Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Health Care Post

I realize you don't come here to read my personal opinions on current events. This is, after all, John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Film and Television, but since I'm sick with the flu today, my thoughts ran to the health care debate causing such strife across the nation.

I'm certain the Laura Ingrahams of the world are out there somewhere yelling "shut up and sing," but that's's their right to yell. Just as it's my right to express my opinion. I'm also providing links so that you know my opinion here is supported by those "stupid things" called facts and statistics.

Okay, first of all, Reuters reported in September of this year (last month) that 45,000 Americans die in the U.S. each year (one every 12 minutes, actually...), in large part "
because they lack health insurance and cannot get good care." That's a pretty startling figure, no? Just think about that for a minute and let it sink in. 45,000 of your country-mates die every year because they can't afford health insurance from a private industry responsible (in 2007) for some 730 billion dollars in unnecessary bureaucracy and waste. This is the same industry that will double health care premiums in seven years if unchecked.

Let me put this tragedy in human terms. Forgive me for being specific or providing too much personal information, but it's illustrative, I believe, of the debate. In the year 2006, my wife and I elected to have a child. We are both self-employed and pay entirely for our own health care. To carry maternity insurance and deliver our child safely, we paid out of pocket (to our insurance company...) approximately $14,000 dollars in the year 2006. In 2016, if nothing is done, it would cost double that to have a child: $28,000.00.

I hasten to add, my wife did not use any drugs during delivery (she didn't even have an epidural) and we had no problems with fertility. In either case, we would have spent even more in health care costs. This isn't a sob story; my wife and I can afford our health care premiums because we are good savers, hard workers, and responsible with our money. But what if our premiums double by 2016? That will be a harder bite to take. And what if they double again in another seven years, after that, by 2023? We would be working full time just to pay for our health care premiums. You tell me: does the health care industry urgently need regulation and reform, or is this an acceptable "future" in America?

My point here is simply that not everybody is as successful or as lucky as my wife and I have been. The median income for an American family in the year 2009 is down 3.6 percent and stands at roughly $50,000.
Because of the Recession of 2008-2009, incomes aren't likely to go up very much in the next seven years. It's actually far more likely that they will go down. Still, let's be even-handed in our projections and imagine that the median income stays about the same in 2016, at roughly $54,000 for argument's sake. If you can even afford health care, it's going to cost you half your income to have a child. Why is this important? Well, does "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" ring any bells? "Posterity" means future. It means, in other words, children. If even middle-class, professional Americans can't afford to have children in 2016, I have two questions. A.) How can we shower the blessings of liberty on our posterity? And B.) Who's going to grow up, join the U.S. Army and fight all those godless Muslim, socialist countries?

Now let's talk national priorities here. 45,000 Americans die from a lack of quality health care a year. How many die because of terrorist attacks? Well, here's a chart that weighs the relative threat from various deadly forces, accounting for the eleven years from 1995 - 2005. You'll see that "driving off the road" killed 254,419 Americans in that span. Accidental poisoning took out 140,327 Americans. The flu killed 19,415 of our brethren. Hernias (!) killed 16,742.

And terrorism? In that eleven year span, it took...3,147 lives.

Now let's see how much we've spent in Iraq, the "central front in the War on Terror," so far. In 2008, America spent in the Iraq conflict (and I'm not even counting Afghanistan, folks...) roughly $5,000 dollars a second. That comes to 12 billion dollars a year. The cost of keeping one American soldier in Iraq is $390,000 dollars a year (and that doesn't include the care for the wounded 31,483 American soldiers back here in the States). Over the span of the Iraq War, America has spent $1.6 trillion dollars in Iraq.

To combat a threat ("Terror") that took 3,147 lives in eleven years. Do you feel safer now?

My question is this: how can the U.S. Constitution claim to "promote the general welfare," or even "provide for the common defense," when we are spending so much money fighting an enemy that takes less lives a year than...hernias? Why haven't we spent that much cool cash on a War on Hernias? Or a War on Flu? Or a War on Driving off the Road? (The Axles of Evil!) My point, of course, is that reforming Health Care in the United States is a task that would provide tangible, immediate benefits: saving 45,000 lives a year. Just think, that's 45,000 person expansion of the tax revenue base!

