My Writers: Oliver Sacks


Like a lot of people, I suppose, my introduction to Oliver Sacks came through the movie Awakenings. Based on the nonfiction account of the same name, written by Sacks, the film depicted the efforts of a physician to treat catatonic patients in a Bronx hospital, bringing a heightened empathy and commitment to exploring possible solutions to a group of people who had been largely disregarded by other doctors, relegated to the category of the untreatable. The doctor finds success in a treatment, although it is tragically fleeting. In the film, Sacks is renamed Dr. Malcolm Sayer and played by Robin Williams, in one of the strongest performances in the actor’s career, one likely influenced by the respect he felt for the actual man (as opposed to some other real-life figures Williams played during his career, there seemed to be a true bond between actor and subject which developed into an abiding friendship, perhaps because both men carried a pronounced understanding of inner loneliness). It may not have really exposed me to Sacks’s words, but I do believe Penny Marshall’s fine film gave me a glimpse of his soul.

The first time I read Sacks came a few years later, when I procured a copy of his book An Anthropologist on Mars. At the time, this sort of writing wasn’t exactly in my wheelhouse. As someone who still meets most science-based writing with a mental reaction roughly akin to Homer Simpson’s undivided attention, trekking through case studies of neurological ailments was daunting. Across the seven extended essays in the book, I instead found Sacks’s writing to be anything but. Without dumbing down the material, Sacks makes the intricacies of misfiring brain chemistry remarkably accessible, writing about his patients (including a painter who loses the ability to see color, a physician with Tourette syndrome whose tics disappear when he’s performing surgery, and a man blind from youth whose mind revolts against his surgically restored sight) with the intense, perpetual fascination of an expert who knows with certainty that he will never fully grasp the mysteries of the field he’s chosen. Through his writing, an impossibly complex topic became approachable, the reader warmly invited to consider the landscape of the brain with the same wonder that Sacks himself clearly felt.

In recent years, Sacks increasingly turned his focus on his own experiences, detailing his experimentation with mind-altering drugs and, of late, reckoning with mortality, spurred by a diagnosis of terminal cancer, precisely the thing that finally claimed his life. There is an enviable clarity to these particular writings. He didn’t meet his own challenges with bravery exactly, but instead a clinician’s commitment to honest appraisal. There was no need to be maudlin, nor angry. He lived a life worth living, worth cherishing, worth celebrating. Fittingly, it is Sacks’s own words that hold the most weight for me when I think about who we was and my distant encounters with him, gratifyingly taking in his printed thoughts:

“There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.” 

An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss
Mike Royko
Simon Callow
Steve Martin
John Updike
Roger Angell
Bill Watterson
William Shakespeare
Sarah Vowell
Douglas Adams
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Clive Barker
Jon Krakauer
John Darnielle
Richard Price
Art Spiegelman
Anthony Bourdain
John Irving

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 12 and 11

12 post

12. Björk, Post

Post starts with a crash. Following the surge and clatter of synthesized noise, Björk launches into “Army of Me,” as thrilling and powerful of a statement of purpose as a song can be. Reportedly directed at the Icelandic songstress’s brother, the song makes a musical statement just as pointed as the one delivered by the lyrics. Following the somewhat tepid Debut — technically her second release under her own name (Björk released an album when she was still a child) but considered her solo bow by just about everyone including obviously the artist herself –Björk uses Post to demonstrate exactly how she plans to bend pop music to her will, filling the album with intricate layered soundscapes that her staggering vocals can ricochet around in like bullets fired into a steel drum. “Modern Things” is a fine example of the accumulation of ideas Björk crams into each song. Beginning with the conceit that “All the modern things/ Like cars and such” have been around since the beginning of time, simply lying in wait until they were ready to emerge, the song evolves from a seductive, understated intro to eventually be driven by a wall of otherworldly rhythms as Björk alternates between singing in English and in Icelandic. It end with a simulation of a record skipping creating a hypnotic repetition of Björk’s voice.

The album has an endless capacity to surprise. Any time the listener dares to become complacent, Björk upends everything, as with the blazing show tune “It’s Oh So Quiet,” the grinding trip hop of “Enjoy” (co-written and co-produced by Tricky), and the spectral, beautifully languid “Possibly Maybe.” Playing with convention this aggressively inevitably means that some of the tracks come across less as gripping songs and more as fragile art pieces (“Cover Me” falls into this category), better suited for intense consideration rather than accompaniment for bopping around the room. This is the point at which Björk started to move away from the relative simplicity of being a pop star in order to actively explore the sort of multi-platform experimentation that would define the rest of her career, for good and, on rare occasions, for ill. She worked with directors like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze to come up with bizarrely dazzling music videos and could expound on the layers of meaning behind every last element of the release, including the striking album cover. In many ways, it felt like the music on Post was only the beginning of what Björk needed to say.

