Wednesday, September 30, 2009

America's Health Care System Explained

Sorry -- I sincerely hope this is the most boring thing I will ever write. FYI, I am capitalizing major concepts willy-nilly, just to help clarify things. I do not claim this is done consistently. Also, I'm going to keep mentioning Suboptimization: that's when a part of a whole is motivated by what benefits itself as a part, rather than what benefits the larger system as a whole. Sometimes this is mere self-defense, other times it's downright pennywise/poundfoolish.

In light of all the recent arguments about health care, I offer this background information as a public service. Once up a time, I worked in a hospital business business, preparing claims for insurance billing. Then I worked for a large corporate insurance company, processing, paying, and denying such claims. In both places, I worked with all kinds of bills, but mainly specialized in inpatient claims. And it amused me that in both places, we were entrusted to deal with bills worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but were still nickel-and-dimed like we couldn't be trusted with a tiny pack of Post-It notes. Ain't that America?

To begin

While your medical conditions are real things that exist in the world, and the people in the doctor's office are generally decent, hard-working people doing all they can to help you, the bill you will receive is merely a pawn in a large game being continually played between the twin contenders of the Health Care System and the Insurance Industry.

Basically, the Health Care System will charge whatever they can get away with. If most of their revenue comes from insurance payments (rather than from the dreaded "Self Pay" category), then their only limiting factor is really whatever they can justify to an insurance company as medically necessary according to contractual minutiae. They have a profit-making interest in charging as much as they can per service, and in heaping on services. They will charge up to the limit of what an insurance company is willing and able (and/or legally forced) to pay for. Because they're a business, and that's their job, to generate profits.

This business strategy drives up the cost of every service at every level of the Health Care System. And if you happen to be someone who doesn't have insurance, a "poor get poorer" feedback loop kicks in. The lack of insurance implies you're underemployed and thus probably underpaid, but you are yourself responsible for paying costs that have been driven up by the ability of the richest of the rich to pay for them.

The Insurance Industry, on the other hand, will cover as little as they can get away with. Because they are also a business, and that's their job, to generate profits. Their money comes in from their subscribers, and they lose money every time they pay a claim. The fewer claims they can pay, and at the lowest possible percentage, the better it is for them. This means that the people who do have Insurance are definitely better off than people who don't, but it's doesn't mean they're on easy streeet here. Their medical bills are actually being paid by companies that have a vested interest in not paying the bills. Which means that a person can have insurance and feel absolutely secure that they're covered, and suddenly discover that the company is refusing to pay.

So, the game in a nutshell is: on one side, the Health Care System is trying to get as much as it can from the Insurance Industry. The Insurance Industry is trying to give as little as it can to the Health Care System.

Because their primary revenue is coming from Insurance companies, the Health Care System can easily price itself out of what an individual can pay. Those companies are large profit-making entities with big pockets. In addition, because their primary revenue is coming from either government funded or Employer groups, who can pool their resources, Insurance can easily price itself out of what an individual can pay. When dealing with either the Health Care System or the Insurance Industry, the Individual is not profitable enough to be a primary concern.

Important disclaimer: This is not in any way to imply that the people who work for Health Care Providers and Insurance Companies are evil, greedy people. My own personal experience is clearly that they are not. In a hospital business office, the front-line staff are mainly trying to show your Insurance Company that the medical care you came in for is worth paying for. At the Insurance Company, on the processing floor, they are trying to make sure that you get the actual benefits you deserve as much as they are trying to make sure you don't get ones you don't. It is not their fault that they are enmeshed in a system in which every component is Suboptimizing for that component's own gain.

So, back to those groups: apart from overtly government-funded Insurance systems (Medicare, Medicaid, and certain local entities), most insurance coverage comes from groups, primarily through Employers. Now, at some point, as the game entrenched between Health Care and Insurance, Employers realized that the cost of providing insurance to their employees was going up and up. Of course, they are also businesses, and making profit is what keeps them afloat (or else they're other agencies that get revenue from somebody, even if it's through taxes, so the same basic pressures apply). So they have done what the other entities in the system did, and Suboptimized. They started coming with new and creative ways to hire employees without providing Insurance benefits for them.

This leaves more working Individuals who have little or no access to affordable Insurance, and no access to affordable Health Care either. If they get sick or injured, they just have to somehow find a way to deal with the costs. As this amount of people increases, it actually decreases the number of people (subscribers) available to pay into the cost of supporting the Insurance Industry, which is what pays the cost of supporting the Health Care System. The system is straining under the pressure all over the place.

There are two additional complicating factors that are pretty important. First, Bureaucracy.

