“This is not our sky. And we are the invaders.”
Every childhood needs a little direction.
I wanna rock!
No lights, no crew, no rules.
Cancer. Just hearing that word elicits a response in people. It’d be difficult to find someone who hasn’t been affected by it, whether it is a family member, loved one, or a friend who has been lost. What if there were a genuine cure? Would it change the world overnight, or would it be hoarded by the greedy elite, knowing that without sick patients, they could lose millions? That sounds like a ludicrous claim, but it’s one argument made in this documentary from 1987. Another is that Harry Hoxsey, the man who developed the so-called “cure,” was little more than a salesman and con artist. Which story will you believe? In the 1950s, Harry Hoxsey made headlines announcing the “Hoxsey Tonic,” developed by his farmer father, that guaranteed an 80 percent success rate in curing cancer. Medical professionals, however, were quick to brand him a fake. Although Hoxsey had, at the time, 17 clinics in the United States and thousands of patient testimonials, he was also arrested numerous times, and spent most of his life involved in complicated legal battles against the American Medical Association. Hoxsey eventually ended up in self-exile, operating out of a tiny clinic in Mexico. After his death, the causes of which are still in debate, his followers continue to offer his tonic, in the hopes that someday the medical community will have a change of heart. Does this small clinic with its nondescript bottles of reddish liquid really hold the almost-mythic cure for cancer, or are a lot of people being tricked? Although the filmmakers here seem to want to depict Hoxsey as the “good guy” and the medical world as the “bad guy,” there is too much of a grey area in between, and there are far too many unanswered questions for any viewer to know which side to take. In this corner: Harry Hoxsey. The documentary starts with a look at the then-current Hoxsey clinic in Mexico, where American cancer victims come across the border in busloads to be treated. For them, even if the tonic is not a full-on cure, at least it ends the pain, allowing them to live normal, happy lives free of the sickness, baldness, and long hospital stays associated with chemotherapy. A small but dedicated staff still runs the Mexico clinic, sticking to Hoxsey’s original treatment. The movie goes on to detail Hoxsey’s struggle to get recognition for his cure. Every time he is investigated, his followers allege, it is for criminal purposes, not to test the scientific validity of his tonic. Has corporate greed overshadowed the medical world’s desire to help others? And in this corner: The American Medical Association. The naysayers have a point when they claim Hoxsey was more of a salesman than a healer. The documentary uses some old file footage of Hoxsey from the 1950s, in what looks suspiciously like a TV commercial, where he makes his case for his tonic, promising miraculous results. An old black and white photo of Hoxsey dressed in a bow tie and a fedora holding up a bottle of tonic doesn’t help his case. Hoxsey’s background, from his beginnings as a farmer with limited education to the mysterious circumstances of his death, do make it hard to believe that he’s the one pioneering a cure for the world’s deadliest disease. His critics, not just his followers, are interviewed in the film, and they do not hesitate to call him a quack. The tonic was never officially analyzed, they argue, because no matter what the results, Hoxsey could have used the fact that the medical community looked at it to add fuel to his media fire. As you can see, there are no answers here, and the battle lines drawn by both parties are still being fought today. Questions about the ingredients of the Hoxsey Tonic go unanswered, as do questions about what goes on behind closed doors at the American Medical Association. The filmmakers leave it up to the viewers to decide for themselves who is right and who is not, making for a thought-provoking, non-preachy documentary. The film is mostly a “talking head” doc, made up of interviews with various participants. This is peppered with file footage from the ’50s (such as the Hoxsey footage mentioned above), as well as clips from old medical films of the time. Some of those are pretty amusing, especially when warning against the allegedly sinister nature of “quackery.” One clip even features an actor dressed as a witch doctor dancing around a smoking cauldron. But this is a serious matter, with patients’ lives on the line, and it’s dealt with in serious tones. Made in 1987, the documentary shows its age—not just in some people’s hairstyles, but also in visual quality. The picture is often hazy and riddled with specks and grain. Sure, no one’s going into this expecting it to be Lord of the Rings, but a cleaner transfer would have been appreciated. Sound is not impressive, but because the movie is almost all dialogue, with little music and no effects, the audio does all that is required. A lengthy interview with the director serves to answer one of viewers’ most-asked questions, namely what’s happened between 1987 and now. He also details some of the challenges faced in making the film, especially in getting Hoxsey’s critics in the medical community to go on the record with their negative opinions of the man. The other extra is Hope and a Prayer, a “short film” that’s really an interview with a doctor who extols the importance of doctors making human connections with patients, and thinking of patients as people, not just diseases. It’s some interesting food for thought. It’s sure to spark discussion when watched with a group. But on the whole, it doesn’t seem to be a film that will last through multiple viewings. It presents multiple ideas and arguments, but it doesn’t quite tell a beginning-middle-end story that would make for a fully satisfying film. The Verdict If the subject matter piques your curiosity, then the court recommends a rental. That is all.
One-word description of this documentary: Ick.
A murder investigation of biblical proportions.
Winner: Most Exciting Title for a DVD Release 2004
Explore a unique vision of the American dream.
