Empathy for subject (movie's): 5
Empathy for wife (reviewer's): 1
Greg was surprised to hear I liked Oliver Sacks: His Own Life. He said something about expecting me to think that it needed more tracking shots, which was obviously incoherent garbage (it was 6am). When I asked him to clarify, he said he thought I wouldn't like it because I'm not really into writing, which, given I write for a job, was a pretty severe slap in the face.
In truth, you don't need to be especially interested in writing - which, incidentally, honey, I am - to enjoy this film. Sacks is such a charming character, with such a fascinating life story, there is much more here than merely excerpts from his copious books.
The film hangs on his discovery that he has metastatic cancer and a prognosis of only a few months to live, which compels him to hurriedly publish his final book - a memoir - His Own Life, the content of which makes up thIs documentary.
Sacks had a difficult childhood in England, which involved his mother, a brilliant woman and one of the few female surgeons in the UK at the time, bringing home dead foetuses for him to dissect. Later, upon learning he was gay, she rejected him and he moved to the US in the hopes of finding a modicum of freedom to express his sexuality. But it was not to be, and he admits to having had no sexual life for 35 years - a reality Greg found particularly hard to believe, which probably says more about him than it does about Sacks.
What I found most endearing about Sacks and the documentary in general was his warmth and empathy, the latter of which is pinpointed by many of the film's subjects. Footage of Sacks holding and stroking the hands of his patients, and a telling scene of him affectionately interacting with a chimpanzee through the glass of its enclosure, were deeply moving. On completion I felt filled with gratitude for Sacks' life and work and the humanity with which he conducted both. He was a truly brilliant mind and heart and, most importantly, an exceptional writer. But I guess I wouldn't know anything about that.
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Oliver Sacks' great quality, at least as portrayed in this movie, was his ability to put himself in the minds of his patients. His defining diagnostic question was, "How are you?" His ability to listen and to understand what was going on in the minds of his patients was legendary. He was modern medicine's greatest empath.
This cinematic retelling of the author/neurologist's life, which ended in 2015, is narrated mostly by himself, and is fascinating for many reasons, perhaps most surprisingly because he was derided and dismissed by his scientific/academic peers after the publication of his brilliant early books of the 1970s and 80s, but was then lauded by his peers in 1990, after his first book, Awakenings, was made into a hit movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. What great and bitter irony that people who pride themselves on the importance and rigour of peer review should be so swayed by public acclaim.
At the heart of Sacks' pre-Awakenings battle with the scientific establishment had been his fondness for descriptive qualitative research over the establishment's preference for hard quantitative data. The morning after we watched Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, I addressed this issue with Zanna, making a pithy comment about how I had traditionally prostrated myself at the temple of data but had recently been undergoing a descriptivist renaissance. She responded with a very long take of her own, of which I could make no sense. It began with Lenox Hill, a reality television series she had recently watched without me, which is set partly in an American neurosurgery ward. From there, she segued into a discussion about the ethics of experiments and particularly the ethical vagaries inherent in the construction of the phrase: "First do no harm."
When it became clear I would never have any idea what she was talking about, I said: "What's that got to do with him?"
She started to answer, then said: "I don't know what I'm saying," then continued, arguably even less clearly. She walked out of the kitchen, still talking. I followed her, still not understanding. She stood in the hall. She said, "I don't know what you're not getting." I didn't know either. What was going on in her head? I could see no way of knowing.
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is in cinemas from Thursday.