The system has spawned a huge, encrusted, cumbersome Bureaucracy which acts as the referee, making sure both sides are playing by the rules in every instance, no matter how minute. This bureaucracy, in turn, eats up loads of money, but at this point, it's a pretty necessary evil, because there have to be some limits on how much a hospital can expect an insurance company to pay, or what pretzel logic an insurance company will come up with to avoid paying something they've promised to pay. Without it, if a hospital could charge a million dollars to take your blood pressure, or an insurance company could reject every claim that crosses its desk.

Okay, that's an exaggeration, but there's a lot they could do, and would do, if they could get away with it. Over time, the Bureaucracy has grown huger and more complicated (as the Health Care System, the Insurance Industry, and the Bureaucracy itself react to new technologies, new laws, and in response to what the other entities are doing), which in turn complicates every step in Health Care System and the Insurance Industry.

It's as if after a football game, a fleet of referees had to scrutinize every second of every game, and every player had to fill out weeks of paperwork to explain every single thing they did on the field. Then, months later, the officials would compile a report and declare a winner.

That would be crazy, and nobody would create a system like that on purpose. But something like that builds up slowly, based on decisions that seemed to make sense at the time. By the time people realize how crazy it is, it's out of control, but that's how the refereeing has been done as long as anyone remembers it. You have to have a referee, because if it's the Super Bowl, there are millions of dollars riding on whether that play was good or not. And dismantling the system means a risk of throwing everything into chaos.

In addition, all the millions of companies and agencies that make up the Healthcare System, the Insurance Industry, and the Bureaucracy are all themselves Employers, who are Suboptimizing according to the same logic as all the other Employers. They are attempting to do more work with fewer Employees, and doing everything they can to avoid giving those staff people benefits (including the products of the Insurance Industry, which affects individual access to the Health Care System).

That means that at the same time the Bureaucracy has grown larger and unfathomably complex, and as medical and technological advances have also complicated the system, the day-to-day work of getting everything done is increasingly likely to be done by people who are temporary workers, or underpaid, underbenefited employees who are no longer invested in the system. That's because individuals are all Suboptimizing, too: doing what's best for them as individuals. And I'm not picking on these industries: it's happening everywhere in our country, in every industry. But it really has an impact on industries that are as detail-driven as the Health Care and Insurance Industries, with their Bureaucratic requirements, are.

Every individual change that works to make a system more complicated will increase the chances of error in the system. (Some people would add "exponentially," but I can't really do the math). The more complicated the work, the more difficult and time-consuming it will be to do, and the harder it'll be to catch and correct errors. To sum up: as the systems have grown more complicated, the industries have made an unrelated decision to Suboptimize as Employers, leading to undertrained, short-term, and uninvested staff performing day-to-day work. Thus, the error-ridden bills you frequently receive from your various Health Care providers, and the equally error-ridden benefits statements you get back from your Insurance company.

Sometimes the errors do, in fact, work in the patients' favor. If it impacts a small enough dollar amount, it won't get noticed. Apart from when errors lose an entity so much money that it draws attention to itself, it largely works like this: if a Health Care Provider sends out a bill and the Insurance Company pays it, then it's all good. If an Insurance Company processes a claim and the subscriber doesn't complain, then it's all good.

When the Health Care Provider makes a mistake in billing and gets away with it, it'll eventually trickle down to affect the customer's rates and the overall cost: in the long run, if more money comes in by making mistakes, there's little incentive for a company to fix them.

If the Insurance company makes a mistake in processing and gets away with it, again: in the long run, if more money comes in by making mistakes, there's little incentive for a company to fix them.

For a person who has insurance, mistakes in the Health Care Provider's incomprehensible forms are more the problem of the insurance company, where people are trained to interpret them. The situation leads to costly reprocessing, which adds to the cost of the overall system, but again, people with insurance are still better off than the people who don't have insurance, and who can't possibly have anything like the detailed knowledge needed to make head or tail out of that complicated bill.

If you have insurance, then the company will transform the bill, what they paid on it, and why, into their own incomprehensible "Explanation of Benefits" (ha ha ha!) which they will send to you. So if the Insurance company makes a mistake, that will have to be noticed either by the Bureaucracy, or by the patient, who, I'll say again, can't possibly have anything like the detailed knowledge needed to make head or tail out of that complicated statement.

My own rule of thumb when I get the claim statements from the Insurance company is: if what's left on the bill for me to pay is in the ballpark of what I expected, I don't worry about it. If it's not, or if there's something wrong that's glaringly obvious, then I call in. Because I worked on both sides, I know that there's a continual flurry of reprocessing going on between the Health Care Providers and Insurance, and between Insurance and their customers. So if my deductible and co-pay amount looks reasonable and there are no red flags, I just pay it.

However, when my bill for the new eyeglasses comes back with $50 for the anti-glare coating that I hate and never have put on, I know it's a mistake, and I'll call in. When the bill for my husband's 5-day hospital stay is rejected for a completely ludicrous reason, I fortunately know enough not to panic. I call in, and, just like with that $50 charge, someone looked at a computer screen for about two seconds and said, "Yup, our mistake. We'll reprocess." And the second time around, it was all done right.

