Dallas Buyers Club and the market forces of death

On day zero of Ron Woodruff’s thirty-days-to-live death sentence, he is in two prostitutes in a muddy bullpen at a bullfighting arena. He is a gambling drunkard running from the trouble he makes for himself. He, aside from the zings and whistles granted by cocaine, whiskey, and ejaculation, is as good as dead. Intellectually, spiritually, emotionally dead.

On day one, an on-the-job electrical accident puts Woodruff in the hospital, where he finds, much to his homophobic, 1985 stereotype-informed disbelief, that he has HIV. He’s a straight man, after all. It’s not possible for him to catch HIV. So he storms out. No way, he thinks, I ain’t gay, and I’m living forever.

But Woodruff is dying. It’s impossible for him to ignore the bloody coughs whirring noises splitting open his head. He goes to the library, reads up on the studies and statistics: the disease spreads through unprotected sex between any carrier and noncarrier, gay or not; it also circulates through shared intravenous needles. Woodruff suddenly remembers a girl he once hired who had pinpricks up and down her arm, and accepts he has HIV.

He does not, however, accept the thirty day sentence. Woodruff is a stubborn, sharp cowboy: he researches the drugs that clinics worldwide are trying on the disease; he discovers a Dallas hospital is hosting a 90-day double-blind placebic trial of the newest, latest and greatest drug, AZT; and he bypasses authority in order to obtain it. But his inside man at the hospital quits, and a fainting fit puts him back in the sick house, at the mercy of doctors contractually bound to test AZT on behalf of big pharma.

It is there, alone and inches from death on a hospital gurney, that Woodruff breaks the cliché of the terminally ill bucket lister. He has neither the cash for some tour of Europe, nor the embrace of his own end such a before-I-die trip implies. The immediacy of death instead alights in him anger and determination.

It also purges his prejudices. This is epitomized in an exchange with his hospital roommate, a trans woman named Rayon who is also HIV-positive. Woodruff initially rebuffs her friendliness, but when she offers to play cards—for cash—he agrees to chat. And when his calf cramps, paralyzing him in pain, he allows her to knead it out. Woodruff’s acceptance of Rayon’s physical help—help given by a person from whom he would never, because of his prejudices, ordinarily accept it—represents a larger theme of Dallas Buyers Club: with life on the line, allies are allies regardless of their identities.

After a trip to Mexico to receive un-FDA-approved treatment, Woodruff returns and teams up with Rayon. The medicine given to him there has shored up his immune system in ways AZT could not, and Woodruff, cash-hungry, has struck a deal with his doctor to sell the cocktail of drugs that put him back on his feet. He gets the goods across the border to Dallas, but cannot breach the mostly-gay market: Woodruff neither knows anything of their community nor can leapfrog the friction of his ingrained prejudices. Without anywhere else to turn, he recruits Rayon to be his sales rep.

Their partnership proves successful, and the combination of moneymaking and self-sustaining that ensues places Woodruff in daily proximity with Dallas’s gay community. It composes the majority of the Dallas Buyers Club, i.e. the HIV-positive population willing to flout FDA law and official medical advice to procure what they believe will help them survive. Woodruff, through the vehicle of his new Buyers Club business, learns these people are much like him: desperate in the face of death, inclined to kindness, and prey to their own weaknesses. His prejudice erodes daily under the mounting evidence that Scout Finch’s timeless observation is true: “there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

When the FDA cracks down on the Dallas Buyers Club’s under-the-table operation and its members are barred from obtaining their immunological boosters, Woodruff’s façade—that moneymaking is still his primary motivation—shatters. Rayon, now Woodruff’s valued friend, dies, and his anger with the government’s nonsensical regulation and apparent apathy towards the mostly gay HIV-AIDS community transforms the Buyers Club from a business to a crusade. Woodruff, on the implicit behalf of his HIV-AIDS customers, sues the government for the right to medicate himself and fight against his impending death however he likes.

The heart of Woodruff’s story closes with the result of his lawsuit. He loses to the FDA, but upon returning to his home in Dallas receives an ovation from friends in the Buyers Club, who have gathered to congratulate his efforts. Woodruff, homophobe-turned-profiteer-turned-ally, here asks of us an uncomfortable question: What prevents our acceptance of the Other? Why does it take death to illuminate the ignorance of our prejudices?

