Archive for February, 2010

Light passes through dark stands of trees at night in Missouri; the train’s coming. The men have been instructed to extinguish their lamps. Now, the train’s light sweeps over their hooded faces as they wait among the trees.

In one of the most beautiful scenes of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), a string composition by Nick Cave seems to roll out from the train’s dark machinery within the sheets of rippled light, sliding among cruel masks and cavernous eye-sockets.

Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt, stands on top of a pile of lumber in the middle of the tracks. The train churns to a stop, shooting sparks. Its passengers, trapped in squares of yellow light, look out, terrified, as gunshots pop in the darkness. Clouds of vapor pour from the train’s sides. Jesse materializes from the roiling smoke, a black neckerchief shrouding the lower half of his face like a bad guy, Robin Hood, a product of the dark woods of Missouri.

Its occasionally stiff, purple-prosey narration aside, the film is creative nonfiction at its best — highly imaginative, non-biopic, and deeply psychological.  Like the Emmy-winning HBO series, Deadwood, The Assassination of Jesse James abandons the romanticized, black-hat /white-hat portrayal of outlaw culture in the American West, retaining only its basic characters and settings.

Saloon-owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) of "Deadwood." Although Al's character is based on a historical figure, the series' creator, David Milch, took a number of liberties to create what he calls an "imaginative reality."

The film runs an ambitious 160 minutes, but its potentially rambling plot is off-set by expert pacing that manages to zoom viewers in and out of time and space like a really great novel. And like a book, it captures light and angles, allowing images to settle deep, confident that its audience will want more.

The Assassination of Jesse James focuses on “The Coward,” Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who faces the consequences of murdering his childhood hero. Not your typical Western, this film takes on broader themes of celebrity, jealousy, and psychosis, which drive its characters down paths of self-destruction while offering unparalleled insight into their humanity.


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The testing device was plastic with a clear strip in the middle like a pregnancy test and a paddle on one end. It soaked in a developer vial containing a drop of blood from the tip of his ring-finger. When I reached for a clipboard or shifted to refer to the color-coded STD chart on the wall, our knees bumped. Our faces reflected the nuclear glow cast from condoms of exotic flavors and sizes, obscure brands I ordered because the college kids scooped them up; a rainbow of foil stacked along shelves in clear jugs, they pressed against their containers like rare butterflies eager to migrate to somebody’s sock drawer or discreet purse zipper.

I had turned the strip away from us while it changed color, formed pink lines—one or two, but we hoped, just one—that would begin pale and wispy and sometimes harden as they bonded with peptides, growing sharp and dark as paper-cuts. I explained what the lines would mean to make him feel in-control, and also so that when I turned the device around, he would look at the strip instead of my face.

If I pinched my lips, if my eyelid twitched, the rush of cold, hard panic would make that second The Instant He Knew He Had HIV like he’d seen on a Dateline special about cancer or lupus. It was my job to keep him from going there—to pull him back, if capital “P” positive, with the names and numbers of professionals printed on discreet brochures (everything seems manageable on a tri-folded sheet of beige paper), and to make it possible for him to believe me if negative so that he wouldn’t start producing his own symptoms and return every week to drain our test supply. I explained what the lines would mean to give him the right to doubt what he saw until it was my turn to confirm—compassionately, clearly, honestly—what they indicated and what would come next (brochures, either way).

We went over his personal facts, and I filled in bubbles on his form, warning him when a question might make him feel uncomfortable and that he could decline to answer (nobody ever did). He told me his name was David, and that he was twenty-five years old. He had traveled to Billings from a distant state with a group of stage performers, identified as Cuban-American and reported that he’d never had oral, anal, or vaginal sex without using a latex barrier of some make and model.  Sara, the new Prevention Coordinator at the AIDS Service Organization where I worked, watched from a chair in the corner. I had asked David if it was alright if she shadowed us, although I did not say, “shadow,” because it carried connotations of scythes whistling through wheat in any medical environment, especially this one.

