In his very remarkable book, Awakenings, neurologist Oliver Sacks recounts his long work in the 1960s with sufferers of post-encephalitic Parkinsonianism, a bizarre disorder that physically immobilizes or freezes its victims for decades, usually barring them from self-expression and rudimentary communication. For these forgotten souls, lost in "abysses of affliction," surprising in warehouse-like mental hospitals, Sacks initiated treatment with the the "miracle drug" L-dopa (xxvii). The results, as the book's title suggests, were nothing short of amazing. Sacks' recounting of the medical origins and workings of the disease transfixes the reader (Sacks' book was a best-seller of sorts), but ultimately more is afoot there than high-tech therapy and super-doctors. For as much as Sacks is engrossed and expert in detailing causes, symptoms, and consequences of this puzzling disease, his chief fascination is with what he calls "the full needs and feelings of patients" and the "landscapes of being in which these patients reside" both of which he deems worthy of "metaphysical attention" (xviii, xix). After all, as Sacks claims, it is to the patients themselves, as individual stricken people, and decidedly not as medical challenges or ingenious cures, has fallen the task, "through no fault or wish of their own," of exploring the unimaginable "depths, the ultimate possibilities of being and suffering" which life harbors (273). And in these journeys came great ecstasies and desolations, barely fathomable by residents of conventional health and "normalcy." In the end all Sacks knows is that the usual storehouse of medical pathologies, mechanistic in the extreme, do not begin to account for the wonders encountered by his crew of sufferers.
A like sense of profound wonder and amazement, of a "metaphysical attention" approaching enchantment before the mysteries and potentialities of life, is these days finding its way into, of all places, a few Hollywood releases. Perhaps the most notable of these, although maybe not the most satisfying, is the film version of Oliver Sacks' book. This past winter appeared Meg and Lawrence Kasdan's sober and reflective Grand Canyon. Very much a middle-aged film, so to speak, it scrupulously explored notions of meaning and, believe it or not, such terms as "miracle" in response to the ragtag banes and blessings of ordinary life. The effects of everyone's psychological detritus got their due in Barbra Streisand's adaptation of Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides. Perhaps such scenarios make good fodder for screenplays, or the yuppies of the nation have reached a fit age for contemplating themselves, their mortality, and "what it all means." Whatever the case, the news these filmmakers report is that, surprise, life is an exquisite and irreplaceable gift, so replete with meaning and delight that its contemplation elicits nothing so much as deep gratitude.
The trouble is that over and over again in these films, as maybe in real life, it takes the fearsome prospect of death (or some close kin thereof) to provoke even minimal apprehension of life's inmost nature. Indeed, and sad to say, war and sickness have historically proven the best agents for instigating a life-loving metaphysical embrace. In war films, as in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, dominant emphasis has usually fallen on the horrors of war that imperil the goodness of the ordinary. More often we run into tales of illness and death, no doubt because these subjects are regular and constant, and these stories seem to set out fuller portraits of health, a nebulous condition whose real benefits we fail to appreciate until we totter on the brink of loss. If the hard truth be known, then, it often takes pain and death to scare life and jubilation into us. The scary prospect of pain and death can bring light and gladness to spirits dark or numb, as was the case with Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich. For most everyone, only the jolting confrontation with illness and mortality proves sufficient to alert one, down to socks and soul, to the inexpressible glory of ordinary human life and love. As in the Divine Comedy, the soul-self has to go through hell to find life abundant. And that, to be sure, is not a bad trip for any book, or as we have here, two flicks derived from books, films that really shake people up—both on the screen and in the seats.
The film Awakenings is, as it says at the outset, "based on a true story," and as a whole it illustrates well what Hollywood thinks it must supply to keep an audience: namely, increase mystery and romance so the story looks a lot like, to put it somewhat harshly, "the miracle worker goes on a date" or "medical sleuth finds romance." It is surely clear by the evidence of this film that Hollywood, that amorphous money-making crew out in earthquake land, does not think commonplace experience of reality of sufficient interest to hold anyone's attention for very long. There is in this attitude both poverty of soul and enormous condescension toward ordinary people who they deem incapable of mustering sensible understanding of the import of their own lives. With Awakenings, there is some irony in this, for it offers a good example of how far Hollywood, not trusting its own instincts (and a lot of other people's money), will go to dress up a film whose very "message" argues vehemently against any such approach.
Both the book and the screenplay take us to the humble confines of the ward for the chronically insane at Mt. Carmel Hospital in New York City. Here all the heroes-to-be have been in various stages of sleep for many years, sometimes decades. The film follows a withdrawn and socially inept psychiatrist and brain researcher, Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams), who seems to be some facsimile of Oliver Sacks. The shy shrink signs on to work in a hospital because he cannot find laboratory work and is ill-suited for regular "people work." To enhance viewer interest still further, the filmmakers make Sayer a brilliant diagnostician who cracks the whole riddle of a peculiar catatonia manifest in a variety of patients. In fact, the sort of knowledge he comes across in the film had long been established, but having Sayer come upon it makes the whole story more dramatic (a lot like Oliver Stone in JFK compacting the work of countless assassination investigators into the oration of Jim Garrison). However, as Sacks himself applauds, the film does excel in its portrait of the victims of a "post-encephalitic disorder of far greater complexity, severity, and strangeness" than had before been imagined possible, for while bodies fell immobile, minds remained unimpaired (xxx).
