With the Academy Awards fast approaching, I’m doing my best to see at least all of the Best Picture nominees (a dreary task I’m none too enthused about). Yesterday I made myself go and see Dallas Buyers’ Club. There is a lot to like in this movie, not the least being Matthew McConaughey’s shocking transformation from a strapping young movie star into a disease-ridden, homophobic jerk. There is also a lot not to like, unfortunately.
This is not the kind of movie I want to dislike. I have always loved the notion of being forced to sympathize with a hero who does great and wonderful things but who, like in Schindler’s List, is personally despicable. Fascinating. The fact that it revolves around the great literary disease called AIDS, our era’s consumption, is also intriguing. Of all the Best Picture nominees I hadn’t seen, this is the one to which I was most looking forward (which, admittedly, isn’t sayin’ much). Still, for much of the film I found myself scowling or scratching my head (or laughing at things that aren’t supposed to be funny).
When I watch a movie, my mind is always divided into two parts. One half experiencing and reacting the screen, the other half analyzing my reactions – somewhat similar to an internal Mystery Science Theatre track. Right from the start I knew something was very wrong. Most of the time, I can tell within the first five minutes whether I’m going to like a film or not, and the first five minutes of Dallas Buyers’ Club did not bode well for the next two hours. But then a funny thing happened: it got better! Somewhere around the half-hour point I found myself actually enjoying the action on screen, laughing at the appropriate moments, and rooting for our hero Mr. McConaughey. It was as if two movies were going on at the same time.
And so methought to myself, “What caused such a dramatic shift in my attitude toward this movie?” The first act is drab, sanctimonious, and filled with obnoxiously obvious symbolism. Honestly, the first scene has the audacity to slap its audience upside the head with some boring moral equation between dissipating sex and bull riding. No less than three times McConaughey’s character stares “deeply” into the sad eyes of a rodeo clown, symbolizing his place in the universe blah blah blah! Maya Angelou knows more about subtlety. We have to watch McConaughey languish as he comes to terms with his impending doom, lose his friends and home to misplaced homophobia, and struggle to overcome his own latent prejudices (can you feel the sarcasm here?). This is the kind of movie that thinks its audience will be prodded into moral outrage every time they hear the word “faggot”.
Fortunately, the second act and most of the third act throw away most of this tripe. McConaughey becomes a dealer of unapproved AIDS medication. He poses as a priest to smuggle drugs across the boarder. He befriends a fabulous trans prostitute named Rayon, played be Jared Leto. Hijinks ensue. In other words, the film develops a sense of humor. It dawned on me that what the filmmakers had been aiming for earlier in the film, and had mercifully tossed aside, was realism. Oh yes, realism: the excuse every snobbish or prudish director uses to justify copious amount of sex, violence, or otherwise “risky behavior” (code word for whatever the secular establishment doesn’t like). You can get away with anything in Hollywood (almost) as long as it’s realistic.
Realism as a genre goes back centuries, but first became popular in American fiction in the late 19th-century. In literature it is characterized by excruciating detail, a chronological narrative, and lots tedious story vacuums where nothing whatsoever happens. The most famous from this time period is the monotonous and simple-minded The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which some people have gone so far as to call the great American novel, a sentiment with which I strongly disagree.
Realism on film has always been a dubious endeavor at best. Film is inherently unrealistic. Especially in the early days, when movies were silent and in black and white, realism was nearly impossible. Nowadays, even with sound and color, an illusion is still involved in creation of a motion picture. As such, very few movies even attempt to be realistic and hardly any succeed. The only movie I can think of (and I’m sure there are more) that successfully captures the realist genre is that atrocious dirt claud known as Meek’s Cut-off.
Realism as a genre raises my ire because, despite the name, it is not very realistic. Though we live life in the mundane monotony of the every day, we experience it backwards. We make connections and see symbolism where objectively there are none. We see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories, not as chaff for the wind to blow where it wills. This fact, combined with the aforementioned cinematic impossibility of realism, has reduced the genre on film to a scapegoat for snobs and prudes in the industry. It’s okay, they tell themselves, if we show someone’s head getting blown off. It’s realistic. Nothing wrong with all that debauchery and drug use. People actually live this way.
It’s this kind of bashful thinking that rules the first act of Dallas Buyers’ Club. The guilty consciences of the filmmakers force them to wave a condemning finger of shame at the explicit sex and filthy drug abuse in the beginning of the movie. It’s poorly lit and poorly shot, as if the camera were embarrassed for enjoying it. Finally after what seems like ages of these Church Lady antics, the film casts off the shackles of self-righteousness and embraces itself for the exploitation movie it is. Faux priests and drag queens in all their smutty glory! Somehow all of this fantastical nonsense seems far more true than the mundane moralism of the first half.
When asked why Southern writers have such a propensity for the gothic and grotesque, Flannery O’Connor remarked, “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” This is apparent in all her fiction. Her stories are always wild, bizarre, and far removed from anything we might call reality. Yet she perceived that from all this melodrama comes something more true, more universal than anything The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for all their realism could offer. Dallas Buyers’ Club perceives this too, but by that time it is too late.