Pity Aileen Wuornos. She just never stood a chance. The daughter of a convicted child molester who hung himself in prison and a mother who abandoned her at six months, Aileen was raised mostly by her grandparents, Lauri and Britta Wuornos. By the age of nine, Aileen was prostituting herself to neighborhood boys, exchanging sexual favors for cigarettes. By age fourteen she was pregnant, though she gave the baby boy up for adoption upon his birth; that same year her grandmother, Britta, passed away, leaving Aileen and her brother in the sole custody of alcoholic Lauri. Shortly thereafter Aileen left home, living in the woods and depending on hitchhiking and prostitution as a means of surviving. Within the next few years, her brother Keith would die of throat cancer, Lauri would kill himself, and Aileen would take off for Florida—the state where she would eventually be apprehended for seven counts of murder, tried, and executed via lethal injection in 2002. I am not implying that the circumstances of Aileen Wuornos’s childhood and the hardships she endured in her life provide a justification for the murders of seven men she committed in the ’80s. Neither is controversial documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield (Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madame, Kurt and Courtney) in his newest film, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. Broomfield is, however, suggesting to us that there may be a connection from point A to point B to point C. After seeing his film, it is entirely too dismissive to suggest that Wuornos did what she did simply because she was “evil.” Broomfield and co-director Joan Churchill shot this film as a follow-up to Broomfield’s Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, which he made during her original Florida murder trial. Occasionally they cut in clips from the earlier doc, usually to underline a point about the lies that case’s participants have created for themselves over time—including Wuornos. At one point, both Broomfield and the earlier film are subpoenaed in the appeals process, as damning footage exists showing Wuornos’s original defense lawyer (hired off a TV commercial) smoking several joints prior to appearing in court, and making offers to sell her story to the highest bidder. In another heartbreaking sequence, modern-day interview footage with Wuornos—in which she claims to have lied about her story all along and that none of the murders were self-defense—is intercut with footage of her tearful recounting of the vicious rape and beating that led to the first shooting. It’s not entirely clear why Wuornos changes her story so drastically—it may be that she had been communicating with a born-again pen pal who suggested that she confess to her sins so that she might be with God, or that she had grown tired of waiting and simply wanted to be executed. Either way it is evident that Wuornos is lying, and Broomfield knows it. By the end, Aileen has undergone yet another transformation. Though she is still unwilling to admit that the shooting of Richard Mallory—the first man killed—was self-defense (though she confesses that it was when she believes the cameras are not rolling), she has also retracted her position that all of the killings were in cold blood. She has become paranoid and posits several conspiracy theories, from claiming that the police were on to her but allowed her to continue killing for sensationalistic motives, to suggesting that she had undergone various kinds of subsonic torture in her prison cell. It is obvious that she is not mentally stable at this point, despite the fact that it takes all of 15 minutes for the court-appointed psychiatrists to determine her “mentally fit” for execution—a fact that Broomfield is quick to point out. Aileen tells the director that after 12 years on death row, she is ready to die—despite the visible fear in her eyes, we believe her. Anything this woman might have had to live for has been beaten out of her practically since birth. Wuornos developed a relationship with Broomfield over their ten-year acquaintance—she liked him, and didn’t feel that he was attempting to exploit her the way so many others had. She likes the attention, too; she’s constantly aware of the camera, smiling and fixing her hair. This may be why she granted Broomfield her final interview, taped one day before her execution and included in the film. She’s completely detached herself at this point, and only wants to discuss her conspiracy theories about the police investigation. As she does, we see her grow more hostile; it’s not until Broomfield brings up Wuornos’s mother, however, that we observe the rage that has existed in her for so many years. These are the last images we see of Aileen Wuornos. The film is at once fascinating and tragic; it simultaneously provides a compelling portrait of Wuornos and an indictment of the criminal justice system. Broomfield has more in common with, say, Michael Moore than with most other documentary filmmakers. He is an active participant in his film—appearing on camera, providing voiceover narration, and coloring the film with his personal feelings on the subject. He’s essentially telling Aileen’s side of the story, examining her past and interviewing those who knew her to compile a picture of what created the woman who murdered seven men. Though he never claims that Wuornos is innocent, it’s apparent that Broomfield does take issue with a system that seems almost doggedly determined to execute her. Columbia TriStar is releasing Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer to coincide with their release of Patty Jenkins’ Monster, last year’s Academy Award-winning film based on Wuornos’s story. The shot-on-video image looks decent but not spectacular, and much of the archival footage is grainy and blurry. The two-channel audio presentation, provided with French subtitles only, is barely passable as well. The only extras provided are a few bonus trailers, including one for Monster. One doesn’t really notice that the disc is sparse or that the technical aspects haven’t really been souped up at all, though, because the footage contained within the film is so powerful. It speaks for itself. Regardless of your personal feelings about Wuornos, I’m highly recommending this documentary. It’s probably best viewed as a companion piece to Monster, but I suggest watching that film first—allow yourself to absorb its emotional impact, then fill in the details with the factual information provided here. THE VERDICT Making any kind of sentencing comments would be in poor taste, so I’ll just say…Court is adjourned. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Sony, 89 minutes, R (2003) VIDEO: Full Frame AUDIO: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English) SUBTITLES: French EXTRAS: Bonus Trailers ACCOMPLICES: IMDB