Warning: This post contains spoilers.
In December 2013, I caught (at least) two movies that I keeping turning over in my mind. First, I caught a preview of the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis through the UW-Cinémathèque. Over the winter holiday, I settled in for an at-home screening of Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club. Then I saw Llewyn Davis again. The more I reflect on Davis, the more I love it. The more I think about Dallas, the more it bothers me. Since they share some loose thematic connections, I’ll puzzle through them here.
First, I’ll briefly clarify what a biopic about an AIDS activist and a loose adaptation of a folk singer’s memoir might have in common. They’re both about loss, like a lot of Oscar bait. Part of my reception has something to do with when I watched them—in quick succession, at the end of the year, as a respite from the icy weather outside. Dallas seems capital-p political, whereas Davis sneaks by like a minor work. Both movies have protagonists who seem to be haunted by their times, carrying along a deep sense of historical and personal loss. And both use masculinity and music to speak to this sense of loss, albeit for different purposes.
Dallas Buyers Club is well-acted, particularly by its two leads, but I’ll state my criticism with it up front: I take issue with its heteronormative representation of the middle period of the AIDS epidemic. The biopic focuses on activist Ron Woodroof. A Dallas-based electrician and rodeo hand who contracts AIDS in the mid-1980s, Woodroof experiences social ostracism as a result of his time and environment’s bracing homophobia, seeks illegal medical treatment in response to the FDA’s glacial review process and reckless peddling of AZT, and starts his own buyers’ club in a hotel suite to help himself and others get treatment for their illnesses.
Played with erotic heat and good ol’ boy menace by Matthew McConaughey, Woodroof is himself a homophobe and has to reconcile the fact that he’s afflicted with what he and his buddies treat as a “gay” disease. He never gets over his phobia. He uses male pronouns to refer to his business partner, transgendered drag queen Rayon (Jared Leto). He spews injurious words, both in casual conversation and to add percussion to an argument. In Dallas, Woodroof becomes an advocate largely by accident and out of a sense of personal indignation.
Despite the movie’s best efforts, it can’t shake its implicit heteronormativity either. It preserves Woodroof’s heterosexuality. His relationship with altruistic Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) develops a romantic subtext, particularly in a scene where he takes her out to dinner and gives her flowers (or, rather, his mother’s still-life wildflower painting). When he sees an attractive young woman in his office, the pair recognizes their shared condition and pounce on each other in an adjoining bathroom.
Most vexing, his condition gets an origin story. In an early scene where Woodroof researches AIDS at a local library, his mind wanders to a fateful one-night stand. He can’t quite recall what his partner looked like, but he remembers the track marks on her arms. Rayon gets no such back story. In addition, Woodroof remains vigilant about his health while Rayon is unable to give up cocaine. Both characters die, as did the actual people upon which they’re based. But Rayon dies on screen, as a tragic conclusion to the movie’s third act. Woodroof dies off-screen in an epilogue. Whether intentional or not, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack differently treat Woodroof and Rayon’s experiences with the disease. In doing so, their script reinforces the cultural prejudices that straight people were afflicted with AIDS while their queer counterparts inherited it.
The implicit heteronormativity that informs Dallas’ depiction of this stage of the AIDS crisis is what makes Bradford Cox’s minor presence in the movie significant to me. Cox, the front man of the Georgia rock outfit Deerhunter, plays Rayon’s lover Sunny. He’s essentially a background player, answering phones and sitting beside his partner in the club’s makeshift headquarters. However, he does accompany Rayon to her last hospital visit, shouldering her weight as she’s coughing up blood and crying that she doesn’t want to die.
Considerable attention is given in the movie and its reception to McConaughey and Leto’s Method, slightly spectacular emaciation. The lead actor’s gaunt frame and wedge haircut appeared briefly in Wolf of Wall Street which overlapped with Dallas’ narrative timeline and production history. The supporting actor who plays Woodroof’s business partner has a reputation for transforming his body for work, abstaining from sex and restricting his diet to play heroin addict Harry Goldfarb in Requiem for a Dream and adding soy sauce to melted tubs of ice cream for his turn as John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, in Chapter 27. Though both actors didn’t lose the tone and muscularity of their movie star physiques in preparation for Dallas, I couldn’t ignore that both actors could “escape” the sickened bodies they constructed. I couldn’t shake the idea that their “craft” was evidence of their straight male privilege.