Right wing ideologues suggest that government-run health care is socialist and Anti-American. I hear these people complaining about government waste all the time (while simultaneously saying "keep the government's hands off my Medicare!") Well, as I pointed out above, what about the 730 billion dollars of waste in the insurance industry? A governmental public option would provide a new and powerful source of competition for these wasteful, bloated bureaucracies and actually reduce costs for EVERYBODY by providing an incentive for private companies to do better. I thought right-wingers would approve of competition. Why not let the market decide if a public option would bring down costs?

This is my idea: for the next six years (the duration so far of the Iraq War), let's rattle our sabers and pretend that America is indeed at war with Hernias, Flu, and the other ailments that steal 45,000 American lives a year. Let's spend 1.6 trillion on that conflict, and in doing so "promote the general welfare," "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" and "provide for the common defense" (against illness). Let's re-prioritize.

Finally, allow me to quote John McCain. "Elections have consequences." Obama won the popular vote by margin of over 10 million, five-hundred thousand votes. He stormed the Electoral College 365 - 173. And it's not like he ever suggested in the campaign that health care wasn't on his agenda. He'll have his "accountability moment" in 2012. But so as far as I can see, saving 45,000 American lives a year over four years (that's 180,000 American lives in just one presidential term!) is a wise and moral investment on Obama's part. If you're against universal health care or a public option, fine. If you're against raising taxes to pay for health care, fine. That is your right as an American: to have a different view. But there are real world consequences for your opposition to health care reform: 45,000 American lives lost a year.

So the next time you wave a fellow flag and claim that you are a patriotic American, try to remember the fallen in the War on the Hernias, the Flu, and Driving off the Road. Saddam Hussein ain't got nothing on them!

Tomorrow I shut up and sing...

Friday, October 02, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 92: Werewolf (1987 - 1988)

"There are those who believe...and those who will..."

-- early ad line for the TV series Werewolf (1987 - 1988)

Well, I'm suffering from the flu right now (for the second time this season...), so I am going to leave today's Brian De Palma retrospective installment for next Friday when I (hopefully...) can do it justice.

Instead, I'm going to present this piece that I have been working on all week: a look back at a terrific horror TV series that I'm not watching, primarily because the official DVD has been canceled due to a stupid tussle over music rights.

On July 11, 1987, a new network called Fox aired the first installment of a horror series called Werewolf. It was created by the appropriately named Frank Lupo, and it featured on a weekly basis Rick Baker''s and Greg Cannom's remarkable man-to-wolf transformation effects; much like those seen in 1981's An American Werewolf in London.

The series -- which ran for twenty-nine half-hour installments -- depicted the tragic destiny of Eric Cord (John J York) a typical American college student who, one day, learned that his roommate, Ted, was a werewolf. Eric himself became a werewolf after being bitten by Ted. He skipped out on his trial (for the murder of Ted), and -- like a latter day version of Dr. Richard Kimball -- went out in pursuit of Captain Janos Skorzeny (Chuck Connors), the one-eyed man whom Ted believed had turned him into a werewolf (by bite...) the previous summer. Only by severing the original bloodline, by killing the brutish Skorzeny, could Eric hope to return to a normal life and end his curse. Meanwhile, he was pursued across the country by a half-Indian bounty hunter named Alamo Joe (Lance Le Gault).

On Werewolf, Eric always knew when the metamorphosis to wolf man was impending because a bloody pentagram formed like a scarlet letter on the palm of his left hand. The only thing that could kill the werewolf was a silver bullet, and Eric's lycanthropic cycle was not tied to the full moon. The series often featured werewolf-vs.-werewolf fights.

Critics were not too pleased with Werewolf. Rolling Stone said it was basically "The Incredible Hulk with a body Afro" and noted that "York is treated to every form of wonder when some grizzled yokel cradling a shotgun will walk up to him..and say 'Boy, you sure got a pretty mouth." ("Terror By Mattel," May 5, 1988, page 32).

