent approach to death and suffering – some theoretical losses of life, such as those that might result from vaguely foreseeable terrorist attacks, are worth any amount of money and energy to prevent; other infinitely more foreseeable ones, like the toll of daily poverty and malnutrition, aren’t judged as a practical matter to be worth caring about at all. Given that health care is perpetually afflicted by ridiculous bureaucracy and, basically, executive theft, there’s no reason to think the next public wellness crisis will be addressed any more humanely and flexibly than previous ones (we should likely view obesity and general slothfulness as such a crisis, which isn’t being addressed at all). In all of this, you can always find individual stories of virtue, but they’re as likely to distract and distort as they are to illuminate.

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