Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Posted on September 22, 2020 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: References and some archival footage of illness and disability
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 23, 2020

Copyright Zeitgeist 2020
I wonder what kind of case study Oliver Sacks could write about himself. The author of many books about neurological issues including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat would make a fascinating subject for clinical assessment himself. It was that book that really transformed my thinking about the highly individualized ways we perceive and process information. While he wrote about extreme cases, from the man with brain damage who lived in an eternal present, with no capacity to create new memories to the post-encephalitic “locked-in” patients portrayed in the movie “Awakenings” and Temple Grandin, who has written so eloquently herself about her autism.

Oliver Sacks has, by any measure, an unusual brain. He has face-blindedness, for example, the inability to recognize even the faces of people he knows very well. And he has an exceptionally unusual combination of the kind of deep humanity that often accompanies empathy that can make it difficult to maintain observational objectivity. But what makes him unusual is that he also has the objectivity to be an exceptional clinician. The post-encephalitic patients had sad for years without any effort to help them before Sacks, who was coming for research, not clinical practice, came up with the idea of treating them with new medication that was being used to help people with Parkinson’s. He has, one commenter tells us, “the moral audacity to think something is alive in there.”

Very significantly, we learn in this film, Sacks revitalized the concept of the medical case study, which was considered outdated in a world driven by data. The case study is like a little novel. It is about the person, not the symptoms. Early in the film, Sacks tells us that he is equally a writer and a doctor, and we can see how each plays a part in his understanding of his patients. He says the primary diagnostic question is, “How are you?” He saw the symptoms as a reflection of cognition and perception, not just a reflection of brain damage or dysfunction. And framing the patient’s experience as a story is in itself therapeutic, making the case for sympathy and imagination. “His attention would release people.” They would be “storied back into the world.”

Sacks, who sees the patients with such wholeness and compassion, is compartmentalized himself. There is not only the writer/doctor split. His middle name is Wolf, and he sees himself as both Oliver and wolf, a yin/yang brain/body divide. He has been criticized for being an observer rather than a theorist, but as Grandin points out, without observation there is nothing to theorize about. Many people had the chance to observe the post-encephalitic patients, but Sacks observed something in them no one else did, and that observation included possibility of change.

In one of his books, Sacks wrote about a patient who could “hear” words spoken but not the inflections that reveal context and emotion, so very concrete and literal, and one who was the opposite, unable to comprehend language but acutely sensitive to tone and expression, who was thus in some ways better at discerning meaning. Sacks’ own superior observational skills were in part made possible by the deficits that eliminated distracting data.

Sacks relies on the support of others in his own life, outsourcing many tasks and even emotions and relationships. He has been in psychoanalysis for half a century. He took a lot of risks and abused drugs in his 20s. He gets help from his editor and close friend on some of life’s mundane details. After a one-night-stand on his 40th birthday, he did not have sex again for 25 years, and it was not until his 60’s that he had a close, intimate romantic relationship. And. we learn, early on in the film, he has been told he has only months left to live. With the same clinical distance he showed toward his own medical issues in A Leg to Stand On, he observes himself as a patient as he creates for us “a master class in how to die.” But it is also a master class in how to live, as he says, how to live with what can’t be changed and frame it as a story to give it meaning.

Parents should know that this movie includes frank discussion of drug abuse and sex as well as depictions including archival footage of people who have serious medical challenges. There is also a reference to Sacks’ own recovery from a serious accident.

Family discussion: How did Sacks’ experience as a child affect his decisions in his career? How did being a writer and a doctor help him be better at both?

If you like this, try: “Awakenings” and Sacks’ books

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Radioactive

Posted on July 23, 2020 at 5:58 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, brief nudity and a scene of sensuality
Profanity: Mild language and sexual references
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: WWI battle scenes,
Date Released to Theaters: July 24, 2020
Copyright 2020 Amazon Studios

Biopics, even the most sincere, even about the most fascinating real-life characters, even made by directors who are willing to break with the traditional structure, still two things are true. First, the only thing that really matters is the lead performance. Second, there is really no way to get around the basic structure that all lives follow and all biopics follow except those like “Jobs” that focus one or just a few incidents. We see crucial early experiences that either reveal the subject’s special talent or some life-forming experience or both. We see struggle. We see people who foolishly do not believe our subject can succeed. We see our subject succeed.There’s usually a setback or special mid-point challenge. And then we see how it ends.