Cox isn’t on screen enough for me to comment on whether he’s a “convincing” actor. But what I find more interesting is how his body lends a curious authenticity to the movie’s representation of the epidemic. Save for Leto’s Rayon, Cox’s Sunny, and a middle-aged gay male couple who appear in a few scenes, most of the queer characters in the movie serve as extras. As I watched, I thought about the fictional and actual HIV positive men and women disintegrating just out of frame. So in the context of the movie, Cox’s body is remarkable.
I’ve written elsewhere about Cox, whose body and music are shaped by Marfan’s syndrome since his initial diagnosis as a teenager. But while Cox has discussed living with the syndrome and written songs about it for Deerhunter and solo project Atlas Sound, I wouldn’t expect many of Dallas’ audience to recognize his condition. In Dallas’ diegesis, his slender limbs, long face, and stooped posture might simply read as sickly. I can’t speak for Cox’s participation in Dallas, so I wouldn’t assume he’s been compromised or exploited. Cox puts a lot of thought and conviction in his creative decisions. He commands a lot of power. He recently walked off stage after a mesmerizing Late Night performance of “Monomania” with his band. I’ll always remember when he opened for Spoon as Atlas Sound, armed only with his guitar as he confronted a distracted audience with intense lyrics, spare instrumentation, and a raw performance sensibility.
So I don’t think his involvement here is an exception. Dude doesn’t do anything he doesn’t wanna do. Perhaps he joined the production because he knew that AIDS still affects rural queer people and possibly has affected him personally. Perhaps he participated in tribute to his hero, B-52s guitarist Ricky Wilson. Yet Leto gets to stretch his gaunt frame for Terry Richardson and later appear healthy in a Hollywood Reporter roundtable. Cox’s body isn’t so malleable. I also feel ambivalent about Marfan’s syndrome implicitly standing in for a deadly virus.
As I watched Dallas—and occasionally blurted out things like “Meanwhile thousands of gay men are dying” and “Marc Bolan, heaven forfend” when Woodroof accidentally eyes a picture of the T. Rex front man and Rayon’s idol while masturbating—I kept thinking about Douglas Crimp’s Melancholia and Moralism, an essential collection that the author wrote during the AIDS crisis which I read for a queer theory seminar. First, I thought about how I wished Crimp could have focused on rural queerness. Of course, I recognize that coastal metropolitan hubs like New York City and San Francisco had populations that were disproportionately affected by the disease and were also sites for activist groups. But AIDS seeped into rural areas and the urban south as well, and didn’t always have the coordinated resources and visibility to defend its citizenry. I’m glad Dallas recognizes this, however problematically.
I also remembered a beautiful thing Crimp wrote in an essay where he addresses the stigma facing queer people who upon occasion engage in unprotected sex. Why would people behave in such a fashion? As I meditated on this rhetorical question, I thought about images I’d seen before of muscular, smiling gay men who sought to counteract the stereotypical images of sickness and weakness that haunted them. But Crimp’s answer to such a loaded rhetoric question is beautiful: because we’re human, and humans make mistakes. This echoed in my mind as I reflected on a scene where Dr. Saks explains Rayon’s death to a grieving Woodroof. Rayon died because she was a junkie. That’s wrong. Rayon might have been a junkie for a number of reasons. Dallas suggests that she’s a junkie because she had an ignorant, wealthy father who disowned her. This is a safe, pathological justification. This might be a more difficult reason to process, but she might have also been a junkie because she liked cocaine. It was a fun drug for Woodroof too.