The New York Times opined that the series pilot was "slow, turgid and self-conscious," ("Werewolf on Channel 5," July 10, 1987) while Variety noted that "what is the vitality, chilling fun and imagination of those 1940s Lon Chaney Jr. films." (July 15, 1987, page 50).

I disagree, for the most part, with these slams. Looking back, Werewolf boasted some intriguing distinctions. For one thing, it was one of the rare prime time horror series (at that time) to feature regular characters, a continuing storyline...and even the inkling of a story arc. Before Werewolf, I can think of only two such series off-hand: The Sixth Sense (1972) and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975). Dark Shadows did it on afternoon television too, but that was a different ball game. Other horror efforts that had been prominent and well-received (the likes of Night Gallery, Ghost Story, The Evil Touch, Darkroom, Tales from the Darkside, etc.), were all anthologies. Today we sort of take this accomplishment for granted, post-Buffy, post-X-Files, post-Twin Peaks but it's no small matter. Werewolf attempted to forge an internally consistent world with "rules" and consistent characters when such an effort was not the norm.

Also, Werewolf exhibited a legitimate sense of danger (if not outright terror...) on a weekly basis. Again, no small feat. Even though Eric Cord (York) was our handsome, young lead, he seemed generally imperiled and overwelmed by his situation. Accordingly, the world of Werewolf was unpredictable, dark, and constantly changing. Mid-way through the series, for instance, Cord learned that Janos Skorzeny (named after the vampire in the TV-movie The Night Stalker) was not the head of the bloodline after all. On the contrary, it was a powerful yuppie tyrant (think Ted Turner or Donald Trump) named Nicholas Remy (Brian Thompson) who was the real head werewolf. The overwhelming sense of unpredictability and danger was also heightened by the very thing that has now kept Werewolf off our DVD shelves: a revolutionary, unconventional, hard-pounding rock score.

It's tempting to gaze at Werewolf and dismiss it as a "man on the run series" like The Fugitive, The Phoenix, The Immortal, Starman, or indeed, The Incredible Hulk. But here's the thing about those shows: for the most part, life on the run seemed pretty easy. The leads were often well-coiffed, comfortable-looking, and seemed to have the money to get from one place to another.

By contrast, on Werewolf, Cord grew dirtier, scuzzier and more-emaciated the longer the show continued. He went from Izod-wearing preppy boy to homeless, crazy-eyed derelict. He was forced to beg for food and money in an episode called "Amazing Grace," a fact which reflected the uptick in America's homeless at the tail end of the Reagan Era (when the president noted callously that many of them were actually "homeless by choice.") I remember that Eric bedded down in a train car with bums in one episode ("King of the Road,") and spent all night in a bus depot in another ("Nightmare at the Braine Hotel"). The result was that this was no typical glamorous TV trip. As I wrote in my review of the series for Terror Television (2001), even the extras cast on Werewolf appeared scruffy and menacing. Thus there was this atmosphere of a seamy, unfriendly America; one existing just underneath the "don't worry be happy" surface.

What I also appreciated about Werewolf was the manner in which the series was willing to let go of The Fugitive-style format when necessary. In other words, the program frequently discovered ways to be innovative within the contexts of format limitations. For instance, Alamo Joe's history was studied in depth during an episode called "A World of Difference." Remy's and Skorzeny's long histories were also excavated in various installments. Forecasting myth-heavy efforts such as Highlander, Forever Knight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other modern series, Werewolf explored the notion that monsters carry long legacies from the past into the present.

When Werewolf was bad, it was because formula and TV convention simply overtook the series' better instincts. We could have all lived without the episode in which Eric helped a cute old Lady escape from a cruel nursing home ("Amazing Grace") or "Nothing Evil in These Woods" in which he predictably fell in love with a sexy new age witch. And sure, it was awfully convenient that Eric would always transform into a werewolf just when those werewolf abilities could do some good and he could defend/save/rescue the "good" guest star of the week.