Between 1916-27 some five million people suffered sleeping sickness, and some few of these developed, often years or decades later, acute Parkinsonianism. The book fully details the horrible physical consequences of the disease but is more concerned with the victims' experience of their own disease and what happens under L-dopa.
Again, differing from the book for the sake of drama, the film casts the patients as completely unreachable and unexpressive, and it is Sayer's good fortune to discover a full and remarkably sane mental life behind their silence. After Sayer's medical sleuthing tracks the mysterious cause, the strange aftereffects of encephalitis, the film begins to assume its full measure of poignancy as Sayer struggles to reach the healthy minds that he alone suspects are merely locked in a mysterious mental prison. Firm in his hunches, he seeks his superiors' grudging permission to experiment with a wonder drug for victims of Parkinson's disease, a common neurological disorder that destroys muscle control. He first tries L-dopa on Leonard Lowe (Robert DeNiro), who in the film had fallen "asleep" in his teens and by 1969 had been so for thirty years (actually he was almost thirty when hospitalized and had just about finished a doctorate in literature at Harvard; throughout his illness he was able to read and communicate by indicating letters on a small letter board).
Miraculously, in both film and book, under the medicants of L-dopa, Lowe emerges to full healthy consciousness and in a short time attains what seems to be complete normalcy. He plunges into life with relish, as if to make up for lost decades. On the basis of Lowe's recovery, Sayer wins permission to treat others with L-dopa, and they too blossom like long-dormant flowers brought into the light. Amid all these abundant miracles of recovery (again compacted in the film), Leonard becomes something of a prophet to normal folks, including Malcolm Sayer, who takes for granted much of the grand gift of life. Leonard lives and preaches the sheer goodness and "wonderment" of life in ordinary things—friends, walks, books, and even romance. And so do his awakened compatriots, although they seem to have more trouble accepting the loss of so much of their lives and loves. Surely these are the most striking moments in the film, but they pale before Leonard's exquisite savor of being as captured in Sacks's prose:
Everything about him filled him with delight; he was like a man who had awoken from a nightmare or a serious illness, or a man released from entombment or prison, who is suddenly intoxicated with the sense and beauty of everything round him ... Mr. L. was drunk on reality—on sensations and feelings and relations which had been cut off from him, or distorted, for many decades. ... He read the "Paradise" now—during the previous twenty years he had never got beyond "Inferno" or "Purgatorio"— with tears of joy on his face; "I feel saved," he would say, "resurrected, reborn. I feel a sense of health amounting to Grace ... I feel like a man in love." ... [the] diary which he started to keep at the time was full of expressions of amazement and gratitude. (208-09)
Words, it seems, venture only so far, and while the film evokes the same, it hoards cinema's resources in evoking Leonard's new life, however brief it proved to be. While its portrayal is moving, director Penny Marshall's rendition of Leonard's new-found ecstasy of being is sadly very tame. The screenplay and the director might have presented far more of Leonard's radical embrace of the gladness of ordinary being. In any case, the tale progresses, and for Leonard and the others, the new bright flame of being flickered and then very painfully ebbed as the drug lost its potency. After two weeks on L-dopa, Leonard began to suffer countless side-effects from the drug. These calamities ranged from assorted torturous body spasms to paranoia and all-consuming lust, the latter two psychological distresses entirely neglected by the film. For these reasons, Leonard would eventually opt to eschew further experimentation with wonder drugs. Having had his fill of glory and misery, he would, so to speak, live quietly.
Awakenings sets forth its portrait of human interconnectedness very nicely. As chronicled by Sacks in an appendix to the 1990 edition of his book, Robert De Niro mastered, with scholarly persistence and acumen, the demanding role of Leonard, and Robin Williams managed to submerge his effervescent lunacy into the shy physician. The story moves nicely, although it feels contrived as the movie makers labor to imbue the tale with, as Sacks describes it in his book, "the emotion, the excitement, and with something akin to enchantment, even awe" that it possessed in real life. Those who have read the remarkable original account by psychiatrist-writer Oliver Sacks, the model for Sayer, will no doubt be disappointed not with the film's desire to capture this mood but with the irksome predictability of its sentimental strategies (overdone music and photography, to name two).
