Knowing Jack

For Detroit, You Don't Know Jack, the Kevorkian movie that was first aired by HBO last Saturday was not just a movie.

It was a major happening, one especially welcome after the city had been savaged once again by Dateline NBC just days before.

Indeed, two days before the saga of Jack the Dripper hit the airwaves, the swells and the usual suspects preened and posed and packed into the Detroit Institute of Arts for a special premiere. Even Old Jack himself was there, beaming at having been rediscovered by the media. So much so, in fact, that he dropped his recluse pose. He left his ratty Royal Oak apartment and allowed himself to be whisked off to pose with various celebrities, first in New York and then back with the homeys on Thursday night.

Critics raved over Al Pacino's uncanny ability to seemingly not just play but virtually become Kevorkian. They marveled at Susan Sarandon's ability to be — well, Susan Sarandon, ever luscious, appealing, even in the guise of an old woman with pancreatic cancer.

John Goodman played the same character he played in The Big Lebowski, in other words, himself. I would have paid serious money if the movie showed him refusing to help with a Saturday suicide on the grounds that he was Shomer Shabbas.

But you can only mingle so much camp with death. As for the rest of the cast, Danny Huston dressed up in a Geoffrey Fieger costume, and a now very fat Brenda Vaccaro played a character that was supposedly Kevorkian's doting sister Margo Janus.

This worked, because few remember Margo, who died in 1994, everybody loves Brenda, and we were all overjoyed to see her back on TV and no longer selling tampons.

What was oddest of all for me, was, well, finding out that an actor played me, or at least someone named Jack Lessenberry. This was not something I had ever imagined, and was mildly unnerving. Would the movie expose the secret ties to Enver Hoxha that motivate everything I have ever written, or perhaps the brief-but-torrid love affair with River Phoenix? I was soon put at ease.

The Jack Lessenberry in the film is not really me at all, but a blend of several journalists and a metaphor for all of them. Since the actor playing me (James Urbaniak) was younger and thinner than I am, with glossy black hair, I won't complain.

Incidentally, 20 years ago, when Kevorkian was just starting his peculiar practice, I couldn't have written this column. Back in the old days, you had to write about a made-for-TV film before it aired. Today, however, a movie is never really over, thanks to pay-per-view, DVR, the fact that things are endlessly repeated, and various other time-shifting devices. Today, someone somewhere is always watching every movie for the first time.

So a review of sorts is still relevant. And I found two things fascinating that weren't really in the movie, but which are in a sense related to it. First was the way in which Detroiters reacted to You Don't Know Jack. With few exceptions, the city — by which I mean the entire area — positively glowed.

Detroiters badly needed a national media boost, especially after Dateline NBC and former local boy Chris Hansen became the latest in a long series of shows and specials to portray Detroit as a hellhole. People took violent exception to that, in large part because, well, it contained a certain large dollop of truth. (If you doubt that, try wandering around near Six Mile and Van Dyke.)

If you might wonder why we objected to Dateline, but were ecstatic about a movie showing us as the place to come in the '90s to get a doctor to help you kill yourself, well, you don't know Detroit.

The end was bizarre: Eventually, the inventor of the suicide machine decided, in the true spirit of Henry Ford, to streamline the process and inject a patient himself. That closed his operation down, as this movie shows, and lost virtually everything he had gained. The way in which Jack Kevorkian self-destructed is perhaps the most baffling part of his saga.

Hard to remember now, but a dozen years ago, physician-assisted suicide was de facto legal in Michigan, thanks to Kevorkian's stubborn courage, the bulldog brilliance of his lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, and changing attitudes in society. Prosecutors announced they wouldn't go after Kevorkian any more. Other doctors began working with him and moving toward doing it too. But that wasn't enough for the renegade pathologist.

So he then performed euthanasia on a patient; defiantly videotaped it; and passed it on to Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes. That forced Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca to charge him. Kevorkian then fired Geoffrey Fieger, to make sure he would be convicted. He got what he wanted, and disappeared from view.

That baffling series of actions are enough to justify the title, You Don't Know Jack. The movie gets many little things wrong, and even Pacino's masterful portrayal of Kevorkian isn't perfect. His accent is that of a Yooper who has sniffed helium, and he doesn't come close to capturing Kevorkian's truly terrifying rages. Yet his overall portrait of the man is absolutely dead-on.

And as he shows, we don't know what makes Jack Kevorkian tick. Eight years after he was sent to prison. Kevorkian was finally paroled into a changed world. We'd had Sept. 11 and two wars, and killing yourself was less trendy when others were trying to kill us.

Kevorkian, despite his threats, never seriously tried to starve himself in prison. He likes being alive, hated being locked up, and when he got out, he knew that he never wanted to get back in. So the assisted suicides stopped, most likely forever.

Yet the fundamental issue, the reason Kevorkian won such broad acceptance for what he did, has never gone away.

Kevorkian's crusade was certainly responsible for a rise in the acceptance and funding of the hospice movement. Medicine started to get more serious about pain management. Today, dying men and women are seldom denied morphine when they need it.

Yet there are still many who are being kept technically alive long after life has lost all its sweetness for them. Medical science can keep them breathing, often in agony, but can't make their lives worth living. Many of them would give anything, as real patient Thomas Hyde says in the film, "to end this."

We deal with this mostly by ignoring them. Kevorkian thought they should have the choice as to whether to prolong their existences; he thought a panel of physicians should examine them to see if they were fully competent to choose to die.

Nobody would help with that, so he began doing it on his own. He's been stopped now, but there are still those who suffer — those who sensibly long to have the right to choose to die.

Doctor Death offered them a way out. Nobody since has, publicly, anyway, but my guess is that it is only a matter of time.

"There are millions of you baby boomers," Kevorkian told me once, "and fewer in the next generations. This will be recognized as a right in your time, and for the wrong reason.

"Society won't be able to afford to keep you alive."

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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