But let’s be clear about one thing: Rayon didn’t die because she was a junkie. She died because the medical community, the pharmaceutical industry, and the Reagan and Bush administrations delayed on making AIDS a priority. These institutions failed Rayon, along with millions of people. This is also where Woodroof’s eleventh-hour self-control reinforces heteronormativity for me. Because, try as I might, I simply cannot imagine Hollywood greenlighting a movie about a real or fictional gay male character with Woodroof’s appetites who confronts his HIV-positive status. I can’t even imagine a version of this movie with Rayon as the lead. Even as the AIDS crisis seems like a resolved epidemic from a distant past, I still believe that queer people and characters are held to unfair standards. Flaws ennoble representations of straight people. But representations of queer people still suggest the pressure to live up to an unfair ideal of clean living and self-sacrifice perhaps because, implicitly, queerness is still considered a flaw rather than a complex, beautiful fact of the diversity of human existence.
As I wrestled with my frustration over Dallas, I searched to see whether critic Wesley Morris wrote an article on it. I respect his writing, and was heartened to recognize my reaction when I saw words like “problematic” and “straight white savior” in his review. Morris compared Dallas to David France’s 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague, which detailed the players and activities of activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Accompanied by a score of adapted pieces from avant-garde musician Arthur Russell (RIP), Plague is a vital piece of historiography that gathers thousands of hours’ worth of protest footage, meetings, demonstrations, speeches, news items, and interviews. While I couldn’t ignore that the documentary gives priority to the experiences and recollections of gay white men, I was also moved by the anger, ingenuity, and humanity of the activists who literally put their life on the line so that the AIDS epidemic could be slowed down. But I don’t forget—and neither do they—that millions died so that they may live alongside future generations. Nor does Plague allow us to forget that people still die from AIDS and that access to proper medication is not universal. It’s an important reminder that these activists weren’t looking to decelerate the epidemic. They wanted AIDS eliminated, and it still isn’t.
Given the time period, which follows the same chronology as Dallas but extends into the present, much of the footage in Plague was shot on video. This reminded me of Lucas Hilderbrand’s excellent Inherent Vice, which details the history of VHS and devotes its last chapters to two queer independent media texts, Todd Haynes’ Superstar and Miranda July’s Joanie 4 Jackie. Hilderbrand’s book takes its name from an archival concept that describes how objects deteriorate because of the elements from which they’re made, which he then harnesses as a powerful metaphor to analyze a widely bootlegged illegal Karen Carpenter biopic acted out by Mattel figurines under the direction of a gay male filmmaker and a video chain letter exchanged between queer and/or feminist youth that was curated by a bisexual female experimental artist. However, I would imagine that the members of ACT UP utilized video less because it was a poetic format and more because it was cheap and accessible for the time. With the whole world watching, activists needed a format to quickly and effectively capture their efforts.
It might be a bit of a stretch, but I thought about the primacy of video during the period Dallas and Plague detail in relation to the way vinyl served as currency or a reminder of failure for the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. History’s relationship to obsolescent media might not quite connect the movies, but I have soft spot for tenuous connections. Foremost, Davis is about death. This is no surprise, as the Coens can do brilliant things with the subject. In an interview with Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt talked about reading for Uncle Arthur when the Coens were casting their modern classic, A Serious Man. The host and his guest marveled over how the filmmakers handle death in their movies, particularly that they so rarely offer a warning for it. They argue that most people are probably unprepared for death, fixating on inconsequential thoughts before they’re blindsided by their own mortality. The Coens capture this feeling for them.
I’ll go with that. To my mind, few American filmmakers explore the ontology of death with as much insight and necessary humor as the Coen Brothers often do. To some consternation they joke about it, if only because sometimes death (or at least killing off Steve Buscemi) is funny. They hazard the randomness of death, even if it doesn’t feel unplanned to the titan who leaps out a window from an improbably long conference table during another business meeting at the beginning of The Hudsucker Proxy. They explore the curious ethics of death that govern Anton Chigurh and the men he haunts in No Country for Old Men. They respect the cosmic balance of death, so that Maude and the Dude’s love child can be born into this world in place of Donny’s left-field departure at the end of The Big Lebowski. Often their movies end the way it feels like lives do—with cruel, inscrutable abruptness. This one is no exception. Davis considers several deaths—the death of the 1950s, the death of folk music’s fringe status, the death of creativity, though perhaps most of all it’s about death’s aftermath. It’s about what happens when you lose a good friend and artistic collaborator and try to make music without him anyway.