In addition, I mentioned how the Employers afford their Insurance rates because they're organized in groups, thus bringing the costs down for all the members of groups, and driving up the costs for the uninsured. When Employers avoid offering Insurance benefits to some Employees, or in times of layoffs, for example, the negative impact on the uninsured is easy to see. What most people forget is that it also has a negative impact on the remaining people who are in the group. The insured can afford their Insurance because the cost was spread out over a large group of people. As that group shrinks to an elite few, the amount those individuals contribute will have to go up to cover the people who used to pay in.

To wrap things up:

At every point, all the different parts that make up the system are suboptimizing: the Health Care System, the Insurance Industry, and the Employers and other groups that provide coverage. But what's most profitable for any of those entities is not necessarily good for the actual physical health of the country, and the quality of life for the citizens who are paying, one way or the other, for the whole thing. Because the system has grown so complex, fixing it is also necessarily a complex and difficult task, and almost any change, however small, could be debated almost infinitely.

For now, the system is more less holding together, which is why people are so emotional over it. They're afraid of losing what they have. The reason that the examples I gave earlier were absurd is because if a hospital charges a million dollars for a simple test, then nobody will, or can, pay for it, insurance or no insurance. Insurance companies can't reject every claim willy-nilly, because if they did, nobody would bother to buy insurance from them anymore. The "market" does, to some extent, keep things from going too far in either direction. However, the game will drive up Health Care costs past the point where uninsured people can pay for them waaaaaay before it ceases to be profitable for the Health Care and Insurance Industries. And as long as the status quo is profitable enough for enough people, there is no incentive for the people making the money to correct the mistakes they're already making, much less reform their own industries. Reform will only come from within when it's more profitable overall to do so, at least within the paradigm we have now, which has the making of profit as the sole motivating factor.

I don't have a crystal ball, so I can't say how long the current system could go on unchecked, without a major rethinking. People who know a lot more than I do can't. But it seems reasonable to assume that this already unstable system cannot go on forever. Whatever eventually happens will be difficult, and potentially unsettling to society at large. But at least we can face the state of affairs as it currently exists.

One added sideline, not related to Health Care per se, but that arose out of this train of thought: as I mentioned, because of the expense, Employers spend a lot of time finding loopholes to avoid giving benefits to their Employees. This includes things like paid vacation days and holidays, pension plans, with insurance benefits being probably the biggest expense to the employer and the most imporant immediate benefit to the employee. However, benefits are really the only lever most Employers have to keep Employees.

What I mean is: if all you're offering is a part-time job with no benefits, you can find plenty of people to hire. But if anything about the job sucks, how are you going to keep them? There are plenty of other part-time jobs with no benefits out there, most of which probably pay about the same. When people are in benefitted positions, they'll put up with a lot more, because there's an incentive to stay.

Just thought I'd mention that, as long as we're already more or less discussing Unintended Consquences.

For the record, I am neither promoting nor opposing the Health Care Reform bill, largely because it's too complicated for me to understand with some hard-core scrutiny that I haven't done. But here's a link, if you want:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Wit and Wisdom of Tilt

The Bad Movie Sundays just keep on coming! This week it's the long-awaited and never-before-seen (by me) 1979 Brooke Shields pinball epic, Tilt. Sandwiched in between the year she played a prostitute (Pretty Baby) and the year she had the nude body double (The Blue Lagoon), it's rather disconcerting that she barely looks 12 (although Shields and her character were both 14).

Tilt takes place in a strange world where country singers, in very tight pants and absurdly shiny shirts, make shady bets with grotesque bookies in sleazy saloons over ... pinball games. Middle-aged fertilizer salesmen have sidelines playing for cash in roadside bars, and when kids play (some of them pushed into it by hustling pinball parents), suave strangers in nice suits are lurking in the background, waiting to jump in with bets when things get interesting. I had no idea there was such a thriving pinball underworld in the '70s, so turns out, it's an educational film.

Rebellious self-described "pinball genius" Brenda, a.k.a. Tilt, falls in with unsuccessful (and, let's be honest, untalented) aspiring singer Neil, and they take to the highways of America to make money hustling pinball. She thinks it's to bankroll his demo tape, but he really just wants her to show up Charles Durning, pinball champion "the Whale," who caught him and his skinny friend Henry cheating with a magnet at the beginning of the film. Eventually, it takes an odd but belatedly likeable turn when Tilt goes to make a deal with the Whale, and they end up bonding over a private game.