The ties that bind in Girls, Visions and Everything

Shooting the breeze, a novel

It feels that printed in invisible ink above the first line of Sarah Schulman’s novel, Girls, Visions and Everything, is “Once upon a strange time.” Lila Futuransky, the book’s protagonist, is introduced with that air of a character in a magic kingdom: she “always knew she was an outlaw,” but is unsure of “which one.” She “endlessly [perseveres],” is young, and “[has] time.” These immediate allusions to Lila as not beginning but ongoing convey that her and her community’s life, lesbian life, has been around in New York City for a long time and requires defiant struggle.

Schulman’s method of tying Lila’s story to the greater magic kingdom (a gentrifying East Village in the 1980s) is to embody her observations in characters with demonstrably different backgrounds and then situate them in the same neighborhood. It is her vivid and unapologetic animation of these characters—how they handle poverty, discrimination, sex—that delivers an affecting portrait of life in the city; and because of their palpability the book’s societal critiques never feel pedantic or contrived.

To unite her characters and social commentary, Schulman gives Lila a proclivity for touring town. She loves to “walk the streets for hours with nowhere to go except where she [ends] up,” admiring or criticizing her block and talking with folks on the corner. She “[runs] into” a diverse palette of characters, and the chance meetings provide Schulman myriad opportunities for a colorful paragraph of backstory or Lila’s opinion. The strolls are reminiscent of the role played by the interlude chapters in The Grapes of Wrath: like Steinbeck pauses the plot to paint the road to and through Depression California, Schulman’s encounters with drug dealers, immigrants, men, and bigots (categories which often overlap) vivify city life. But where Steinbeck waxes poetic, Schulman is conversational, colloquial. She shows that New York City’s soul is in its inhabitants and their brief, usually banal chats. But Lila’s encounters are never truly shallow: through them we learn about characters’ experiences of addiction, racism, and homophobia. Their ordinary, midday banter is the poetry, and it reveals the fault lines in Schulman’s New York.

Lila is also well-equipped for the limited third person perspective Schulman employs because she is both ruminative and adventurous. This combines her serendipitous city strolls with an acute inner monologue. When Lila sees a neighborhood-watch sign that reads “’Clean Up Our Street’,” she muses that “any group of people who want to ‘clean up’ another group of people [is] usually bad news.” A downtown protest against intervention in Central America affords the observation, “in the U.S. people are allowed to be political as long as they don’t actually have an effect on anything.” Lila approaches Emily, the character with whom she falls in love and around whom she then centers her commentary on relationships, on a whimsical rebound: “Hi Emily…I just got humiliated by a woman…Want to dance with me?” Schulman weaves the exchange between broad experience and deep reflection into Lila’s personality from the get-go, giving the story an natural ability to cover an eclectic range of scenes and ideas.

The most potent method Schulman uses to explore ideas is dialogue. In addition to her casual-yet-expository streetside chats, in lengthier and more personal conversations Lila and her friends broach weighty subjects. To a poet friend, Lila proposes an idea for a story about “parents who only want…their child to fail so that they can prove…they were right all along.” This would be a provocative statement by itself, but Schulman amplifies its resonance by situating it at the end of a conversation about the poet’s mother, who disapproves of her published works. The line (“parents who only…”) draws additional power from its adherence to the natures of the conversating characters: Lila is brash, a writer, and rather open; the poet, Lacy, righteous and honest. Because it feels these people really would say what they say, their co-condemnation of unloving parents springs from the page. Schulman’s dialogue consistently hits this balance of naturality and congruence within a scene and, as a result, delivers complex ideas simply and forcefully.

That dialogue is the novel’s strength reinforces its central theme: community. Schulman makes clear that life as a low-income lesbian in gentrifying, 1980s New York is dangerous and difficult but, by focusing on the tightness of her circle, she demonstrates that “even when shit is hitting the fan, people can still have good times.” We see that the members of Lila’s community support each other not only because no one else will, but also because they are, simply, good friends. They share thoughts on food, love, and sex; they drink, smoke, and joke together; they wonder about life and grasp at answers. Their conversations about these things intimately communicate the importance of community for everyone, not just the subcategory of Lila’s identity, time, and place. Suffering is a feature of Girls, Visions and Everything as it is a permanent feature of human nature but, as Schulman reminds us, so is friendship. Better to share that.

The Green Ray: loneliness distilled into film

Summertime, summertime sadness

August arrives, Paris empties. The city deserts for the beach, for the lake, the mountains, abroad. Everyone has somewhere to go and someone to go with—except Delphine, the restless subject of Eric Rohmer’s 1986 The Green Ray. The film resonates as a portrait of solitary sadness because of its selective realism: by juxtaposing Delphine against her plain, happy acquaintances on holiday, Rohmer illuminates the contradictions of loneliness without isolation and depression without apparent cause.

