Sunday, July 29, 2007

Quills -- Examining the Marquis De Sade

Quills is a fascinating story about the infamous French aristocrat, the Marquis de Sade. More historical fiction than biography, Quills takes place in an insane asylum where Sade was banished after spending several decades in prison for sexually assaulting a number of prostitutes, almost poisoning them with Spanish Fly, beating and terrorizing a young beggar girl and deflowering his sister-in-law; the latter so infuriated his mother-in-law that she had him arrested.

Inside the madhouse, the Marquis, brilliantly played by Geoffrey Rush, was given permission to write by the liberal minded Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), but was forbidden to publish. Where there's a will, there is invariably a way and the Marquis found such a way in Madeleine, a young laundry maid, played by the lovely Kate Winslet, who has been remarkably good in every movie I've ever seen her in. Thus, de Sade persuades the young woman to pass his writing to an outsider who manages to publish them, evoking fury from the Emperor Napoleon and wild cries of outrage, as well as titillation, from the masses. When the abbé discovers that the Marquis has broken his rule, he takes away his mighty quill but the determined de Sade continues to write, using wine, blood and even his own feces. And he must then face the wrath of the cold and hypocritical Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), who is brought in to keep the Marquis in check.

At first glance, Quills appears to be a movie about censorship and the importance of maintaining the right to free speech. It tends to glorify the Marquis de Sade; although we do experience him as vulgar, we are sympathetic to his plight. The drums of the American Civil Liberties Union can be heard quite distinctly. What isn't emphasized in the movie is that de Sade was more than simply pornographic or shocking -- those who've read his original works (I read both Justine and something else by him when I was in my early 20s) know that he was outrageously cruel and went way beyond advocating rough porn like Larry Flynt in Hustler magazine. De Sade enjoyed torture, was completely amoral and was very much a nihilist.

Quills is a morality play since the movie makes it very clear that the Marquis' "incendiary" writings had a profound effect on other inmates and readers. This gives the movie its depth because we're asked to decide which is more important -- free speech or the potential for inflammatory material to cause grave danger by provoking acts of great malice. And we must acknowledge that for many people, particularly from the repressed era of the 18th century, de Sade's writings were liberating.

Cinematography, costumes and acting are all excellent. Joaquin Phoenix does a passionate and convincing job of playing the young Coulmier, who is tormented by his desire for the laundry maiden and Rush steals the stage as the nasty Marquis who is also entranced with Madeleine.

What is not entirely up to snuff -- no pun intended -- in Quills, is its accuracy. Screenwriter Doug Wright portrays the abbé as young, idealistic and handsome whereas in real life, according to movie reviewer Tom Holmberg, he was a gnome in his 60s, with a hunchback and gnarled legs. De Sade is depicted as having a loving feeling towards Madeleine, which saves him from being a one dimensional, frozen hearted, sex fiend, but in reality, the Marquis bragged about sodomizing the teenaged Madeleine -- probably not something that would have gone over too well with a Hollywood audience.

Aside from that, and some moments of parody that lost their authenticity for me, Quills is an ambitious, well-done movie that posed philosophical questions that stayed with me long after I finished watching.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

More Tears Than Laughs in Sicko by Michael Moore

A young child gets sick with an imminently treatable virus; her temperature soars to 104° yet the hospital refuses to treat her. She has a seizure, followed by cardiac arrest. Still no medical care. Eventually, she dies. Was this little girl an impoverished Haitian? A rural African or better yet, an inner city kid from Detroit? No, she was a white American with health insurance whose carrier insisted that she be transported to another hospital within the network. How could that happen?

In his finest film to date, Michael Moore provides a devastating critique of the US health care system, or the lack thereof. He opens the movie by talking about the 50 million Americans who don't have any health insurance but quickly moves on to focus on the remaining 250 million who are insured, largely by health maintenance organizations whose sole goal is profit at any expense.