Along the way, so many things make so little sense: one throw-away bit has a kid condemning Shield's parents as "crazy! They're all crazy in there!" because he took her sister to score quaaludes, and she had some kind of drug-induced freak-out. There are clearly editing problems that don't help: one minute the country singer (Neil) is whining in L.A. Then we see little Tilt walk through some farmlands and hitch a ride to the bar where she'll meet up with the singer. Then we learn she hustles pinball at this joint regularly. The school bus she dodged had "Hollister" on the side, so it seemed like she'd been hitchhiking the 200-some miles to downtown Los Angeles and back EVERY DAY.

Apparently, however, the quick shot of Neil on a bus was supposed to show his having travelled to another town for an audition with a rock music festival. When he leaves town, there's a bus in the background that says "Santa Cruz," which is only thirty-some miles from Hollister. Okay, that makes more sense, but it was way too much work to figure out what the heck was going on.

By the time "hero" Neil blames his life of lying and cheating on the sheer fact of growing up in Corpus Christi ("a poor man's country club"), I wasn't even surprised anymore. However, I was absolutely floored when Durning, who'd spent the movie to that point eating chicken and refusing to stir from his chair, suddenly busted out dancing at the pinball machine, even working the controls with his butt.

You'll definitely want to know if the soundtrack is available, with those memorable tunes "Long Road to Texas," "Rock 'n' Roll Rodeo," "Melody Man," and the "Pinball, That's All" song that the Whale loves to hear when he's playing. They'll be emblazoned in your brain after hearing them over and over and over in the film. Sadly, only on eBay -- also the only place to find this movie, since neither the record album nor the movie itself ever made the leap to digital formats.

Shields is actually more natural here, playing a smart-alec kid-next-door type, than she'd be in The Blue Lagoon or Endless Love, so maybe the woodenness in those movies wasn't her fault. Bland co-star Ken Marshall would surprisingly go on to star in Krull, and play Maquis defector Eddington on Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Rudy Durand, who served as writer, director, producer, musical director, and maker of "pinball machine musical effects," as well as co-writer for the "Long Road to Texas" song, sadly still has only one credit in all those categories.

That's a real loss to us bad movie fans, especially in the screenwriting, because the real highlight is the dialogue. Every character is devoted to the spouting of wisdom at every opportunity, and you won't want to miss a drop.

"First rule of business is always be on time when someone owes you money."

"You're like putting spats on a pig."

"Don't ever lose your head, boy. Because your ass always goes with it."

"Nobody says this town is ice cream and strawberries, darling." (Neil and Henry are improbably inseparable in the early part of the film, and they both call each other "darling" at different points, so it's hard not to envision them as a gay couple. Maybe that's why Tilt is so safe with him.)

"Us truck drivers were the first dopers in America, don't forget that."

"Analyzing is paralyzing, mister."

"Home? I live in a place called trouble."

"Life's like a seagull. The more you feed it, the more it dumps on you."

"You can swallow an elephant and choke on its tail."

And it goes on like that, in pretty much every scene.

The "blame it on Corpus Christi" scene -- Ken Marshall's big moment -- deserves a special mention. "Okay, I admit it. I'm all messed up. Don't you want to know why?" (Uhh, not really, but okay).

"You know what it's like growing up in a place like this, when you come from nothing? When people won't even talk to you? The damn rich people are cheaters, and the politicians work for 'em. And the rich think, if you owe money, or if you're poor, it means you're a thief." (Or if you cheat playing pinball for money, or talk a 14-year-old girl into quitting school and running away so you can leech off her gambling winnings, then people think you're a cheat and a conman! It's so unfair.) "And they keep you poor so they can use ya. Hell, we gotta steal. We steal just to survive, man, forget getting by."

Then all is revealed, that the Whale was actually a mentor to Neil, but, although we've seen the Whale as quite honorable in his dealings, and clearly didn't make his money by any foul means, the kid resented his success. Well, let's let him tell his sad tale in his own words:

"One guy I looked up to, respected...He always had a pocketful of cash. He never helped me. He's tighter than a tick. He's so stingy, he wouldn't pay ten cents to see the Statue of Liberty have twins. The Whale could -- he shoulda made me his partner. He didn't give me a choice. I had to rip him off."

As my bad-movie watching friend pointed out, the Statue of Liberty is, in fact, a statue. "What does that even MEAN?" I suspect that Neil once tried some "Brooklyn Bridge" scam, like, "Hey, for ten cents, you can see the Statue of Liberty have twins!" and Charles Durning barked, "Get outta my bar, boy!" like a sensible person.

At this point, with all revealed, it's hard to believe the movie is still going to try to redeem Neil, but alas, it does. "My name's mud around here, Tilt. You gotta clean it up for me." Yeah, like that's her job, grown man.

It's hard to top that, but my favorite line comes when Tilt's original pinball-hustling contact tries to warn her off Cowboy Neil, and she points out that he was using her, too. He replies with some warped words of wisdom, possibly the best line in the movie: "Well, it's okay to use people, if you throw in a little love."

