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By Umut Newbury
September 18, 2008

More than 20,000 Americans will die in 2008. The cause of their death will not be combat, traffic accidents or terrorism. They will die because they do not have health insurance.

In the 21st century, in the world’s richest nation, how that statistic doesn’t shock, deeply depress or simply upset Americans, is hard to comprehend. When Michael Moore released Sicko in 2007, the assumption about his film was that it would focus on uninsured Americans. Instead, Moore chose as his subjects those with supposedly “good” health coverage. Though he exposed how even the covered fall through the cracks tragically, Moore’s film didn’t have the impact it deserved. The mainstream media (the likes of Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN) decided the “fact-check” Sicko and argued that health care in Cuba wasn’t that much better than in the U.S. They emphasized how long the waiting lines in Canada were. So, the vast majority of Americans were persuaded once again that, even if their health insurance wasn’t saving their lives when they needed it, darn it, it was still better than that of foreigners.

What about the uninsured then? Two-time Academy Award nominee director Roger Weisberg takes us into the deep, dark underbelly of the life of 47 million Americans who do not have health insurance in his new film Critical Condition and it isn’t pretty. Weisberg’s brilliantly somber documentary is hard to watch. As well it should be, for anyone who has a heart or a soul. He takes us on a very personal journey of four patients and their families. These are not welfare-sucking, crack-addicted deadbeats the mainstream media would have us believe as the sole victims of lack of health insurance. All of them are working, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens. In fact, as Weisberg points out, the overwhelming majority (80 percent) of those without health insurance are working-class Americans. Let’s repeat that (if only for Lou Dobbs): Not immigrants, not illegal immigrants, but millions of Americans who work for a living have no health insurance.

Joe Stornaiuolo is a doorman from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is diabetic and has a liver disease, though he never drank. When he was diagnosed with the illness, his employer decided he could no longer do his job. When Stornaiuolo lost his job, he lost his health insurance, too. When he couldn’t afford his medicine, he started skipping doses and got sicker and sicker.

Hector Cardenas is a warehouse manager in Los Angeles. His diabetes caused a foot infection that spiraled into gangrene. He had insurance through his job, but taking care of the gangrene was taking too long and eating up all his sick time. His doctor told him, “It’ll take four to five months to save your foot, but if you want to go back to work, we’ll have to cut your foot off.” Hector told his doctor to cut his foot off and still lost his job and his insurance.

Karen Dove, of Austin, Texas, and her husband Ronnie couldn’t afford health insurance. For months, she had abdomen pains. Doctors kept turning her away because she didn’t have coverage. Finally, she contacted the Cancer Society and got a call from a doctor’s office willing to see her. By the time she was diagnosed, her ovarian cancer was in Stage 3. “Most people with Stage 3 cancer will die,” said her doctor.

Carlos Benitez, a chef for a French restaurant in Los Angeles, has been living with chronic back pain and deformity of his spine for 15 years. He makes $45,000 a year, but decided several years ago to let go of his health insurance because he needed the extra money to raise his family. When he went to a free health clinic at the UCLA campus, he was told that he needed to go to a doctor immediately because the pain medication was making him bleed to death. He got a blood transfusion and escaped death, but no doctor in California would perform the surgery to fix his spine and end his pain, because he didn’t have the money.

Weisberg tells the stories of these families candidly. These are not political people trying to push a policy issue. Critical Condition reveals them as they are, regular, hard-working Americans with terrible health conditions, yet with very few options. Weisberg, though, has done his homework on the health care issue, and peppers the film with sharp statistics. When people like Carlos, Karen, Joe and Hector run out of options, they go into emergency rooms. Covering the bills of the uninsured like them, Weisberg tells us, increases the annual health insurance premiums of a family by $922 per year. He also points out that though the U.S. spends $2 trillion per year on health care, it still ranks 24th in life expectancy, 27th in infant mortality and that lack of health insurance is the sixth leading cause of death here.

With less than two months from the presidential election and just days before the first debate between the candidates, Critical Condition is timed perfectly. Weisberg’s film makes it painfully obvious that health care in the U.S. is no longer a problem — it is a crisis.

A new study published this week in the journal Health Affairs projects that Sen. John McCain’s health plan would cause as many as 20 million Americans to lose their health insurance through their employers in the next five years. Add that to the number of uninsured now, we might be looking at almost 60 million Americans without insurance —that makes one-fifth of the population without access to health care by 2013. In July, another study by the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution projected an initial rise in people with health coverage under McCain’s plan, but predicted the number would start to dwindle in a few years. The same study showed that Sen. Barack Obama’s plan would reduce the number of uninsured by 18 million in 2009 and by 34 million by 2018. Obama’s plan still falls short of universal health care coverage.

Critical Condition makes the viewer wonder why it is so forbidden to talk about single-payer, universal health care in this country. What are we so afraid of? What could be worse than 22,000 people dying every year? Surely, the two major presidential candidates will not have a chance to view this significant documentary before Election Day. But perhaps the mainstream media can take a look at it honestly, and make it a part of the debates. Or is it too much to ask to move beyond the critical issue of lipstick and take a look at what’s killing people and how to fix it?

