March 26, 2010


BARBARIAN INVASIONS (Mark Steyn, 26 March 2010, Steyn on Stage and Screen

In his mid-50s, Remy (Remy Girard), a self-described “sensual socialist”, is perforce heavy on the latter and lighter than he’d wish on the former. He’s no longer banging co-eds, though the hairless head makes him look randier than ever. He has cancer, and, worse than that, he has it in Quebec. British audiences, disheartened by the state of the National Health Service, may find it oddly comforting to discover a G7 nation whose health care system rivals the crappiness of the United Kingdom’s. Americans will be less cheered. As the film opens, Arcand’s camera weaves its way to Remy’s bed through a maze of corridors clogged with patients lying on gurneys hooked up to tubes snaking their way under miles of ceiling tiles back to wherever the overflow started. In the course of the film, no doctor ever addresses Remy by his correct name.

His son, Sébastien, is rich and successful and living in London, doing something crass and vulgar with markets that Remy has never troubled himself to enquire about. He and his son are separated by more than the Atlantic. But, at the behest of his mother (and the philandering Remy’s ex-), Sébastien flies back, and is horrified at the conditions his father is being treated in. "I'm lucky I'm not in the corridor," says Remy. His son contacts an old friend in the medical profession. Like many (most?) Québécois doctors, he’s now working in America, at a hospital in Baltimore that could help with the diagnosis if the chaps in Montreal were able to e-mail them a scan. Unfortunately, the only machine in the province that can do the scan is 90 minutes away in Sherbrooke and there’s a six-to-twelve month waiting list, by which time they’ll have to dig Remy up to do it. Or he can have it done tomorrow, if he drives an hour south to Burlington, Vermont and pays $2,000. For Americans, one of the odder aspects of the movie is to hear patients refer to "Burlington" the way outlying residents of Oz speak of the Emerald City - a glittering metropolis on the far horizon where all things are possible. Montreal has a population of two million. Burlington is a city of 40,000 people, and to most Americans a peripheral backwater. But, in Her Majesty's northern Dominion, the public health system is such an article of faith that no private hospitals are permitted: Canada’s private health care system is called “America”.

So Sébastien pays for a trip to Vermont. The differences between these two adjoining medical systems are such that the building Arcand uses as a stand-in for the American hospital as the ambulance pulls up looks, if anything, slightly too old and faded to be part of the real Fletcher Allen Medical Center. But nevertheless it's many times better than the war-zone refugee camp conditions back in Montreal. "Good morning, guys," says the chirpy nurse opening up the door. "Welcome to America!" "Praise the Lord!" responds Remy in exaggerated Bible Belt vowels. "Hallelujah!" says Sébastien. M Arcand can be allowed his little jests.

Sébastien wants his dad to go to Baltimore for treatment, but Remy roars that he’s the generation that fought passionately for socialized health care and he’s gonna stick with it even if it kills him. "I voted for Medicare," he declares. "I'll accept the consequences." So the cocky London dealer goes to work. He tries to get his dad transferred to a better facility. "The Ministry of Health forbids changing hospitals," he's told. But he doesn't give up. He pushes through the door marked "Accès Interdit" and, when the security guard demands a badge, blags his way past by saying he's from Lloyds of London. To return to my earlier analogy, this is the equivalent of the moment when The Wizard Of Oz bursts from grey Kansas dustbowl monochrome into full color: On one side of the door are the wards, the doctors, the nurses, the patients: everything is filthy and crumbling. On the other side of the door is the administration: plush carpets, pot plants, window shades, attractive prints on the walls. Having talked his way in, Sébastien tells the head lady that he's noticed that, for some reason, the second floor is entirely empty, and he’d like his dad to have a private room there. The lady explains that it's not possible to "target our responses in terms of individual beneficiaries" because "our allocation of infrastructure is determined by the Ministry’s ambulatory thrust” on "diagnostic parameters defined by the Region 02 consultations". (The obstructive bureaucratese is beautifully written.)

So he bribes her, and he bribes the union, and he bribes everyone else he needs to. "We are not in the Third World," insists the administrator. But it turns out we are, at least when it comes to get anything done. But eventually Sébastien gets his father a freshly-painted room on the abandoned floor. “You must be a friend of the Premier or a big hockey star,” says the nurse to Remy.


Rémy: We've been everything: separatists, supporters of independantists, sovereignists, sovereignity-associanists...
Pierre: At first, we were existentialists.
Dominique: We read Sartre and Camus.
Claude: Then Fanon, we became anti-colonialists.
Rémy: We read Marcuse and became Marxists.
Pierre: Marxist-Leninists.
Alessandro: Trotskyists.
Diane: Maoists.
Rémy: After Solzhenitsyn we changed, we became structuralists.
Pierre: Situationists.
Dominique: Feminists.
Claude: Deconstructionists.
Pierre: Is there an -ism we haven't worshipped?
Claude: Cretinism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 26, 2010 5:48 AM
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