Is There a Doctor in the House?

Health, in life and film, dominates Cannes.

Cannes Report Michael Moore Sicko American healthcare crisis
I never gave much thought to the subject of health insurance until, in October of 2005, an odd swelling in my groin prompted me to make one of my infrequent trips to the doctor's office. A referral to a urologist and one ultrasound later, the diagnosis was indisputable: testicular cancer. By Thanksgiving, I'd gone under the knife and rid myself of the offending, grapefruit-sized mass. Nearly a year and a half later, I'm happy to report that I have been given a clean bill of health.

Even more happily, of the thousands of dollars in medical expenses that accrued before, during, and after my surgery, nearly everything was paid for in full by my employer-sponsored PPO health insurance, for which I had just become eligible about a month prior to my diagnosis. Shortly before I left to attend this year's Cannes Film Festival, I received word that this very insurance option was now going the way of my tumor, with employees previously on the plan forced to change or otherwise see our monthly contributions increase by some 400 percent. The company's suggestion: Switch to the same provider's HMO plan, which, we were told, is "almost as good as a PPO." Which reminds me rather uncomfortably of the time my urologist said that testicular cancer was "the best kind of cancer to get" if, you know, you had to get it.

So let's just say that I sat through last weekend's Cannes premiere of Michael Moore's new documentary, Sicko, as a particularly captive viewer. The movie's subject is the American health insurance system -- not, Moore explains, as it concerns the 50 million Americans who don't have insurance at all, but rather as it concerns the 250 million of us who do. We are the ones, Moore argues, who are living in the real fool's paradise. And by the end of Sicko's information-packed, often hilarious, frequently stomach-churning two hours, it's hard to disagree with him. Of course, it's never exactly been easy to counter Moore, whose patented bullying, bombastic, self-serving approach to nonfiction filmmaking rarely allows anyone to get a word in edgewise. I've been critical of him for that in the past, and for what often feels like a self-sabotaging lack of confidence in the strength of his material and the intelligence of his audience. Sicko isn't entirely free of such gestures, chief among them Moore's third-act boat ride to Cuba in the company of some 9/11 rescue workers who have been unable to receive the medical care they need in the U.S. That sequence is far from the pro-Castro propaganda some have already accused it of being, but it's one of the few instances in Sicko where Moore grabs the reins and rides to his defenseless subjects' rescue. More often, he stands back and puts the burden of activism where it belongs: on the audience.

The other thing that makes Sicko Moore's strongest film in years -- if not ever -- is its steadfast refusal to turn health care into a polarizing political issue, except to say that pretty much all American politicians, regardless of rank or affiliation, have left us to fend for ourselves. He fetishizes Hillary Clinton as the once-upon-a-time potential savior of the universal-health-care movement, only to then vilify her for drinking the insurance lobbyists' Kool-Aid. In probably the film's most amusing sequence (and certainly the one most beloved by the Cannes audience), Moore travels to France, where he finds oodles of average Joes and Janes (including a few expat Americans) living la bonne vie thanks not only to socialized health care (including doctors who make house calls 24/7) but to a slew of other enviable social services, including state-sponsored child care and mandatory month-long vacations. Oh, and it turns out that the Frogs live longer than us too.

Say what you will about Moore: He can be didactic, reductive, and repetitive, and I'm still not convinced that his plainspoken Will Rogers routine is anything more than an extremely well-polished act. But Sicko is the first time in years that I've believed Moore genuinely cares . . . about something other than his own ego.

Whenever Moore hasn't dominated the discussion during the first half of Cannes this year, tongues have wagged over the health and well-being of cinema itself. This is Cannes' 60th-anniversary year, and to commemorate the occasion, the festival invited 33 filmmakers (including many past Cannes winners) to create short films for a special omnibus project titled To Each His Own Cinema. The only prerequisite was that each short had to include a scene set within a movie theater. But did the festival organizers, I wonder, anticipate that most of those theaters would turn out to be the once-glorious, now-decaying movie palaces of the directors' youths -- those temples of cinema where, once upon a time, hundreds or even thousands of moviegoers came together to worship in the dark?

In his contribution to the project, "At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World," David Cronenberg even goes so far as to presage not just the end of movies as we know them but of the people frequently credited with popularizing them. So it was particularly curious that, at a luncheon following the To Each His Own Cinema press screening, it was Cronenberg who seemed most open to the various new mediums for the exhibition of motion pictures, describing his own children's habit of watching movies on their laptops while IM-ing their friends as a "legitimate experience."

Of course, it's not just the world's great cinemas that have disappeared but also the great, curious audiences. Take, for example, the most widely acclaimed film thus far exhibited in this year's main Cannes competition: Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The title refers to the duration of a pregnancy -- one about to be terminated by a young woman named Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), who waits nervously in a cheap hotel room for her friend, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), to return with the abortionist. The year is 1987; Ceausescu is in office; abortions are legally treated as murder.

This is a searing film, shot in something close to real time, in long, unbroken takes that wrap around you like a vise. It seems almost certain to win a major prize. Yet, as you might imagine given the subject matter, it is also the kind of movie that causes potential distributors to run from the theater like cows from a burning barn. As long as there is a Cannes, I suspect, such films will continue to be made and presented to large audiences under ideal screening conditions. But where do they go from here? And is 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days really a movie fit for exhibition on iPods?

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