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September 24, 2020


produced by: Kathryn Clinard, Leigh Howell, Bonnie Lafave, Katie O’Rourke, Nathalie Rosa, Greg Sorin & Ingmar Trost
directed by: Ric Burns
rating: not rated
runtime: 111 min.
U.S. release date: September 25, 2020 (virtual cinema)


If you don’t think you know who Oliver Sacks is, yet you’ve seen Penny Marshall’s 1990 drama “Awakenings”, then you have an idea who is and what he’s done. That Oscar-nominated drama was based on Sack’s 1973 memoir of the same name and starred Robin Williams as a fictionalized version of the British neurologist at a time in his life when he was treating catatonic patients in a Bronx hospital. The new documentary, “Oliver Sacks: How Own Life”, reminded me that “Awakenings” was inspired from real life and after watching it I felt awakened myself, leaving with a better understanding and appreciation of who Sacks was. He may have died in 2015 at age 82, but director Ric Burns’ presents a fascinating and thoughtful man who is still impacting many today, and the way in which the voice of Sacks is incorporated throughout the documentary makes it seem like the physician and prolific author is indeed still alive.

Burns bookends the film with an important moment in Sacks life and its a point in time that’s revisited as the film unfolds, becoming more poignant as we learn about what he has experienced and endured, as well as what he has observed about the human mind.



In early 2015, surrounding by friends and collaborators in his Greenwich Village apartment – such as his longtime editor Kate Edgar and his partner, New York Times contributor Bill Hayes – designed to celebrate the publication of what would be his last memoir and second autobiography, On the Move: A Life, Sacks confirmed what many of already them knew: that liver cancer would end his life in a matter of months. That revelation, told in such a matter-of-fact manner, pulls the audience in a little closer and as this eccentric figure reflects on what has transpired in his full life, it’s hard not to be moved and impressed by his straightforward nature and affable demeanor.

What we begin to realize is that the title of his final memoir and this documentary, and the essay My Own Life Sacks wrote for the New York Times published in February 2015, all indicate that Sacks and a reader could look at his life in the same inquisitive and curious manner in which he looked at the lives of others. He viewed everyone as unique and extraordinary. All three memoirs are include “Life” and while they may focus on Sacks reflections and illuminations on his own life, what this documentary infers is that Sacks’ life in many ways resembled the peculiar and often misfit lives of those he studied. As Sacks can be heard recounting his past, Burns weaves talking head interview moments from family, colleagues, patients, and close friends (including Jonathan Miller, Robert Silvers, Temple Grandin, Christof Koch, Robert Krulwich, Lawrence Weschler, Roberto Calasso, Paul Theroux, and Atul Gawande, among others) and combined they paint a multi-layered picture of a man fascinated with not only what makes people tick but how to put it all into words.

There were times when Sacks’ use of words was the only outlet that would draw the attention of his work to others. Just about everyone else in the medical community thought the way in which he interacted with patients was irreverent and he was often accused of making things up. Instead of a quick diagnosis or writing off a prescription, Sacks preferred to navigate the interior of a human mind, starring into their eyes and knowing there was much more going on internally than even the individual was aware of. It’s fitting then that in presenting Sacks’ life, Burns isn’t out to say his subject was one way or another, instead foregoing the typical biographical approach and treating Sacks like the he would treat his patients, allowing him to open up and share his life and what he has learned about himself and others.




What’s most interesting is how atypical Sacks’ life was considering the conceptions typically associated with that of a psychoanalytical neurologist. Like the rest of us, much of who Sacks was known as started out in his childhood, which brought its own struggles, confusion and challenges. He was born to Jewish parents in England in 1933, the youngest of four children, whose mother would become the first female surgeon in England. Oliver would become especially close to his mother (and was crushed when she died in 1972) and would develop a protective bond with his brother Michael, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was a shy boy who was more interested in numbers, minerals, elements and plants, over people. His relationship with his mother became strained when at age 18 he determined he was gay. When she found out, she deemed him an “abomination” and wounded him with the clichéd line, “I wish you’d never been born!” As these memories surface for the octogenarian, there is a degree of understanding and forgiveness for his mother, knowing that here was a woman who considered two sons lost to her, one a schizophrenic and one a homosexual. At the same time, Sacks shares how those words haunted him for much of his life, proving to be the source of his inhibitions and injecting him with a sense of guilt of his sexuality. It would increase his shyness, insecurity, and timidity – even to the point of developing his own homophobia.

To counter these feelings, he turned to weight-lifting, hoping the outer strength he developed would also boost his inner weaknesses. While he went to medical school at Oxford University, Sacks still needed a change and left London in 1960 for Canada where he tried put a position as a medical researcher. Eventually, he made his way to San Francisco in 1966, which became the right place and time for a motorcycle-riding bodybuilder in black leather. He thrived in that environment, continuing to sculpt his body (at one point he could bench-press 660 pounds), yet would also find himself developing an addiction to amphetamines, often discovering the drugs would enhance his perception of the mind, but it would inevitably take a toll on his work. Because he was often high, he was incorrigible to be around on the job. The drugs enhanced his usual loose cannon approach to patient protocol and eventually he made the decision to ditch the drugs and found a psychiatrist (someone who’d become an integral presence in his life for the next 50 years) whose straightforward delivery was beneficial to Oliver.

His writing became a necessary form of catharsis, like an artist who simply had to apply paint to canvas. His work could be stream of consciousness poetry to well-researched prose. While his second book, the aforementioned Awakenings wasn’t a big hit, his other writings such as his frequent contributions to The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and numerous other medical and scientific publications, earned him an audience that turned into a fanbase that birthed acolytes and inspired many to pursue neurology for their own career paths. He would become known for collecting accounts of his patients into books with catchy names, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales and An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, which would often give a voice and a personality to individuals with Tourette Syndrome and Parkinson’s disease, who would generally be discarded by humanity or pigeonholed by the medical community. His empathetic and compassionate look at life compelled him to write about the patients, the people, who sparked his curiosity and inspiration.

Overall, Burns presents a surprisingly illuminating portrait of an inspiring man, a tender and touching look and who Sacks was. Sure he was reckless at times, but he was indeed an adventurous pioneer who certainly had an impish sense of humor about him as well. It’s hard to not walk away with a deep admiration for the burly/bearded Sacks and possibly a fondness that tugs at the heartstrings. Burns, whose brother’s first name is Ken (yes that well-known documentary filmmaker), debuted “His Own Life” at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival at it has since made its rounds on the festival circuit, finally finding a release with Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber.







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