Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Dying in Dallas

Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

I've been dreading Dallas Buyers Club (2013, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee). I always dread films made by cisgender filmmakers in which transgender characters feature prominently, especially if those trans characters are played by cis actors (as they almost always are). Someone in the activist spaces I frequent once mentioned that consuming media while trans is like playing Russian roulette, though lately I've been thinking that it's like playing Russian roulette with a live round in every chamber. You're going to take a bullet to the brain without fail. It won't be random. It's just going to happen. The cause for my concern with Dallas Buyers Club is Jared Leto's character, Rayon, a trans woman character constructed by the filmmakers for reasons I'll get to in a bit. She's fictional even though the film itself purports to be based on fact. Leto has been getting Oscar buzz for his performance, and why not? It's a character and performance that's almost a parody of Oscar bait: straight actor playing gay? Check. Playing trans? Check. Dying tragically? Check. Dramatic weight loss? Check. It's almost diagrammatic. (As I write this, Leto has just been awarded Best Supporting Actor by the New York Film Critic's Circle, which isn't a bellwether by any means, but still...) Of course, star Matthew McConaughey does the weight loss thing, too. This is a film full of scarecrows.

The story here follows Ron Woodroof, an electrician in the Texas oil fields who spends his weekends as a rodeo bull rider. He's a bundle of bad habits: He smokes, he drinks to excess, he womanizes, he does drugs. When first we meet him, he's in an empty rodeo stall fucking two women just before the main event. He's a man's man, a larger-than-life Texan, and a first class fuck up at life. An accident on the job lands him in the hospital where the doctors have run some blood tests. Woodroof is HIV-positive and suffering from full-blown AIDS. At first, he can't believe it, but soon it becomes all to clear that his days are numbered. He has thirty days to live, the doctors tell him. He doesn't go quietly into that goodnight. Studying the available literature, he latches on to the AZT test study at the hospital where he receives care. He bribes an orderly to steal the drug, and begins a long process of staving off the inevitable. When his source at the hospital dries up, he heads to Mexico where he meets a disgraced doctor who is more willing to experiment. AZT, Woodroof is told, is poison. There are better alternatives. Soon, Woodroof realizes that there's money to be made from this. AIDS patients are desperate, after all. So he begins to import the stuff and makes contact with buyers through Rayon, the the transsexual he met in the hospital. Rayon, for her part, reaps the benefit, but is not so dedicated to survival as Woodroof. Where Woodroof largely gives up his multifarious vices, Rayon follows them downhill. Through his relationship with Rayon--strictly platonic, of course, since Woodroof is straight as a board--his attitudes thaw toward the gays who are his customers. This is reinforced by his old friends who think that because he's dying of AIDS, that he must be gay. He's the recipient of the same kind of prejudice that he used to dish out. Eventually, he runs afoul of the doctors at the hospital, who don't appreciate his "buyers' club," and the FDA, who don't appreciate the import of medicines that are being employed for unapproved uses. Bureaucracy is the film's central antagonist, an antagonist that eventually drives Ron's sympathetic doctor, Eve Saks, out of her position caring for AIDS patients. The machine moves too slow. It can't deal with the crisis. Eventually, Woodroof's horizons are constricted to just himself. To free himself, he sues the FDA in one last futile tilt at the windmill.

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

There are two kinds of films that Dallas Buyers Club resembles:

The first are liberal guilt movies that re-write history so that the oppressive majority can be seen helping to overturn historical wrongs they have done. In this case, you have a straight cis dude solving the AIDS crisis. Oh, sure, you get token walk-ons by ACT-UP in news footage and there are casual mentions of other buyers clubs, but if you watch this film uncritically, you might think that Woodroof is responsible, at least in part, for the breakthroughs of the 1990s that turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable chronic disease. The scene near the end of the film where Woodroof comes home to a house full of people who all applaud him was almost too much for me to take. On the evidence of this film, you might also think that everything that could be done was being done with the only impediment being institutional inertia, but this isn't true. There is no mention of the politics behind the FDA's foot-dragging, no acknowledgement of the fact that the AIDS crisis didn't start to become important to a straight cis majority until straight white cis faces like Ryan White or Elizabeth Glaser became the face of the disease. Bigotry was absolutely deadly in the 1980s. The Reagan administration famously laughed off the crisis. This is as disingenuous as films like Dangerous Minds or The Help, in which white people solve racism, and I find even the suggestion of this film's underlying narrative to be pernicious.

Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club

The second kind of film this resembles is the "walk a mile in my shoes" film. Classic examples include Black Like Me or Gentlemen's Agreement, but the film it really reminds me of is the first segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie, in which outrageous bigot Vic Morrow finds himself placed in the role of the very minorities he hates. In this, Dallas Buyers Club is a blunt instrument. Ron Woodroof's heterosexuality isn't merely asserted by the film. It is aggressive; it's in your face from the opening frames onward. To borrow a common phrase from homophobes across the country, the filmmakers shove it down our throats. It's downright menacing. And if that weren't enough? It contrasts that menacing heterosexuality with a variety of homosexuality that is its antipode. Rayon is as far from masculine heterosexuality as you can get, and the film plays this up by indulging in the hyperfeminine stereotype of trans women on film. She's an explosion of laddered stockings, fuchsia eye shadow, and queenie overcompensation, often seen putting on make-up or wearing too much of it, as if to code her as NOT masculine and NOT hetero (but still male). These aren't naturalistic depictions at all. In building this contrast, this film indulges in a number of fallacies of depiction. First, it doesn't seem to have any understanding of the difference between identity and orientation, that trans women and gay men are not the same thing and are not even necessarily related to each other. Second, we never see Rayon's interior life except as it relates to Woodroof's. Oh, the scene where she confronts her father has the kernel of a more rounded character, but nothing comes of it except a plot expediency. Third: the film has no conception of Rayon as a gendered person. It's one thing for resounding bigot Ron Woodroof to misgender her through the entire movie, it's quite another for Dr. Saks--allegedly her friend--to do it, and that disrespect has encouraged writers to follow suit when writing about the film. This has real-world consequences that are not always merely benignly annoying. Fourth: This is a film that's drenched in biological essentialism, complete with a horror of what Rayon might eventually want to do with her body were she not dying of AIDS. Oh, sure, it's cute when she's mooning after a barmaid in envy of her breasts, but when Woodroof threatens to blow her genitals off and give her "..that sex change operation you've always wanted," it's conflating such an act with mutilation. Depictions of trans women generally fall into specific types, and this one is no different. We have here the pathetic trans woman archetype, a victim of both the disease and of her own self-hatred. She has no agency of her own. She exists in this film as a foil for Woodroof. No other reason. Woodroof needs to come around, you see? He has to shed his bigotry for the film to grant straight cis people their absolution. Rayon is sacrificed on that altar.


Roger Ebert once opined: "It's not what a film is about, but how that film is about it." Meaning: form trumps content. Dallas Buyers Club exists in the liminal space between a film that has formidable formal bona fides and content that requires special pleading. Does bullshit get a pass? Can a film be counted as good when its content is toxic? Does forceful, inventive, beautiful filmmaking grant such movies the benefit of clergy? Certainly, director Jean-Marc Vallee knows his way around a camera. He's one of those film-drunk polymaths who seems to think with an Arri. This film is exceptionally well-made, often dumping cascades of images onto the screen in ways that dazzle the eye. For that matter, even though I complain about the burlesque of hetero masculinity that defines Woodroof, Matthew McConaughey manages to find a kernel of humanity around which to build an indelible character. Jennifer Garner is good, too, as Dr. Saks. She's an actor that I often underestimate. She's a surprise here. Purely as form, this is "good."

But then, maybe I'm being too generous to the filmmakers on this count, because the way this film averts its eyes from the real horrors of AIDS is almost comical. We don't see either of our lead characters die of the disease, even though Rayon dies during the time frame the film depicts. The film can't will itself to look, perhaps aware that to look is to reveal the moral quagmire with which it is ill-equipped to deal. But without that horror, death is an abstraction and the activities of its characters--purely necessary for their continued survival in real life--become games within a movie plot. This is a film that needs to be more acquainted with horror. It's not scary enough. It's not desperate enough. This carries over to the film's ending title cards, the ones that suggest that the AIDS epidemic is somehow over with, which, of course, it's not. One target that the film manages to hit squarely is the issue of the cost of HIV drugs. It takes umbrage at the notion that Woodroof's "buyers' club" is dealing illegal drugs for profit when AZT was the most expensive drug ever cleared by the FDA. The stench of hypocrisy from the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry is pungent. Hell, I even suspect that the filmmakers think this is the film's central thesis.

In any event, this would be all well and good if this film existed in a vacuum, but it doesn't. This is a film filled with wrong headed misapprehensions of the politics and realities involved. As the film unreeled its last act, I was hoping against hope that the other members of the audience had seen How to Survive a Plague, because the takeaway from Dallas Buyer's Club is a bullshit fantasy.

I walked away from this film wanting to be away from straight cis people for a while.


Marilyn said...

Brilliant, Christianne. I do think you are one of the very best writers and film critics working today. This is a very precise and educational takedown of a film that puts some good actors to work in service of some very bad ends. Even as a cis woman, I was offended by the character of Rayon, who exists, as you say, strictly to teach Ron a lesson in humanity. There seem to be movies every year about this time that also seem to exist to tell progressives that bigots are people, too, and even noble peopl. We're not fooled either.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Marilyn,


I'm glad that this piece is getting some traction (its traffic has been terrific for my little one-cylinder blog). Anyway, now I'm blushing.