Wednesday, December 04, 2013

acting up

AK and I saw Dallas Buyers Club Sunday night, meaning I marked World AIDS Day by passively absorbing information about AIDS in an entertaining format. Because I’m an activist like that. I think it’s the first AIDS movie I’ve seen since Bio 40: AIDS and Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases, a life sciences GE I took as a pass/fail my senior year at UCLA. Every Friday was an optional class devoted to watching movies about AIDS: Longtime Companion, And the Band Played On, Philadelphia.

Longtime Companion: The movie that made me realize I really like Blondie's "The Tide Is High."
We were required to volunteer with AIDS organizations, so I worked with PAWS (which helped HIV+ people keep their pets) and Project Angel Food. Movies and community work—that’s my kind of science class. (A big part of the class was devoted to epidemiology too, which I actually found fascinating—a combo of history and science—and I would totally be an epidemiologist today if I weren’t a hypochondriac and if I understood things like nucleopeptides.) Those experiences really stayed with me, if only because they nudged me that much further toward coming out of the fucking closet.

Now I wonder sometimes how much it would suck to be really sick, facing an early and unfair death, and have to rely on some chirpy college student who finds your tragedy romantic and exotic to deliver your lunch? It would suck a lot, I think.

Don't you want these two in charge of your medical care?
Anyway, Dallas Buyers Club. By one measurement, it’s sort of a Schindler’s List of AIDS movies. A rodeo cowboy/electrician (Matthew McConaughey) who’s as opportunistic as any infection gets AIDS in 1985 and doesn’t have the luxury of waiting around for AZT trials, so he forms a business importing better, less toxic drugs from other countries and selling them to a “club” of fellow patients. He bucks the FDA, which has been paid off by Big Pharma. In the process, he discovers that he cares about people, including queers. He has his “I could have saved more” moment when he sells his car to provide medicine for an impoverished patient he once dismissed.

The movie is well written, well acted, economically edited, with cleverly symbolic opening and closing rodeo scenes. It tells an important and empowering story. But it’s still a movie about a straight white man saving gay men (and the occasional woman). His queer business partner (Jared Leto in very cute drag) gets to die tragically.

I think I finally get the Jordan Catalano thing.
On the other hand, McConaughey’s character is a minority saving himself: a working-class man with AIDS who takes matters into his own hands because no one else has anything to offer him. Not for the first or second or third time, I felt grateful for my own advantages, not the least of which is getting diagnosed with a disease that’s been around long enough to have relatively uncontroversial treatments (I’m not counting alkaline-foods whackjobs).

There’s a scene in which McConaughey, rail-thin and tethered to an IV, staggers into some sort of hearing where doctors and FDA officials are speaking about the benefits of AZT. He shouts what we now know to be true: It killed the virus for a while, but it was toxic and didn’t save lives.

(My Bio 40 teacher chalked AZT up to panic—nearly everyone was desperate to come up with a drug to fight AIDS. But it typically takes about fifteen years to develop something that works against any disease—that’s just the nature of scientific research. No surprise that protease inhibitors came on the market along about 1995.)

If I’d been in that meeting, I would no doubt have dismissed the delirious cowboy as an alkaline-foods whackjob. I’m a rule follower, if a skeptical one. I don’t think science is untainted by capitalism, but I think it’s the best we’ve got. But in that case, I would have been wrong. I would have been better off (though perhaps only slightly) waiting outside McConaughey’s dingy motel room for drugs smuggled from Mexico.

We need scientists. We need cowboys. We need what a woman I recently interviewed called “citizen patients.” I’m trying to be one—though I’m also trying to not be a patient at all—but it’s really confusing.


Kim said...

You don't need to understand nucleopeptides to be an epidemiologist! I don't.

Your review is spot on--the Schindler's List of AIDS movies. But I really liked it for exactly the reason you note: we need citizen-patients (or even and also, "informed citizens who care about patients"). I felt the surging need for more civil disobedience with regards to FDA and their approval process and relationship to pharmaceutical companies. And I liked that the movie carried that message today.

Cheryl said...

Is there a place where we can write to the FDA and say something along the lines of "Hey, make sure to approve good drugs and not blockade bad drugs when it comes to the contemporary equivalent of AZT"?

(I'm guessing the answer is no, and that we just have to stay on top of the news and act when the occasion arises. No rest for the citizen patient/informed ally!)