Marie Curie certainly had a fascinating life and Rosamund Pike gives her considerable best. She is never less than mesmerizing. I particularly enjoyed watching her in the first half of the movie, as we see her struggling to be taken seriously as a scientist when she knows she is better than the men who look down at her because she is a woman, because she is Polish, and because she is not shy about letting them know she is better than they are. It’s almost a proto-“Big Bang Theory,” the way that the same determination, single-mindedness, unstoppable curiosity, and relentless quest for truth that makes her a scientist is what makes it difficult for her to get along with anyone well enough to get her the resources she needs to do her experiments.

And that is when she meets Pierre Curie. He tells her he has read her work and it is brilliant. She tells him she has read his and it is very good. He offers her a space in his lab. Her insight and his ideas about how to prove her theories like two covalent bonds or a double helix. A lot happens very fast as the brilliance of her discoveries is evident when she just 32 when her paper on radium was published. But the movie stops for a dinner party so that Marie can explain her research to a non-scientist friend, and to us.

It then hurtles along, trying to cram in every crisis faced by Marie, from continued gender discrimination to being accused of adultery after Pierre’s death, when her letters to her married lover were made public by his wife. Most interesting, and worth an entire movie of its own, is her service during WWI, when she developed portable X-ray machines that saved thousands of lives and prevented needless surgery. Like the man for whom the most important scientific award in the world is named, Alfred Nobel, Marie Curie’s great achievement was responsible for incalculable benefits (we see an early cancer patient treated with radiation) and unthinkable tragedy (we see a Hiroshima resident looking up to see the Enola Gay, and the ravages of Chernobyl. This makes things a bit muddled, but Pike’s stirring performance makes us believe we get a sense of Marie Curie’s fierce intelligence and even may make us wonder about what discoveries we can make.

Parents should know that this film includes WWI battle scenes and characters who have been wounded, characters who are ill and dying and references to deaths of family members, brief rear nudity, non-explicit sexual situation, and references to adultery.

Family discussion: What do we learn from Marie’s reaction to the death of her mother? Why does this film include glimpses of events long after Marie’s death? What can we do to make sure that what we learn about and invent is used to benefit humankind and not for wars and violence?

If you like this, try: the glow-in-the-dark graphic novel the film is based on and another film about scientists and inventors, The Current War.

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Rocketman

Posted on May 30, 2019 at 5:42 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some drug use and sexual content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Extended substance abuse including drugs and alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Suicide attempt, family issues
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 31, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 26, 2019
Copyright 2019 Paramount

Elton John strides purposively down a corridor dressed in what looks like devil costume for Liberace’s Halloween party. But he is not moving toward a stage or recording studio. He is not going to sing or compose. He is going to tell his story to a different kind of audience, a support group in a drug rehab facility. And to us.

Rocketman,” produced by Sir Elton himself, is a sometimes-impressionistic retelling of the classic VH1 “Behind the Music” story of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Instead of “and then I wrote” with a chronological rehash of hits, celebrity encounters, romantic ups and downs, and AA-style amends, it is a dramatic version of a jukebox musical, with full-on dance numbers and songs that match the mood of the moment. Director Dexter Fletcher, who also finished up “Bohemian Rhapsody” after the original director was fired, wisely uses the more flamboyant elements of the story as a backdrop and keeps the camera focus on Taron Egerton (the “Kingsman” movies and “Eddie the Eagle,” also directed by Fletcher). He makes us see the energy and magnetism of Sir Elton as a performer, but it is in the most intimate close-ups that we see Sir Elton the person, vulnerable, scared, and longing to be truly accepted.

As Sir Elton tells his story to the support group, he removes the costume, a piece at a time (the horns come off first), and he reveals his own layers as well, starting with the child then known as Reg Dwight (an impressive Matthew Illesley), who lives with his distant father (when Reg asks for a hug, his father says, “Don’t be soft.”) and his self-involved mother (Bryce Dallas Howard), and his kind-hearted grandmother (Gemma Jones). Reg’s musical gifts are evident immediately; he can play anything he hears. He gets a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music (his grandmother takes him there when his mother can’t be bothered).

And then he hears Elvis, and it’s all about rock and roll. His band plays back-up for touring American acts, and he changes his name (“Elton” was nicked from a bandmate; in the movie John comes from John Lennon but in real life it was from his mentor, “Long John” Baldry). And then he answers an ad for singers and songwriters and, when he says he composes and does not write lyrics, an unopened envelope is handed to him and it turns out to be from Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot and Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool). They form a close working and personal relationship.

And then there is the breakthrough performance at LA’s legendary Troubadour club. The future Sir Elton at first refuses to leave the bathroom when he hears that musical legends are in the audience: some of the Beach Boys, Leon Russell, Neil Young. But then he comes on stage and it is magical. We see him, and then the audience literally float up into the air, an exquisitely lovely moment that perfectly translates the euphoria of the performance.