Critical Condition

Directed by Roger Weisberg

83 minutes plus extras

Docurama Films 2008

Premieres on Sept. 30, 2008 on PBS


By Bryan Newbury
September 16, 2008

“You could have presented yourself as being self-taught, the product of your own worthy efforts, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, society in the past took pride in its autodidacts, No longer, progress has come along and put an end to all of that, now the self-taught are frowned upon, only those who write entertaining verses and stories are entitled to be and go on being autodidacts, lucky for them, but as for me, I must confess that I never had any talent for literary creation, Become a philosopher, man, You have a keen sense of humour, Sir, with a distinct flair for irony, and I ask myself how you ever came to devote yourself to history, serious and profound science as it is, I’m only ironic in real life, It has always struck me that history is not real life, literature, yes, and nothing else, But history was real life at the time when it could not yet be called history, Sir, are you sure, Truly, you are a walking interrogation and disbelief endowed with arms…”

José Saramago, The History of the Siege of Lisbon
(Giovanni Pontiero, translator.)

Astra Taylor’s Zizek!, like the film’s namesake, provides a challenge to the reviewer in a way many ostensibly similar films – think You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train and Manufacturing Consent – do not. There are quite a few reasons for this: brevity of run time; the difference between “activist” theoreticians, historians and philosophers like Zinn and Chomsky and the more urbane and inactivist bloke that Zizek personifies; the rarified air of Lacanian psychoanalysis versus the relative simplicity and utility of pure social science. In a sense, to wax postmodernist, the reviewer is burdened with the same role as the director. The observer is inside, aiming to describe a description, or depiction, that was the implicit purpose of the film itself.

This is a conundrum above the reviewer’s pay grade, unless he is arrogant enough to presume he can cut through to the marrow of Zizek’s unity within paradox within unity, or perfidious enough to claim to have read the source texts so beautifully displayed by Molly Schwartz’s animation. How to attack it, then?

In a state of deep contemplation, this reviewer considered the José Raimundo Silva option, to say, emphatically and unironically, that Slavoj Zizek does not embrace a Lacanian-Marxist hybrid, that he did not call himself a monster, that the viewer does not question whether paradox is unity and chaos order. This brief flirtation with critical liberation was snuffed out precisely because it begged all of the mendacity and conceit mentioned above.

The only way to view Zizek! is the most direct one: what is Taylor seeking to accomplish and how entertaining and thought provoking were here efforts?

The first question requires a certain presumptuousness. Having been duly acquitted of fraud and deception, the reviewer can expect some latitude in this direction. It would be fair to say that the goal is an introduction to Mr. Zizek and his outlook. If it were an overture to cultural theory wonks and professional academics, it would be lacking. Nothing in the presentation of the film suggests such soft failures. If the presumption is correct, then Taylor has certainly achieved her goal. Through a series of interviews, brief clips from lectures spanning from Buenos Aires to Boston, and artfully portrayed texts central to the disjointed unity of Zizek’s approach to, for lack of a more precise term, philosophy, the viewer is instantly gripped by the larger than life yet knowingly insignificant character Zizek cuts. There are bits and pieces, a successful introduction to just who the man is and what, at the surface, he thinks and why, just enough to cajole the viewer into further examining his works. It would be less presumptuous to posit that the person buying this film from the website of her choice would be wise to go ahead and employ the “people who bought this also…” option.

As to the second, Taylor and team couldn’t have done better. The shooting and editing subtly frame the film in a way that we might imagine Zizek appreciating. From the very beginning, with a short statement on creation, chaos, void and love, to the imaginatively sequenced subsections of the film (one of which has the humorous linguistic breakdown “PSYCO/ANAL/YSIS”), there is a harmony of presentation of a harmony of thought. The most impressive ingredient in the presentation is the work of Ms. Schwartz, who alights upon biographical snippets, bits of text and elegant yet enigmatic cultural theorizing with an aplomb that must make her quite sought after in her discipline. Her ability to illustrate complex concepts with a combination of aesthetic grace and edifying simplicity take the film up a few levels. Again, the documentary succeeds in artfully and entertainingly embracing its subject.

Zizek! does not look to be designed for group viewing or post-film (dare we say postfilm?) discussion among more than a roomful of people. Whether a film could present a more complete characterization of Zizek or his works in three hours, let alone one, is debatable. (The reviewer leans more to the contrary position on this question, and thankfully there is a wealth of extras on the DVD to soften the blow of the shockingly abrupt end leaving the viewer engaged in an Armageddon of the Ego, or possibly just politely asking for a bit more footage.) As an introduction, and an effective way to entice people into poring over Slavoj Zizek’s punctilious planet of paradoxes, Zizek! comes up roses.

Which would bring us to what roses actually are…



Directed by Astra Taylor

Color, 2005, 71 minutes

English and Slovene with English subtitles

Zeitgiest Films