11 deluxe11. Better Than Ezra, Deluxe

Deluxe, the second proper release from the Louisiana band Better Than Ezra, first came out on their own label, Swell Records, in 1993. It caught the attention of Elektra Records, which signed the band and rereleased Deluxe in early 1995, making it officially the group’s major label debut. Within weeks, the band was on top of the Billboard Modern Rock chart (and in the main chart’s Top 40) with the album’s lead single, “Good.” The song was so big that it’s easy to think of it as the beginning and end of the band’s chart success. That’s basically true with the main chart, but second single “In the Blood” was nearly as popular on alternative stations. Better Than Ezra released two more albums on Elektra before getting dropped by the label. They’ve continued making music, though, releasing new albums around every four years, the most recent arriving last fall.


An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model
— 76-74: Gag Me with a Spoon, Where I Wanna Be, and Ruby Vroom
— 73 and 72: Horsebreaker Star and Wild-Eyed and Ignorant
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!
— 24 and 23: Sparkle and Fade and Brown Bag LP
— 22 and 21: University and Pummel
— 20 and 19: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Thread
— 18 and 17: Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and Rainbow Radio
— 16 and 15: Let Your Dim Light Shine and Day For Night
— 14 and 13: Tales from the Punchbowl and Sleepy Eyed

From the Archive: Gremlins 2: The New Batch


This week’s review is dug out of the archive thanks to the recent (and fabulous) Key & Peele sketch. I and my movie reviewing cohort saw Gremlins 2: The New Batch together during the summer of 1990, while we were formulating the idea of launching a movie review show in the fall. It’s very possible this was the movie that sparked the idea of launching a movie review show in the fall. Though the show wasn’t up and running when this was released, we found ways to cover Joe Dante’s spirited sequel a couple of times, including this review upon its home video release.

In a year packed with sequels where everything from Robocop 2 to Child’s Play 2 seemed to be trying to be a carbon copy of the original, give some credit to GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH for doing something different. While the original GREMLINS was a mix of wild humor and nasty, creature-filled horror, director Joe Dante has decided to make the follow-up lean more toward the comedy side. The most noticeable difference comes from the nasty gremlins that are created when you break the rules of care associated with the cute little Mogwai. Instead of fearsome villains, they have become broad comic characters wreaking havoc inside an all-purpose New York skyscraper. Besides the funny craziness caused by the gremlins, laughter is also generated by an omnipresent p.a. announcer promotes a new version of Casablanca, now colorized with a happier ending, and announces that the fire alarm has been pulled with an explanation of fire that begins, “Fire: ancient enemy of man….” There are plot flaws in GREMLINS 2, but certainly not enough to overshadow the fact that this movie is extremely enjoyable.

One for Friday: Bongos, Bass & Bob, “Cain’t Grow a Beard”


I believe it is inevitable. Anyone who is a deeply devoted fan of pop music and all its many offshoots is likely to find themselves identifying with the stories embedded within the lyrics. That’s certainly been the case for me. Especially in my college years, when I was intently defining and then redefining myself, I clung to the heady truths etched into vinyl grooves. In short order, I knew which songs bolstered my happiness and which spoke for my sadness. My heartbreak was melodic, always. The soundtrack to my life has a tracklist that stretches into infinity. As much music as there is that’s stitched into my soul, I can say with some authority that there’s no song I relate to more than “Cain’t Grow a Beard” by Bongos, Bass & Bob.

The band’s first and only album, Never Mind the Sex Pistols, Here’s Bongos, Bass & Bob was in the campus radio station’s rotation when I arrived in the fall of 1988. It was considered notable for two reasons: Penn Jillette, famed as half the edgy, comedic magic team of Penn & Teller, played bass on the album, and it was on blue vinyl. It helped that most of the songs were punky and snarky, qualities that played well within our gaggle of on-air personnel. There are loads of songs on the album that I like, but it’s “Cain’t Grow a Beard” that speaks to the depths of my soul, lyrics such as “It’s all over town that my hormones let me down” expressing my personal turmoil in a manner than only great art can.

I shaved this morning for the first time in several days. It’s debatable as to whether I really needed to. The song still rings true.