A shirtless, muscular man wearing a cowboy hat smirked down at us from the Montana Gay Men’s Task Force poster in the corner, white block letters over the vicinity of his Wranglers warning: “Put a condom on your cowboy.” Our eyes fell on the testing device’s white plastic back while it made entries in a secret ledger. I had guessed that the strip had already flooded with pink fluid, which would probably settle into a single line by the “control” marker to show that the test had worked; when its twenty-minute soak was over, I would shine a flashlight behind the strip in case a second line pulsed within.

Other clients had told me they’d spent several weeks sharing works with four junkies in Texas, that their mother dropped them off at the park so they could make some money in the restroom, that they did not know what I meant when I asked about oral sex, that they had metal plates in their heads from the war and they would follow me home. I learned not to use words like “monogamous.” Instead, I would say: “If you absolutely do not want to use condoms”–by this time the client had made that clear and refused to reconsider–“it’s best that you have sex with only one other person who doesn’t have sex with other people, who has been tested, and who you trust.” (Another rule: I never said “whom.”)  I reminded them that there’s still a risk. They would agree that you can never really know somebody. They had a lot of stories.

The tests were anonymous. I assigned my clients code numbers, but they told me their first names, anyway. If they asked for a hug, I hugged them; I shook their hands and smiled at them. In almost two years of testing, I had never given an HIV-positive test result, but sitting beside a vial of one’s own blood for twenty minutes induced strong emotions. If they cried, I did; I’d given up trying not to. We talked about how scary it was. “What will you do to make sure you don’t have to go through this again?” Then, I’d check off the box that asked if the client had formulated an “action plan.”

Someone had put a yellow smiley face mug with a plant growing in it on the window sill of the testing office. Nobody watered the plant so it drooped over the mug’s face like lank hair, and I had thrown it away, but left the mug. It was past closing time when David and I sat waiting for the device to soak up his sample, so the sunlight sluicing around the mug was bright. Most of the time it had a wan, wintery quality, but after 5:00, the sun angled in through neighboring buildings and seemed to take a long time moving. Sara closed the blinds for us. David, whose back faced the window, put his hand over the back of his neck like it was hot.

David was low-risk. Still, I had gone through my checklist: he was not suicidal, had a support-person waiting for him when he left, and, if positive, would get a confirmatory test as soon as he could. I asked if he was ready for me to turn the device around, and he nodded, his mouth a hard line. A little nervousness was normal. Sometimes people walking around downtown saw our sign and decided to come up for a test, since it was free, and they’d been wanting to, anyway, in the way that they’d been meaning to get their teeth cleaned; the only time most people got scared was at the twenty-minute mark, when they realized what it would really mean to see two lines instead of one. Their terror spiked through them, unexpected. They got quiet. They lunged for the strip, unable to talk, eat, or sleep until they knew; their plans to stop by the place downstairs for a big turkey and avocado on wheat skittered away, pushed by the first, rough gusts of fear.

Like them, David leaned in to look at the strip.

I knew Sara could see them from where she sat against the wall: two lines, the color of angry flesh after you peel a scab away. I looked at David, who stared at the carpet. He never cried. He said he needed to go; he refused to stay when I asked.  I’d already explained that the likelihood of a false-positive was next to nothing, especially since I’d taken a blood sample instead of an oral swab. The local clinic that would be able to draw his blood for a confirmatory test was closed for the day. I gave him a “Reactive” brochure (identified by red text instead of blue), which he folded up and put in his back pocket.
When I got home that night, I sat in my car for ten minutes. Our street glowed orange from the sun, which was finally setting somewhere past the IGA. I could see its citrus edges pushing light through the trees that lined the parking lot. I thought I might puke.

A year later, I traveled to Central America with my boyfriend and his parents. In Guatemala, large red ribbons that looked like they were painted with a brush used to varnish barns decorated each street post. The paint looked scratchy and some of it had trickled before it dried. I had read that Guatemala accounted for one-sixth of people living with HIV in Central America. Chickens picked through trash and long grass in front of a sagging house, and I wondered, while one of the Rotarians on our tour gave crayons to her children, if someone was waiting inside, scared. When she closed her eyes, did she see lines? Did they form twin ridges inside her lids, rearranging veins? I hoped the flowers drawn for her–in orange and yellow crayon–would fill her sight when the day’s last light sank into the ground.

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