Nonetheless, this quiet film sets forth a remarkable story, and on top of that, dares to tell audiences, albeit tamely, what that story might mean. That is, we should care for one another, even when impractical; that life comes full of surprises; and that life was meant to be something good and grand, full of relish, delight, and gratitude. Admittedly, this implausible scenario resembles the sort of fanciful stuff that comes in fairy tales. Nonetheless, contends Sacks, "real life" at times does hold real surprises, sad and glorious ones alike. The marvel of Awakenings as film and book, especially the latter, is that the story amply captures both the tragedy and healing that together spell the life of the human spirit on this globe. In this we can take hope: As Sayer says to a group of visitors at the film's end, there is in each human self a "spirit," and no disease or chemical can extinguish its desperate will to live and walk whole in the sunshine.
If the film of Awakenings makes less of, tames and diminishes, its source material, The Doctor makes much more of its somewhat meager source, a 1988 medical memoir by Edward Rosenbaum (originally titled A Taste of My Own Medicine). In the film, a middle-aged cardiac surgeon, a quick-cut hotshot, gets a sore throat that turns out to be cancer. Expert, elegant, and successful (quite the opposite from Malcolm Sayer), Dr. Jack MacKee (the splendid William Hurt) loves his profession, and himself in it, singing and bantering with his cohorts during surgery. At first, the viewer cannot exactly tell whether Jack's infectious demeanor— handsome, charming, jaunty, and witty—stems from love of life or from arrogance. On one hand, he knows he has the good life, at least contemporary America's version of it, and he seems downright determined to enjoy it. On the other hand, he thinks he deserves it because he knows he is good at what he does. A nagging cough brings him to a colleague, who coolly drops news of a growth on his vocal chords. While radiation therapy cures most such lesions, the chance remains that this one might require a dangerous surgery that could, even if successful, leave him voiceless. Worse still, there is the prospect, however slight, that nothing will work and that this, indeed, is the beginning of the end.
The invincible healer becomes a patient, and he does not like it very much. It is only in this regard that the film takes its inspiration from the book. While very scary, the disease is hardly the problem. Just as bad, seemingly, is the indignity of being a patient. Once god-like atop his medical Olympus, MacKee now suffers hospital waiting rooms and colleagues' often rude indifference. In short, finitude confronts MacKee in more ways than one. Much to its praise, and faithful to the Rosenbaum memoir, the film effectively hauls us through the series of emotional and physical shocks that being a patient entails. Symbolic of this complete assault is an enema mistakenly administered to MacKee, and he cannot talk to fend off the medical swat-team that invades his room. Mildly funny in the film, a last humiliation for the once-arrogant doctor, the event parallels increased emotional vulnerability. The decline in power culminates when Jack finds that radiation treatments have not worked, and he now faces perilous surgery. Assailed by disease, sick unto death physically and emotionally, fast Jack does not know what to do with himself. And it is here that the film begins to supply depths of soul-searching and contemplation that are entirely lacking in the source.
Either out of habit or simple pride, the insular, self-glorying doctor cannot turn to his long-suffering wife, whom he has kept at a cordial arm's length. Nor does his long-ignored pubescent son offer much hope for solace. Into this self-made void comes another patient, one facing certain doom from inoperable brain cancer. Predictably, the helper is an attractive young woman (don't the old or other males have anything credible to say to confused young men?). Appropriately named June, a seasonal token of new life, she shows Jack the way to relish and intimacy (we can at least be thankful that this message is imparted without the complications of romance, although they flirt with the idea of flirtation). Some reviewers have found the June subplot cheap corn, but it does allow for fine images of how life should indeed be lived, images that assert that life is a gift to be savored rather than frittered or ego-tripped. Indeed, as the plot suggests, for awhile before her death, June becomes a kind of angel who flits into Jack's life before disappearing. For her, as one gorgeous shot argues, life is a dance that hears music from deep within the inmost recesses of being. After such news, Jack sets out to fix a lot of bad things in his life: bedside demeanor, colleagues, marriage, medical education, and so on. The point is that his frailty, and the grace of June, have taught him how to feel and love. And so happily ends the film.
To be sure, the central plot device in these two films is a cliche—at least, of sorts. Loss and ill-health sober the soul enough to contemplate the sheer sensate and relational goodness of ordinary life, the irreplaceable good gift and wonderment of being alive. Very often, it seems, only the grim prospect of losing everything prods well-encased souls to love the least anything. And then, too, sometimes the best gifts come when and where we least expect them. Staring at death and oblivion, all that we take for granted and seldom pause to relish becomes new and fresh—suddenly of vital importance. That sort of hard-won recognition is as old as Odysseus and Joseph, and in the late nineteenth century Tolstoy rendered its classic formulation in the harrowing Death of Ivan Ilyich, a starkly rich tale of terminal illness and new life. Like the assorted characters in these films, most everybody languishes for lack of some firm realism about the costs and gifts of life, death, and sleepwalking. The prospect of mortality can, by God's good grace, prove an ultimate tonic for being, awakening one and all into fervent delight in the majesty of human life.