By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: Michael Moore in “Sicko,” Weinstein Company, 2007]
Here’s the thing about Michael Moore, beyond which all critical discourse has the import of self-entranced flatulence: he is an unsubtle slob with no respect for the ethics of discourse, but he is absolutely imperative. He routinely backloads his arguments, slants reality, makes unfair mockery, ignores mitigating material and draws simplistic conclusions, but he is virtually the only public figure in America who puts his movies where his mouth is in terms of believing in a few simple truths: that corporations shouldn’t be allowed to fuck us and our resources, that government should serve us and not vice-versa, that the self-serving lies politicians tell shouldn’t be indulged as “spin,” that capitalism is no excuse for exploitation, that economic equality is not only desirable and viable but necessary, that the citizen comes first, not the dollar. In other words, he’s a full-on, pragmatic, new-world-order socialist, and he’s not afraid to say so. As he says so plainly in “Sicko,” our fire departments and police forces and schools and libraries, socialized public services everyone loves, uses and is thankful for, are “free.” Why can’t our medical care be as well? Why isn’t everything socialized?
Well, because we live in an oligarchy, and the oligarchs, 1% of the population controlling 80% of the wealth, as a retired British Parliament member intones in the film, would lose their fortunes, and since they control the mainstream media and, essentially, all three branches of government, they will do whatever they need to do to insure that doesn’t happen. “Sicko” skims the surface with this basic reality, but the moments when the film matter-of-factly exposes the real machinery the insurance company lobbyist payouts to supposedly moral politicians, the ex-claims reviewers who confess to having knowingly killed people by denying care, the same ex-Parliamentarian who shruggingly asserts that if England’s national health service were to be abolished by politics, “there’d be a revolution” are holy-shit enough.
“Sicko” is of course required viewing, presenting case after case of honestly, seriously sick Americans reamed and often sent to their graves by insurance companies, whose sole evident purpose is to absorb as much in premiums as possible while resorting to any means necessary, even de facto homicide, in order to prevent having to pay out claims. Along the way a trip that ends up with claim-denied 9/11 rescue workers in Cuba, yet another socialized-medicine nation far higher up than the U.S. on every health standard scale Moore loads his dice mercilessly, painting a Shangri-La picture of free medical care life in Canada, France and England (and, in the DVD’s supps, Norway, routinely number one among the world’s nations for health, happiness and crime prevention). Even a sympathetic viewer knows Moore is leaving out the gray France, say, has a good deal of trouble with medical care in rural areas (as every country does), and doctor visits, though quick, readily available, proficient and unencumbered by bureaucracy, aren’t quite free (they’re just cheap, much cheaper than the most modest U.S. annual insurance premium). Ambivalences are discarded; why are no poor people interviewed in the socialized countries, and only the poor in the U.S. are? It’s easy to assume why: because the relative situations are complex, probably too complex for a mere feature film to unentwine. But that’s Moore’s peculiar position in the public sphere: he’s an activist (not, please, one in the practice of “propaganda,” which should, by my lights, be redefined as persuasive media designed by state power, not individuals acting in resistance to that power). Moore isn’t interested in fighting fair or attempting a “balance”; he’s scrapping with Karl Rove, Rupert Murdoch and Sean Hannity on their own terms, and movies like “Sicko” aren’t freestanding essays on social issues, but fireball volleys hurled across the landscape. Inciting social change Moore’s real target is more important than the integrity of cinema, and who could argue? So, the films tend to shoot low, beneath the eye level of the educated audience who commonly see documentaries and more directly at the brain pans of Americans for whom passionate criticism of Fox News would come as a shock. The movies might suffer, but the country might benefit.
Shooting low was never an issue for psychotronic legend Frank Henenlotter, whose 1990 Bosch-on-sweet-air triumph “Basket Case 2” has emerged on DVD as potent as metaphoric discomfitures as his films all are, Henenlotter’s narrative-visual style can accurately be described as yowl-slither-splooge-splat. A giggly, New York alley-trash cousin to Cronenberg by way of E.C. Comics and sideshow taboo, Henenlotter made his first film, 1981’s “Basket Case,” so cheaply the lights are rarely turned on, but the parable about a Times Square inhabitant plagued by his separated-at-birth, basket-dwelling “half-brother” is so loaded with urban-Gothic family dread that the subtext is barely sub-. The sequel hyperextends the Tennessee Williams-with-slime-monsters scenario away from fraternal angst and toward social conflict, happening upon an entire commune of ludicrously distorted freaks with which Belial the throat-ripping mound with arms and his “normal” twin Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) become intimate, as the evil world of ordinary humans threatens the secret community’s respect for “differences” from the outside. Henenlotter knew some of us were wondering if Belial was sexually active, and so he showed us. Acted terribly but with wild-eyed zest, Henenlotter’s magnum opus remains biting for the outrageous subtexts (biological, sexual, racial, you name it) worming around not far beneath the even more outrageous surface. After this and the same year’s “Frankenhooker,” the filmmaker only managed to straight-to-video his trilogy capper, “Basket Case 3,” in 1992; since then, what’s happened? No matter; Henenlotter is polishing up his first film in 15 years (“Bad Biology”), and it should be hitting some kind of daylight next year.
“Sicko” (Weinstein Company) will be available on DVD November 6th; “Basket Case 2” (Synapse Films) is now available on DVD.