Saturday, May 15, 2010

Easing The Pain

When our dog Paso had cancer last year, the doctor said to us at one point that they never actually allow a dog to die from the disease – it’s just too painful an ending. It made sense to us. But talking afterwards, it turned out we’d both had the same thought: if we allow dogs that kindness, why not humans? At the very least, we don’t suffer pain any less than dogs do. We have free will. We have more rights than animals. So why are we denied that final element of dignity and control?

The End

I’m a believer in voluntary euthanasia. I might agree it somewhat undermines our higher ideals for human existence, by rendering life a commodity, susceptible to cold cost-benefit calculation. But that objection would carry more weight if we didn’t undermine those ideals much more grievously through our daily indifference to involuntary death and deprivation elsewhere. Once in a while you get one of these assisted suicide stories, and people trot out their think pieces, and we get to exercise our moral or utilitarian rhetoric, then the carnival moves on to the latest celebrity adultery, and life just keeps on getting worse for all but a lucky few.

Personally, I think voluntary euthanasia will pass the tipping point of mass acceptance in my lifetime. I think there’ll be too many people who don’t want to live a life heading any further downhill, and who have the will and resources to do something about it, and I think society will have too many and more urgent health-funding problems to fight against it. Sometimes, to be honest with you, I take comfort from thinking I’ll always have that choice, even if most of the other choices end up being extinguished.

Still, that view never quite translated into unambiguous support for Jack Kevorkian, the so-called Dr. Death, who was all over the media for a few years for assisting in a large number of suicides and consistently thwarting any attempts to shut him down. Inevitably, someone who becomes a quasi-celebrity in such a field can’t escape some queasiness about his motives. Kevorkian miscalculated in 1998 when, desiring to take the debate to the next level, he gave 60 Minutes a tape of himself directly administering (rather than facilitating) a lethal injection to a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He ended up convicted of second-degree murder, and served eight years.

Since then he’s refrained from any direct interaction with patients, although he still speaks publicly from time to time. Most recently, he was photographed with Al Pacino at the premiere of You Don’t Know Jack, the new HBO film about his life. It’s directed by Barry Levinson, who won an Oscar for Rain Man, and it’s generally absorbing, even though it doesn’t add much to what one already knew, or could glean from the Internet.

Al Pacino

Pacino is my favourite actor. It’s easy to focus on his excesses, and to reduce him to parody, but the body of work is stunning. When I think of him, my mind overflows with moments of astonishing impact – many of them based in his immense facility with dramatic dialogue, others simply silent. His transformation across the span of the Godfather films remains a milestone, but he constantly elevates much plainer films through his unique alchemy of precision and grand intuition. For sure, he has an affinity for a certain kind of singsong monologue, and I’ve often wondered whether he doesn’t write a lot of his own material – it seems so much richer than anything else in the movies around him. Time and again, he suggests brilliant abstraction tempered with meticulous personal detail. And he’s retained much more of his creative energy than many of his peers, frequently returning to the stage or working on various little-seen personal projects (The Local Stigmatic, available on DVD, is one of the stranger passion projects of any major star).

You Don’t Know Jack has one of Pacino’s most low-key performances, and it’s very effective, tempering Kevorkian’s undeniable conviction and persistence with a sense of his wayward whimsicality (he has any number of personal eccentricities, and turned up at one trial in 18th century costume). Kevorkian, during many of the events depicted in the film, was about the same age as Pacino is now, but given the doctor’s unprepossessing personal style, it’s a major exercise in deglamorization.

Kevorkian is also a painter, and the movie allows some extended looks at his work, all of it grotesque and suggesting some strange preoccupations. But it leaves little room to doubt the essential integrity of his devotion to his cause. We see him counsel patients away from suicide, on grounds that they’re clinically depressed or not sufficiently beyond all hope (he says he rejects 97 or 98% of those who come to him); all the patients who make the cut are plainly in unbearable pain with no hope of recovery, and are exercising their free will with the support of their families. Time and time again he speaks plainly but forcefully about the indignity of suffering and the barbarity of being denied this fundamental choice. The arguments of his antagonists, on the other hand, are an unformed mixture of religious dogma and knee-jerk revulsion. Kevorkian’s angriest moment in the film comes when a prosecuting attorney compares his actions to the Holocaust, simply equating all forms of accelerated death without regard to the underlying motives.

Lake Of Fire

As I said, it’s all interesting, but Levinson doesn’t seem to aspire to do much more than tell the story clearly. I thought at one point of Tony Kaye’s documentary about abortion in America, Lake Of Fire, which also seemed (if you had to guess) generally sympathetic toward abortion rights, but allocated plenty of time to illuminating the other side (and without any Michael Moore-type belittlement mechanisms). Kaye’s film tapped into why committed opponents of abortion can’t possibly see the issue in terms of choice: if abortion represents selective murder of society’s weakest citizens, then how could this ever be justified by notions of temporary domain over one’s own body (looked at that way, as someone points out, exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest are morally illogical). The problem though, as Noam Chomsky says in the film, is that many of those who obsess about abortion spend little time on children who die from poverty or homelessness: why should one form of preventable, officially tolerated death arouse so much more passion than the other, if not that the moral calculation is being enflamed by religious and visceral preoccupations?

Which precisely echoes my earlier point on You Don’t Know Jack. But if you view celebrity as the currency of Hollywood, it’s surely meaningful that Kevorkian’s friends and colleagues are played by Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, whereas the other side is made up of stuffy non-entities. Anyway, the movie may be a limited achievement, but at least it gets you thinking about something more important than whether some guy in a computer-generated super-body can save the world. Assuming, that is, the pain of those you love didn’t already have you thinking about it every day.

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