I'll bet Brooke's mom used to say that every night when she tucked her in.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Green Wigglies

I just got my first order in the mail from the Warner Archives, which is a sort of DVD-on-demand service from Warner Brothers for movies not big enough to get full-fledged DVD releases. My purchases, for possible future reference, are the incredible South Seas walking killer tree movie From Hell It Came; the Gary Busey/Jodie Foster drama Carny; and Doc Savage: Man of Bronze.

Doc Savage never came to our theater, but it had TV ads that involved something called "the Green Wigglies." All summer long, my best friend and I would say "the Green Wigglies" to each other for no reason, and we'd giggle hysterically, usually until we cried.

Unbelievable as it may be, I cannot find the trailer on YouTube, only a remix with contemporary music, grrr. (If you're made curious, the fan trailer on YouTube includes a few shots of the Green Wigglies. See 2:09 to about 2:26). So I'll have to regale you with this amazing ad copy, which starts kinda normal, and then goes right over the top. In a very serious announcer voice, the narrator says,

"When slithering horror threatens ..." (Picturized by a pretty girl, menaced by a very rubber snake. Suddenly a knife is flung from off-screen, which impales the snake with a pronounced "boiinng" sound).

"When assassins narrow their sights ..." (Or it it "sites"? A guy's looking through the viewfinder of his gun, so it could be either one).

"When terrorists strike ..." (Guy throwing bomb, yawn).

"When killers fill the sky ..." (Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron airplane action, yawn).

"When the Green Wigglies are comin' to get ya ..." (Yes! A drunk-looking guy is menaced by a superimposed green special effect, which looks a little too phallic for comfort. But I'm oddly relieved that we didn't make up the phrase Green Wigglies, and it actually appears in the trailer).

Climaxing with:

"When you're all doomed to die a horrible death ..."

This cuts to some people in a cave. A man with long hair and some kind of tribal headdress says, very seriously, "We're all doomed to die -- a horrible death."

Genius! Alas, they don't write trailers like this anymore...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

From "A Rock and Roll Fable" to "A Violent Love Story"

Hmmm...I wonder which concept I'd prefer?

I'm almost an hour into Tezaab. As rumor had it, I'm finding it obviously loosely based on 1984's Streets of Fire -- a movie that superficially looks up my alley, but when I've tried to watch it, found it too boring to finish. So far, the Hindification has worked wonders, making a much more interesting film.

It doesn't hurt that Anil is such an upgrade from Michael Pare. So far we've seen him with a truly a-MAZE-ing pompadour, as a tough street bhai; flashback Anil as a squeaky-clean Naval officer in a crisp white uniform; and another flashback Anil working as a swim instructor, super-hairy in a tank top and tight bathing trunks. I can only hope there are further crazy avatars to come!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Day in the Life

My copy of Urdu for Beginners came in yesterday. After I squealed, I turned sheepish and told my husband, "Well, it's not like I'm actually going to be learning Urdu, or anything."

"But it's nice to know that you can, on a moment's notice!" he replied.

He came home from work, Urdu in hand, while I had Chalte Chalte on pause. I watched a bit of it a little later, so he caught the scene where Shah Rukh is ranting and smashing glasses all over the place, and then the one where he gets drunk and starts screaming outside Rani's window, and the cops come -- hey, it's just like the Law Enforcement Log in the small Minnesota town where I grew up! Ah, jerkoffness is universal. Anyway, my husband informed me that I don't need to worry: if any of my ex-boyfriends were to give me two and a half million bucks, he wouldn't be troubled by it. Not that it's likely to come up, but good to know, just in case.

Speaking of Chalte Chalte: at one point, I actually had to think: is Shah Rukh's character really nameed Raj, or am I just thinking of him as Raj by default? Nope, it's Raj. So that made two Raj films in one day (after Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman), not a bad score for a day in which I was determined to do nothing productive. I failed somewhat in the goal of utter laziness by blogging and screenshotting (oh so arduous!), and by walking to the next town to get their library card.

That sounds like a story I can tell my great-grandnieces and -nephews some day, but the next town is only like ten blocks away. I wanted to get the libary card to put the Ethan Hawke Assault on Precinct 13 on hold. I need to watch it (or at least make a halfway decent attempt) as part of my ongoing quest to condemn all the unnecessary John Carpenter remakes. But I didn't want it taking up space in my Netflix queue that I could be using for Mithun movies.

In their entire multi-city library system, the only book brought up by the keyword "Hindi" was the new Dreaming in Hindi (which I also put on hold).

Even worse, they signed me up for a library card without ASKING FOR ID! I hope it was my Planet Terror t-shirt that inspired their confidence. I actually thought, do I even want to be in such an insecure system? But at least with me already being in, and actually being me, hopefully if someone pretended to be me, they'd be caught as a duplicate. Hopefully. Besides, there's more interestng people to pretend to be.

