“I do go my own way. I may not be entirely easy to decipher. I’m not easily categorized. And I think this can give rise to bewilderment and ambivalence.”
That’s Oliver Sacks on Oliver Sacks in Ric Burns’ new documentary Oliver Sacks: His Own Life . Filmed over the course of 2015 when the good doctor had learned he had terminal cancer, it features many of his friends and colleagues discussing his multi-faceted existence.
How even to begin to define Oliver Wolf Sacks? Neurologist, naturalist and author barely scratches the surface. He was once a motorcycle enthusiast, an amphetamine addict and holder of a California bodybuilding record, for lifting 600 pounds in a squat. He was homosexual, but lived in celibacy for 35 years, fearful of career repercussions. He was notoriously shy, and yet the orange Jell-O story he tells on camera is breathtakingly, hilariously honest.
Burns mixes the basic biographical detail with an astonishing array of secondary information, like the fact that his mother, a surgeon, would sometimes bring expired fetuses home and have 10-year-old Sacks dissect them.
“Raw talent in abundance with a tremendous amount of unhappiness and confusion,” says one friend “He was a kind of supreme f—up at multiple times along the way,” remarks another. On his last amphetamine trip he devoured a 19th-century treatise, A Contribution to the Pathology of Nerve-Storms , that ignited his professional curiosity. Late in life he dove into the 21st-century debate on the so-called hard problem of consciousness: How does experience arise from non-sentient matter?
I could go on, but you’re better off just watching the film, especially if you want to hear about the time he went to Norway and was almost killed by a bull. But I’ll give him the last word in this review, since he had the first. “There will be nobody like us when we are gone, but then there is nobody like anybody, ever.”
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is available to stream through The Vic in Victoria, the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto, Montreal’s Cinema du Parc and others through watch.eventive.org/filmswelike , and in cinemas beginning October 23 in Vancouver, London, Victoria, Hamilton and Kingston.
4 stars out of 5
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