Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

The outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s turned out to be a defining event for the world's gay community. Afflicted in high numbers by the lethal disease, and beset by government indifference and institutional homophobia, gay activists took to the streets demanding better access to treatment. More crucially, they became their own doctors, learning about the disease and taking their own steps outside the slowly-churning healthcare bureaucracy to secure the medications needed for survival. This story has been taken up in a number of fantastic documentaries in recent years (including How To Survive A Plague and We Were Here), and now we have an indie docu-drama set in those dramatic times.

Dallas Buyers Club is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof, a straight electrician/rodeo cowboy diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. Given 30 days to live, Woodroof took his life in his own hands, resorting to desperate, extra-legal means to secure the medication to prolong his life. The movie documents how Woodroof eventually founded a club offering badly needed but unapproved medications to those afflicted with HIV & AIDS, and tells the story of how Woodroof's own homophobia eroded in the process.

It is very much the stuff of awards season cinema. Despite liberties taken with its subject matter, it's always dramatically compelling, thanks mainly to its fearless lead performance by Matthew McConaughey. It's a full-bodied realization, as McConaughey bravely embodies all of Woodroof's contradictions, beautifully capturing, in his trajectory from homophobic cowboy to humanistic crusader, the rebirth of the human soul. But an unfortunate side effect in telling Woodroof's story (and let me emphasize that his is certainly a story worth telling) is the relegation of afflicted gays to the sidelines, in a tale of an epidemic that impacted them most directly. A queasiness attends scenes in which Woodroof heroically doles out medication to grateful, nameless gay club members; one might wonder if the movie is willingly downplaying gay autonomy to craft a heroic Oscar vehicle for its talented star. The script does equivocate somewhat through the creation of Rayon, a transsexual drug abuser (played by Jared Leto, in a graceful performance at least as great as McConaughey's) who here is a foil, a business associate, and ultimately the closest friend Woodroof has. If the movies can't dramatize the lives of those in the community directly involved in this period, at least Leto offers them a surrogate presence here.

So yes, blah blah McConaughey blah blah Leto blah blah weight loss blah blah Oscars. And I'm not blind to the fact that adapting Woodroof's story was/is probably the surest approach to take when making a movie about the 80s AIDS crisis palatable to the mainstream audience. Surviving members of ACT-UP have plenty of stories of real-life Rayons who made the same drug runs and braved the same dangers that Woodroof did, and one could easily imagine a scrappier movie made by the likes of, say, Gregg Araki (or even Alex Cox) based on those stories, but such a movie would certainly not get the attention or distribution that Dallas Buyers Club has.

As moved as I was by Dallas Buyers Club, I worry that the AIDS crisis will become another of Oscar's crises du jour, in which we ply awards on a politically charged movie, congratulate ourselves for being more enlightened than we were in the 80s, and then promptly shed Woodroof and the 80s from our memory. Let us remember that as moving as Woodroof's story is (and as powerfully as it's depicted in Dallas Buyers Club), he's but one of many who lived, fought, and died during the heyday of the AIDS crisis. And we must also remember (though the movie buries it in a post-closing-credits title card) that AIDS is still with us.

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