MedFest: The National Medical Film Festival

Posted on May 12, 2011. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , |

Before Christmas, I wrote a series of posts under the heading Medics in the Movies as I went through an elective module on the presentation of doctors in film.  A few days ago, I found out that my tutor from that course, along with a panel of those in the know would be leading a discussion on the public perception of medicine and the impact of the media, including the screening of three short films.

It was a fantastic evening (I’ve literally just got back) and I really enjoyed the discussion both during and afterwards, which included a brief chat with up and coming director and ex-UCL student Mat Whitecross.

What I really took away from the evening though, was one amazing short film, which I’m going to share with you.

Shadowscan was written and directed by Tinge Krishnan and stars Shobna Gulati and Paul Bazely, telling the story of two Junior Doctors on call.  What follows is ten harrowing minutes of two people struggling to cope, in the ultimate example of the doctor becoming the patient; the healer being sick.

It won the Best Short Film BAFTA in 2001 and it’s easy to see why. From the very outset it’s clear the meticulous detail that went into the making of this film. The use of sound at beginning and end is so perfect you barely even notice it, the colour is a sort of bilious greeny-yellow that makes everything on screen seem sickly and the jerky camera movements and extreme close-ups hammer home the feelings of claustrophobia and paranoia. The drowning metaphor is genius.

It’s a powerful piece of cinema, with great performances and a beautifully simple story that is all the more poignant because of its simplicity.  Although the presentation is very surrealist, the message is terrifyingly real.  Krishnan is an ex-doctor, and the dedication “to fallen comrades,” leaves a nasty aftertaste of truth in what could be dismissed as a nightmarish fantasy. (Note: there’s a bit of text and sound missing from the YouTube version.)

It might not be easy to watch, but Shadowscan is one of the best made films, (not just short films) I’ve seen in a long time. And I’m glad that someone drew my attention to it. I hope you appreciate me returning the favour.

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Medics in the Movies: Les yeux sans visage/Eyes without a face

Posted on December 18, 2010. Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , |

My last post in the medics in the movies set.  Just in time for Christmas we found ourselves watching a rather grim and solemn tale about a young girl mutilated in a car accident and her deranged doctor father, who conducts horrific transplantation experiments in order to find her a new face.

Horror is not my thing.  I just don’t see the appeal.  However, this is not a conventional horror film.  There are only 3 moments of real horror that I can think of, the major one being the surgery scene, but as a med student, I’ve become slightly desensitized to that kind of thing since what he was doing looked pretty much like a bad facelift.  It’s also not a conventional horror in the way that director Georges Franju develops his characters and builds tension.  Christiane, the young girl trapped in a mask, is a very sad character for whom we feel great sympathy.  Beutifully played by Edith Scob, she conveys a wealth of emotion through her eyes.  Doctor Genessier in contrast is cold and emotionless.

Paradoxically, one of the things I liked most about the film was also the reason I didn’t enjoy it.  Franju cleverly uses silence to create a sense of unease, pairing it with an eerie score which repeats with each new kidnapping.  The dialogue is sparse, allowing the audience to fill in a lot of the plot themselves, particularly at the beginning when it isn’t clear who we are supposed to believe.  While I thought that this was a very effective way of building tension, the combination with the real-time shooting of some scenes made the pace of the film very slow, so at times it dragged.

In essence this is a very simple film following a fairly conventional mad scientist story arc.  What has made it stand out across the years is the skillful way in which it has been shot, never being gratuitous with the violence but never quite letting the audience relax.  A quick consultation with The Big Book finds it revered for its imagery (there are some nice moments with doves, and the parallels between Christiane’s mask and the surgical masks we see).  I’m not going to be including it on my list though.  If you’re intrigued by all means track it down because it is worth a watch, but probably only once.

And that’s the last of the Medics in the Movies series.  Hope you’ve found it interesting. I’ve got to find a scene to present in the new year now, so I’ve got a date with my insanely huge DVD library.