Moore traces the origin of the HMO to a highly inflammatory conversation that President Nixon had with an aide back in 1971 whereby Nixon announced that it would be a terrible idea for government to expand its role in health care but a wonderful prospect if it were to be privatized. And so we find ourselves in the sorry state that we have today where people work their asses off, believing that they will be protected if they get sick but in fact, they are routinely denied coverage and/or benefits by HMOs for any reason under the sun. Pre-existing conditions can disqualify people from getting insurance. Failure to disclose a benign and ridiculous problem such as an ordinary yeast infection led Blue Cross to stop payment on a hospital bill for a distraught woman with endometriosis who had been faithfully paying her Blue Cross premiums.

Moore contrasts the American system with that of other countries and points out that the United States is the only Western industrialized country that lacks a universal health care system. He visits Canada, Britain, and France -- and even Cuba, in a particularly daring, in-your-face maneuver that only he could pull off -- concluding that they are vastly superior to the US.

What Moore doesn't mention is that most of the countries above, as well as Australia and New Zealand, have a parallel private system. He tends to glorify Canada with his selective perspective and interviewing techniques, dismissing news reports about long waiting lists for procedures and lack of proper equipment in Canada as being sheer propaganda; he interviews Canadians in Windsor, Ontario who claimed that they had only been waiting for 20 minutes or so to see a doctor.

Having had the advantage of living in the US for 26 years and the remainder of my 28 years in Canada, I can say with confidence that any time I've had to go to the emergency room in Ottawa, I've waited four to eight hours. I also waited 18 months for a hip replacement that I needed at the age of 47 as a result of a car accident; and there is a marked shortage of MRI machines in Canada's capital. As a result, a small private system has emerged in Québec where people go across the line to pay $700 for their MRI so as to discover a tumor before it metastasizes. Canadians also pay for medications, physiotherapy and dental care, although these services are subsidized for those with low income.

Also, theoretically, Canadians have the choice of any doctor that they want to see. However, in real life, many people have difficulty even finding a family doctor due to a severe shortage even in the cities. I wouldn't leave my family doctor for anything, even if I couldn't stand him. Fortunately, I do like the man a great deal but I know many people, including cancer survivors and older people with Parkinson's and serious blood disorders, who cannot find a family doctor so they rely on treatment from walk-in clinics. That's the worst kind of medicine for someone with a chronic problem or a complicated health history. For those with flus and bad backs, it works fine but not for anything more complex.

Despite these minor problems with the Canadian system, I would choose it hands-down any day of the week over American health care. Canadian Medicare is unquestionably better which is why it wouldn't have hurt Moore at all to have made a more balanced presentation of the facts.

Aside from the outstanding medical care that Michael Moore managed to subversively obtain for some 9/11 workers in Cuba, the country that stood above all others in his analysis was France -- 35 hour work weeks, five weeks paid vacation per year even for part-time workers, full universal health care, nannies who are sent out by the government to help new mothers (and even do their laundry!), excellent subsidized day care, and romantic couples kissing in parks along with families relaxing, so unlike their American counterparts, filled with road rage as they drive home after their backbreaking 10 hour day to pick up some fast food at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The French have it all, including the pastries.

What Moore doesn't address is the recent election in France. Why was the left-wing government voted out and replaced by a strong right-winger if everyone was so happy with their idyllic situation?

Lastly, Moore asks what's wrong with the American government. I ask what's wrong with the American people. There are only 435 members of the House of Representatives, 50 members of Congress and a handful of people in the White House. If there's power in numbers, the people have it. Why aren't they using it? When did they become so complacent? Why aren't they marching in the streets, holding dead children in their arms and missing fingers that they couldn't afford to reattach? Has the Bush regime rendered them all terrified? But the problem predates Bush by a long shot and didn't seem to improve during the eight years that Clinton/Gore had in office.

Don't buy the argument that the government can't afford universal health care -- according to the Associated Press, US taxpayers are spending an estimated $10 billion a month in Iraq. Ouch.

I loved Sicko and I'll see it again on DVD so I can pause, rewind and reflect on the horrors of the American health care plan. No one says it better than Moore and I've been a fan of all of his movies, however, he always has his point of view and it wouldn't hurt him to balance things out just a tiny bit. That won't prevent me from giving this ..ary a five-star plus rating but I didn't find it as funny as others did. Sarcastic, yes. Black humor? Definitely. Laugh-out-loud funny? Hmmm. I missed that! But don't you miss this brilliant, acerbic exposé.