Film Review by Robert Abrams
Review of Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, documentary directed by Ric Burns (Steeplechase Films, USA, 2019)
Screening for one night only special event in UK and Irish cinemas on 29th September. For tickets and more information, https://www.altitude.film/movies/tag/coming-soon
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life bears the key hallmarks of a Ric Burns biographical film production. These include expert commentary on the singular originality of his subject’s achievements, and an elegant and moving compilation of reflections from the people who knew, worked with, or loved the person. The structure of this film alternates vignettes of Dr. Sacks’s personal history with insights into the genesis of his celebrated career. But what makes viewing Oliver Sacks: His Own Life a memorable experience is the way the biographical and scientific elements are thoughtfully fused in the film’s editing.
The feeling that results from this fusion can be compared to the conclusion of a lengthy psychoanalysis, such as the one that Dr. Sacks explains that he has undergone. At the end of a successful psychoanalytic treatment there is often an awareness of retrospective inevitability: The past successes or failures in a person’s life now seem to make sense because they are recognized to be genuinely one’s own. For Dr. Sacks, the psychoanalytic influence led less to a process of change than to a journey of self-acceptance.
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Nevertheless, it is the scientific sequences that are among the most interesting and revealing in the film. We learn how in his first published book, Awakenings (Duckworth & Co., London, 1973), the young neurologist described the course of post-encephalitic patients after treatment with L-Dopa: first the astounding restoration of movement, speech and cognition, in some cases after periods of 40 years of being “locked-in,” but also the subsequent tribulations and suffering of these individuals. After that, Dr. Sacks never stopped writing, even though for many years his work was largely ignored in academic medical circles. A Leg to Stand On (Summit Books, New York, 1984) recounted his own experience of neurological disconnection with an injured leg after a skiing accident. This was followed by a collection of case histories of agnosias, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Summit Books, New York, 1985), its stories all told from the perspective of patients’ lives.
By the last 15 years of his life, he had achieved longed-for acceptance by the academic medical establishment, ironically with the critical success of a popular film based on Awakenings. Dr. Sacks’s creative and scientific contributions continued to appear, increasing in number, depth and importance. His longstanding focus on personal human encounters with illness expanded to yield remarkable advances, eventually exploring the fundamental nature of consciousness. But his work always began and ended with the power of clinical observation.
It is the biographical segments of the film that attempt to answer inevitable questions about how this sometimes insufferable “misfit,” as he was often described by medical colleagues, developed the creative imagination to do the work that he did, and in the special way that he did it. From where did he find the motivation to uncover mysteries that lurk in the depths? How did he manage to transcend the distance that separates doctors from their patients and learn to live in their worlds, reaching what is for most an unachievable, if not unbearable closeness?
It is suggested that his brother’s sudden onset of schizophrenia, a frightening time in Oliver’s childhood, led him to retreat to solitary pursuits. It is also implied that his self-consciousness about being gay made him feel alienated, never wholly acceptable to others, and inclined to see the world differently than the compact majority. The pervasively negative self-image he bore was devastatingly confirmed by his mother’s rejection when he finally revealed to her that he was gay. The social stigma of homosexuality in the 1950s and early 1960s was thought by some to further confound Dr. Sacks’s private conflicts about sexuality, contributing to the aloneness, amphetamine abuse, extreme bodybuilding, and dare-devil hellraising in which he was engaged for most of his young adulthood. To this viewer, the single flaw in an otherwise psychologically sophisticated film was the failure to connect Dr. Sacks’s striking avoidance of intimacy in his personal life with the compensatory way he explored and deeply inhabited the lives of his patients.
The culminating development of Dr. Sacks’s life comes as a surprise—both to himself and to the viewer. Without revealing the details, the effect of this unexpected coda can be described as a healing integration of many of the disparate aspects—creative, exuberant, excessive, self-destructive—of Dr. Sacks’s personality. He jokes that his lengthy psychoanalysis is finally complete, but there is a serious measure of satisfaction in his humor.
For Dr. Sacks, emotional healing was to prove timely. In an unfortunate turn of events, he would soon face the prospect of imminent death from metastatic melanoma. But now fortified, the consummate story-teller of others’ lives would leave a frank and open account of his own life in Ric Burns’s documentary film, begun only days after he had been informed of his fatal prognosis in 2015.
In a twist of fate, the man who had seemed to court death in his youth would also bequeath to the world a model of dying. Anticipating the ideal death as a “sabbath” of reflection and understanding, in some of the last frames of the film, Dr. Sacks tells a tearful gathering of his friends and colleagues exactly how he wished to die: “I hope I can work and plan and love and be conscious and be myself to the end—or almost to the end.”