Niall Anderson’s tears aren’t the only things being jerked by The Sessions
In what might have been a particularly discouraging life, Mark O’Brien accomplished a great deal. Born in Boston in 1950, he contracted poliomyelitis when he was six and ended up more or less immobile from the neck down. On good days he could move his right foot, and in later years he used this foot to power a motorised trolley to carry him around Berkeley, California, where he worked and studied. He graduated from the University of California (after a prolonged struggle to even be allowed to enrol) and later sued the state to be considered legally independent rather than a ward of his parents. Thereafter, he lived on his own – with help from carers – and supported himself through journalism.
He has also been the subject of a previous film, Breathing Lessons, which won an Oscar for Best Short Documentary in 1997. The opening sequence of Breathing Lessons gives you some idea of what O’Brien was up against: in particular, it gives you the brutal noise and pounding indifference of the iron lung where he was forced to spend most of his time. He could survive for an hour or two outside it, but his lungs were so weak it actively hurt him to breathe.
The opening sequence of The Sessions – a fictionalised account of a period from O’Brien’s life in the 1980s – is practically identical to that of Breathing Lessons. O’Brien, ventriloquized with spooky accuracy by John Hawkes, recites the same poem, and both sequences end with a steady pan along the iron lung until we see O’Brien’s face. But the lung, in The Sessions, is silent. Hawkes speaks the words fluently, with no trace of the forced respiration you hear from O’Brien himself. A good deal of the difficulty of O’Brien’s life is wiped away at a stroke. Indeed, wherever The Sessions finds an unexpected wrinkle in O’Brien’s biography, it quickly and efficiently smooths it over. The frictionless result is not just different from Mark O’Brien’s actual life, but from any life ever lived.
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