Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 11, 2013

Off Label

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 11:19 pm

“Off Label”, now playing at the Cinema Village in New York and on-demand (nationwide screening info is here), is about the human guinea pig—those people forced by economic circumstances to take part in clinical trials, the first of whom is a young Asian man who became homeless after losing his job as a bus driver. Back in the sixties I knew many radicals who used to sell blood from time to time to augment the paltry wage they were making in the antiwar movement but eventually they moved on. The typical human guinea pig, like the pet he or she is named after, never gets off the treadmill.

There was a time when big pharma had free rein in exploiting prison labor for clinical trials. Jusef Anthony, an African-American victim of these Josef Mengele type experiments, states that the true nature of the drugs he was taking was never revealed to him. In addition to the $30 pay he was rewarded with pus-filled sores that broke out all over his body in Job-like fashion, not what he would have expected from a dermatology clinical trial. He thought it might have had something to do with hand lotion. It turns out that he was just one of the victims of Dr. Albert M. Kligman, a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist who was in partnership with Johnson and Johnson in developing Retin-A, a medication to treat acne. Kligman used Holmsburg Prison in Philadelphia in the same way that Mengele used Auschwitz—a place to conduct experiments on untermenschen. That Kligman was Jewish was just one of history’s ironies. When Kligman first stepped into Homsburg, he was practically delirious when he spotted “acres of skin”.

We also hear from Mary Weiss, the mother of Dan Markingson who was a student at University of Minnesota who took part in a clinical trial for Seroquel, an anti-psychotic medication. The trial was carried out under the auspices of AstraZeneca, the drug’s manufacturer in a clear case of conflict of interest. Most students dropped out after a few months but Dan stayed on mostly under duress. While he was not destitute or behind bars, he was basically coerced by his psychiatrist who warned him that unless he continued taking Seroquel he would be put in a mental institution. Unlike the other students, he had a history of psychotic episodes.

Evidently the drug only made things worse. Finally driven off the deep end, he took his life with a box-cutter. After slashing his throat, death was not coming quickly enough so he used the blade to open his abdomen. When his corpse was discovered, his hand penetrated his belly up to his wrist. As Mary Weiss put it, if he simply wanted to take his life, he would have found some other way to go. His death turned her into an activist, helping to enact “Dan’s Law” in Minnesota that prevents conflicts of interest in clinical trials.

“Off Label” is the second documentary from Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher. Their first was “October Country”, about the Mosher family itself that lives in the Mohawk Valley Region in upstate NY, a hard-scrabble area that will be familiar to Russell Banks readers.

The San Francisco Chronicle described “October Country”:

The Moshers, working-class residents of the depressed Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, suffer multiple wounds, many of them self-inflicted. The sheer quantity of trouble, parceled out among four generations, might lead you to conclude that the family is cursed. Domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, missing fathers, abortion, co-dependency, scrapes with the law – a virtual catalog of dysfunction is on view.

You can probably extract a sociological or political message from the film, but I don’t think that was the intention. This lack of an agenda seems to add to the movie’s intensity. “October Country” doesn’t have any program in mind and doesn’t ask us to do anything but simply watch and remember.

This affinity for common folk would seem to motivate everything they do. Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher are truly in the vanguard of filmmaking today.

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