Tuesday, 11 February 2014

GFT programme note: Dallas Buyers Club


Ron Woodroof first appeared in the pages of the Dallas Morning News in May 1989. ‘The closet in Ron Woodroof’s bedroom looks like a miniature pharmaceutical warehouse’ wrote reporter Sherry Jacobson as a way of introduction, listing ‘pint bottles of hydrogen peroxide, packets of dextran sulphate and small containers of a drug called Procaine PVP’ as amongst the room’s contents. ‘From his tiny Oak Lawn apartment, Mr Woodroof is operating one of the largest distribution centers for experimental AIDS treatments in the United States... “I am my own physician,” said Mr. Woodroof, 39, a former electrical contractor who founded the club in March 1988, shortly after his AIDS was diagnosed. Currently, he is taking three experimental treatments that he believes have reduced his suffering and extended his life.’[1] A quarter of a decade on, Jacobson’s opening paragraphs double as a partial précis for director Jean-Marc Valée’s screen adaptation of Woodroof’s story.

Later in 1989, Jacobson filed a follow-up report, in which Woodroof starkly expressed the high stakes driving his illegal activities. Diagnosed with AIDS at a time when research was still nascent, official treatment options limited, and approval for new medications granted at a pace too slow to offer much concrete hope, importing untested drugs from outside the US was, he argued, the least risky option available to him.  ‘I do not want to break any laws’ he is quoted as saying. ‘But doing nothing will only result in my death.’[2] This back-against-the-wall, do-or-die attitude was echoed in a subsequent Dallas Life Magazine cover story entitled ‘Buying Time’, published in 1992. ‘It is not a matter of whether or not you want to take these risks’ Woodroof told reporter Bill Minutaglio, ‘it's a matter that you have to take these risks.’[3]

From these quotations alone, the cinematic potential of Woodroof’s desperate times/desperate measures tale is evident. As Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack’s script acknowledges, Woodroof did not invent the concept of ‘buyers clubs’ – underground distribution networks that enabled people with AIDS to buy pharmaceutical drugs that the Food and Drug Administration were unwilling to approve – but the boldness with which the former electrician challenged the federal government’s authority ensured Woodroof stood out. In the second line of ‘Buying Time’, Minutaglio describes Woodroof as a ‘foul-mouthed outlaw as wiry as an ocotillo’,[4] comparing the smuggler’s frame to a spindly cactus-like plant native to the southwestern states. It’s an evocative image that already resembles a casting call or pitch.

There has been, however, a certain amount of criticism and controversy regarding the structure that Borten and Wallack chose to impose on the bare facts of Woodroof’s life. The flexibility with which the screenwriters approached the subject is indicated by the fact that, Woodroof aside, every person in the film is fictional. Some are composite characters – for instance, Doctors Eve and Sevard, standing in for all physicians. Others are tokenistic inventions calibrated to serve specific plot functions – most notably Rayon, the HIV-positive transgender woman with whom Ron becomes business partners, whose narrative role is effectively to facilitate and underscore the main character’s redemptive journey from homophobia to compassion, understanding and respect. Borten wrote the script’s first iteration in the early 1990s, based on three days-worth of first-hand interviews, but it took twenty years of stalled productions and re-writes to bring it to the screen. Perhaps this explains the schematic, streamlined efficiency of the eventual film’s narrative arc, with the script’s mechanics particularly apparent in the opening scenes.

The first has Ron concealed in a shadowy rodeo stall, entangled in a drug-fuelled threesome with two women. A few yards away, partially glimpsed through the slats of the stall gate, a young cowboy tries futilely to hang on to a bucking bull, hitting the ground hard when he is eventually thrown. As rodeo clowns drag the prone rider to safety, Ron climaxes – though the harsh ringing sound that envelops the soundtrack indicates that the experience is less than pleasurable. This is then followed by a scene in which Ron calls the recently deceased Rock Hudson ‘a cock sucker’ whilst accepting chancy wagers on the next bout of bull riding. As an introduction, it serves multiple ends: it implies a connection between illicit sexual activity and danger; it explicitly aligns the audience’s visual and auditory experience with Ron’s perspective; it presents bigotry and risk-taking as two defining personality traits; and, perhaps most forcefully (and, to some, problematically), it defines Ron in emphatically heterosexual and stereotypically macho terms. 

The way these scenes portray Woodroof’s character also helps to establish the story as statistically exceptional, with Dallas Buyers Club mediating the history of buyers clubs in general through the actions and experiences of a straight protagonist. Some have consequently expressed disappointment at the film’s narrow focus – yet to expect one modest character study to shoulder the representational burden of an entire period seems an unreasonable request, which is why Dallas Buyers Club is able to qualify as an engaging and thoughtful piece of cinema even as it clumsily elides or misrepresents elements of its historical basis. Its insights into both Woodroof and the buyers club phenomenon are far from the last word, with a raft of corrective testimonies and accounts having recently proliferated online in response to the film’s release, forcing a parallax perspective on the script’s representational claims. But positioned in a cinematic landscape in which narratives that openly address the lives of people with AIDS from anything other than a tragic victim angle remain exceedingly rare, a bold, crowd-pleasing take such as this seems welcome.

Christopher Buckle
Journalist and researcher
February 2014

[1] Sherry Jacobson (1989), ‘Club dispenses experimental AIDS drug’, Dallas Morning News, May 17th 1989, accessed at http://www.dallasnews.com/entertainment/movies/headlines/20131101-club-dispenses-experimental-aids-drugs.ece

[2] Jacobson (1989), ‘Man taking unapproved AIDS drug FDA is challenged over Compound Q’, Dallas Morning News, October 5th, 1989, accessed at http://www.dallasnews.com/entertainment/movies/headlines/20131101-man-taking-unapproved-aids-drug-fda-is-challenged-over-compound-q.ece

[3] Bill Minutaglio (1992), ‘Buying Time’, Dallas Life Magazine, August 9th, 1992, accessed at http://buyersclubdallas.com/

[4] Ibid

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