Writer/director Ben Lewin is best-known for his work in television with nothing particular I need to share here, but his film The Sessions is something else altogether. I love this film.
The story is based on articles written by Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) about his own sessions with a sex surrogate. O’Brien, the subject of a Oscar-winning documentary short by Jessica Yu (you can watch Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien free online http://www.snagfilms.com/films/title/breathing_lessons/), contracted polio as a child and lived the rest of his life without the use of his limbs.
He spent most of his time in an iron lung but was able to come out for short periods of time. O’Brien was a poet and also wrote articles for hire, including one about his own experiences with a sex therapist. He was also often unhappy, even bitter, and some people would say that was to be expected.
I have also made a documentary about someone confined to an iron lung for most of her life, but her outlook and the circumstances of her daily life were quite the opposite of Mark O’Brien’s. You can watch the film about my dear friend Martha Mason free online, too (http://www.wfu.edu/documentary/news/martha/), but the film doesn’t tell you that I still think of Martha daily and miss our long talks about assorted topics as well as the love and wisdom she brought into my life.
So, while some people might see The Sessions as preposterous or simplistic or as Oscar bait (this is the general opinion of my soon-to-be student Marshall Shaffer http://marshallandthemovies.com/2012/11/20/sessions/), I see something different. After reading his blog post, I can understand how he might have this impression of the film. But, I left the theater deeply moved by the film.
The Hollywood version of Mark O’Brien is softer, funnier, and more appealing than the man from the documentary, but this makes him appear to the viewer as a man first instead of as a disabled man. That is a noble effort, and if it takes a funny priest and a sex surrogate who breaks her rules when emotions become involved to achieve it, then so be it.
Love is an eternal mystery. Not so much maternal love or agape or other types, those I find both essential and somewhat predictable, but romantic love confounds me, frankly. What makes us fall in love with another person? What makes that feeling endure even, sometimes, when it is unrequited? At times, I wish I understood these mysteries and knew what the future would bring, and other times think it’s better to accept that some things are beyond understanding and just hope for the best.
The Sessions presents me with a version of Mark O’Brien who knows love in its frustrating and fulfilling forms. I don’t think his movie life much resembles his actual life, but I feel the connection between this character and the women he loves, including his sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), and none of their scenes together are the least bit off-putting to me because I see the nudity and sex as essential to developing character and, even more, to establishing a connection between the characters that transcends the physical.
As I said, this film moves me. I went to see it with a sense of obligation and left with something much more, a sense of possibility and hope, and now Marshall will understand why this is my experience. Next semester in COM 311: Film Theory and Criticism, I expect us to have spirited conversations and, perhaps, find at least an occasional piece of common ground. When we start the semester in January by talking about intertextuality and how the stories of our lives overlap with the stories we encounter (like films), he’ll have a head start on everyone else in class.