Friday, March 02, 2012

True/False 2012, Day One: The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Note: This is cross-posted from Indiewire.

The first movie I ever saw at Columbia, Missouri's True/False Film Festival was Kevin MacDonald's Touching the Void nine years ago. The thing I remember best about that showing was the look of utter shell shock on MacDonald's face when he took the stage after the movie. True/False's audiences are large. That first audience had over a thousand people in it and the festival never looked back. Over the years, I've seen that look of shell shock on the faces of other directors as True/False has grown larger and larger. I kind of missed seeing it again this year, but I didn't go to the opening night jubilee for a change. The opening night film this year was Undefeated, fresh off winning the Best Documentary Academy Award, and I doubt we were going to out-dazzle Oscar when it comes to impressing the filmmakers. I reckon I'll have the chance to see Undefeated when Columbia's local Ragtag Cinema gets it, as it almost surely will. Or I'll see it on video. I'll have my chances, which is more than I can say about some of the other films playing this weekend. Sure, I missed the communal aspect of sitting in a big damn audience, but that's okay. The films I DID see provided the same experience in miniature without the premium price of the gala soirée that the opening night film has become. Besides, if I really want to see it with a big audience, it's the closing night film, too, and that showing is more geared to the hoi polloi who don't fancy getting dolled up. True/False schedules their opening night film in the stately Missouri Theater. The Missouri was a shipwrecked cathedral of a movie palace when the festival first began. It's been renovated over the years, and it's a swell place to watch a movie these days. Undefeated isn't the only film scheduled there, so it's all the same, I guess.

The first film to unspool at this year's festival was The Waiting Room, directed by Peter Nicks. The showing was packed into a converted ballroom at the old Tiger Hotel (which is not currently a hotel in spite of the big red sign on the roof). I didn't reserve a ticket for The Waiting Room, so I had the dubious pleasure of waiting in line. No trip to True/False is complete without the anxiety of queuing up for a movie with no guarantee of getting in. The organizers try to minimize the pain with their "Q" system, but that only means that you can go get a sandwich or an ice cream cone while you wait. Downtown Columbia is compact enough that most things are in easy walking distance during the 45 minutes you're likely to be waiting. For myself, I thought the title of the film was mocking me during the uneasy countdown of people waiting to get in. Fortunately, the movie itself was pretty good.

The Waiting Room is a chronicle of the day in the life of the emergency room at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California. It's set almost entirely in the eponymous waiting room, and in the small medical rooms where urgent care treats patients. During the Q&A after the movie, director Nicks claimed that his intention wasn't political and that he tried to keep the film as apolitical as possible. I'll give the film this much: it's not exactly a polemic. I don't know how successful he thought he would be at non-partisanship, because this film is a portrait of the wreckage of late capitalism. It can't help but have a point of view, given that the people who populate this film are disadvantaged and uninsured. Public hospitals are a provider of last resort, and there's an air of desperation in both the patients and the hospital staff. One patient, sent to Highland for dialysis, is tired of the runaround he receives whenever he shows up for his treatment. He demands that they pull his catheter. Another, a drug casualty, poses the ethical question of how to treat self-destructive patients who have no place to go after they're stabilized and how to prioritize the space to treat such patients in the face of a perpetually full waiting room (one member of the audience asked how the hospital could possibly give this person a bed when there were other, apparently more worthwhile patients, which just goes to show that the urge moralize when it comes to public policy is strong). Taken as a whole, The Waiting Room takes the measure of a systemic failure, where science, faith, and simple logistics--it goes into some detail about the logistics of ER triage--are all completely insufficient.

This is a pretty slick production. It indulges in stylistic flourishes, though not without purpose. The film's tendency to isolate its characters in shallow depth of field shots has the practical virtue of obscuring people who may not want to be in the shot, even as that very isolation focuses the audience on the faces and problems these people wear. There are a couple of time-lapse shots of the waiting room as a whole in which it rapidly fills, then empties, then fills again that are visual flourishes, sure, but they also suggest that the staff of Highland Hospital are basically shoveling sand against the tide. Two shots in particular followed me away from the movie: in one, a fifteen year old gunshot victim is wheeled to the freezer in the morgue. When the door to the freezer is closed, the filmmakers hold the shot a moment longer than pure reporting would dictate. In the other, a woman who is clearly unable to take care of herself is wheeled out to the bus stop after she is released. I wonder what happened to that woman. This is a character piece that follows several individuals, but it resists the urge to include various "where are they now" vignettes at the end. It doesn't have any tidy endings.

I probably made a mistake with my second movie of the night. True/False schedules several "Secret Screenings" every year. These are usually movies that are slated to premiere elsewhere. The secret film I saw was a good deal less polished than The Waiting Room, which occasionally resembles a television medical drama if I'm being honest about it. The secret film doesn't have the same kind of savoir faire of The Waiting Room, but it has a more focused rage underlying the story it tells and it has a chilling depiction of the appalling banality of evil. But I can't tell anyone about it and I want to scream. Maybe it's a good thing that True/False fancies itself a carnival of sorts, because I CAN tell you that the busking musicians who played before the show, a duo called Busman's Holiday, were pretty good. Of the movie itself, I can say no more.

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