47 Things I Talk About When I Talk About the Dallas Buyers Club

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In 1994 Tom Hanks won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer who cries foul when fired due to his HIV+ status, in the film Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme). Twenty years later, and there may be an echo of history this Sunday, as Matthew McConaughey is a 2014 Golden Globe nominee for his portrayal of Ron Woodruff, a heterosexual outlaw type who cries foul when diagnosed with HIV, in the film Dallas Buyers Club (dir. Jean-Marc Vallee). Is this a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same? Or is something deeper worth exploring? With this in mind, just in time for the Awards, writer and artist Ted Kerr shares 47 things he talks about when he talks about the Dallas Buyers Club (the title, an homage to Raymond Carver’s short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love).

1.     Matthew McConaughey’s butt is resilient. Despite his much discussed weight loss for the film, his backend was buoyant, and, I would suggest, supple.

2.     I didn’t hate the Dallas Buyers Club the way I thought I would. I didn’t hate it at all.

3.     My liberal arts collage education has made it possible for me to tear the film apart but as I was watching it I thought about the guys I know who really liked the film. How a film that makes people feel matters.

4.     I can see why people would like the film. It is about a person living with HIV standing up against authorities, winning, looking for love and surviving longer than others thought he would.

5.     Ron can be seen as a charming, powerful man. At a time where people living with HIV are increasingly criminalized—adding to HIV related stigma—Ron’s character is refreshing. He is complicated. He is not a demon, nor does he care what most people think about him. For better or worse, he is seen as brave, and is rewarded for his tenacity. This does not happen very often for people living with HIV in real life.

6.     While Dallas Buyers Club didn’t make me think of Philadelphia while I was watching it, later I saw the obvious similarities: both tell the story of a white able-bodied American man living with HIV who must the fight the systems to improve his life chances, all with the help of a reluctant outsider—Denzel Washington, the African American lawyer in Philadelphia, and Rayon, the trans co worker in Dallas Buyers Club.

7.     Both films derive a sense of identity through a city, Philadelphia and Dallas, the City of Brotherly Love, and the capital of oil and “Who Shot JR?” Is this worth considering further? 

8.     Released twenty years apart, Dallas Buyers Club is actually is about a time before Philadelphia.

9.     What has happened in 20 years that a film about AIDS of the past can be greenlit, meanwhile there are no major studio films about AIDS now?

10.Is the past really that appealing?

11.While watching Dallas Buyers Club I did think about the recent AIDS response related documentaries released in the last few years: How to Survive a Plague (dir. David France), United in Anger (dir. Jim Hubbard), We Were Here (dir. David Weissman, Bill Weber).

12.One could see the documentaries and Dallas Buyers Club as films laying claim to history and how a specific chapter of AIDS “was won”. What changed the course of AIDS? Was it a group of smart young gay white men? Was it through a diverse community response? Was it empathy and love? Or was it through capitalism?

13. Dallas Buyers Club is not really about AIDS.

14. The film uses AIDS, AIDS as spectacle, as umbrella.

15. The film is a libertarian critique of government from a capitalist, white supremacist point of view.

16. The film uses the historical moment of the early North American AIDS crisis to put forth a suggestion that the only remedy to an ineffective government is unregulated capitalism.

17. Ron’s heroic journey is through capitalism. Does he really care about Rayon, or is it that Rayon is part of his empire?

18. In the film Ron never really has to answer to others for his bad behavior, but as we see in the grocery store scene, he is seen as a hero for making someone else answer for their behavior, while putting Rayon in an uncomfortable position. 

19. And yet, of course the film is about AIDS.

20. I found the nods to early American AIDS activism—the ACT UP T-Shirt, the Gran Fury Poster—nauseating, it was clearly a signal to those within the ongoing AIDS movement that the filmmakers “got it”.

21. The casting of two older men living with HIV—the ones who give Ron the house—their faces marked a medical response to the virus, felt manipulative to me, as if the filmmakers were trying to quell my frustration with the film by showing me who had signed off on it.

22. How does the theory of the uncanny relate to these historical films about AIDS? Or does it?

23. I am thinking here of the hours of ACT UP footage at the NYPL, and the films on view as part of Macho Man, Tell it To My Heart exhibition at Artists Space. Why as a culture do we go to see replications of the past in droves, while only handfuls of us leap at the chance to watch original footage?

24. I am abusing the theory of the uncanny maybe to make a point.

25. Dallas Buyers Club is part of this moment of AIDS Crisis Revisitation, in which AIDS is repackaged as history and served to a mass audience as something contained and over. In doing so it both has the possibility of making space for engaged audiences to think about what is going on now, and allows others to think that the crisis is over.

