You Don't Know Jack: We Need to Have a Bigger Conversation

An early exchange between Janet Good and Jack Kevorkian neatly lays out their essential difference (the ways they share themselves with the world) and their most important mutual conviction, that those who suffer horribly have a right to choose how and when they die.

You Don't Know Jack: We Need to Have a Bigger Conversation

Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Al Pacino, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Danny Huston, Brenda Vaccaro
Network: HBO
Airtime: Saturday, 9pm ET

"If you're going to come to my home, you're going to have to dress more cheerfully." When Janet Good (Susan Sarandon) first meets Jack Kevorkian (Al Pacino) in You Don't Know Jack, she actually does know who he is. President and founder of the Michigan Hemlock Society, Janet is aware he advocates assisted suicide, something of a next step from Hemlock's protocol, which includes establishing advance directives. And so, when Jack asks if he can use her home to help his first patient die, she's okay with that. But, she insists, he needs to wear something other than his dowdy sweater and rumpled coat.

This first moment between Jack and Janet comes early in Barry Levinson's determinedly moving, sometimes provocative film, which premieres 24 April on HBO. And it neatly lays out their essential difference (the ways they share themselves with the world) and their most important mutual conviction, that people have a right to choose who they die. While Jack says repeatedly that he doesn’t care how others see him or the media portray him (a proclamation the film challenges), Janet is careful to look nice and be polite, to put people at ease.

This difference allows the film to compare approaches and raise questions about Jack's notorious rough edges, without necessarily judging him. Janet is lovely and sensitive, smart and insistent. Jack, for all his shrewdness and moral righteousness, remains remote, difficult, and complicated. He's not quite unknown, but he is a puzzle, one the film presents with a mix of fascination, bemusement, and occasional awe, but doesn’t pretend to solve.

Janet identifies that puzzle when she first visits Jack at his home. They've had a falling out and she's come to make amends ("We need to have a bigger conversation"); he makes her a sandwich. She tries to understand his anger and his singular drive, already the stuff of headlines following his first patient, a woman with Alzheimer's he helped to die in the back of his Volkswagen van. As they sit across from one another at his kitchen table, Janet tells her story, of watching her mother "tortured" in a nursing home, dying with bedsores and "her mind gone." Visibly shaken as she remembers all this, Janet asks Jack, gently, "Who was it for you, your mother or your father? I don’t see any pictures anywhere of anybody."

Her observation is key. Though Jack works closely with his sister Margo (Brenda Vaccaro) and a medical supply firm owner, Neal Nicol (John Goodman), both of whom assist him in his assisting. But as much as they all believe in the cause, that is, helping patients to die with dignity, Jack resists advice, resists intimacy, and resists support he doesn’t specifically solicit. Sometimes, he sounds willfully ignorant, insisting that his focus on the single patient trumps all other concerns. "What do we care about the media?" he defies Margo, as they're deciding who to accept as a first case. She makes the reasonable point, "We have to be very careful about our purpose, our purpose is important."

That purpose, the film submits, comes with a tangle of questions, moral, spiritual, technical, and medical -- not to mention legal. Margo finds a medical malpractice lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger (Danny Huston), she's spotted on TV. Fieger further expands the context for assisted suicide, asserting that it is not a crime but rather, a civil rights issue. As such, Fieger determines it needs to be promoted, at first via local radio and newspapers, then Barbara Walters and the New York Times. In this effort, Jack's cantankerous and frankly odd self-presentation is alternately helpful and risky. Fieger and Margo listen raptly as Jack tells a radio host (who introduces him as "Dr. Death") how his machine, the Mercitron, dispenses carbon monoxide. "Gas inhalation always leaves the deceased with a rosy colorful afterglow," Jack declares, at which point the host suggests their chat is getting "ghoulish."

This sort of question comes up repeatedly in You Don't Know Jack, when and where lines exist or might be crossed. Sometimes these are rendered in emotional terms, as when Jack interviews potential patients: their pleas appear in video footage, with occasional cuts to Margo behind the camera, documenting their wishes for later use in the DA's office (one striking shot has the camera image reflected in her sizeable glasses, her own moist eyes indicating how hard it is to see clearly what's right, what's legal, and what's humane). These images turn up again later in Oakland County prosecutor Dick Thompson's (Cotter Smith) office or courtrooms. The lawyers seeking to stop Kevorkian are repeatedly stymied by such moving displays of pain and pleas for help: jury members' tearful faces become shorthand here for the effectiveness of Feiger's courtroom strategies.

The film notes as well some of Jack's own tactics, which range between sensational (he arrives at one hearing with a powdered wig and a wooden stock on his neck, to show his contempt for the state's resort to medieval "common law" to charge him) and heartbreaking.

Again and again, death scenes show his tenderness with patients, indicating his sincere commitment to patients' needs; tight, fidgety close-ups suggest their anguish and his commiseration, even as he focuses on the logistics of his role. The film repeatedly cuts to corpses after, titled by name and patient number, in washed out colors, sometimes followed by police arrivals, with lights and sirens. This device works a couple of ways, acknowledging the argument against Kevorkian, that he only used his patients to achieve his own social and political ends, but also contrasting with his own sincere interactions with patients -- a hand to a cheek, a gaze into dying eyes. Even as the movie resists knowing Jack, it does, like Janet, assume his best intentions.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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