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Checking Back Into Frederick Wiseman's Hospital

Modern medicine

One can measure the success of Frederick Wiseman’s landmark documentary Hospital by the two Emmys it won, its inclusion in the Library of Congress, or that Pauline Kael wrote a full review of Wiseman’s film in The New Yorker despite the fact that it was only shown on PBS. The real measure of Hospital’s success, though, is the fact that, 38 years after it was made, it still packs the same emotional wallop. The shock, when Hospital was first shown, came from seeing how American medicine was moving away from the local doc with his neighborhood practice toward an impersonal, large-scale bureaucracy. “The plight of sick poor people in an era of crumbling city services ... was a metaphor for urban indignity,” wrote David Edelstein earlier this year, when New York magazine selected Hospital as one of its 40 quintessential New York films. On October 23, Hospital screens at REDCAT as part of an ALS benefit, and for those who watch it in 2008 — in our world of HMOs, rising premiums and Michael Moore’s Sicko — the most striking thing about Wiseman’s film (besides the sight of patients smoking in the waiting rooms!) is how the Lindsay-era Metropolitan Hospital looks intimate and calm by comparison to today’s megahospices (as anyone who has made a recent trip to Cedars or a Kaiser can attest). There are moments in Hospital that hint at the bigger problems of the medical industrial complex (a woman explains to a nurse how Blue Cross won’t cover her because she has diabetes), but on the whole, the film is more interested in the human interactions that go down in the ER. (For a 1970s screed against greed and private medicine, you’re better off renting Paddy Chayefsky’s satrical The Hospital, which was greatly influenced by Wiseman’s doc). Ultimately, Hospital’s focus is on individuals: sick, scared people craving assurance, and patient doctors just trying to do their jobs. Wiseman’s evenhandedness combined with his eye for unforgettable vérité scenes — a young female physician trying to get an elderly immigrant to discuss his urinary problems, patients singing “Santa Maria” in the hospital’s chapel — is what makes Hospital still relevant and engrossing today, and should keep it that way, regardless of the future of health care in America. (REDCAT; Thurs., Oct. 23, 8 p.m., www.redcat.org)


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