Awakenings (1990)

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I’m not very good with people.  It’s 1969.  Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is a research neurologist who finds himself working with people for the first time at a public hospital in the Bronx, NYC. He is confronted with older catatonic patients who he discovers lost their capacity for communication following the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of 1917-1928. Once he realises there is more to them than just reflex actions he sets up righting decades of ignorance and experiments with doses of L-Dopa intended for Parkinsonian symptoms, starting with Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) whose immediate response is remarkable and triggers Sayer’s campaign to have it given to the others. He is supported by Nurse Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner) and he helps Leonard’s mother (Ruth Nelson) come to terms with her son’s maturity – she thinks he is still the little boy she once knew. Leonard wants to socialise and develops a relationship with Paula (Penelope Ann Miller) the daughter of another patient but when it comes time to argue for more personal freedom Leonard starts to manifest facial tics and the dosages have to be revised as the realisation that his patient’s awakening may be temporary dawns on Sayer …  The late Oliver Sacks’ books were a thing in the Eighties – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was a very cool set of case studies and the stories in Awakenings gave Harold Pinter the inspiration for A Kind of Alaska.  This raises issues about what being alive really means and who knows best and what’s in the patient’s interest. It however strays into Rain Man territory and one is given pause for thought by De Niro’s early (and later) gurning catatonic impersonation when Tropic Thunder‘s warnings about ‘going full retard’ come to mind. This falls into the slush trap one too many times yet paradoxically it’s meticulously constructed as the real awakening is that of Sayer – to pain, feeling, response, caring.  Written by Steven Zaillian and directed by Penny Marshall who has a way with the performers but the treacly score doesn’t help. It’s nice to see John Heard and the wonderful Julie Kavner in significant supporting roles. There is probably a big ironic meta-cinematic text here considering drug buddies Williams and De Niro were the last people to see John Belushi alive and they communicate with each other here via a Ouija Board but I’m sure I don’t know what that is. The drugs don’t work? Perhaps. Read Sacks’ books instead, they’re amazing.

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

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When I saw this last it was at its film festival premiere and my companion said he’d never sat beside someone who squirmed so much in discomfort at a movie. I was horrified by it. It starts with Julia Louis-Dreyfus going down on Richard Benjamin and then being entered by him from behind in front of her blind grandmother. Funny? Not so much. Turns out it’s a dramatisation of a scene from the latest novel by Harry Block (Woody Allen) and Benjamin is him, Dreyfus is his ex Lucy (Judy Davis) who promptly arrives at his apartment with a pistol prepared to shoot him because now everyone knows about them and their adultery – and she’s his sister in law.  There are other mini-movies drawing on Block’s work and there are both flashbacks and interactions between Block and his fictional characters. The film turns on issues primarily of Jewishness and its evocation both cinematic and writerly, hence the significance of Benjamin’s casting:  he is Philip Roth’s most famous on-screen avatar (Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint) and there are many, myself included, who would see this as a foul-mouthed excoriation of one of America’s greatest writers, and not merely a revisiting of Stardust Memories. And why, you might ask? I’m not a psychologist but Allen’s former paramour Mia Farrow was rumoured to have been involved with Roth for a spell and it has often been speculated that Allen himself was envious of his achievements. Roth has never really made me laugh, he has made me think, while Allen at his best makes me laugh like a drain. The reference to Block’s having an affair with his sister in law would appear to be material he had already plundered in Hannah and Her Sisters – an affair Allen allegedly had with one of Farrow’s sisters (and, some claim, more than one sister.) Then there’s the casting of his underage object of desire from Manhattan Mariel Hemingway (based on his relationship with 17-year old actress Stacey Nelkin on the set of Annie Hall when he was 43) and his behaviour regarding their son, whom he kidnaps, another dig into his own grubby public past, whether true or not. His muse Elisabeth Shue (sporting a Farrow-like mop of hair) splits for his best friend. And he hires a black prostitute to accompany them on their trip to a university where he’s being honoured and he slides out of focus just like one of his characters played by Robin Williams earlier in the story. (Fact and fiction have blurred to the point that even he cannot tell them apart.)  Even after all these years I just can’t enjoy this tacky, tasteless outing, an admission on Allen’s part (perhaps) that psychoanalysis is a greenlight for perverted recidivism and that he had lost his greatest muse to strange desires. A very uncomfortable watch.

Serpico (1973)

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The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry – it just gets dirtier. There was a running joke on late-1970s comedy Rhoda, in which sister Brenda (Julie Kavner) moaned about her unrequited love for Al Pacino. As a small child this meant little to me except that my dad had a copy of this book by half-Dutch, half-Irish Peter Maas (a true story about cop Frank Serpico)  with a still of Pacino on the cover. Then I saw the film and understood Brenda completely! This was one of the run of films that made him absolutely the most amazing film star of the age. Between The Panic in Needle Park, The Godfather, Scarecrow  and then this, he was simply compelling – and beautiful to boot. His role here as the idealistic cop turned hippie undercover detective who informs on vast numbers of corrupt colleagues is an unadulterated portrait of integrity that blooms into rage. It’s long, but as Brenda would argue, is there ever any such thing as too much Al?! The screenplay was by (blacklisted) Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler. Great cinematography by Arthur Ornitz and editing by Dede Allen. Directed by the fabled NYC man Sidney Lumet. Now this really is the 70s.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

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This came out right after I’d spent my first summer in New York City. Seeing it was like being immersed in a very warm welcoming bath. And what a cherishable film it is, a Chekhovian comedy drama about the impossible lives and loves of a trio of sisters played by the incredible Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey with Allen himself and Michael Caine and Max von Sydow rounding out the cast. This is on constant rotation chez moi. One of the greats.