Monday, September 28, 2009

Saw VI: An Unexpected Voice on Health Care Reform

Before you are six of your most valuable associates, the ones who find errors in policies. Their findings result in over two-thirds of all applications denied or prematurely terminated. Health care decisions should be made by doctors and their patients, not by the insurance company.

So begins the trailer NOT of the latest Michael Moore documentary, Oliver Stone cinematic jeremiad, or avant garde political satire. No, it comes from the teaser to the latest installment in the Saw film franchise - and from the looks of it, it will be a doozy.

Before I proceed, I should point out that I have a bit of a soft spot for the Saw films. While it is fashionable to dismiss them as pedestrian gorefests or, to use the more common epithet, "torture porn"*, the franchise contains a suprising degree of philosophical depth. According to the movies' antagonist, "The Jigsaw Killer" (whose identity is only revealed at the end of the first movie, which is why I won't betray his identity, motives, or backstory here), modern mankind has gradually lost touch with a key element in its identity - the survival instinct. Hence the serial killer targets individuals who he believes have shown a lack of appreciation for the lives they have been given. His goal is to teach them to truly be alive. And how does he propose to do that? Why, by putting them through Rube Goldbergesque contraptions that force them to brutally torture themselves and/or other people in all sorts of creative ways before the proverbial clocks runs out and they are killed. According to the Jigsaw thesis, emerging intact (relatively speaking) from such life-threatening trials will help his subjects to gain, I don't know, some perspective on things, with the resulting epiphany causing them to stop wasting their lives.

What Jigsaw's approach lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in ingenuity. The subjects he chooses for his tests (or "games", as he prefers to call them) are guilty of all sorts of infractions that have led him to believe they are unappreciative of their own lives. Rapists, crooked cops, hit-and-run drivers, drug dealers, philandering doctors, neglectful fathers, faux suicidal yuppies, and corrupt city planners are just a few of those he believes, for reasons he explains with sinister eloquence, have failed to make good use of the fleshy real estate they currently occupy. Some of his subjects pass their "tests" and get to live; most of them are bloody failures (pun intended) and shuffle off this mortal coil. It's all very entertaining to watch, assuming you have a stomach for the grungy aesthetic, overflowing profanity, and copious quantities of blood and guts that accompany each installment.

This is not to say that the movies aren't a bit too prone to glaring logical errors, be they in the mechanics of the traps, the rationale behind the selection of its victims, or the often agonizingly convoluted plot developments (each installment contains its own unique narrative labyrinth, which in turn builds on and connects to the equally complicated stories from each of its predecessors). Yet they also offer a surprisingly insightful look at how Nietzschean ideas of the "superman" would work if applied to contemporary American archetypes. We often talk about the workaholic, the unfeeling doctor, the repeat penal offender, and the junkie as being "wastes of space" - but if that really were true, in its most hyperliteral sense, would Jigsaw's logical extrapolation of what should be done to "fix" them be that far off the mark?

Please note that this is NOT a personal endorsement of his ideas, any more so than I am "endorsing" the actions of Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhies. That said, unlike those and other legendary antagonists from horror franchises, The Jigsaw Killer is unique because there is an intellectual concept - a real sinewy, substantial thought-provoking idea - behind the viscera. The central philosophical dilemma of what constitutes one to be "worthy" of life is explored by each entry in the Saw canon in its own cringingly grisly way. The result is usually compelling, often quite clever, occasionally inspired, and, of course, always revolting.

This brings me to the trailer for the next Saw movie (due for release on October 23rd). It begins when William Easton, a lawyer at an insurance firm, stumbles into a room where six of his associates are tied to each other on a carousel. After the obligatory expressions of confusion and horror are vocalized by all parties involved, Jigsaw (or to be more specific, Jigsaw's voice as presented from an animatronic evil clown doll named Billy) appears on a videotape. He delivers the monologue quoted at the beginning of this article, and then follows it up by explaining to Mr. Easton the cruel crucible he has devised for him:

Six ride the carousel, but only two can get off. The decision of which two survive falls upon you. To offer the two reprieves, you'll give a sacrifice of your own. Two can live. Four will die.

While the "who shall I choose to live and who shall I choose to die" conundrum is hardly original, what makes it particularly ingenuous here is the appropriateness of its symbolism. Are health insurance companies not always making choices as to who lives and who dies? What else can we honestly call the termination of benefits to those who become sick, the denial of benefits to people with pre-existing conditions, and the constant price gouging that makes it impossible for all but the wealthiest Americans to afford the highest quality medical care that this country has to offer? Sure, the murders committed by these executives are carried out indirectly, and of course, the insurance companies themselves are motivated not out of sadism but rather from a ruthless desire to maximize their profits (as President Obama himself has pointed out). But does any of this change the simple fact that thousands suffer bodily and financial hardships, and even death, as a direct result of the insurance company's choices regarding the value of their lives?