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Medics in the Movies: The Doctor

Posted on December 12, 2010. Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , |

It’s the penultimate film in my series of movies about medicine, this time we’re taking a pretty cynical look at the American Healthcare system.

The Doctor is the story of Dr Jack MacKee (William Hurt), your typical hot shot surgeon who is all about the cutting and doesn’t care much for his patients well being. Or his wife and kid for that matter.  Then one day he finds out he has cancer and he discovers what it’s like to be a patient in his own hospital. Cue big change in life philosophy and whadyaknow he becomes a much better doctor than he ever was before.

That’s a pretty sarcastic sounding plot summary isn’t it?  It’s not that I didn’t like this film, but it is fairly paint-by-numbers when it comes to plot.  From the initial set up in the operating theatre it’s clear that we’re going to be bashing the Surgeon stereotype here.  The side plot of Jack’s growing relationship with fellow patient June (played very nicely by Elizabeth Perkins) is again predictable, as he drifts away from his wife and learns about the flaws in the system through June’s suffering.

Despite being a bit ploddy, The Doctor isn’t a bad film; it’s just not as good as some of the others I’ve watched recently.  It does raise some common issues about healthcare, most of which are particularly relevant to America such as the prevalence of malpractice suits and the issue of withholding expensive procedures in a bid to save money.

What this film is trying to draw attention to is how easy it can be for doctors to treat patients like they’re on an assembly line, making little effort to reassure them about what is going on because they are simply too busy.   Jack treats his patients with, at best, indifference, but as he receives the same treatment from his own doctors he begins to change his behaviour.

There are some very nice moments in this film, the ending as a reflection of the beginning is skillfully done, and there is an impressive scene between Hurt and Christine Lahti (playing his wife) where he is trying to force her into an argument to finally air some of their problems but he can’t talk so has only a whistle and a whiteboard to make his point.

As a medical student, The Doctor is an interesting and potentially important film, as it draws attention to some bad habits that it is all to easy to fall into.  However, as a movie lover, I wouldn’t necessarily urge you to rush out and watch it.  It’s OK, but there’s nothing groundbreaking in it, and most of the same issues are raised in any one episode of Scrubs.


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Medics in the Movies: The Motorcycle Diaries

Posted on December 4, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , |

In a word: Wow

Up next in my cinematic journey through the world of medicine is Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, yet another movie that has been sitting on my “to-watch” list for years.  This one is definitely one not to miss.

The Motorcycle Diaries is the story of Che Guevara before he was “Che.”  Back then, he was simply Ernesto, a young medical student embarking on an epic journey across South America with his friend Alberto.  On their travels, the pair encounter the terrible hardship of some of the poorer communities, as well as spending time working at a leper colony on the banks of the Amazon.  Through his interactions with the people and patients he meets, we see how Ernesto goes on to become the iconic political figure Che.

I know less than nothing about South American history or Che Guevara, but I found this film fascinating.  Rather than shoving his political ideals down our throats Salles takes the audience on the same journey as Ernesto, so we naturally form the same conclusions.  There is some clever use of black and white, showing the people who have most affected Ernesto, which are then repeated at the end in juxtaposition with photos of the real Ernesto and Alberto.  The shots are still, but not stills, appearing as memories for Ernesto as a kind of living photograph, made more poignant by the fact they are all looking directly to camera, as if looking to him for help.

The cinematography in this film is magical.  There are some beautiful sweeping landscape shots which emphasise how small Ernesto and Alberto are and how difficult the early part of their journey is.  It reminded me a lot of Brokeback Mountain, even more so thanks to composer Gustavo Santoalalla, who worked on both, using a very traditional and simple score to punctuate key moments.  Showing the tiny bike picking across arid landscapes gives a wonderful sense of scale to the movie, really emphasising the grandeur of their journey across the continent as well as how insignificant they are in terms of the their problems compared to the communities they meet.