The elliptical shape of my own grief agrees with the deceptively episodic, directionless Davis. I’ve lost four people since I set my sights on Madison. Three of those deaths came without warning. My stepbrother Daniel died in a car accident in June 2011, just after I returned to Austin from a trip with my partner to secure housing. My friend Esme was murdered on New Year’s Day, 2012. My grandmother Mildred died suddenly of pancreatitis in spring 2013, a fact my mother imparted with some disbelief as I landed in Portland for a conference. I didn’t deliver my paper. Instead I tried to salvage the trip by catching up with some close friends until I felt steady. I ended up crying so hard in a bathroom stall at Powell’s that some patrons and a clerk checked up on me. The only passing I was “ready” for was my partner’s grandmother, Rita Ann, who we lost last fall following a stroke from earlier that year. Of the four, her memorial is the only one I’ll get to attend.
One of my favorite memories in Austin was catching a matinee showing of Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale with my partner and some friends. Prompted by the closing credits, we returned home and one of my roommates threw on his copy of Lou Reed’s Street Hassle. We drank beers in a huddle and shot the bull for much of that grey afternoon. It’s a romanticized memory that Baumbach would amplify with hipster neurosis. I’m more of a Linklater gadfly, at least until the conversation turns to metaphysics. But it’s a cherished memory, much like the one I have for my first screening of Davis. Motivated by a productive sadness, I went home and banged out a missing page from my dissertation proposal. If Davis could keep playing music after a disastrous audition with producer Bud Grossman and an impromptu performance for his convalescent father, I could summon my creative energies toward getting on with it too.
I anticipate I’ll treat Davis like a beautiful curio, a cherished, difficult record I’ll put on when I’m shut in on a rainy day. But it won’t be The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the 1963 album with a muted, wintry cover that art director Deborah Jensen and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel reference throughout. Instead, it’ll probably be Judee Sill’s Heart Food, the second and final album from a real-life esoteric, withdrawn musical outsider. It’s a sad, longing record that wasn’t widely recognized in its time and—like Davis—doesn’t quite know how to look you in the eye.
I’m having a hard time not talking about myself when discussing my love for Davis, which often happens when you take a work so personally. I’ll offer a brief synopsis. The movie adapts Dave Van Ronk’s Mayor of MacDougal Street, reflecting the odyssey of a disillusioned veteran of the Village folk scene. Captured in February 1961’s washed-out palette, the movie represents Davis (Oscar Isaac) as an adrift, perennial loser. He surfs couches and hitches rides in a futile attempt to turn his stalling solo debut into a career after the passing of his singing partner, Mike Timlin (voiced by Marcus Mumford). He signs away his royalties after recording a novelty song about the space race so he can fund his friend Jim’s wife Jean’s abortion. He braves a trip from New York to Chicago with no winter coat to play for a producer (F. Murray Abraham) who doesn’t see a lot of money in his act. He watches white-bread, inoffensive acts like Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), Al Cody (Adam Driver), and Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) capture industry attention while his talents go unnoticed. He’s so broke he can’t even afford to give up music and re-enlist in the merchant marines. He can’t even hold on to a roving house cat who belongs to his patrons, the Gorfeins. And just out of frame, Bob Dylan is about to clear his throat.