The only significant difference between Easton's situation and the real-life actions of insurance companies (apart from the fact that Easton is acting against his will while insurance companies take life of their own initiative) is that the human beings Easton kills are ones who he sees and personally knows. Insurance companies, on the other hand, are able to profit from the suffering and deaths for which they are responsible without the visceral stimuli that would force upon them a sense of personal accountability; the overwhelming majority of their patients are people they'll never meet, whose lives will never mean anything more to them than words and numbers on pieces of paper and computer screens. This, in the eyes of far too many, somehow absolves them of their villainy. Yet at the end of the day, the four fictional characters killed by Easton and the untold thousands who die because of the avarice of insurance companies have one critical detail in common - they are all dead. What's worse, the reason they are dead is because someone else got to decide who among them should live and who should die - be it in the real-life death panels forced upon Americans everyday by insurance companies or in the metaphorical death panel created in Saw VI, which uses Hollywood's version of poetic justice to put those same insurance executives in the shoes of their victims.
It is this message that makes Saw VI, in its own macabre way, one of the most politically prescient films of the year.

Postscript: My Actual Review of "Saw VI"
On October 23, 2009, I saw Saw VI in theaters. Without spoiling the plot for those who wish to view it for themselves, it lived up to my expectations - and then some. While the flaws that mark virtually every installment in the series were still present here (a convoluted plot that requires the audience to have intimate familiarity with every preceding film, logical holes in both the design of the traps and the rationale used to select its victims, gore so copious that it somewhat dilutes the franchise's stronger narrative and philosophical qualities), the movie brilliantly (and yes, I do mean brilliantly) illustrates the moral monstrosity that is modern American health insurance.
The formula that insurance companies use to decide who lives and who dies is broken down in layman's terms with great detail; the argument they use to legitimize their decisions (essentially that it's just an effective business plan and, as such, undeserving of moral reproach) is given air time and then promptly shot down as the logically devoid baloney it has always been; and half of the film winds up being devoted to vicious traps that, in a slyly allegorical fashion, turn the institution of American health insurance on its head, to great satirical as well as horror effect. The main social theme of the film is precisely what I hoped/suspected it would be - that the only thing which separates insurance companies from anyone else who takes human life for profit is that they are never viscerally confronted with the consequences of their actions. In one particularly brilliant moment, an insurance executive who has just selected one person to live - and, by default, another to die - begins to avert his eyes as the impending victim chosen to die is about to be executed. The victim, however, doesn't simply curse and whimper, as have most of the other soon-to-be corpses in this series (although he does do plenty of that). Livid and heartbroken at his betrayal, he stares up at his former boss and makes a last demand that cuts to the heart of this film's moral message:
Look at me! When you're killing me you look at me!"
The genius of Saw VI's central conceit is that, in its cruel and brutally poetic way, it gives an insurance company's corporate mercenary no other choice but to do precisely that. Even as
President Obama defends the motives of insurance executives by saying that they "don't do this because they are bad people, they do it because it's profitable", Saw VI has a rebuttal that is impossible to refute - that the very fact that they take human life in the name of profit is what makes them bad people.

* - For an excellent critique of how the term "torture porn" is misused in reference to these films, check out this link:
** - The picture shown at the beginning of this article is of the Gordian knot. According to legend, the ancient kingdom of Phrygia once had a giant, inextricably complex knot that had been created by its first king, Gordias. When an oracle prophesied that the first man to unravel the knot would become the king of Asia, would-be conquerers from across the world traveled to the Phrygian capital of Telmissus in the hope of validating their ambitions. Each one failed, and for years it was assumed that this meant that no man would ever achieve that goal. That changed when Alexander of Macedonia - destined to become Alexander the Great - came to Telmissus to confront this challenge. After staring for a moment at the massive ball of twine, Alexander pulled out his sword and sliced it in half, watching with stoical satisfaction as thousands of little pieces settled toward the ground. Ever since then, the ability to cut through a problem that seems unsolvable due to its complexity through a brilliantly simple and brutal approach has been referred to as "cutting the Gordian knot".
The creators of Saw VI sliced through the Gordian knot of the American health insurance industry with a boldness, intelligence, and insight that will rank their movie right alongside The Day The Earth Stood Still and Dawn of the Dead as one of the great political horror films. That is why I thought using this picture was fitting.

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