The relationship between Ernesto and Alberto is very well played, with the older and more experienced Alberto taking a less serious view of life and providing some nice comedy, while  Ernesto’s diary voiceover gives us an insight into how he is changing as a person.  Although only Ernesto is a medical student, there are moments when Alberto has to take charge, highlighting how Ernesto has not yet qualified and still has a lot to learn, both about medicine and life.

There is a wonderful moment in the film, as the pair meet a couple looking for work in the Atacama Desert, where we switch from focussing on the troubles of our two travellers, to realising that there are a lot of people far worse off in the country.  It is subtly played, but marks the beginning of Ernesto’s desire to do something about the inequalities he is discovering.  There are many clever moments like this, for which credit must be given both to Salles and editor Daniel Rezende.  The ending is particularly effective, book-ending nicely with the opening of the film, and bringing the audience back up to date with an account of what happened to the real Che.  The use of original photos and the final shot (which I wont spoil) is a particularly nice touch.

Seeing the photos at the end of the real Alberto and Ernesto highlighted just how well this film is cast.  Not only do both protagonists give impeccable performances, but they both look remarkably similar to their real life counterparts.  Gael Garcia Bernal (Ernesto) and Rodrigo De La Serna (Alberto) have a great chemistry on screen, making their close friendship entirely believable.

What I haven’t mentioned, of course, is that this is a foreign language film-Spanish with subtitles.  As an ex-Spanish speaker (I’ve forgotten more than I ever knew) I was able to pick up the odd phrase without looking at the titles, but in no way was reading the dialogue distracting.  In fact, if this movie ever was made in English I think it would have lost a lot of its power, as the whole point is the discovery of a country and the uniting of it’s cultures.

Again, I’m looking at this film through the eyes of a medical student, so I could find a lot to relate to in Ernesto.  It’s not unusual for medical students to go off on epic journeys of discovery before they settle down and commit to their careers, and Ernesto clearly would have made a great doctor.  Although at first he is somewhat brash and unsympathetic with a patient, he becomes a very caring doctor, taking a personal interest with his patients and mixing with them as equals.  Unlike A Matter of Life and Death which portrays the traditional God-like infallible Doctor, here we have a far more modern view.  Although in the most part honest and loyal, Ernesto has his faults and is shown to be a very human character.  He is more what we would expect from our doctors today, professional when it counts, but also an accessible human being who is not automatically put on a pedestal.

It has been a long time since I’ve seen a film that I instantly wanted to turn over and start again, but I had that feeling with Motorcycle Diaries.  Seeing as it’s a pretty long film, that’s saying something.  It’s both an engaging and intense story, elegantly shot, which (excuse the cheesiness) really does take you on a journey with the characters, to help you understand how a young medical student went on to become one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries.

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Medics in the Movies: A Matter of Life and Death

Posted on November 28, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , |

Carrying on with my new selected module and I’m really enjoying learning about camera angles and mis-en-scene. 😛

Our first group screening was A Matter of Life and Death, a 1945 classic by groundbreaking production team Powell and Pressburger.  I’d seen clips and heard bits about it, but never actually watched from start to finish.  I’m glad I finally did, as the idea of the film I had in my head was way off the mark, and I probably would never had watched it had it not been coursework!

On with the review:

A Matter of Life and Death revolves around the strange premise of a man cheating death by getting lost in the fog.

OK, so it’s a little more complicated than that, but that is the basic gist. Pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) is going down with no parachute, radioing in what he assumes will be his last words to the unsuspecting June (Kim Hunter).  He has bravely given away the last of the parachutes to his crew, and now plans to jump from the plane to his certain death.

It’s not often that a movie can get away with killing its leading man in the opening frames, and here is no exception.  Peter wakes up on a beach, assuming he’s dead.  Here’s the twist though, because of the thick fog the night his plane went down, the Conductor sent to collect him and take him to the next world missed him, and he has somehow ended up still alive, relatively unscathed, and only a few hundred feet from June’s house, who he fell in love just before he “died”.  Convenient right?

