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"Awakenings" (1990) featuring Robert De Niro

by Pohai Müller about a year ago in movie
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A brief analysis of a sequence in the movie

A sequence from "Awakenings" (1990).

In the week leading up to Easter Sunday in 2020, I read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving and watched four feature films: Sleepy Hollow (1999), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), Seven Years in Tibet (1997), and Awakenings (1990).

It is the fourth title, Awakenings, that will be the focus of this article.

Directed by Penny Marshall, Awakenings stars Robin Williams as Dr. Malcom Sayer, a character based on the real-life British neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks. In the movie, Dr. Sayer discovers how to treat patients with encephalitis lethargica, a debilitating neurological condition that renders its victims in states of statuesque paralysis — largely unable to move or display signs of interpreting the outside world. Robert De Niro plays Leonard, a patient who has been paralyzed with the disease for the past 40 years, institutionalized in a mental hospital.

I won’t discuss too much of the movie here, but there’s one sequence in particular that left an impression on me.

Leonard is the first patient to receive an experimental treatment from Dr. Sayer, which leads to an ‘awakening.’ He can walk, emote, converse, and even recall events that happened while he was incapacitated — evidence that he was only a vegetable on the outside.

The sequence begins at the end of the first day that Leonard receives this treatment. Afraid to fall asleep, he fears that he will lose his new-found ability to function and return to a doomed state of paralysis. Dr. Sayer assures him that that won’t happen. As he lays down, Leonard’s mother — who has continued caring for him for decades — strokes his forehead and sings a mother’s lullaby.

It’s a touching moment, but also heartbreaking. Leonard began to suffer from encephalitis lethargica as a child, and though he is an adult when the movie takes place, the moment between mother and son feels like it transpires in Leonard's childhood. The audience doesn't wish to see Leonard lose what he has gained, especially not after 40 years of being a prisoner within his own body. Many of us can also relate to the stirring melancholy of a mother’s lullaby.

As night turns to day, Leonard wakes up the following morning and readies himself to venture into the world for the first time in 40 years. He descends the steps of the hospital, still adjusting to the ability to walk, just as a mother leads her young daughter up the same staircase. The visual contrast is simple, yet effective: a pre-schooler still discovering her stride, the whole of life ahead of her, and Leonard recovering his own after decades of life lost to encephalitis.

Dr. Sayer proceeds to drive Leonard around the Bronx, revisiting sights from his childhood. A lot has changed between the late 1920s and 1969. Hippies and bikers hang on the streets, there’s rock-and-roll music on the radio, and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. As they cruise around the city, the lullaby that Leonard's mother sings is supplanted by classical music on the radio. Ever curious about his new surroundings, Leonard switches the station and the ageless track “Time of the Season” by The Zombies comes on over the speakers. It’s a transition that perfectly captures the change of time for Leonard, from the quiet winter days of his youth in the 1920s to the now frenetic energy of New York City in the late 1960s.

The sequence continues for another couple of minutes of screen time, depicting Dr. Sayer and Leonard exploring the city together. As I watched it for the first time, I was moved by the visual progression and changes in rhythm. One aspect of cinema that distinguishes it from other art forms is its unique ability to elicit emotional responses through shifting combinations of music, sounds, motion picture, acting, and editing. There is truly no other art form quite like it.

I leave you with two quotes that articulate this idea far better than I can:

"I could stare at a Van-Gogh for hours, but I sit in a theatre and the images move. As the frames move and tell a story, it is that movement which emotionally connects you." —Tom Sherak, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

“Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They take us to other places, they open doors and minds. Movies are the memories of our life time.” —Martin Scorcese


About the author

Pohai Müller

Swiss-American. Daydreamer. Shortlisted for the Vocal+ Fiction Awards.



IG................ @hanskealoha

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