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Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 1


OLIVER SACKS: HIS OWN LIFE (2019)


Featuring Oliver Sacks, Roberto Calasso, Kate Edgar, Shane Fistell, Atul Gawande, Temple Grandin, Lowell Handler, Bill Hayes, Mark Homonoff, Anna Horovitz, Eric Kandel, Christof Koch, Robert Krulwich, Jonathan Miller, Rachel Miller, Isabelle Rapin, Jonathan Sacks, Anil Seth, Steve Silberman, Robert Silvers, Paul Theroux, Lawrence Weschler and Max Whitby.


Directed by Ric Burns.


Distributed by Zeitgeist Films. 111 minutes. Not Rated.


Screened for the 2020 ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York.


The late neurologist Oliver Sacks is best remembered for his pioneering work in brain health, and his writings about his practice and patients which gave the study of the mind the immediacy of a well-told story. He put a human face on neurological disorders.


His book Awakenings became a hit film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in 1990. His writings also spawned lesser-remembered films like At First Sight (1999) starring Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino and The Music Never Stopped (2011) with Lou Taylor Pucci, JK Simmons and Julia Ormond. Harold Pinter’s 1982 one-act play “A Kind of Alaska” was also inspired by the playwright reading the book Awakenings.


However, as pointed out by the title of this intriguing documentary (which came out four years after Sacks’ death from Cancer in 2015), Sacks’ writings were mostly about his patients. People don’t necessarily know all that much about his own life.


“I’ve been asked: are you a doctor first and then a writer?” Sacks said in some interview footage here. “I think the answer is that I’m equally both, and in important ways they blend together. In a way they can certainly be united in case histories. One way or another I’ve been turning my life into writing. Mostly my clinical life, but a certain amount of my personal life as well.”


His diagnosis with cancer and the knowledge he had months to live helped to inspire Sacks to look inward – filming these interview segments and writing a New York Times essay called “My Own Life” – while he still had the chance to explain his existence, or at least as best as he could. He had also just finished writing a memoir called On the Move – it was turned in to the publisher just two weeks before his diagnosis – so this also had him feeling introspective.


Born into a long bloodline of brilliant scientists and doctors (his mother was one of the first female surgeons in England and his father was a beloved GP), Sacks’ fascination with cognitive illness stemmed from personal experience; one of his brothers was schizophrenic and Sacks himself had some mental issues which as a young man he tried to self-medicate.


Their problems probably stemmed somewhat from the Orthodox Jewish boys’ terrible experiences at a boarding school during World War II. Sacks was also a young gay man in London in the 1950s – at a time when homosexuality was not just stigmatized but was illegal and subject to harsh punishment. That problem – and his mother’s harsh emotional rebuke upon his coming out – also had lifelong consequences on his psyche.


Sacks found himself in 1960, when on his birthday he went to the United States, and never really went back for any extended period. He found himself, emotionally and professionally. Though his career as a doctor had stumbling blocks, eventually his brilliance and his empathy and questing curiosity about his patients made him one of the giants of his field.


His Own Life shows Sacks to be an ingratiating host, a smart, funny, soft-spoken man who shares his life, career and problems generously. The smart and probing clinician who used empathy and deeper understanding of his patients as a diagnostic tool turns his probing mind on himself as a way to come to terms with his own fascinating pathway through life.


Friends, colleagues, family, patients and devotees discuss his world – professional and personal – and give us a viewpoint of a life devoted to others. However, it is Sacks himself, with his sparkling eyes, ready smile, soft British accent and slightly unkempt beard, which makes Oliver Sacks: His Own Life such intriguing viewing. He may have sometimes questioned his own motivations and accomplishments, but after seeing this film you undoubtedly will not.


(Ed. Note: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 annual ReelAbilities Film Festival New York has been changed to a virtual festival. All films and Q&As will be available for streaming. You can get information on the festival at their website https://reelabilities.org/newyork/)


Jay S. Jacobs


Copyright ©2020 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 28, 2020.

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