I know it sounds convoluted, but stick with me ‘cos it works.  Peter is visited by the Conductor (Marius Goring), who, in an effort to make the books balance up above, tries to convince Peter that he needs to “die” since he is only alive by mistake.  Peter wins the right to appeal his case in the high court, with the help of June, and village doctor Frank (Roger Livesy).

On paper it sounds like a very confusing movie, but actually it’s a skillfully told tale, making the most of relatively new colour technology to distinguish between the two worlds.  While you might expect Heaven to be in glorious Technicolor and our drab little world to be in black and white, it’s actually the other way around, highlighting Peter’s desire to stay on Earth.  The colour transitions are used very well, reminding me of Pleasantville a lot, especially with the fade on the rose.

We are actually first introduced to the “heavenly” world between Peter crashing and waking up, where we meet his late friend and crew member waiting for him.  The whole thing is run (not surprisingly in context) as a military operation, where new arrivals report to collect their wings and everything is run very much to schedule.  So when Peter goes AWOL it literally sets alarm bells ringing, as the staff scrabble to try to undo their mistake.  There is no malice in their wanting to take Peter back, he is treated almost like a misplaced package.

Part of the charm of this film is the wonderful Englishness of it.  Peter has possibly the stiffest upper lip I’ve ever seen on film, completely unfazed by his imminent death at the beginning of the movie, but at the same time he has a hugely Romantic personality, which contrasts nicely and goes a long way to support the Romeo and Juliet style love affair between him and June, which takes place within a matter of days.  Added to their whirlwind romance is the fact that while he is English, she is American, which doesn’t go down well with the Prosecuting counsel upstairs.  A good proportion of the trial is given over to examining the relationship between us and our cousins across the pond, which at the time was pretty unusual since we were allies who had just finished fighting a war together.

Of course, the reason I was watching this film was to focus on the doctor and he really is an interesting character.  There is (obviously) a lot of religious imagery in this movie, but the introduction of the doctor looking down over the village through a camera obscura is striking and begins a series of metaphors relating to the God-like status of doctors and surgeons.  They are portrayed as the mediators between the two worlds, literally making the decisions about who lives and dies.  Frank is essentially the stereotype of the good country doctor; devoted, omniscient, self-sacrificing and above all incredibly knowledgeable.  He remains calm under pressure, and always fulfils his duty (without wanting to spoil things, he really does take “above and beyond” to a whole new level).

One of the questions I’m supposed to consider is what impact this portrayal would have on public perceptions of doctors, and I’d be interested to hear what those of you who have seen it think.  In a way, although the film shows doctors in an incredibly positive light, I think it is potentially damaging for public perceptions, as it holds up an impossible ideal that today’s (and I’m sure the same was true in the 40s) doctors cannot possibly live up to.  Despite being an antiquated idea, a lot of Frank’s personality traits; complete devotion to his patients and undivided attention to the case, are still what people expect in doctors today.  Not that you shouldn’t expect the best healthcare possible, but no one can be entirely devoted to every patient. It’s a paradox.

I can see now why A Matter of Life and Death always features in movie buffs “must-see” lists.  It’s full of clever imagery and some pretty groundbreaking ideas for the time that still stand up 50 years later.  The final message is one that has been used in cinema since the very beginning: Love conquers all, but it’s done in a very original and engaging way.  I’m definitely recommending it to you all, and I’m hoping that like me, you’ll be surprised that a movie you may have written off as a dated oldie is actually just as good today as when it was first made.

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Medics in the Movies: M*A*S*H

Posted on November 13, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Those of you who have been reading this for a while (ta, by the way) may know that I’ve just started a medical degree.  As part of my course, we all take one module from outside of the normal curriculum, probably so that we don’t go insane from too much pure Science.  One of the options just happened to be “Medics in the Movies” where you watch films with doctors in and then review them.  Sounded right up my street.

