The Hospital

Released in 1971, The Hospital is almost as good as Paddy Chayefsky’s later movie, Network. Set, you guessed it in a New York hospital where mayhem prevails. Outside radicals protest the hospital’s move to repurpose an apartment building, while inside medical accidents seem to abound. Accidental deaths are so common it’s farcical, which is Chayefsky’s point. He aims to show the medical profession at its worse.

George C. Scott plays, the main character, the chief of staff, a middle aged newly divorced failure of a father, who couldn’t get through the day with out a bottle of vodka. He tries therapy, but realizes it’s just not going to work for him. He’s a man who knows himself so well and doesn’t believe his own b.s. He’s ready to kill himself when — the “remedial dame” as my Shakespeare prof would say, enters. An ex-junkie, ex-nurse who wants to pull her father out of the hospital before the quack who’s treating him kills him.

If you’ve seen Network, you’ll spot a lot of similarities: the May/December romance, the crazy prophet, the skewering of the system, and the intelligent dialog (that’s so rare today – Alan Sorkin can give us some but how many others?)

As I watched, I kept thinking God help me, I don’t ever want to be in this sort of hospital. I do think most have gotten much better than this one, but since the University of Chicago is dealing with the accidental death of a board member, a board member, no less, The Hospital is still relevant. It moves quickly and keeps the audience on their toes all the way up to the unexpected ending. Bravo.

Again, I must have placed this on my Netflix queue months ago. I love these surprises.

The Sister of the Traveling Pants

I liked this movie more than I expected. I watched it to gain insight into the zeitgeist of teens as I work on a novel for them. Based on the novel by Ann Brashares, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants chronicles the summer experiences of a group of close friends. These life-long friends each have distinct personalities, a requirement for the genre. One’s independent and sporty, another shy and romantic, another rebellious and edgy, and the narrator is down-to-earth and literary (i.e. she’s a budding writer).

One day while shopping they find a magical pair of pants that somehow fits each of them perfectly despite their wide range of height and shape. They agree to share the pants that summer as a means of sharing the magic and staying connected during a summer when they’ll be apart.

The story tackles problems I didn’t expect like death and the feelings of abandonment when a father remarries. It does a decent job in doing so. It’s not the most sophisticated depiction of teenagers, but it could be worse. There is a strong feel-good experience as one sees the characters’ loyalty and support through thick and thin.

MI-5

Since coming home in mid-March, I’ve been able to move ahead with my MI-5 viewing. I’m almost done now with season 8. The further I get into this thrilling series, the more I like it.

I love the characters and suspense. The stories depict hypothetical security issues in an age of international terrorism. The characters are intriguing and the dialog sophisticated. When else does one hear allusions to Milton, Shakespeare and Orwell. The first two years introduced the question of the toll of secrecy needed in this line of work on personal relationships. As the series goes on that’s still a question, but less screen time is spent talking about that and it works. The audience can infer the toll and ponder that issue themselves.

Another remarkable aspect of the show is the writers willingness to kill off characters that typically are “safe.”

Watching MI-5 is like watching 2 or 3 Law and Order, a favorite of mine. Because the spies a.k.a. spooks, are often in the midst of danger in a way that’s more vulnerable than the your average cop on the beat. The stakes are always so much higher because the threat often is to democracy, freedom of religion or energy sources that we hold so dear.

Sand Mandala

If you’re quasi-interested in Wheel of Time watch this. It gets to the heart of the film and saves you an hour and 14 minutes.

Wheel of time

Filmmaker Werner Herzog’s documentary Wheel of Time focuses on a Buddhist festival in India that thousands flock to every couple years. Some walk, some come by bus, some slowly make their way prostration by prostration (see YouTube video below).

One of the main rituals is making an intricate sand mandala (painting) symbolizing the universe. While 12 monks work on this in shifts from dawn to midnight, outside hundreds of pilgrims pray, conduct theological debates and such.

I’m sorry, call me a philistine, but the watching this film was like watching paint dry. I watched 15 minutes and took a break. The next day I tried again. I gave up after 40 minutes. I did find the setting and clothing colorful and exotic. I found watching the monks make the mandala mesmerizing, but I kept looking for a theme or narrative that would compel me to stick with the movie, and that never came. I don’t know if it’s the more unified narration or what, but I realized most Discovery Channel National Geographic documentaries were better. So I stopped watching. I needed more than the exotic.

Herzog interviews the Dalai Lama, and that didn’t grab me. The D.L., whom I’ve thought is interesting and wise, just talked about the obvious, i.e. how each of us sees ourselves as the center of the universe. True, but a college freshman who’s taken Developmental Psychology or learned a bit about Freud can tell us that.

I kept wondering why the director of Fitzcarraldo made this little film. I’m still not sure.

The Class

A French film The Class has a documentary film feel. This drama shows the relationships and struggles in a low income, ethnically mixed Paris high school. Think a French Up the Down Staircase or Dangerous Minds. The difference with this movie, and I think it makes it a stronger film is that the outcomes aren’t as upbeat. The main character, Msgr. Marin is far from perfect and his students are for the most part insolent and disruptive. The one’s who do learn do so in spite of the chaos that seems to reign at this school.

There’s a scene at the ending that would never appear in a Hollywood film about the teacher who beats the odds. See the spoiler alert below.

Most Hollywood films in this genre show the teacher as a hero, with perhaps a minor flaw and then there’s the nemesis principal who’s devoted to the rules. The Class is better than that. Mr. Marin and the other teachers have their weaknesses and Marin makes the same mistakes, talking to the students in the same sarcastic way in September and in March, though he doesn’t even see how counterproductive it is, all through the year. He is committed to students’ progress and wants them to do better, but he’s blind to his own faults. He doesn’t grow the way Hollywood teachers do and that makes the film work better.

The kids are so mouthy and that really never changes. A lot of class time is wasted and it’s not like they’ve just deviated from the curriculum and are really spending time on the relevant to later have an Aha! moment. They’re just manipulating the teacher and steering the class off course. Like my classmates at St. Philips often did. One wonders why these teachers stay. And that’s reality. I’d love to see an American version of this. Then perhaps we’d see that NCLB or the Race to the Top aren’t the answer.

SPOILER ALERT

I found the scene near the end where Marin learns that one of the bright but rowdy girls had read Plato’s Republic on her own and more or less learned more without him to be so powerful and surprising. She was saving that gem for the last day to show him and the school system that she was better than they thought. Now that was an exception and rather adolescent, which is part of the essential problem. Adolescent behavior is so largely “biting off your nose to spite your face” and it’s so hard now to counter that. I’m not saying it was ever easy, but in this era . . .

One girl, whom never made a peep the whole year tells the teacher that she really didn’t learn anything all year. Not in any class. And we see that she’s sincere and no one noticed since she wasn’t a trouble maker or star student.

This is a good example of French filmmaking. It showed me a new dimension and how as good as Truffaut and say Goddard are, there are new French films that aren’t too artsy for the average American filmgoer.