Monday, March 30, 2020

ReelAbilities ‘20: Oliver Sacks—His Own Life

Oliver Sacks died in 2015, but watching a documentary profile at such times as these can only make us wonder of what he would have made of the age of the CCP-virus, a.k.a. COVID-19. The practice of social distancing probably would have pained him, but he would surely be doing his part as a medical doctor (thank you medical professionals and first responders). Sacks did not live long enough to witness the pandemic Xi-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed allowed to escape early detection in Wuhan to infect the world, but he had time to see his writings embraced by an initially skeptical medical community and to take stock of his life and career in Ric Burns’ Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, which “screens” as part of this year’s ReelAbilities Film Festival New York—now presented online.

Burns gives Sacks the full biographical treatment, tracing the psychological and emotional impact of his schizophrenic brother’s struggles during his formative years. His complicated relationship to his mother, who probably never really accepted Sacks’ sexuality, also features prominently. Although these issues clearly contributed to Sacks’ bouts with depression, they arguably helped make him such an unusually empathetic doctor.

Ironically, the book most responsible for Sacks’ fame, Awakenings, was initially a modest seller that made Sacks almost a pariah amongst the neurological establishment. His hide-bound peers simply refused to believe he had produced such dramatic results administering L-Dopa to patients in an apparent locked-in neurological state. They didn’t really change their mind until the Hollywood movie co-starring jazz legend Dexter Gordon was released.

Burns and Sacks’ colleagues do a nice job explaining how many of Sacks’ concepts and practices were so far ahead of his time. The study of what constitutes “consciousness” concerned Sacks long before Nobel Laureate Francis Crick started consulting him on the subject.

On the other hand, Burns’ film has a rather perverse fascination with Sacks’ sex life and bodily functions. There are frank passages would have better left in Sacks’ memoir. Maybe these will be excluded from the broadcast version that will eventually air on PBS, which would be appropriate. As it is, the festival cut won’t be suitable for educational use either, except maybe at Summerhill and its imitators.

Regardless, for mature adults, there is a lot of interesting material in Burns’ film that fully puts his career into proper scientific and literary contexts. It is always a shame to lose such a gifted mind, but Sacks did his best to exit with grace. It is a nice profile, but a tighter focus and running time would have made it stronger overall. Recommended for Sacks’ readers and admirers, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life has its online screening this Wednesday (4/1), during this year’s ReelAbilities NY.