What this means for you guys is that over the next few months some movies will be popping up that are a bit of a departure from my normal choices (we’re watching one from each decade and from a variety of different countries).  If things go well, my writing might even get a little better.

Before we get on to the set movies, our first assignment was to choose any film that featured doctors and be ready to present it next week.  I chose M*A*S*H; a film I’ve always wanted to see but somehow never gotten around to.  Finally I had the perfect excuse.

M*A*S*H stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, although we aren’t actually told that in the film.  In fact, we aren’t really told much about anything, with director Robert Altman preferring to let his audience make up their own minds about what they are seeing.  The only set up we get is the mellow opening music (the iconic Suicide is Painless) set over scenes of helicopters bringing in the wounded.

M*A*S*H is essentially a war film without the war.  The only gun shots heard during the movie are at half-time in the football match, and at no point does it get morbidly wrapped up in “the horror” of war.  Instead, Altman makes his political point through black comedy and in the graphic surgical depictions.  It’s a far more affecting way to make an anti-war statement, as we see the people trying to pick up the pieces and literally put the men back together, ready to send them back to the front.

There is an unexpected amount of realism in this movie.  The dialogue is largely improvised and often overlaps, a technique which I found strange at first but grew to appreciate, as in real life people don’t always wait for the other guy to finish his lines.  This also added to a lot of the humour between the apathetic General and his faithful sidekick Radar.

Perhaps I should back track a bit and talk about plot, although to be honest I there isn’t really one.  M*A*S*H follows the day-to-day lives of a group of army surgeons during the Korean War (*Trivia* The text in the opening scene locating the film in Korea was added later at studio insistence, as Altman deliberately left geographical; references out of the movie so that the location could easily be confused with Vietnam).  There isn’t really a story as such, we just follow the exploits of Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Trapper (Elliot Gould), and Duke (Tom Skerritt) as they find new ways to subvert the system.

The surgeons are often described as “medical mavericks,” which I can understand but don’t entirely agree with.  What struck me was that while out of the operating theatre they did everything they could to undermine authority and generally not follow the rules, once they were scrubbed in they were entirely professional.  I could go on about this for hours as it will probably make up the substance of my presentation, but in short, while Hawkeye and Trapper are essentially the antithesis of what we think of as a good doctor, they are so good at what they do that they can get away with it (kinda like House!)

M*A*S*H is kind of a boys film.  Not only because of the subject matter, but also the misogynistic view it takes of women.  At times even I felt sorry for “HotLips” even though she is incredibly annoying.  However, this is self-aware misogyny; Altman is satirising it as well as using it for easy laughs.

The humour of M*A*S*H is very dark, but at times very funny.  It’s often said that doctors tend to have a very black sense of humour as a coping mechanism, so if you scale that up to be dealing with horrific war injuries you can see what they were going for.  The scene in the Japanese hospital was probably my favourite, showing Gould and Sutherland at their cavalier best.  The comedy is contrasted with some pretty graphic surgical scenes, highlighting both the terrible injuries caused by the war and the incredibly poor conditions that the medical teams worked in.

The film ends very abruptly, with what could be an emotional point, as some characters get to go home while others are left behind.  M*A*S*H doesn’t dwell on the morose though.  Even dentist Painless’s suicide attempt is treated with a combination of apathy and humour (and some great Last Supper imagery, see pic above).  There is only one incidence of a character getting upset on screen, otherwise people seem (on the surface at least) to take everything in their stride.  Again, I think this goes back to a coping mechanism, as if people did start to let each loss get to them they would never be able to function.  By doing this, Altman allows the audience to feel emotions on the characters behalf, making his anti-war message all the more poignant.

M*A*S*H is heading its way straight on to the Movies to See list, and I strongly urge that you all do.  Whether you’re interested in the War, the Medicine, or you just want a laugh, this film has a bit of something for everyone.

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