MONTREAL DIRECTOR Jean-Marc Vallée first got my attention with the excellent French-language film C.R.A.Z.Y.. Now he’s taken his notoriety to a new level, with Dallas Buyers Club, written by Craig Borten and starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto.
The movie has generated conversations on several topics. McConaughey’s Oscar speech has stirred Christians into an examination of the relationship of Hollywood and faith, while in another corner of the room a debate ensues over pseudoscience and alternative medicine. Then there’s the controversy over Dallas Buyers Club‘s depiction of Ron Woodruff and the LGBT community. The FDA and the pharmaceutical industry are subjects of yet another discussion. That’s four big fat arguments from one movie starring two emaciated Oscar-winning actors.
The movie premiered near my home, at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. My assessment, if you care to know, is that Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto did a fine job with a good and imperfect script. Hollywood dines on drama, and so I expected a movie even more unhinged from reality than I got. The FDA is portrayed unsurprisingly as a thoughtless, heartless and hellbent bureaucracy, captive to Big Pharma, but the movie does capture the desperation of the early 1980s. If you were alive and of a certain age when HIV-AIDS first arrived, you’ll remember the inexplicable terror at the time. AIDS was (and is) a syndrome, a word people correctly parsed as a medical euphemism for “we have no idea what it is.”
People were getting sick and dying in mysterious ways, and the sickness was spreading. HIV-AIDS was labelled a gay disease, and straight people – who even before 1980 were homophobic – came up with all sorts of paranoid ideas about infection and transmission. You’ll recall Patient Zero, the idea that it all started with the Air Canada flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas, who was supposed to have brought the disease from Africa. Soon heterosexuals were convincing themselves you could get sick shaking a gay person’s hand or even just being in the same room with him. It was a time of terror, hatred, incrimination and hostility, most of it directed at homosexual men.
HIV-AIDS changed everything. The casual openness of the 1970s was over. Gender bending, Disco, androgyny, experimentation, drugs, liberalism – they all came crashing to the ground when the “gay sickness” arrived on our shore. Maybe now I’m the one being creative with the past, but I seem to remember it was AIDS that made the prophylactic ubiquitous: not just condoms, but the gloves they put on in fast-food restaurants, and the dams and shields and all sorts of sartorial barriers. When I say HIV-AIDS changed everything, I mean it. How we thought, how we dressed, how we ate, how we had sex, how we voted. It’s no coincidence that AIDS and neo-conservatism happened together. After 1980 we elected politicians who wanted to apply the brakes to the free-loving 1960s. The ride was going too fast, and in the wrong direction, and we wanted to get off – but definitely not in the hippie sense of that phrase.
Dallas Buyers Club is the heterosexual take on the 1980s, no question about it. That’s usually how it works in Hollywood. Wherever it’s possible, a waspy mid-western hetero guy (sometimes gal) is the hero. Schindler saves the Jews, Skeeter champions Aibileen, and Lieutenant Dunbar helps the Indians. Hell, he even becomes more Indian than the Indians. The assumption seems to be that Americans won’t watch a movie unless it’s told through the experience of the dominant, normative group.
As a result you get liberal progressive narratives that subtly (or not so subtly) underscore the idea that social improvement happens on account of the greatness of the dominant, normative culture. How did slavery end, and how did women and black people get the vote? Was it the decades of brave and heroic efforts by black people and women to challenge and change the dominant culture? Haha! Don’t be silly! We all know that progress happens because of the generous changes of heart for which white liberals are so famous. That’s all of Spielberg in a phrase. And Spielberg is pure Hollywood.
It’s truly a shame that people are going to walk away from Dallas Buyers Club thinking – even more than they do already – that doctors, medicine and science are bad, and that you can cure most things yourself in your living room by surfing the web for sites that tell you there’s a hidden cure for cancer (or whatever) that Bristol-Myers Squibb doesn’t want you to know about. AZT, along with the pharmaceutical giants who developed and sold it, is demonized in Dallas Buyers Club. I thought it would be worse, yet it’s bad nonetheless.
It’s an inconvenient fact that AZT was soon tweaked and combined with other drugs (I don’t think ginkgo biloba or ginseng were among them) to become an effective treatment. Big Pharma was proved right, and while Ron Woodward successfully extended his own life while taking unapproved drugs, many others who employed his methods didn’t have his success. The anti-science, anti-medicine, and anti-pharmaceutical conspiracy theories are just that, theories. And not in the way that gravity or natural selection are theories, but in the way that a flat earth and a faked moon landing are theories. The difference of course is that gravity is real, while the idea that doctors are hiding all the cures from you, and keeping you sick with non-cures, is made up.
Am I defending the medical industry and the American government? Not at all. Both are doing reprehensible things, or not doing some necessary good things. The problem is that rather than examining and discussing the many factual things that go on in the world of business and politics, conspiracy theorists spend their time inventing complicated, arcane and nonsensical nuttery that you couldn’t do anything about even if you tried.
Dallas Buyers Club unfortunately feeds the dangerous notion that if a company spends billions of dollars on R&D to make and sell a medicine, that’s evil, whereas it’s a matter of wholesome goodness to dream up an alternative therapy, like one part of snake venom in 1,000,000,000,000 parts of water. (That’ll be $55 dollars, please.) Alternative medicine is a multi-billion industry, now receiving huge taxpayer subsidies in countries like Britain – all to fatten the profits of entrepreneurs under little or no obligation (unlike Big Pharma) to undertake strenuous research, peer review and state regulation.
In the early 1980s we were ignorant, frightened and desperate for a cure we knew only science-based medicine could deliver. Fast forward to 2014, and we’re turning increasingly away from medicine and science, toward its alternatives. We’re more than a bit too confident in therapies that have not been proven effective. Ron Woodward was by all accounts a renegade and a fighter, mistrustful of the establishment and unwilling to take anything on faith. But above all his agenda and his cause was simply to live. If Big Pharma had a cure back then, don’t you think he would have taken it? I think he would have, because he was above all else pragmatic. Having taken it, he would have lived to fight other fights, or perhaps to have simply returned to his life of rowdy pleasures. And that would have been a whole other movie.