Still, given the late-1980s vintage, Werewolf often played like Miami Vice on acid, and the series would frequently strike this trance-like groove of pounding rock music and startling, music-video era imagery. Non-linear story lines (the kind you'd see in Jackie Brown [1997] or Out of Sight [1998]) were featured from time-to-time (before they were cliches...) and some episodes felt positively avant garde in the dedicated use of bizarre symbols and cryptic characters. And remember, this was pre-Twin Peaks (1991).

When Werewolf hit these spiky chords -- like a drug trip gone bad; like a sleazy Sid and Nancy (1986) horror venture dominated by startling imagery -- it was truly a great, even trail-blazing series. A unique and memorable fusion of genre horror mythology, rock music and TV conventions, Werewolf may have begun life as Fugitive rip-off but it quickly transformed itself into something monstrously entertaining.

And it's about bloody time we got to see it on DVD.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Shikoku (1999)

"Do a person's feelings...have to die with them?"

- Sayori, in Shikoku (1999)

This Japanese film by director Shunichi Nagasaki is one of the few post-Ringu horrors that hasn't yet been remade and repackaged in America.

And that's probably a good thing, since Shikoku doesn't trade so much on shocks and suspense as it does powerful human emotions, loneliness and longing. Make no mistake, Shikoku is a frightening genre film in many ways; but it focuses very intently (and grimly) on the meaning of death; and the things that death can take away from those left behind; those still living.

Shikoku depicts the tale of lovely, timid Hinako (Natsukara Yui), a girl who moved away from the island of Shikoku as a child, leaving behind two best friends: a boy named Fumiya (Tsutsui Michitaka), and the object of his affections, Sayori (Kuriyama Chiyaki), a girl with extraordinary powers as a spiritual medium. Like all women in the Hiura family, Sayori is able to let the dead speak through her, and in one horrifying session, a boy inhabits the young girl and tells his grieving parents "I want to get out of here." "Here" being a reference to the Land of the Dead.

Hinako returns to Shikoku as an adult, only to learn that Sayori drowned some years the age of sixteen. Fumiya has never been the same since her death, and nor has Sayori's obsessed mother, the last in a long line of priestesses serving on the island. In fact, Sayori's grieving mother has undertaken a strange quest: she is visiting all 88 shrines on the island sixteen times, but in the "reverse" order of the ritual. As Hinako and Fumiya soon discover (from an unpublished, secret book called The Ancient History of Shikoku...), this backwards pilgrimage can transform the island into the Land of the Dead. In fact, in a forested valley, there may be a cave leading to "Yomi," the underworld.

Hinako and Fumiya grow intimate as they learn more about the opening of the doorway to the dead; and there's an amazing scene in the second act in which Fumiya describes to Hinako the depth of his love for Sayori, even though she is long gone. Will he ever really love anyone else? Is he "ruined," because of his early loss? Can he love Hinako the same way that he loves Sayori? This scene is filled with deep, honest emotions, yet never mawkish. It's restrained, and yet the words are heart-wrenching and heart-felt. American movies don't often let characters talk this way; and if they do, it seems corny, or forced. But after this fascinating scene, we realize that Shikoku is a love triangle. Though one point of the triangle is dead and gone, in some senses she still wields the most power.

And then, inevitably, the doorway to the Land of the Dead opens, and Fumiya makes a fateful choice between the living and the dead. His selection is shocking, but right given his character's situation and the undying power of love.

Shikoku eschews flashy pyrotechnics and culminates with a surprise: a long, in-depth conversation between a dead girl, Sayori, and the two friends she left behind on this mortal coil. She's sort of delusional in her "dead state." Sayori believes that she and Fumiya can still have children and carry on the family line. But of course, that's impossible. And Sayori -- very much like the resurrected individuals of Pet Sematary (1989) -- has only one gift remaining that she can endow upon the mortal friends. Death.

There's a real, heart-felt, human dimension to Shikoku that remains incredibly appealing and intriguing. Death brings out different instincts in people. Some deny it. Some grieve it. And some people just categorically refuse to accept death. But, there are consequences, we are told, to changing the natural order of things, and some of those consequences play out in the film.