26. I think of Sex Positive as the first film of the AIDS Crisis Revisitation. It was made by Daryl Wein, a young straight man who had no real connection to HIV/AIDS beyond being alive; he was just amazed that his girlfriend lived next door to Richard Berkowitz, one of the men who basically invented the practice of gay men using condoms.

27. But thinking of AIDS Crisis Revisitation, how do we understand the ongoing production of films from directors like Jean Carlomusto, Alexandra Juhasz, James Wentzy, and others? Here then is maybe the problem with categorization, an attempt to reign in history.

28. Sitting in front of me during Dallas Buyers Club was a man who shortly after the film started pulled his hoodie over his head, drank a big boy of beer and fell asleep. It made me think of Samuel Delaney’s Times Square Red Times Square Blue, and for no good reason, Will Ferrell’s character in Old School (dir. Todd Phillips).

29. It also made me think of the man at the 34th street screening of 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen) who walked out, yelling, “I don’t have to take this shit.”

30. It is interesting how Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto get rewarded for losing weight, and acting sick, while people living with HIV have to fight to be well, appear well and be recognized. #everydaysurvival

31. In the movies, why does the trans woman always have to die?

32. What does a filmmaker, or any artist making work about HIV/AIDS, owe people living with HIV/AIDS, those who have died, and those most impacted? What about studio heads, curators, or museums directors, what are their responsibilities, if any?

33. People currently living with HIV, both long term and the newly diagnosed, are also finding amazing ways in which to survive and thrive, while looking after themselves – and finding ways to look after each other. Examples include VOCAL-NY, and the posterVIRUS campaign – to name but two.

34. I still have not seen Bumming Cigarettes (Tiona McClodden).

35. Nor Heart Breaks Open (Basil Shadid).

36. In her book Tangled Memories, Marita Sturken writes, “ the desire to memorialize the AIDS epidemic while it is still occurring reveals the need to find healing amid death”

37. Which made me think of Heather Love’s quote from her book Feeling Backward when she proposes, “For groups constituted by historical injury, the challenge is to engage with the past without being destroyed by it.”

38. Why isn’t there more discussion around the fact that R.Kelly’s In the Closet is basically about HIV/AIDS?

39. It is amazing and interesting how close Dallas Buyers Club gets to really talking about AIDS denalism; how hard it can be to get laid and find love if you are living with HIV; and the inner-epidemic dynamics of demographics (the sense of isolation experienced by non-white gay men within the epidemic).

40. In 30 years is there going to be a film adaptation of one of the many PrEP diaries one can find online? What will be the message? What will the future think we lived through?

41. If you told me Jennifer Garner played Kimmy, the next-door neighbor on Full House, I would believe you.

42. A friend recently reminded me that Jenny in Forrest Gump (dir. Robert Zemeckis) dies of AIDS. Man that guy really did see everything.

43. Sometimes I prefer films not about AIDS, but that include AIDS. Like Joshua Sanchez’s Four, based on Christopher Shinn‘s play of the same name.

44. Because AIDS is an assemblage it is impossible to fully capture the epidemic in a single artwork. And yet, Untitled  (dir. Jim Hodges, Carlos Marques da Cruz, Encke King) does a pretty good job.

45. So does Vincent Chevalier’s, So When Did You Figure Out You Had AIDS?

46. Before the current crop of films about AIDS was making the rounds,  writer, performer and activist Cyd Nova compiled a list of his favorite AIDS related films in an article for Pretty Queer called The Best and Worst of ARC: AIDS Related Cinema.It is a bit outdated now, but both the article and the comments section are worth checking out again and again.

Oh, and lastly, #47. Steve Buscemi is everything in Bill Sherwood’s film Parting Glances.

One comment

  1. Daniel Reeders

    I read #20 differently — to me it dramatically signalled the sheer distance between Dallas and the community-led protests and treatment networks in the major cities.

    I’ve read critiques that argued DBC represents a heterosexualisation of ‘the’ AIDS narrative, but to put it politely I don’t think they’re based on a close reading of the film… the more interesting issue to me is the fact that the character of Rayon was apparently invented out of whole cloth. What’s up with that? Was it a gayification of a heterosexual biography? A splitting of Ron’s rumoured bisexuality into another character? A feeling that it was just too much of a leap for audiences to believe Ron could have reached out on his own to non-heterosexual customers for his products?

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