Listening to the conflicting chatter about the recent health care reform bill sometimes reminds me of that old “Simpsons” bit where aliens Kang and Kodos are running for president. As “Bob Dole,” Kang tackles abortion: “Abortions for all.” Boos. “Very well, no abortions for anyone.” Boos. “Hmm… Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.” And the crowd goes wild. That’s pretty much as coherent as public debate on the matter has been so far.
Everyone like to slag off their hospital system, no matter your country — and even in the movies. There’s 1982’s “Brittannia Hospital,” Lindsay Anderson’s strikingly literal-minded diagnosis of the UK that insists upon a hospital that contains everything wrong with the country, down to a “Rudyard Kipling ward.” There are also lots of arrogant, indifferent-to-life union workers — the film opens with a man in an ambulance dying because the workers won’t admit him on their tea break — the Tea Party folks would love it. If that’s not emphatic enough, there’s 2004’s “The Barbarian Invasions,” a movie I like quite a bit but which couldn’t have emphasized (demonized?) every single problem with Canadian health care harder if it’d tried.
American traditions of portraying medical care on-screen are a bit messier, and increasingly frustrated. There was the “Young Dr. Kildare” series of the ’30s and ’40s, though they didn’t place much of an emphasis on verisimilitude — 1940’s “Dr. Kildare’s Crisis” posits that epilepsy is curable and can lead to insanity.
But you can trace some passing references and increasing disgruntlement down through the years. An early example that comes to mind is James Mason in 1956’s “Bigger Than Life,” just before he goes crazy on cortisone and starts tormenting his family. First come the discussions about the costs of treatment, though. “I’m a teacher,” Mason cracks. “I can’t afford to get sick more.” The joke’s not that funny, if it ever was.
There’s more overt irritability in the ’70s: one of the surprises about Frederick Wiseman’s 1970 “Hospital” is how hard-pressed circumstance equalizes racial tension real fast, even as the treatment seems harried at best. 1971’s “The Hospital” was blunter, as you’d expect from the writer of “Network”: “We cure nothing!” rants Dr. Herbert Hock (George C. Scott, no surprise). “We heal nothing!”
But for real frustration turn to recent years, like the hysterical salvo that was 2002’s “John Q,” in which a callous HMO won’t pay for Denzel Washington’s son’s heart transplant, so he takes the hospital hostage. (Must’ve struck a nerve with someone — it made $71 million, no matter how bad the reviews were.) The alternative is to treat hospitals as a playground for soap opera and clever diagnoses (the way “House” or “Gray’s Anatomy” do). And of course there was Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” which came three years early and
without any real facts employed an emotionally distorted argument with carefully selected and weighted statistics. Nonetheless, heroic doctors in any form — save the disease-of-the-week TV movie — are pretty rare.
What really got me thinking about all this, oddly, was finally catching up with “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” — not American, granted, but hang on. Park Chan-wook’s breakthrough was just as violent and elegant as promised (and significantly less stupid than what came after), but watching it the Tuesday night after the bill seemed appropriate. Seeing vague revolutionary Cha Yeong-mi (Du-na Bae) rant about the importance of having affordable health care for everyone and pass out leaflets is one thing; watching a dude try to get a kidney on the black market and then killing a whole lot of people when things go wrong is an entirely different matter. See what happens when people can’t have affordable health care?
[Photos: “The Hospital,” MGM Home Entertainment, 1971; “John Q,” New Line, 2002]