Listen or download –> Bongos, Bass & Bob, “Cain’t Grow a Beard”

(Disclaimer: It is my belief that the Bongos, Bass & Bob album is long out of print. Indeed, it’s likely a mystery as to who would even hold rights to the 50,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Watts catalog. This, I believe I am sharing this track without causing undue fiscal harm or otherwise impeding fair-minded commerce that would duly compensate both the artist and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store. I will gladly remove the song my my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty

20 drunken

#20 — Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa, 1948)

One of film history’s most amazing partnerships between director and actor begins here. Akira Kurosawa cast Toshiro Mifune sixteen times over a span of fewer than twenty years, making the actor feel like the great director’s manifestation of self on screen, in much the same way that Martin Scorsese once admitted he cast Robert De Niro repeatedly in the parts he himself would like to play (presumably Leonardo DiCaprio has fulfilled much the same role in recent years). It could, however, be even simpler than that. Drunken Angel so fully takes advantage of Mifune’s colossal charisma that it’s not hard to imagine Kurosawa studying the film right down to individual frames and deciding he had stumbled upon a rare force of nature who would endless reward anyone wise enough to train the camera on him.

Unlike Kurosawa’s famed samurai epics, Drunken Angel is basically a contemporary affair. The film takes place shortly after the war, as a low-level gangster (Mifune) seeks emergency treatment from a boozy doctor (Takashi Shimura) following a gun battle. Besides attending to the immediate wound, the doctor determines the thug has contracted tuberculosis, setting up an enduring, uneasy relationship as continuing treatment takes place. There are further complications, of course, involving returning threats and women under duress, but the bulk of the film’s conflict arises between the two men at its center, engaged in verbal skirmishes about how to live life. Their interactions are often barbed, sometimes strangely affectionate and admiring. Throughout the film, the heavy drama that bubbles up is always grounded by the tenuous bond between that twosome, which Kurosawa presents with intuitive cunning.

It’s fascinating enough to consider the film as the beginning of a key cinematic partnership or as an early entry in one of the storied directorial careers in the history of the medium (it was Kurosawa’s seventh film and he’s only been directing for about five years). One of the most striking elements of Drunken Angel is its edgy, oblique reflection of Japan in the immediate post-War years. Kurosawa managed to slip in sly references to topics that were effectively forbidden the censorship board in place at the time, especially regarding U.S. occupation of the defeated nation. Even without a bookish understanding of every detail Kurosawa sneakily introduces into the film, there’s a quivering energy of mischievous accomplishment that’s ever-present. Some of that can certainly be attributed to the spark of claimed freedom, but it’s tempting to see it as something more, something that speaks to a context formulated by all that would come in the future. Maybe it’s the splendid friction of genius emerging.

By the time I get to Phoenix she’ll be risin’


Phoenix takes place in Germany shortly after the end of World War II. The city of Berlin is reeling, much of it still in ruins, and the portion of its Jewish population that somehow survived the concentration camps is returning, warily ready to restart their lives but still understandably burdened by spiritual wounds that will likely never heal. One of those returning is Nelly (Nina Hoss), whose face was badly damaged by a bullet wound. The doctor charged with reconstructive surgery asks her about the appearance she’d like him to provide. Nelly insists she wants to look like herself, a choice the doctor cautions against. The surgery simply can’t get close enough, he warns, and there’s always a certain amount of disappointment that complicates the emotional healing process. Still, he acquiesces, and Nelly cautiously ventures out with an appearance that is evidently similar but not quite a mirror of before.

Based loosely on a French mystery novel from the early nineteen-sixties, Phoenix begins as a rumination on identity, that most modern of topics. In the aftermath of war, there are any number of people who are trying to reestablish their place, or maybe come to terms with how unfit their previous place has become. That notion runs through Phoenix, like a wispy tendril of smoke trailing a candle wearily transported through darkened corridors. Eventually, though, it turns into something far more twisty, as Nelly comes into contact with a key figure from her former life who doesn’t recognize her but sees an opportunity for her to be a sort of impostor in a scam. With some harsh echoes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, takes the consideration of the pliability of identity one step further, showing precisely how that identity is shaped by others who paradoxically hold intimate knowledge of the person and no proper conception as to who they really are.

Director Christian Petzold presents the material with aching care. If anything, the film can sometimes move a little too slowly in its build-up to devastating turns. Once the crux of the plot arrives, though, that meticulous approach yields a greater depth of feeling. The turns of tender dismay feel properly earned. Because of this, the film never feels manipulative or cruel, even at its most harsh. The characters haven’t been propped up only to be knocked asunder. They’ve been allowed to live their contradictions before that inner tumult is spun into drama. Part of Petzold’s confidence in this approach likely comes from working with a familiar team. Co-writer Harun Farocki and stars Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld were all central partners in Petzold’s previous feature, the very fine Barbara (Hoss has played a lead role in most of Petzold’s films). In particular, Petzold has practically formed the film to play to his performers’ considerable strengths, with the story affording Hoss a heart-rending, thrillingly erratic journey and Zehrfeld nothing less than the film’s most powerful moment, sold almost entirely through his wordless reaction. Petzold argues in Phoenix that it’s not just buildings that war reduces to rubble, in large part thanks to actors who are prepared to show what it looks like when the same level of damage is inflicted on human souls.