To provide a crude comparison, Shikoku is like Ghost (1990) without all the sentimental New Age crap. Unlike Ghost, this film doesn't aim to satisfy us merely with the belief that "we take the love with us" to the after life. Instead it asks questions about regret and fate. It pauses long enough for the dead to ask questions of the living. Like "Why did I have to be the one who never got to grow up?"

These are the questions of our mortal existence; of human tragedy, and Shikoku dwells on them. It cannot, however, answer these questions since the great unknown must remain...unknown. But the film is atmospheric and dread-filled because it gazes at the mystery of the beyond; at one intersection of the land of the living and the land of the dead.

Shikoku is a beautifully-realized horror film. At times, a hand-held camera makes us actually feel a part of the land. This is especially so in the case of the river where Hinako almost dies; and where Sayori drowns. These shots are almost always filmed from water level, so it's as though we're up to our necks in it; drowning too. In other scenes, after Sayori has returned from the dead (arising through a small pool of water...), the water always seems to be reflecting upon her person; whether she is actually in it or not. Shunichi Nagasaki is also crafty in the way he shoots the Sayori specter: He shows her eyes and face very infrequently; Sayori seems ever-present...but distant to us. Often, she is turned away with her back to the camera; or appears on her knees (below camera level), preserving the mystery of a returnee from the grave. One line in the film tells the audience that "the newly dead come stand by your bed," and a shiver-invoking scene puts that line to the test.

At the end of Shikoku, Hinako is informed that she will be the one "who lives." She thus leaves Shikoku, gazing back at the mountain which might just be the gateway to another world.

But after everything Shikoku shows us and reveals to us, it's not relief the audience feels at her survival. On the contrary, it feels as though Hinako is the one who has been left behind. Her demons, like Fumiya's, will continue to haunt her. Especially if love survives the grave.

Monday, September 28, 2009

TV REVIEW: FlashForward (2009): "No More Good Days"

FlashForward -- a new series from executive producers Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer -- might more accurately have been titled "FlashBack."

While watching the catastrophic events of this new series unfold, the careful TV watcher will experience a distinct sense of deja vu for the ghosts of TV series past, notably ABC's powerhouse Lost, and the canceled ABC series The Nine.

Like Lost, Flashforward opens in media res, with utter pandemonium. A series of diverse characters (like, say, the passengers on a crashed plane...) awake to find themselves injured, confused and populating a vast disaster area. Only here it's urban. Sirens blare, cars are overturned. Someone is on fire. And a kangaroo (substituting for an out-of-place polar bear?) hops down a busy metropolitan avenue.

The presentation is similar to Lost too: immediacy-provoking shaky-cam and all. And yet, it's undeniable that these shots of a chaotic Los Angeles freeway (and skyline) resonate in this day and age: they are epic in scope and presentation, and successfully remind one of the stomach-wrenching terror of 9/11. In one impressive and horrifying shot, a helicopter hits a skyscraper, balloons into flame, and then careens down to the top of a smaller building. Where it explodes.

Clearly, no expense was spared.

Another reference to Lost also arrives early: a billboard for Oceanic Airlines is visible in the background of one shot. If you're awake, you can't miss it, and I guess that's the point. I can hear the announcer now: "If you like Lost, you'll love FlashForward!" Now, I don't mind homage, but this represents craven corporate synergy here. Marketing embedded as drama. It's sort of insulting.

Like the late, lamented The Nine, FlashForward introduces a variety of dissimilar characters going about their normal, daily lives when something traumatic and totally unexpected occurs to them. In The Nine, it was a hostage situation in a bank that affected the dramatis personae. Suddenly, life was scrambled, relationships were re-shuffled, fates were altered, and the experience "changed everything."

