Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The hottest doc? Ryan McGarry's CODE BLACK probes the ER workers at L.A.'s County Hospital

The year is about halfway along, but with the theatrical release of the new documentary CODE BLACK, which deals with the young doctors who help run the Emergency Room of the the Los Angeles County Hospital, it looks like we've got (unless there's some Academy rule or other that I'm unaware of) a sure contender for a Best Documentary nomination, and very likely the winning film. This important and well-made movie doesn't simply show us these doctors at work, both saving and losing lives (which would already be enough to rivet us), it gives us the best demonstration imaginable for the need for decent health care across our nation, particularly in the emergency rooms that serve those who can least afford to pay for the kind of most expensive/least effective heath care our country has for so long insisted on providing.

The movie and its movie-maker, Ryan McGarry (at right) -- himself one of these young doctors and also the director and co-writer of, as well as one of the cinematographers and "performers" in the film -- takes us into a place, the likes of which we may imagine we've seen (on a TV program such as ER) and shows it to us anew and from a perspective we have not, up to now, gotten anywhere near. The first thing you may notice is how incredibly crowded is this ER. I am not referring to the waiting room, which is also terribly crowded, but to the area the doctors call C Booth where much of the life-saving (and life-losing) takes place.

As one doctor explains, C Booth may "look like chaos" (and, boy, does it ever -- there seems barely room for anyone to even move), "but as a trained doctor, I can see that it is not." C Booth, we're also told is "where you learn."

We're immediately swept back and forth between emergencies and meeting our cast, the doctors who "work twice the hours for half the pay." Who are these people? "Emergency medicine," we're told, "calls a certain type of person." This turns out to be someone for whom the adrenaline rush is important. "Being a new doctor," someone else explains, "optimism overshadows realism. It has to."

But then we learn that, "Death connects everyone," and we're then shown exactly what this means: in the experience of losing a patient ("Do we drape her and clean her for the family?" one new doc asks), of having to tell loved ones what has happened (we hear the grief expressed, rather than see it, which is more decent and generous than most documentaries or television programs would allow) and then of having to live with the outcome of this failure.

While this film was being prepared and made, Los Angeles finally moved its County Hospital from the old quarters -- above, built in the early 1930s, via a bond issue that helped pay for it, and not, unfortunately "earthquake proof" -- to its spanking new headquarters (below), which, of course, is better. Sort of. The old building, it turns out, was so old that it had few of the modern conveniences such as computer record-keeping and the like, which is now demanded of the doctors and leads to the problem of constant documentation and a concurrent flood of paperwork.

We learn what the number codes 1 through 4 mean to the folk waiting to receive emergency care and how they can sometimes wait ten to fifteen hours for that care to materialize. "Code Black," it turns out, refers to the times when ER is so crowded that the doctors know in advance that they will never be able to see all the patients gathered before them.

At the new facility, besieged with paperwork, the doctors come up with a "fast track" ideas to better serve the patients. This has its pros and cons, and we see how difficult innovation can sometimes be, especially when the nursing staff is badly under-served. We also learn some of the backstories of our doctors, especially that of filmmaker McGarry, below, who knows first-hand what ER help can mean.

Code Black is consistently intelligent and thoughtful in its take on ER health care, and like the doctors we see here, it is also tight, organized and efficient. It is political about health care in the best way, and also as personal as it gets. It is difficult to imagine U.S. citizens of any stripe (except perhaps completely closed-minded Republicans) viewing this film and not understanding the importance of and need for decent health care. Toward the end of the movie, there is a terribly moving grace note, as the camera simply pans around the room -- no music, no sound -- and we see a whole range of people, young to old, quiet, ill and waiting for care.

The film also demonstrates that if we have folk like the graduating-class doctors we see here, then our country simply can't be as irreparably lost as it sometimes seems.  I was born and raised in Los Angeles -- a sprawling city I've never much liked -- but nothing I've so far encountered has made me as proud of the place as has this movie.

Code Black opens this Friday, June 20, here in New York at the IFC Center, and next Friday, June 27, in Los Angeles at The Landmark. (There will be Q&As with director and his cast over opening weekends in both cities.) In the weeks and months  to come, the film will play many cities across the country. To see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed, click here.

The photos above are from the film itself, except for 
that of McGarry (second from top), which is by 
and the shots of the new and old L.A. County Hospital.

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