Decades after it was made, HOSPITAL remains an essential part of the social documentary oeuvre for its unflinching examination of the day-to-day operations in a New York medical facility. At a time when films and television shows still glamorize the functions of the medical community,
HOSPITAL looks bolder and more realistic than ever.
HOSPITAL records a series of events during the course of a day at New York City's Metropolitan Hospital in 1970. Doctors perform an operation while patients wait in an emergency waiting room. A teacher holds and weighs a brain for his students to study. Several nurses consult the police about a
possible child-abuse case. The police later help admit a man who doesn't want to leave his children alone. A "street kid" talks privately to a welfare worker about getting aid; the professional advocates on his behalf with the welfare office. A team of doctors treat an alcoholic; later, they tend
to a drug user. A daughter frets while her mother undergoes surgery. Finally, a group of ministers sing "Ave Maria" in the hospital chapel as cars pass by outside.
In its relatively brief running time (84 minutes), HOSPITAL covers a lot of ground in a more authentic way than most fiction films and other documentaries about hospital life. Of course, director Frederick Wiseman is well known for his fly-on-the-wall approach (this was his fourth film), but
despite the age of his film and the many imitations it has spawned (from Arthur Hiller and Paddy Chayefsky's THE HOSPITAL in 1971 to NBC's "ER" in the 1990s), HOSPITAL offers one of the clearest pictures ever of the institutional problems besetting American health care (Wiseman expands on the
theme in the even greater NEAR DEATH, in 1989).
Wiseman has frequently said that he sees his role as an observer, not a critic. Indeed, there are no clear villains or heroes in this mix of doctors, patients, administrators, and police officers (union sympathizers and radical reformers looking for answers may be disappointed). On the other hand,
there are no romanticized notions about medical authority figures, and the patients are never made to look silly (as in the television series "ER" and "Chicago Hope"). Intentionally or not, William Brayne's black-and-white cinematography creates a moody chiaroscuro, which befits the noirish
ambiguity of the setting.
One of the most moving and revealing sequences shows the gay, ethnic "street kid" talking about being "not normal" while sitting in front of a framed Life Magazine photo of New York's clean-cut Caucasian mayor, John Lindsay; later, his case worker argues with an unsympathetic, unseen "Miss
Hightower" on the phone about getting the patient on welfare, but she hangs up on them. Through the mise-en-scene, the sequence is less judgmental of individuals, however, than of the entire social structure (Wiseman's refutations notwithstanding). The final sequence with the ministers suggests a
religious sanction of social ills; and, thus, Wiseman implicitly critiques through his editing and ordering of events.
It may be troubling to some viewers that Wiseman records a few patients who must not have been in their best state of mind to consent to being filmed (e.g. the drug user who has his stomach pumped). Wiseman also crosscuts in the penultimate sequence between the mother's operation and the
daughter's wait for the results, delivering the impact of a traditional story-telling technique. But in all other ways, HOSPITAL is most untraditional--even after all these years--and well worth a visit.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Decades after it was made, HOSPITAL remains an essential part of the social documentary oeuvre for its unflinching examination of the day-to-day operations in a New York medical facility. At a time when films and television shows still glamorize the functi… (more)