Rats in the Kitchen, Rats in the System
By Fernando F. Croce

No sane person can deny that the American health care system is in the toilet, but the body politic deserves a finer thermometer than Michael Moore's camera. Sicko, Moore's new and in many ways most ambitious work of cine-activism, opens grainily on a self-stitched lesion, then proceeds to prod the central open wound, namely the country's abysmal medical coverage. "A weird situation" and "a sad situation," relate the people interviewed, who range from a patient who had to choose which of his severed fingers he could afford to save, to the bankrupt couple forced to move into their daughter's basement, to the 79-year-old man pushed into janitorial toil to afford his painkillers. The mosaic refers to the 50 million uncovered Americans as well as to the 250 million who do pay and still get fucked over by a rapacious system -- leapfrogging from the personal to the national, the film brings on "Adagio for Strings" as 1996 footage has Linda Peeno confessing to her part in an arrangement where greed "maims and kills patients." Health corporations score dough when patients are turned down for being too fat or too skinny or too tall (or for having AIDS, cancer, yeast infection -- cutely, the preexisting conditions scroll in a Star Wars crawl.) "Where did the HMO begin?" Moore asks in voiceover. Cut to Nixon and Erlichman in 1971 approving the for-profit scheme. Never mind that Frederick Wiseman had already X-rayed the diseased intestines the year before in his doc Hospital, the director's already moved on to his next target: Hillary Clinton, who arrives to rock the boat and ends, like the rest of the "powerful forces," in the health industry's pocket.

Muddled as it is by Moore's addiction to smirky musical cues and flossy montage, Sicko's first half is still effectively concentrated, a hurtling lament that, while keeping the director mostly off-camera, nevertheless bristles with his visceral indignation. His politics remain as simplistic as his filmmaking is facile (compare Moore's smartass use of campy Stalinist propaganda here to Makavejev's multi-layered examination in Gorilla Bathes at Noon), yet the rotten nature of the system, spelled out in big, blocky letters, still hits you between the eyes, and he knows a devastating image (such as the elderly patient dumped on a street corner with open stitches) when he spots one. "The less they give us, the more money they make" -- the safety-net obviousness of Moore's points continues to undercut his vaunted "courage," but that doesn't mean they are not valid. Where Sicko stumbles and derails is in its touristic half, intended to shame the U.S. health care but only succeeding in showing how easily Moore cramps his own effects, and how little he thinks of the audiences he intends to incite to insurrection. Trips to Canada, England, and France follow, each with more practiced double-takes from the filmmaker, stupefied at how flawless foreign health programs are; former British Parliament member Tony Benn is the oasis of intelligence amid this ocean of crude outrage, though it isn't long before our Man on a Mission skippers fishing boats full of unwell folks to Guantanamo, and, failing to receive the "superior treatment" of the prisoners, gets to gawk at the splendor of the Havana Hospital. Like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko's existence ultimately transcends its maker's self-serving pizzazz, even if as a necessary reflection of a troubled system rather than as a challenge to it.

*

Moore's portrait of the City of Lights in Sicko is dreamier than even the mooniest sketch in Paris, Je T'aime, though Ratatouille's has it beat for genuine enchantment. "All this time... I've been underneath Paris?" marvels Remy (voiced by Patton Oswald), the youngster who's been separated from his family and, alone with his cookbook, braves the real world to pursue his ambition of becoming a great chef. The joke, and Brad Bird's twist on the follow-your-dream structure engraved in marble at Pixar Studios, is that Remy is a rat -- not a house mouse but a sewer rat, whose ingratiating cuddliness should come as no surprise from the animator who turned a metallic behemoth into the most humane character in late '90s cartoons. The Iron Giant and The Incredibles are about families, and Ratatouille posits another lovely clan in the assorted culinary dwellers of the Gusteau Restaurant, where Remy surpasses anthropomorphic limitations and employs his gourmet genius by Cyranoing it from under the toque of Linguini (Lou Romano), a geeky garbage-boy turned cook. Bird is a wizard mining his Pixar canvas for kinetic cinematic space, and the camera swirls up pipes and past walls as easily as it slows down to ponder the textures of an omelet or the Charles Addams-esque features of poison-pen food critic Anton Ego (along with Peter O'Toole's lambent vocal performance). The more sophisticated the studio's technology becomes, however, the more old-fashioned its narratives become -- Bird's newest is a much more charming and personal project than last year's Cars, yet it rarely breaks through sweetness and into greatness. "Anyone can cook" is the repeated adage, but "follow the recipe" might have been the presiding motto.

*

The airbrushed triteness of Evening is the kind that lends "chick flicks" their patriarchy-imposed stigma. "Mysterious creatures," my ass -- it's no secret that Lajos Koltai's adaptation of the Susan Minot novel is The Hours, Redux (Michael Cunningham co-wrote the screenplay, Claire Danes, Toni Collette, Eileen Atkins, and Meryl Streep are all again aboard the pimpmobile), serving up the oppression of women and gays as antiseptic bourgeois swank. No movie with Vanessa Redgrave can be wholly worthless, but the need to watch shit blow up afterwards seems overwhelming. Live Free or Die Hard satiates that need nicely. The main gag in the 1988 original was in its use of the Fox Building, nineteen summers later we are in the age of "virtual terrorism": Money is still the bad-guy impetus, only now it's drained out of the national funds by a disgraced patriot (Timothy Oliphant) via a gawky techie's laptop. There is a neat bit of geometry in the way John McClane (Bruce Willis) is paired up with a sidekick hacker of his own (Justin Long), a tingly bit of illusionism in the mock-detonation of the White House, and at least one action sequence (involving a truck, a jet fighter, and a freeway crumbling into dust) that's pulled off with just the right spatial élan. Mostly, however, Len Wiseman's direction is a sample of the way the facile 24 style -- synthetic "intensity," brutality sanitized by flash -- is taking over the action genre, yet another step towards turning cinema into TV. Still, there's Willis' droll, human-sized muscularity, his bald scalp superbly accumulating gashes and wrinkles, effortlessly commanding even after having the "motherfucker" taken away, PG-13-style, from his "yippee-ki-yay."

*

Edward Yang (1947-2007). It was A Brighter Summer Day which pointed me in the early 1990s to the discovery of the New Taiwanese cinema -- its climactic stabbing seemed to capture, beautifully and frighteningly, the cultural confusion of a country and a people in transition, something which spoke profoundly to my own feelings as a stranger in a strange land. Where Hou Hsiao-hsien beckoned me through the sublimity of his mise-en-scène and Tsai Ming-liang seduced me with his lyrical-disturbing alienation, Yang seemed to invite me right into the screen with his lucid patience and warm human sympathy. That's not to portray him as a frugal filmmaker: Yi Yi, his lovely 2000 panorama, is as virtuosic in its interweaving points-of-view as the peaks of Altman's oeuvre, the kind of wide, intimate work that has you frequently finding yourself reflected in its emotional movements. Yang is still largely unknown in the U.S. -- Yi Yi was his only film to get a theatrical release here, and he'd been making films since the early 1980s. As with the passing of Ousmane Sembene earlier this year, the sadness of his death should be tempered by the hope and excitement of discovering his work, for there is so much from both these filmmakers we still have to catch up with.


Reviewed July 7, 2007.

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