Then there is a troubled romantic and professional relationship with a new manager (smoldering Richard Madden as John Reid) and unimaginable excess as he still struggles for acceptance from his parents. In a particularly wrenching scene Sir Elton sees his father, who will not see him perform, warmly affectionate with the children of his second wife. As we return to the scene at rehab, we see him finally able to accept the love he so desperately wants.

Egerton showed us in the “Kingsman” movies that he has what it takes for the performative side of this story, but this is the first time we have had a chance to see just how sensitive and subtle an actor he is. There are moments when we can see three or four different emotions on his face at once, as in his phone call to his mother to tell her he is gay or when he is mesmerized, terrified, and flickering back and forth between being open and hiding his feelings with Reid.  In one split second he goes from drugged-out, depressed, and anxious back stage to full-on rock star as he walks out toward the audience.  It is hard to imagine there will be a better performance on screen this year.

Sir Elton wanted the focus of this story to be on his personal life and his feelings, interpreted by the music, rather than his story as a composer and performing artist. For that, of course, we have Sir Elton himself, his music videos and recordings of his live performances, and the songs which over decades have said so much.

Parents should know that this movie includes extensive substance abuse, a suicide attempt, family dysfunction, addiction issues, sexual references and situation, and very strong language.

Family discussion: What person did he want to be? Which is your favorite Elton John song? How do you like this more subjective form of storytelling?

If you like this, try: the music of Elton John and other real-life stories of musicians including “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and “Walk the Line”

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Tolkien

Posted on May 9, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Scenes of WWI battles with disturbing images, characters injured and killed, sad death of a parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 10, 2019
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019

If I had a time machine and an invisibility cloak, I would love to listen in on the conversations between two members of Oxford’s Inklings literary society, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, as they discussed the importance of myth and fantasy and shared the beginnings of their great tales of adventure, darling, and the fight against evil, set in enchanted worlds: the Lord of the Rings and the Narnia stories. These stories, which prompted a revival of fantasy in literature and other media, are so timeless it seems as if we have always known them. And yet, they are very much 20th century books, written by authors whose own lives are fascinating stories as well. We have already had two very good feature films about Lewis and his wife, Joy Gresham, both called “Shadowlands.” And now we have “Tolkien,” the story of the early life of the man who would create not just the characters and settings of Middle Earth but also the languages and even the poetry of the world of hobbits, elves, dwarves, and dragons.

The film mostly evades the usual “how I wrote” biopic boobytraps. We only briefly see the author in the midst of creation, his pen just starting the first line on a blank page. And it does not try to excite the devoted fans by throwing in a lot of clues to various details in the books. The focus of this story is on Tolkien’s life, which is a worthy story itself, especially in the way it explores how even the greatest losses are made sense of through love, through friendship, through service, and through stories that provide context and meaning.

The film moves back and forth in time between Tolkien’s youth, adolescence, college years, and wartime, with one brief “many years later” section of him married and a father, as a member of the faculty at Oxford.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (called Ronald by those close to him) is played sensitively as a teenager and adult by Nicholas Hoult. Orphaned very young, Tolkien and his brother are sent to live in a boarding house by their guardian, a priest (Colm Meany). The cold, institutional setting of their British private school is very far from the lessons they had with their devoted, imaginative mother (Laura Donnelly). But Tolkien is a gifted student and a natural at studies and rugby, and he is soon befriended by three boys who form a club with him, devoted to having tea, to, yes, fellowship, and to dreams of changing the world through art, in spite of parental efforts toward more conventional careers. One loves poetry, one loves painting, one loves music. And Tolkien loved languages. He began creating whole languages, complete with verb forms and adjectives, when he was still a child.

The other orphan at the boarding house is Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a gifted pianist who works as a companion to the lady who runs the boarding house to earn her keep. She and Tolkien are friends, then confidantes, and then, as they are becoming romantically involved, the priest tells Tolkien he must stop seeing her and go to Oxford.  He agrees.

Hoult and Collins made the Ronald/Edith relationship vital and romantic, as they spar over the sound and meaning of words or come up with a makeshift way to enjoy a performance of Wagner.  They bring life to what might otherwise might be a stodgy costume drama and to the idea of stories as a source of healing, meaning, and connection.

Parents should know that this film includes WWI battle scenes with disturbing images, including piles of bodies, sad deaths of a parent and friends, drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: If your friend formed a club, what would you call it? How can art change the world? Why was it so important to Tolkien to publish his friend’s poems? How did Tolkien’s experiences inspire his books?

If you like this, try: the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films and books

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