In FlashForward, we get a vaguely sci-fi variation on the format: a sudden global black-out -- replete with premonitions -- lasts for two minutes-and-seventeen seconds and is the catalyst for a whole new direction in life. A doctor planning suicide suddenly glimpses his future and realizes it's not his destiny to die now. An FBI agent (Joseph Fiennes) who has given up drinking sees an image of himself off the wagon...drunk. His wife, yet another doctor, sees herself in a passionate relationship with another man. Her marriage is apparently over. See? Suddenly, all of life is up for grabs...

The nagging feeling that you've seen all this before is heightened, alas, by FlashForward's insistence on hammering home the episode's salient points ad nauseum. A TV news report flat-out states (with accompanying images of destroyed European capitols...) that the black-out was worldwide. But then, a stranger watching the broadcast notes, "my God, it's the whole world!" Then, after the commercial break, Fiennes' Benford tells us again that the black-out affected the whole planet. Without exaggeration, the episode reminds us six or seven times in the first hour that the phenomenon was worldwide, just so we don't miss the obvious.

Much information is transmitted in this ham-handed, unskilled fashion, for those in the audience with attention-deficient disorder, I guess. For instance, Benford's wife, Olivia (Sonya Walger), experiences a vision of her "future lover." We see that mysterious future lover in a vision, in profile...and get a good look. Then, that mystery man appears in the present, and the episode swoops around to get a profile. The camera move triggers our memory, as does the man's physical appearance. We recognize him immediately, but that's not sufficient for FlashForward. Nope, the episode cuts back to the same vision footage we just saw, just to make sure the audience "gets" that it's the same guy.

During the commercial breaks too, the over-caffeinated voice-over announcer aggressively reminds the viewership of everything that just happened three seconds ago. Was that kangaroo -- gasp -- a clue? What is the importance of the date of the flash-forward (April 29, 2010)? There's nothing like attempting solve a mystery in which the clues have been spoon-fed to you with the subtlety of a game-show announcer calling down the next contestant.

The significance of the date April 29, 2010? Let me hazard a guess. Why, that just happens to be a Thursday night! The night of FlashForward's season finale! How convenient! In the book by Robert Sawyer, by point of contrast, the flash forward was twenty-years or so into the future, not a mere six months. I guess the makers of FlashForward are hedging their bets...

And well they should. This program is pitched so low that the creators must assume the general TV audience now consists entirely of cabbage. My concern: if they think we can't understand that the black-out was world wide, how on Earth do they think they can explain quantum theory, strange matter and the other esoteric aspects of Sawyer's novel to us?

Now, just the other day, I posted a quote by Jean-Luc Godard in which he noted that it's not where you take things from that's important, it's where you go with them. Given that philosophy, I don't mind all that much that FlashForward steals some thunder from The Nine (which nobody but me watched anyway...) or the popular Lost. Imitation is the name of the game in television more often than not. What I find much more troubling is the mind-numbing lack of subtlety on display here. This show doesn't trust the audience to pay attention at all.

As annoying as this "telegraph-and-repeat EVERYTHING" approach turns out to be, I still found aspects of FlashForward tantalizing. One character, Demetri (John Cho), experiences no vision during the black-out, and assumes that this can only mean one thing. That he has no future. That in six months, he'll be dead. Now that's a terrific wrinkle in the formula. In the episodes ahead, Demetri may literally be fighting for his life.

And, of course, underlying everything here is the exact same (fascinating) debate that informed the movie Knowing (2009): free will versus determinism. Can the future be changed? Does knowledge of the future, in fact, automatically change the future? These are fascinating notions and can make for some great TV drama. I also found the last few shots of FlashForward's pilot absolutely chilling. One man on Earth, it seems, did not black out at all. Does this mean he's not human? Immune? Protected? What? That's a very intriguing mystery, no doubt.

But I still don't have much confidence, at least not yet, that the writers of FlashForward are going to approach these concepts and mysteries in anything approaching an intelligent fashion. In some ways, FlashForward gives me deja vu for one other TV program: Brannon Braga's Threshold (2005). That alien-invasion series exhibited a great premise but by the second episode the execution of that premise had gone straight down the toilet. The whole thing lasted six or seven episodes, as I recall.

I bet Braga's hoping we all don't flash back to that traumatic experience.