Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Blood, Death, Children, and Movies

I've just shown my 10 year-old children their first R-rated movie. Before you call the cops on me, I'd note that simultaneously, I've forbade my children to see a different movie--though it got a PG-13 rating.

Essentially, the first movie, despite its rather ominous rating, was a movie that I thought a child of ten years might be able to handle, though I knew it would stretch their limits. The second, PG-rated movie, despite several warm reviews I've heard not only from professional critics but friends as well, remains to my mind out-of-the-question as out-of-bounds despite lots of moviegoers singing its praises as its haul passes the $500 million mark in just over a month.

The envelopes, please? The latter movie is, of course, The Hunger Games, based on the trilogy by Suzanne Collins, a dystopian fiction that has been massively popular in its own right. From what I can tell, The Hunger Games seems a savvy commentary on mass communication, the reach of governmental power, the mechanisms by which people in positions of power are capable of maintaining their power, et cetera. I say that it seems that way because I haven't seen the movie and don't intend to. And I certainly don't believe that my children should be seeing it, now or anytime between now and, oh, say, their sixteenth birthday. Why's that?

Kids killing other kids. I heard Kenneth Turan's review on NPR while commuting to work, and when he explained the general plot outline, I had heard enough.

I don't mean to say that I think that The Hunger Games is necessarily a bad movie and that it shouldn't be seen by anyone. Far from it, it sounds like a provocative film (maybe: hard to tell) and by all means let adults and young adults flock to it. But I don't think children need to see a movie about children killing other children. I don't really care how well the movie is made, nor how deep its philosophical preoccupations. I'm simply astonished that a movie involving a plot line in which kids kill other kids could possibly receive a PG rating. Indeed, I'm appalled. Do we collectively think this is an acceptable story to tell our children?!

Meanwhile, I couldn't help but chuckle as we sat in our family room watching the R-rated The Red Violin, likewise a movie focused (in part, at least) on children, death, and blood, though to my mind in a manner entirely acceptable for a child of ten. The R rating is due to a brief moment of tush and breast--in a manner that can only, in this desensitized age, be described as "mildly erotic at best"--and a scene in which a male actor basically makes love to the eponymous violin. (Owing to the time-honored double standard of male and female nudity, however, no actual cock makes it way onto the screen.) For the nude scenes in question, my daughter hid her eyes unbidden behind a pillow; my son didn't make a peep, so hard to know precisely what was going on in the moment with him. I could speculate. At any rate, The Red Violin is a movie as much about love as about death, and it is most definitely not about killing.

Side by side, seeing these two ratings matched against each other, it is hard for me to feel anything but despair that our national ratings board would discourage pre-teen children from watching a movie in which the naked human form is displayed (briefly!) in an otherwise heartwarming tale about love conquering time and death, while simultaneously being apparently nonchalant about the visual portrayal of the most grotesque actions imaginable in cinema. The Hunger Games may be deep; it may be reflective; it still sounds like Snuff to me.

Might those astounding box office draws have played a role in the rating so as to allow for the largest possible audience? Hmm.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Physician-Assisted Suicide in the US: Don't Compare it To Europe

Earlier this week the New York Times held a "Room For Debate" roundtable on Physician-Assisted Suicide that left me mostly frustrated. Each of the eight participants took no more than about four paragraphs to share their viewpoint, which is far too brief to introduce laypeople to some of the minefields associated with the practice. The topic is just too complicated for that kind of brevity by my reckoning. None of the authors gave more than a glancing nod to issues surrounding palliative care, a huge omission since it's at least possible, if not likely, that many people who support PAS do so out of a largely erroneous belief that people with terminal diseases, especially cancer, often die horribly painful deaths that modern medicine simply could not prevent. I'm assuming that these writers, several of whom are renowned experts in this field, eschewed writing about palliative care not by choice but by length limitations imposed by the editors, but that's just a guess. Hey Times--give 'em eight grafs! I promise your readers will read it!

We at the Billy Rubin Blog are strongly opposed to PAS--a topic that we have briefly touched on in our discussion of the profound media misrepresentation of Jack Kevorkian, as cold-blooded a murderer as has ever walked the earth and who got away with over 100 butcheries by cloaking himself in self-righteousness and preying on the public's abject fear of (mostly) cancer. There are more judicious docs who support the practice, such as Timothy Quill, who proposed a "constitutional right to suicide" that the US Supreme Court didn't come close to buying (it was rejected 9-0). While I respect guys like Quill and don't think they need to be stripped of their licenses (unlike Kevorkian), I do believe it is unethical to participate in suicides, even if some Northwestern States give it their legal imprimatur.

Too-abbreviated a discussion or not, one excellent point kept cropping up by the PAS opponents. PAS supporters are fond of invoking the situation in the Netherlands, where the practice has existed for decades and doesn't appear to be highly controversial today, nor does it appear to have become a back door for euthanasia as many in the US fear it will. But this is most definitely not an apples-to-apples comparison, since US health care mostly functions as a free-market phenomenon, where secondary incentives can play a role in motivating patients, families, and insurance companies to nudge people along the path. As this article notes, at least one such scenario like this has already played out in PAS-legal Oregon.

We'd prefer the Dutch abandoned the practice altogether, but either way we heed this observation from Dr. Petra de Jong, the head of Right to Die Netherlands: "Euthanasia and assisted suicide can only be legalized in a country with optimum health care, including palliative care. But most of all, with citizens having access to good health care, regardless of their income." Yep.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Story of Haiti's Cholera: No Silver Lining

Today's New York Times has a long report about the history of the introduction of cholera to Haiti following the earthquake. Introduction is the operative word there: despite all of the calamities that have befallen this most downtrodden of nations, cholera had spared the little half-island, despite outbreaks in nearby Latin America in the 1990s.

Cholera was absent before the earthquake, at any rate, and it ended quite likely with the arrival of Nepalese soldiers working for the United Nations. The short version is that it now appears that these soldiers unwittingly harbored the bacteria in their guts ("asymptomatic carriage" is common for diarrheal diseases like cholera and typhoid fever), and the bacteria was introduced to the water supply by inadequately-dug latrines leading to overflow into tributaries of the Artibonite, Haiti's principal river and the Haitian equivalent of what we think of as the municipal water supply--meaning the river in which hundreds of thousands of people bathe & wash.

After the bacteria took up residence in the guts of the locals, the outbreak was on, and since then 7,000 people have died, and we may be in for more as the rainy season begins anew. As we have noted before, this is a tragedy on a massive scale, and is getting scant play in the American news media, NYT and National Public Radio notwithstanding. The TV bigs must think that the quake makes for so much more exciting viewing. Maybe thousands of new graves in the coming months will change their minds.

The article does a good deal of post-hoc finger-pointing at the breakdowns in communication, coordination, and general inability to react quickly to the rapidly emerging threat of cholera in early 2011. I am a bit skeptical of its "if we had only done this" tone: there were so many moving parts, so many decisions that required coordination, so many barriers to organizational cross-talk that no single change would likely have prevented the outbreak. Which is not to say that there aren't important lessons to be learned, especially as we head into the rainy season, but it always seems so easy to identify problems through the retrospectoscope.

As the article details, now the level of trust between the Haitians and at least the UN is dismal. One local authority quoted in the article matter-of-factly discussed killing one of the soldiers--simply to make a political point. To describe this as "ominous" would understate the case significantly. And I'm dubious that such hostilities will be confined only to the UN personnel. If the bodies continue to pile up, the rage will spread like the cholera that came before it, with potentially equally lethal consequences.