I wanna write my whole life down, burn it there to the ground

end of the tour

Brilliance is devilishly difficult to capture on film. So often, the necessary concessions that come with condensing prickly complexities into a concise cinematic narrative leave supposed acts of creative genius looking like shabby husks and the individual behind such revered greatness falling into pat, simplified categories, disposable icons with fervent spark and chasm-like flaws. Maybe the mightiest accomplishment of the many within The End of the Tour is the film’s honest, complicated, engrossing consideration of how brilliance resides uneasily in a society unprepared to meet it with due respect and gratitude. It is one of the few instances I can think of in which a film introduces a figure as intellectually imposing and then backs up that characterization with compelling evidence, up to and including the wobbly self-confidence that should meets a swell of adoration. Surely nothing is so clear a marker of uncommon braininess than a nagging certainty that everything could have been done better.

The End of the Tour follows David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) at the tail-end of his promotional jaunt following the publication on Infinite Jest, the cinder block-sized novel that transformed him from a respected writer to a literary sensation, beneficiary (or victim) of breathlessly laudatory reviews and voice-of-a-generation proclamations. In the days surrounding a stop at a Minneapolis bookstore, Wallace is shadowed by David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), who is prepping a profile for Rolling Stone. Lipsky is a relatively new staff writer at the rock ‘n’ roll rag, retreating to Jann Wenner’s periodical after a recent book was indifferently received. Lipsky approaches his subject with a challenging mixture of idolatry and resentment. Lipsky can’t help but try to ingratiate himself to Wallace, as if doing so is akin to claiming a scrap of the man’s talent, but he also indulges in pettiness at every perceived slight.

Wallace’s family have disavowed the movie, presumably because the writer wouldn’t have wanted this fictional incursion on his privacy (when Wallace estate is directly profiting from the publication of an unfinished novel, an even more questionable muddling of the writer’s legacy, concerns about what he might have wanted didn’t seem to exactly move to the forefront). In terms of depiction, though, it’s Lipsky’s clan who might have cause to draw up some protest signs and pick a spot in front of the multiplex box office. He comes across as a shallow, needy snake, the damaged, chain-smoking Salieri to Wallace’s Mozart. That the film is based upon Lipsky’s nonfiction account of his short time with Wallace and he presumably consents to or at least accepts the unflattering portrayal is a sign of the film’s bracing honesty.

Eisenberg is uncompromising in his performance as Lipsky, simultaneously making him unlikeable and sadly understandable. Lipsky is another entrant in the actor’s collection of intelligent assholes, though here Eisenberg leans into the open wound vulnerability that spurs the questionable behavior. The revelatory performance is on the other side of conversation. Segel stirred ire when he was cast as Wallace, with fans of the author absolutely certain that the admittedly limited rage the Freaks and Geeks alumnus had displayed to that point made him ill-suited (at best) to the role. What Segel does on screen is nothing short of remarkable. He doesn’t disappear into the role, using the camouflage of impression to hide within Wallace, but instead lets the writer fully inhabit him. The body language, the twist of his mouth, the evident excitement when engaged in a topic, the anger when confronted with tiresome accusation, the deflation every time he is reminded that Lipsky is a probing threat rather than a confidant: all of these things add up to a exhaustive consideration of a gifted person awkwardly coming to terms with his new exalted position in a world that gives him no comfort.

When expressing ambivalence about the unexpectedly lengthy run of How I Met Your Mother, Segel noted that he had misgivings about playing the same part year after year, citing the chameleon-like transformations of Peter Sellers as his true acting ambition. This is the first time I believe Segel can be that type of performer. Even better, The End of Tour suggests he has it within him to be the actor Sellers was becoming near the end of his life, when the safety of caricature was set aside in favor of the piercing emotional purity found in Being There. I might be able to give Segel’s performance a greater compliment, but I’m not sure how.

The film’s resolute intelligence and acute psychological underpinnings come straight from the real-life exchanges of Wallace and Lipsky. By all accounts, screenwriter Donald Margulies (a Pulitzer Prize-winner for the play Dinner with Friends) is as much a curator as an inventor, drawing generously from the audio tapes that caught the conversations between writer and subject. What Margulies has done, expertly, is to take those words and shape them into drama, developing the proper ebb and flow. Director James Ponsoldt approaches the material with a thrilling confidence, refusing to burnish the lengthy scenes of little more than two men talking with distracting camera tomfoolery or aggressive editing. He gently lets sequences play out, framing shots with obvious care but without allowing his visuals to become overly precious. Ponsoldt’s direction is masterful. That same word can be applied to practically every piece of The End of the Tour.