Saturday, June 23, 2007

Grey humour in The Hospital

I think I've blogged before about the creepily satisfying little coincidences that sometimes occur when you’re reading/watching films a lot: how something you've recently read or seen (or experienced) is unexpectedly echoed elsewhere. This has been happening a lot recently. Small example: in Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, I came across two references to Ernest Hemingway's superb novella The Old Man and the Sea – a book I had put down just minutes before picking up the Hosseini. (With the attention span being low these days, it's been convenient to revisit favourite novellas/short stories: in the last few days I've been through the Hemingway as well as Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and short stories by Poe, Saki and Arthur Clarke.)

Then, given my recent experiences in hospitals (problems with bureaucratic inefficiency, general apathy, ridiculously opaque billing, randomness in procedures – all very frightening when you think of how much faith people put in doctors and hospitals), it was bizarre that I switched on the TV last night just in time to see the opening credits of the 1971 film The Hospital. This is a hard-hitting black comedy, built around a superb performance by George C Scott (every bit as good here as he was in any of his other great roles: in Patton, Dr Strangelove or The Hustler). He plays the depressed Dr Bock, undergoing a mid-life crisis, searching for some meaning in his job as a healer, but finding that everything seems to be coming apart in his hospital too.

Actually, I’m not sure “black comedy” is right. For all its madcap possibilities, the humour in The Hospital is a bleak shade of grey. This isn't the sort of film that will make you chuckle out loud so much as smile wanly at the TV screen, nod in recognition while thinking to yourself, "True, true; life really is this grim and hopeless, and that’s funny."

There are a few laugh-out-loud moments in the first few scenes though (assuming you can laugh at avoidable miscommunication that results in the deaths of innocents). The film begins with a brilliantly deadpan voiceover telling us about a patient who is admitted into a large Manhattan hospital, his ailment wrongly diagnosed and then further misinterpreted by an intern – so that what should have been a routine examination ends in tragedy. Anyway, this incident leaves the ward with a prematurely empty bed, which the intern decides to take advantage of by calling a nurse he's been shacking up with in uncomfortable positions in broom closets. ("We got us a real bed," he says gleefully.) Come morning, the intern is found dead on the same bed; apparently, during his post-coital nap, another nurse came in and administered him an IV, thinking he was the previous patient.

All this sounds overblown and slapsticky on paper, but it's played completely straight (except for the goofy look on the intern's face – and even that suggests frat-boy desperation, which is an essentially poignant quality). The film is shot in TV-drama style, the narration is austere, and the other doctors and administrators are concerned about these goings-on, and about finding ways to improve matters. Dr Bock has lines like “What am I going to tell this boy’s parents? That a substitute nurse assassinated him because she couldn't tell the doctors from the patients on the floor?” and ”Where do you train your nurses, Dachau?” but he says them wearily, with genuine sadness and outrage. The tone isn't the irreverent, absurdist one of Heller’s Catch-22 or of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H*, where doctors Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John are distinctly unconcerned with such silly things as improving the world.

The Hospital is also a very wordy film, with long monologues where characters engage in self-analysis or social commentary (the scene where Dr Bock goes on about his suicidal feelings, his possible impotence, his strained relations with his family – including a 17-year-old daughter who has had two abortions – works largely on the strength of Scott’s performance, but it does get long-winded). The script is by playwright Paddy Chayevsky, an acerbic social observer who also wrote Sidney Lumet's Network, a satire about network television that seems very prescient today in the reality-TV age. (My sole viewing of Chayevsky was in a video of the 1978 Oscars, where he denounced Vanessa Redgrave for making political remarks in her acceptance speech. Fierce chap. Nothing bright or sunshine-y about him, or perhaps it was just a bad day. Dr Bock reminded me of him.)


  1. Incidentally George C Scott is one of my favourite actors. I don't think General Patton could have been played better by any other actor. Scott was somewhat of a recluse and even denounced the academy awards,his performances however were always great. Most importanly viewing "Patton" you never get this impression of Scott trying to be a caricature, something which needs to be taught to our actors trying to get into "the skin of the character".

  2. Shwet: Scott reminds me of another of my favourite actors, Charles Laughton. Both of them had very distinct physical features that made it difficult for them to immerse themselves into a wide variety of character types - to experiment a lot with makeup, appearance etc, or to be "anonymous" character actors. They brought a great deal of their own personalities into each role, but that didn't diminish the performances in any way. It's a lesson, I think, for those who believe Great Acting has to be about makeup and disguise. [Um. Considers writing things about Sanjeev Kumar and Naya Din Nayee Raat. Never mind - mustn't provoke trolls...]

    Scott was nominated for The Hospital too, the year after he turned down the award for Patton. (Maybe this was the Academy's way of ostentatiously showing that it held no grudges - a couple of years later, Brando was nominated for Last Tango in Paris just after he declined his Godfather award!)

  3. pretty cool, ill be checking it out.

  4. Jai: Was reading in HT about Akshay Kumar's favourite actor being Sanjeev Kumar. Says a lot --before my colleagues kill me about criticising the great Sanjeev. He is Akshay's choice and I sincerely hope he is not going to imitate the great Sanjeev's nasal drawls. No matter, whatever Akshay Kumar's credentials as an actor,he certainly has more personality than many Sanjeev Kumars put together.

  5. I have been planning my hospital trilogy for some time now - Penn's Hospital, Lars Von Trier's Kingdom & Lindsay Anderson's Britannia Hospital. Need a hospital visit to kick it off, I guess :-) I did see the harrowing, & perversely funny, Death Of Mr. Lazarescu, which is my best hospital movie so far. Looks like there is a healthy (pun intended) genre there...

  6. Let me do my best to give you a new perspective on Old Man & the Sea. Did you know that female fish are always bigger than male fish?
    The overwhelming biological probability is that the fish in OM&TS is female. Now go back and read it again making the appropriate gender replacements.