And in the place where libraries and Hindi film blogging collide: I checked my Statcounter yesterday too, and what on earth is going on with all you literacy slogan people? The phrase "literacy slogan" has overtaken "pain of disco" as the top keyword search that brings people to my blog. There isn't enough "Whaa?" in the world!

I wrote one little post, a million years ago, about the concept of reading at appropriate age levels, and how my reading always disturbed people when I was a kid. I can't imagine what people think when they scour through numerous real sites on literacy and then hit my "Read: It Pisses People Off!" Come to think of it, a friend of mine came up with a new one the other night: "Reading: Better for You Than a Bottle of Gin."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Cheer up, Shah Rukh, it's not so bad

In Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, Shah Rukh Khan goes to the big city, and thinks he's headed straight to the top. Eventually, worn down by rejection, he finally agrees to accept a "small job":

Ha ha ha!

I find the movie kind of an anti-Slumdog Millionaire, since it totally makes me want to move to Mumbai and live on the footpath. With the seawall, the palm trees, the Shiva temple ... plus all those kindly strangers to offer moral support, free food, and free tea in little open-air stalls. Where was all that when I moved to the big city as a naive new graduate? Alas, only in the movies...

Rob Zombie, Won't You Please Come Home?

Well, everybody in the known universe knows my opinion of the Rob Zombie Halloween. While much more graphic in its violence, and filled with extraneous unpleasantness (cruel families, animal abuse), it nonetheless softened the theme in the same way that the glossy remakes of The Fog and Assault on Precinct 13 did -- by removing the elements of existential dread and replacing them with explanations for why evil befalls certain people. If evil is caused, it can be prevented. If it's focused, it can be avoided. That's the exact opposite message of the original Halloween, which is that death is going to come no matter what.

There, that saved you from having to go back and read my old post.

The follow-up Halloween II, set mostly a year after the previous movie, is pretty much more of the same. Traumatized former perk-ball Laurie Strode has become all angsty and counter-cultural. Dr. Loomis has written a book full of revelations that would never pass any publisher's legal department, but which is going to make her freak out. And Michael is wandering around, butchering rednecks in cornfields while he waits for the voices in his head to tell him that Laurie is "ready."

All the surviving cast, and most of the dead, returns, including Danielle Harris (who played Jamie Lee Curtis' daughter in the parts 4 and 5, and is now 32 playing a teenager), even though I totally thought her character had died in the last movie. But apparently not. Sheri Moon Zombie, who did a respectable job in the original, is basically just around to stare vacantly into space (she's also involved in some quasi-Jungian symbolism, but don't get me started). I'm always happy to see Malcolm McDowell, but after years of Scream movies, the Gale Weathers take on Dr. Loomis isn't nearly as interesting as Donald Pleasance's respectable authority figure turned paranoid prophesier of doom. Not McDowell's fault, and I wish he'd gotten to play a better Loomis, although it was fun to see him sharing a stage with "Weird Al" Yankovic.

The major missing person is Daeg Faerch (Little Michael), who supposedly grew too much between segments to play himself in the flashbacks and hallucinations. The role was recast with a slightly cuter kid, although I think it would have been wiser to cut out the flashbacks and hallucinations altogether.

I was happy to see genre stalwart Brad Dourif make a dignified transition to grizzled Dad roles, as the harried but good-natured sheriff trying to nurture his scarred daughter and her emotionally troubled friend. The other real flare of interest is Howard Hesseman -- yes, Dr. Johnny Fever himself! -- in a small role as the old hippie who owns the funky bookstore/record store/coffeeshop where Laurie works. Come to think of it, there seem to be an awful lot of hipsters in little Haddonfield, especially once we hit the artistically multi-media Halloween party, with its professional psychobilly band. It's like Little Austin in the Cornfield or something.

There's no point in even talking about holes in the script ... except, okay, why is everyone so positive Michael is dead? "They never found his body" works in case of fire and flood, but no so much from an ambulance crash. And the police force seems to be working a late night on Halloween, although they're not seen actually doing anything: they're certainly not busting the glaringly conspicuous party full of topless dancers and underage drinking, nor has anyone discovered the bodies of those angry rednecks, the folks in the strip club, or any other uninteresting bystanders I've already forgotten, whom Michael left lying around.

Some of the cinematography is nice, with various shots that made me think, ooh, beautiful composition! You could frame that and hang it on the wall, if you're the sort who likes spooky rainy and/or foggy ambience. There's also loads of crowd-pleasing gore, shot in autopsy photo close-up. But both modes left me with a sense of -- bemused detachment. I never felt drawn in or emotionally involved in the story. The place didn't seem real, the people didn't seem real, and the suspense level was non-existent. Action happened too fast to even react to it, and on the other hand, some scenes were drawn out way past the point of interest.

