[I've wanted to incorporate a regular movie column to the music, art, and food features here at the Banter for more than a minute now, so here goes... My good pal, Matt Blankman, who is mad for movies, will contribute his take, as will some of the other regular Banter contributors. Here's our debut, cue the lights...Alex Belth]
I’ve spent the last few days enjoying a rare moment of pop culture serendipity which has placed my brain squarely in the 1970s, the decade of my birth. First there’s been Josh Wilker’s fantastic new book Cardboard Gods (which we’ll assume you’re already familiar with to some extent if you’ve been keeping up with the Banter). Josh’s memoir isn’t just largely set in the 1970s, but it’s obviously shaped by it as well, and he sincerely attempts to make sense out of those strange times, how they came to pass and what they meant (and continue to mean) to him.
Soon after seeing Josh do a reading from “Cardboard Gods” last week, I found myself at home watching a new PBS documentary on the John V. Lindsay years (1966-1973) in New York City. To look back at those years now, with clear eyes, one can see many ways that the hope and exuberance of the 1960s gave way to the despair and confusion of the 1970s. How the New Frontier and Great Society faded and left us with gas lines, custom vans, pet rocks and malaise.
Finally, I watched a film from 1971 I’d never seen, The Hospital, which felt like a fictional illustration of so many of the issues present in both the Lindsay doc and Wilker’s book. The Hospital was written by Paddy Chayefsky, who was still enough of a big deal in the early 1970s that he may have been the only screenwriter ever to get his name above the title. Chayefsky’s script was directed by Arthur Hiller, a director who managed to have a lengthy career marked by a number of “big” movies and yet never once seemed to have any discernable personal style. (I’d call him a hack, except he always displayed a knack for comedic timing and knew to trust his script and cast. He may not have been much of an artist, but he wasn’t incompetent.)
Hiller’s direction is adequate if uneven; the film lurches between black comedy farce and character drama and the shifts in tone are a bit off-putting. Regardless of Hiller’s hand, the film really plays like collaboration directly between Chayefsky and its star, George C. Scott. Scott was coming off his flat-out amazing performance in Patton (for which he had won and refused the Oscar for Best Actor), and he remained in peak form. It’s a fascinating, brutal performance, ranging from charming to pathetic to terrifying. I don’t know if Chayefsky wrote the part with Scott in mind, but I also don’t know that anyone else could have done it justice.
The center of The Hospital is Dr. Herb Bock (Scott), Chief of Medicine at a big Manhattan hospital that is reeling from social strife and incompetence. The largely black, poor neighborhood in which the hospital is situated resents that local residents are being tossed out out of some nearby buildings to build a drug rehab clinic. The familiar mix of black militants and hippies has surrounded and invaded the building with protests. A young doctor is seemingly accidentally killed by a nurse who mistakes him for a patient after he uses an open bed for a tryst with another nurse. In the same room, the other patient lies comatose while an Apache medicine man does a ritual healing dance and the patient’s daughter Barbara (Diana Rigg) makes a play for Scott’s newly divorced, alcoholic, impotent, suicidal Dr. Bock.
Dr. Herb Bock is a classic burned-out case, smarter, more talented and more sensitive than those around him, left totally cold by where his life has taken him and alienated from his grown children. The incompetence, greed and lack of healing surrounding him on a daily basis, along with his own personal failings as a father, husband and man have pushed him to an existential crisis. We’ve seen other characters like this before (Scott memorably played one – a doctor, no less – in Richard Lester’s brilliant Petulia), but Scott’s performance is so riveting, you hardly care.
Rigg is also playing an archetypical character of the cinema of the era – the kooky yet sexy young female who reinvigorates the older man’s will to live – however the part is written and played without affectation or artifice. If it’s not totally believable, it’s also not insulting or gimmicky. The key is a boozy, late night scene between the two in Bock’s office, where the two exchange speeches that could have easily come off as too talky, or too “written.” Thanks to Rigg and especially Scott, the sequence is mesmerizing.
Looking back nearly forty years later, it feels as if Dr. Bock isn’t just railing against his own failures and that of his hospital, but expressing some sort of general everyman rage and disillusionment that went with those times. How had we let our great cities crumble? How had we lost our grip on truths and ideas that had seemed so self-evident only a decade earlier? What was bedrock and what was merely transient? How had the shining, grandiose dreams of the 1960s flamed out into smack, Nixon and urban blight?
Barbara proposes Bock come with her comatose father and her back to the desert in Mexico to live among the natives and leave the city and society behind – much like the “back to the land” movement Wilker talks about in “Cardboard Gods,” something he experienced intimately as a child. Although Bock is sorely tempted to leave the rotting, rancid city and hospital behind, ultimately he cannot go through with it. He’s recaptured his desire to live and work and has decided “someone needs to be responsible.” Depending on how you see things, he’s a fool, a coward or a would-be hero.
The Hospital was made (and released) in New York during Lindsay’s tenure as mayor, and it illustrates the frustration and decay of American urban areas of that era. The unnamed hospital in the film is itself an institution that is failing to make good, despite its best intentions. Chayefsky may well have been saying this was true not only of this particular hospital, but also perhaps New York City, America, or Western society at large. Everyone was sick, but the doctors couldn’t seem to figure out how to make anyone well.
“We cure nothing! We heal nothing!” Scott bellows as Dr. Bock. As the Lindsay years seemed to prove – grand ideas about social justice and equality don’t wind up meaning very much if the trash isn’t picked up and the trains don’t run on time. For that matter, operating on the wrong patient won’t help either.