They drilled my scalp for the ninth brain surgery and I had skull pain for a month, a kind of vibrating, an almost humming in my ears. For my first surgery, they cut into my hours-old back and removed parts of my spine that were malformed. They removed staples holding my guts in with an actual staple remover, and counted it down like a game for me as a nine-year-old. I woke up from anesthesia temporarily blind. I’ve had foot surgery ten times, and was sent home after the first with a blood puddle under said foot that was deemed “normal post-op bleeding” by the doctor. He was wrong – it was not normal and that would not heal properly, if at all, for some years, to where my body would not let it close because, I don’t know, it liked the whole “raw hamburger” look. In the darkest of times, I turned to these wounds, talked to them even, but they would simply stare back, unblinking, and say nothing about the pain they caused.
This is an odd way to talk about movies, but there it is. Specifically, I’d like to talk about Gore Verbinski’s brilliantly lunatic A CURE FOR WELLNESS and how it’s tangle of horror aesthetics and story drove me to think less about its socio-politics creeping in the narrative shadows, which were dead-on, and more about the relationship between suffering and hope.
A CURE FOR WELLNESS tells the story of Lockhart, a financial upstart of questionable ethics, who travels to Switzerland to retrieve the CEO of his company before an important merger. The CEO has been, let’s say confined, to a health spa run by Dr. Volmer, who presents a cure for man’s modern ills. It has something to do with water. And eels.
Oh, the eels.
The movie uses Kubrickian motifs of empty spaces and almost kabuki-like performances to convey unease and burgeoning dread. Lockhart finds himself in a growing hallucinatory state due to his time in the hospital after an accident makes him a patient. From there, he uncovers more and more of the hospital’s dark secrets and realizes he is trapped unless he finds a way out so as to break the cycle of cures being administered to him and the other patients, people of industry who have come to the bucolic spot to rid themselves of sickness, that which keeps them prisoners in a fog of unfulfilled expectations.
I thought about my own fog banks, respite from the physical discomfort at least, and the excruciating fire around my body at most. I was told again and again these procedures would make me better. The suffering would make me better. So, I spent a good deal of my childhood in a cycle of hospital-recovery-hospital-repeat. Sometimes, it was not a childhood at all. Everyone would smile and nod and not understand.
What I came to find, as Dr. Volmer puts it at film’s end, is how suffering is essential to us as human beings because it breeds hope. Hope keeps us going. In one sense, Volmer points out the need to cure man (and woman) of ambition, ambition that only hurts us and the people around us. In an age where government seems to be on the verge of collapse, and the things we may have believed in – God, country, financial security, are failing us, it would be easy to drift away. Volmer, and by extension Verbinski, suggests we are addicted to the cycle of pain and anesthetization, but we are fooling ourselves if there is any real cure for what ails us. I find this cynicism somewhat at odds with the fact this movie exists at all. The very articulation of this movie is an act of hope. It simple takes 146-sometimes-pushing-minutes of complete insanity to articulate it. You see? Hope through pain.
With all of my own suffering, both physical and spiritual, I have wondered how I’ve tumbled through that same cycle. After close to thirty surgeries, what could be left to fix? Having spent so much time on my back, I have asked the universe how long the pain will last. Is this the sum total of a life? The universe always says the same thing: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. So, quit your bellyaching.” When I’m through with said bellyaching, I find art and communication, the not-staying silent in one’s despair to be the ultimate meaning, far greater than a scalpel to the neck or a spike in the arm.
Is there hope? I’m not sure. I don’t have much luck with it, because hope feels too ephemeral and I’m allergic to preciousness. I prefer the courage it takes to bite down on whatever bullet I need to bite down on and say, “Give me your best shot.” It can suck, if I’m being honest, but through that white hot bolt of pain I know fades, I have found a reason to get on with it. It’s about movies, or people, or music, or animals – anything that reminds one of what doesn’t hurt, what is just down the other side of Mt. Suffering. Those things are very real and look a lot like life. Like a cure.