I know that movie stars all want to be rock stars, and rock stars want to direct, but I seem to remember that Zombie didn't do so badly when he was, you know, a musician. His Zombie-a-Go-Go record label put out a few great CDs, like the classic Halloween Hootenany compilation, and that beautifully packaged The Words and Music of Frankenstein. I don't think it's a coincidence that the best part of House of 1000 Corpses was the soundtrack. Please, Rob, you're good at something: why don't you do it?

(In a fleeting resurgence of his label, Zombie is releasing an MP3 album for the film's fictional band, Captain Clegg and the Night Creatures, through Amazon and Itunes. I've noticed press blurbs all over about the album's "cover art." Does an MP3 download really have cover art, per se? This possibly means that a physical CD is available somewhere, or will be, but I can't say that what I heard in the movie was particularly earth-shaking, so I'm not losing any sleep).

I didn't hate Halloween II, which I can't say about Zombie's first effort in the franchise, but his statement that he's done with it is still a relief. I can ignore his other films, but I'm sort of contractually obligated to see all the Halloween movies (due to that unfortunate pact with the dark forces that once took place). No matter how bad I think a Halloween sequel is going to be, I am compelled!

Since Halloween 3D is already on the horizon, feel free to beat the rush and start praying for my soul now.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Trouble in the Lab

(Cross-posted from my local blog at

The Green Slime (1968)

Filmed in Toei's Tokyo studio with mostly American actors, The Green Slime has one of the best theme songs of all time, with a psychedelic guitar and lyrics like "Is it just something in your head? Will you believe it when you're DEAD?"

Director Kinji Fukasaku clearly had an impressive amount of cult film range. He later directed Battle Royale, the extremely violent but thought-provoking tale of schoolchildren forced to fight to the death for the nation's entertainment. (In fact, his last credit before his death in 2003 was Battle Royale 2). Battle Royale just got a recent publicity jump, at the top of Quentintino's list of "Top 20 films of the last 17 years" that's being quoted all over the place. There's a whole slew of samurai and Yakuza films in his oeuvre as well and, also in 1968, the famous noir thriller Black Lizard (based on the novel by Edogawa Rampo). Starring a transvestite as the femme fatale, this movie was rare on VHS and is still non-existent on DVD.

The storyline of The Green Slime oddly prefigures both the (much later) blockbusters Armageddon and Alien, as if the former movie's entirety were just the set-up for the potentially worse threat of the latter. When Commander Rankin starts talking about destroying the space station Gamma, I couldn't help but think of Sigourney Weaver's deadpan "It's the only way to be sure" and "They can bill me."

In short, a team of astronauts is sent to blow up an enormous asteroid on a collision course with Earth, and inadvertently bring back a speck of the green goo that was glowing and pulsing all over the asteroid surface. Before long, the slime is everywhere, reproduceing rapidly from drops of its own blood. (In a Godzilla-like twist, the slime grows and heals itself with the application of electricity ... which is if course the life's blood of the space station as well, leading to lots of sparks and attacks on power sources). When the slime creatures grow to full size, they somewhat resemble the Jagaroth (an alien race from the Doctor Who story "City of Death"), who were also green and one-eyed. In addition to their tentacles and lethal electric shocks, the aliens emit some truly creepy electronic squeals, too. While the film perhaps suffers from bringing them too much out into the harsh light, exposing their rubber-suit nature instead of attempting to cloud it in smoke or darkness, I have to give it some respect for saying upfront, "Yup, these are our monsters. Deal with it."

The whole subplot about responsibility is also very Alien; Rankin is very strict on things like the quarantine procedure. In contrast, his old friend (and romantic rival) Elliott strives to remain more human, concerned with things like loyalty and compassion. Rankin's tough, hard-nosed quality may be necessary to keep the majority of the crew alive during times of crisis, but it clearly takes a toll on him and his personal life. Elliott's more emotional approach to life makes him vulnerable to making mistakes (as well as leading to a measure of self-doubt), but is ultimately what makes him heroic.

Speaking of that love triangle: the crowds of extras wear sensible space station uniforms (blue, orange, white), except for the love interest, who very much sticks out in a sleeveless silver foil pantsuit. Wowza! Then, in a victory party complete with champagne and '60s go-go music, lots of the girls cavort in amazing op art dresses, and bouffant hair-dos that would fit right in on the original starship Enterprise.