At the holiday’s outset, Delphine’s friend cancels on her to instead trip to Greece with a boyfriend. Recently single after a long engagement, Delphine has an array of replacement vacations offered to her by friends and family, but cannot shake the sense that on them she would be intruding or miserable. While sulking at a friend’s house, she is pressed about her sadness. One girl is frustrated because nothing specific, not even her ex-fiancée, seems to be the source of her angst. The girl provides Delphine with solutions: vacation solo, be more open, initiate new relationships. It takes work to make friends or find a relationship, she says; a lack of effort is no excuse for lacking results. But to Delphine this is all wrong. She feels open to the world—it is the world that does not open itself to her.

Another friend, Françoise, convinces Delphine to accompany her on a family beach trip. Françoise’s family is amicable, and the destination is relaxing; yet instead of enjoying their company, Delphine takes walks alone. Rohmer captures her reluctance to connect in a telling shot on the beach: Françoise’s family plays catch and frolics in the water; then, the camera pans right and finds Delphine shin-deep in the sea, stumbling in the waves. Françoise’s family is out of frame.

Delphine’s listlessness persists and, after a few days, she retreats to Paris. Once there, she decides to try a solo trip and again departs, this time for the Alps. She arrives in the morning; by the afternoon, frustrated with either the tourists or herself, she decides to return to the city. Next, a friend lends Delphine an apartment in the Riviera. On this trip she makes a friend at the beach—a charming Swedish girl who is also traveling alone. The girl picks up two men at a café and plans a night out for the four of them. Finally, it seems, the winds of serendipity favor Delphine.

But while the Swedish girl flirts with the men, Delphine squirms in her seat. She is silent and wears a grim expression. When the girl pushes her to join the conversation and cheer up, Delphine begins to cry and literally flees the scene. Even after one of the men chases her down and professes there is a connection between them, Delphine orders him to buzz off. Alone again, she wanders the boardwalk and overhears an elderly group of beachgoers discuss the green ray, a rare phenomenon in which the last glimmer of the setting sun flashes green. The legend goes that if you see the green ray, you discover your true thoughts and feelings.

It sounds like Delphine’s panacea. Her depression is inexplicable, incurable. When alone, she wants company; when with others, she seeks solitude. Despite the series of excursions taken to remedy her sadness, it refuses to recede; and whenever a bit of happiness seems within reach, she feels the urge to cry. Delphine’s emotions are excruciatingly illogical, and she is desperate to understand them.

Rohmer’s accomplishment is capturing this irrational depression as it really feels. Throughout the film Delphine runs from place to place, person to person, hoping to find a situation that will resolve her feeling of disconnection; but because the problem is in her—is her—she cannot. The anger of her failures to enjoy new acquaintances repeatedly conjures a facial expression that says, simultaneously, “What is wrong with me?” and “What is wrong with everyone?” She is angry at the male expectation that for spending time with her she will sleep with them, angry at herself for denying the relationship advice given by her friends, and angry at fate for refusing her the ideal encounter with the ideal stranger. Delphine’s illogical emotions infuriate her and us: we want to shout, “Pick someone and have a nice time, already!”

Before Delphine boards the Riviera train to Paris, she does. A man sits across from Delphine in the station, their eyes meet, and, after a brief conversation, she asks to accompany him to nearby Saint-Jean-de-Luz. There, they chat amicably and walk to an ocean outlook to watch the setting sun. As it sinks, the man asks if she would like to stay with him for a few days. She begins to cry, he holds her, she hushes him. They gaze into the horizon, and at the final gleam the green ray flashes, Delphine gasps, and the film cuts.

Rohmer’s ending is hopeful but resists being a deus ex machina. Delphine finds company with a seemingly kind man and witnesses the green ray—the ingredients of a fateful intervention—but we are left to wonder: was it the universe that delivered her from loneliness, or was it her decision to seize a moment, however imperfect it might be?

The practicality of the Patronus

Expecto Patronum is a spell for everyone

For a so-called series of children’s books, Harry Potter can get rather dark. This begins in Prisoner of Azkaban, where JK Rowling touches graver and grimmer topics than in Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s previous two adventures. The story explores animal cruelty and criminal injustice and introduces the wickedest of the wizarding world’s creatures: Dementors.

The book succeeds because Rowling balances this badness with friendship and courage. In Azkaban this is manifest in myriad ways—Hermione slugging Malfoy is perhaps the most satisfying—but the standout occurs in the penultimate chapter when Harry climactically conjures a Patronus.