I also offer the Sill comparison because Pitchfork would love Davis if he were a real, footnoted character from music’s past. One scene nicely captures the differences between the expectations of being a recording artist in the early 60s and being one today. While visiting with his sister, Joy, Davis asks her to throw away a recording of “Shoals of Herring” that he cut for his parents when he was a kid. He claims that the industry doesn’t want your practice material to get out, as it’ll interfere with your mystique. As much as music has always been about image, it is now increasingly about anticipating—and then immediately reacting to—discovery. It’s about scouring obscure recordings on blogs, releasing beautifully curated box sets devoted to shrouded movements that are larded up with back catalog and unreleased material, unloading deleted tracks on Twitter, and endlessly compressing and recombining elements from a real and imagined past. As my friend Myles astutely put it, “The Internet is all middle.” If a record collector or music critic stumbled across little Llewyn Davis’ “Shoals of Herring” today and wrote about it, that piece of vinyl (and its digital transfer) could be worth its weight in metrics.
John Goodman’s performance as Davis’ Chicago travel mate is a sore point for many people. Personally, Roland Turner doesn’t bother me. Sure, writing in a heroin addict jazz musician isn’t subtle. Neither is Walter Sobchak. Neither is Dan Conner. And as I’ve observed and experienced, neither is professional resentment. To me, Turner is a distorted mirror image of Davis’ own insecurities. I could easily imagine an older, embittered, drugged-out Davis making cutting remarks to some younger version of Troy Nelson akin to Turner’s jabs about cowboy chords and the George Washington Bridge.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Davis sees Turner as a detour. After burying his friend, Davis’ last scene with Turner probably disturbs him. After a police officer carts off Turner’s valet and strands Davis with Turner and the cat and without car keys, he decides to leave them both at the side of the road in the middle of a punishing Midwestern February. Perhaps simply because of his recent passing, I thought about the second movement to Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle” when Davis looks at a comatose Turner and a helpless cat in the backseat, averts his eyes, and closes the door on them. In this passage, Reed adopts the voice of a dealer who tells a guest that his suspiciously young companion overdosed and ejects them from his apartment. Reed’s character rationalizes, “Why don’t you grab your old lady by the feet/And just lay her out in the darkest street/And by morning, she’s just another hit and run.” She, like Turner, is someone else’s problem, a victim of poor choices and bad luck. Davis has to shut the door to keep moving, but there’s no comfort in being a rolling stone.
What’s most interesting to me is that Davis decides to reveal the cause of Timlin’s death to Turner. Importantly, this is how the Coen Brothers reveal the suicide to their audience. Part of this is out of necessity, as Davis and his friends clearly have a short-hand for Timlin. Occasionally, Jean or the Gorfeins mention in passing that they miss him. This reminded me of when my Austin friends and I will say that we miss Esme, post pictures of her, and make arrangements with others when we go out at night. Others might not recognize any significance to these actions. Grossman unknowingly recommends that Davis get back together with his partner because he’s not a solo artist, as if he’s breaking out on his own was a choice.
But part of Davis’ reveal is out of contempt. Timlin’s suicide is a trump card. It doesn’t work because Turner is out of his mind of heroin, and because grief can pass undetected by others. But it’s the only time Davis admits, in unflinching language, that his friend threw himself off of a bridge. It transforms the meaning of an earlier scene when Davis breaks down at the Gorfeins’ apartment because Mrs. Gorfein sings Timlin’s part during an after-dinner performance of “Fare Thee Well.” It provides the electricity to Davis’ solo reprise at the end of the film.
Timlin’s suicide might affect unexplained actions too. It might motivate the reason Davis doesn’t visit a girl who relocated to Akron to raise a child she conceived with him by accident and decided to keep without telling him. As my partner observed, it might motivate the film’s last line, Davis’ “au revoir.” He says it in the direction of the taxi escorting his assailant back to his hotel. He says it over the din of street noise. He says it over Bob Dylan’s singing, which mainly serves as ambiance until the credits roll. For all we know, Timlin might be the reason for Davis’ transience. My partner has a theory that Davis was his roommate. But we can’t be sure. After a point, you don’t want to talk about death anymore. You don’t want to say the words that explain or express the loss. You’re too tired to let those feelings resurface. So you speak in code and choose not to explain yourself to the uninformed. This crucial piece of information is casually but purposely deployed exactly once, and it snaps Davis into focus.