The old-school sci-fi effects take a lot of hits from modern critics, but while "adorable" probably isn't what they were going for in their miniatures work, but I can't help it. That's what it is. From the beginning shots of the space command center (obviously a model, but so clean and streamlined, it would be perfect for a futuristic train set), then with the cut to the "interior," a room full of large, clunky computers with big lights and switches, their monitors showing black and white TV images, I was totally sold. The conventions may look hokey to a modern audience, but I prefer to think of them as "theatrical." They're like a painted backdrop that you know isn't real. And if I were really looking for reality, I wouldn't be watching a movie called The Green Slime.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The reciprocity of picturization

I'm attempting to finish a few of the dozen or so books that I'm midway through, starting with The Bollywood Reader. Not so easy when two essays in a row ("The 'Bollywoodization' of the Indian Cinema" and "Bollywood and the frictions of global mobility" -- yup, frictions of global mobility -- why am I torturing myself?) are about politics and globalization and "defining culture economically." Yikes!

They both emphasize that the term "Bollywood" shouldn't be equated with the actual films, but with a conglomerate corporate culture, a larger pattern of advertising revenue and websites and, god help us, ring tones. I can't help thinking of the guy in the Eros Entertainment ads who talks about "In-Flight Entertainment" in that clipped British accent.

Anyway, in the former essay, the author argues that, for example, a movie with product placement is Bollywood in a way that a movie without is not. And also contrasts: "The difference between the 'Bollywood' movie and the rest of the Hindi...films being made would be, say, the difference between Karan Johan and David Dhawan, between Shah Rukh Khan and Govinda..." (p. 196). Which made me chuckle, since the first Bollywood movie I ever saw was a David Dhawan film starring Govinda.

Good lord, what hath semantics wrought?

I'm not so sure about any of that, but I'm in no real position to judge. It may all be true, but it seems to miss the point in a fundamental way. Because in part, the writer is getting into all this fairly dry territory "to get to the basis of why the Indian cinema exists at all." (p. 196)

Now that's an interesting question -- largely because I've read a lot about the film industry in general (especially the American one), and I can't remember anyone ever questioning why movies exist in the first place. Various writers, especially the more scholarly ones, seem curious about the appeal of Bollywood for non-Indian audiences, which is fair game for speculation, but again is a contrast to the way most writers talk about the American media. Few people (at least, certainly few people in the U.S.) seem to think it strange that audiences watch American movies all over the world. This comes up every year when the Academy Awards are prominently broadcast to a million countries. Is it any stranger for Indian cinema in particular to have appeal outside its borders?

Other scholars seem to dwell on the issue "what's up with the song-and-dance numbers?" Why do they exist? Why do audiences like them? Movies have picturizations, and people like them, for the same reason why Hindi films can appeal to non-Indian audiences. And that is, "because they're awesome!"

I'm not even going to talk about Karz, or Mithun, or movies in which snakes play musical instruments. No, I'm going for good, solid, mainstream romance. I don't want to get all monolithic about my own taste, because of course, I know and understand that taste is a personal and (thank god!) irrational thing, that there's a whole spectrum, other people aren't going to find anything self-evident just because I do. But still, it remains true that I don't know how anyone could watch the "Maahi Ve" number in Kal Ho Naa Ho and question the appeal of Hindi films in general or song picturizations in particular.

That led me think about what I like to call, in the quasi-scholarly mode I seem to be enjoying, the reciprocity of picturization. That is, the fact that it's hard to take the "Maahi Ve" number out of context and explain exactly what's so awesome about it. I mean, you can see that are a lot of attractive people in lavish clothes, and the music and the dancing are good in and of themselves, but you don't really feel the number without the whole (however many minutes) rest of the movie that came before.

We've all seen loads of dance numbers set at weddings and engagement parties (come to think of it, I haven't seen HAHK yet...), but so far, this is absolutely my favorite. (Well, and I am fond of "Mehndi Lagake Rakhna," especially the part where Amrish Puri gets to sing all romantic-like to his wife. Sniff). But "Maahi Ve" outdoes itself. Not only is it pretty much just plain beautiful, but the song involves almost all of the emotional relationships in the movie: the boys and Preity, the boys with each other, the Mom and the Grandma, even the Grandma and the flirtatious neighbor get nudged together.

There are all sorts of little things I especially love, after watching this sequence way too many times for a girl who didn't even have the normal Midwestern wedding dance. I get all chocked up when they show the little sister waving in the palanquin. I love the little bit where Rohit's dad gets sentimental and wipes his eyes, and then his wife smacks him. Because I'm wiping my eyes too, and I need her bracing matter-of-factness. And I really love, beyond any kind of reason, the part where the song close-ups on Aman's "Jind mahi ve!" then on Rohit's "Jind mahi ve!" and then the two of them together saying "Jind mahi ve!" in unison.

I could watch those ten seconds all day.

Anyway, none of these details would mean anything at all to someone watching the song who hasn't seen the movie. And without the song, the movie would lack certain emotional resolutions. So it works as a classic of example of the fact that, when it's done well, the songs make the movies, and the movies make the songs.