We learn earlier in Azkaban that the Patronus charm is an “anti-Dementor.” It can only be understood in the context of what Dementors do to humans, which is to drain all of our “peace, hope, and happiness” and to perform a “kiss” that is, quite literally, soul-sucking. To cast a Patronus and vanquish these villains, one must concentrate “with all [their] might…on a single, very happy memory.” If done right, the ensuing swish-and-flick will dispel any proximate Dementors.

Yet Rowling’s Patronus is more than a plot device or an artifact of her world-building. A ritual that combats despair by focusing on a happy memory is the real deal, an idea not limited to witches and wizards. We might not have to cope with Dementors, but we do battle dejection, depression, and despondency—every day, for some stretches—and unlike Harry and company, we do not live in a world with prewritten happy endings. We need practical strategies to handle with our personal crises. Cue the Patronus, a strategy of memory-remedy coded into the pages of Potter. 

In our world it is tempting to rely on technology as a substitute for memory, but, as Harry learns, for a Patronus to work it must be summoned with a great, inward focus. The same goes for us. Swiping through old photos and videos is more a reminiscent indulgence than it is emotionally restoring and, usually, is buoying only for a moment or two. It is a passive kind of recollection, and falls far short of the requisite “with all [our] might” concentration. Because of the prevalence of phone-cameras and online autobiography, this habit of scrolling-as-remembering feels normal. Taking pictures for pictures’ sakes is routine, and making memories for memory’s sake seems an afterthought. But pixels do not make Patronuses: there must be more.

There is an essential, practical difference between viewing memories and sincerely remembering them, and their restorative potential is better unlocked with the latter, even if it is only a few minutes spent visualizing a past triumph in a quiet room. Such an unhurried, earnest effort at remembrance can have a powerful, healing effect—almost like magic.

Horcrux hunting

Not just for wizards and witches

In the third act of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince J.K. Rowling delivers a critical flashback to Voldemort’s past, in which he learns about horcruxes, a dark magic used to prevent death by storing a piece of soul in something outside the body. But the catch is twofold: to fragment their soul a wizard or witch has to commit murder, and life with a split spirit becomes painfully worse than it would be with a whole one.

Voldemort’s experience with horcruxes earns zero stars: he spends time living in a turban, a diary, and as a shriveled infant; his lone confidant is a snake; and he suffers from intense paranoia. But still he treasures his treasures – they keep him alive, even if the result, as he says, is feeling “ripped from his body” and “less than [a] spirit”. Readers shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’s misery as fiction: wizards, witches, and muggles share the ability to make horcruxes and suffer their consequences. Rowling’s tale contains a powerful lesson for consumers in today’s modern, material world.

Nonfictional horcruxes abound. Shoes, cars, and television are only a few examples of possessions to which excessive time, money, and care are allotted and with which identity is confused. This overvaluation of belongings siphon the self into something external. Marketing campaigns exacerbate the conflation: by advertising to narrow demographics they mix up what they’re selling with who their customers are. In swearing fealty to Nike or Adidas, iPhones or Androids, or Netflix series, consumers dangerously entangle themselves with what they buy, wear, or watch.

Social media is a type of horcrux, too. Part of their raison d’être is to let users carefully filter themselves online, but it is perilous to confuse what gets displayed with what is real. Tweets and Instagram photos may attract popularity or influence, but they are far too shallow of a medium to convey intimate personal truths like memory or virtue. Limiting expression to overly simplistic online profiles precludes the complexity inherent to human nature. Users who exist primarily inside the internet risk losing the growth afforded by offline introspection, the personality developed by in-person interaction, and the sympathy and understanding gained in conversation. A digital existence makes users miss out on the richer, more complicated parts of life.

Unfortunately, the nuance lost on social media is recovered by click-collecting algorithms. With user data, sale-hungry advertisers predict preferences from news to music, limiting autonomous searching, watching, and reading. An invisible information cage replaces the thoughtful wandering done in a neighborhood bookstore or park and, as a result, prevents eye-opening exploration. Willing and unwilling online sharing confines users, splitting them from the complexity and serendipity crucial to self-knowledge and growth.

Culture should examine itself in Rowling’s stories. Harry has prized possessions – his wand, cloak, and broomstick – but over them he ultimately values his relationships. He relies on virtues to solve problems, finds fulfillment in his actions and friends, and, spoiler alert, defeats Voldemort’s soul-splitting materialism. Rowling’s heroes have identities built from educations, experiences, and mistakes. Their adventures force them to question who they are without their stuff or reputations, and their hunt for the answers – for hidden horcruxes – is the same as any muggle’s.