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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: The Sessions

 

 

THE SESSIONS (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Ben Lewin, 2012 (20th Century Fox)

The Sessions is a movie about love and pain, sexuality and disability, poetry and confinement, the world inside and the world outside. Based partly on the article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by Mark O’Brien, as well as his other writings nd life story, it is about O’Brien’s determination to lose his virginity at age 38,  despite the fact that a childhood bout with polio has left him confined, for 90 % of the time, to an iron lung, with the extreme curvature of his spine, residue of the disease,  forcing him to spend  most of the remaining 10%  in a wheelchair or lying on his back.

But Mark can still get erections. And he can still fall in love — which he does, sometimes with unhappy results, with some (or at least one) of his caretakers. He also can write beautifully, tapping out the letters with a mouth-stick, expressing himself and his world with wit and clarity, and with a near-absence of self-pity. It was that writing, in the article above and elsewhere, that led Mark, posthumously, to writer-diretor Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance), who decided to tell Mark’s story on screen. The result is The Sessions, one of the year’s most realistic and moving love stories, and a tale full of suspense, humanity and compassion.

We don’t often see stories like this on screen, and even less often done this well, or as filled with honest emotion. That’s a pity.

The Sessions (which was called “The Surrogate” when it played at Sundance) carries us through Mark’s determination to have a sexual life, to his decision to hire a sex surrogate — Helen Hunt as the real-life surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene — and their sessions together, in a motel room, facilitated by Mark’s caretaker Vera (Moon Bloodgood) and an inquisitive desk man (Ming Lo). Alone together in the bare-looking motel room, Cheryl tries to teach and gentle him into his heart’s desire. It’s not easy.

The Sessions takes place in California, and it’s the sort of story hard-core Californians, at least many of the ons I knew, like to tell and hear. The movie presents sexuality in a healing, lovable way, with wit but without cynicism  — and what we see is a healing, loveable relationship, sensitively and knowingly portrayed by the actors. Helen Hunt, who has to play a good deal of the movie in the nude, as well as to simulate various sex acts that would have been taboo on screen for a distinguished Oscar-winning leading lady several generations ago, imbues her part with the casual realism of a professional, and the aches of doubt that come upon her in the midst of her job. (They are only supposed to have six sessions and then depart for good.)

Through it all, there isn’t a sniggering moment in The Sessions, though there’s plenty of  humor — much of it courtesy of William H Macy as the Catholic Father Brendan, the devoutly religious Mark’s (fictional composite)long-haired, unflappable often wry spiritual advisor. (When asked if the deflowering is a sin, Father Brendan suggests that God will give Mark a pass.)

John Hawkes plays Mark, and it’s something of a surprise to see this hardy ex-Texan actor, who was  so effective as the backwoods outlaw meth dealer in Winter’s Bone, just as convincingly play a man who can barely get around sunny California without help. But Hawkes communicates with great sympathy the reality of Mark’s disability — and he and Lewin do it most powerfully in one scene, based on life, where Mark, alone in his iron lung after the caretaker leaves, suddenly finds himself in the midst of an outage that knocks out his power. He has also dropped the mouth-stick that is his only means of communicating by phone to the outside world.

The actor and the film also convey what makes Mark so special as a human being: his poet’s soul and his ability to write and reach out to others, even under conditions of extreme difficulty.

Most of all, Lewin — along with Hawkes, Hunt, Macy and all the others, including two very fine disabled actors, Jennifer Kumiyama as Carmen and Tobias Forrest as Greg  — shows us the primal importance of empathy in life and love. The Sessions gives us, believably and without mush or gush, a tender but tough tale of sexuality and love and how they intertwine. It’s a picture that, like the great films of Yasujiro Ozu, Vittorio De Sica, or Mike Leigh, conveys a real sense of life and humanity. Though you may think it’s impossible to tell such a story without  at least a  little sentimentality, Lewin, who has specialized in dark comedy (The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish), will prove you wrong.

One of the reasons for that avoidance of mush may be Lewis’s admiration and affinity for darkly comic, irreverent  filmmakers like one of his own favorites, Luis Bunuel. Another reason may lie in Lewis’ own childhood bout with polio, from which he  recovered more completely, but not fully. This writer-director knows a good part of what Mark went through, and he helps us know it too.

The Sessions — which was a hit at Sundance, winning both the Audience Award and the Jury Prize for an Ensemble Cast — tells its story with a warm heart and a cool eye and without ever going overboard. Just like the surrogate, the movie knows never to push  — but simply to do its job, honestly and well.

The Sessions, which opens in selected theatres Friday, Oct. 19, also plays Saturday (Oct. 20) at 7 p.m., at The Chicago International Film Festival. (312-322-FILM).

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MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

INTERVIEWER
Do you outline plays before you start to write them?

PINTER
Not at all. I don’t know what kind of characters my plays will have until they…well, until they are. Until they indicate to me what they are. I don’t conceptualize in any way. Once I’ve got the clues I follow them—that’s my job, really, to follow the clues.

INTERVIEWER
What do you mean by clues? Can you remember how one of your plays developed in your mind—or was it a line-by-line progression?

PINTER
Of course I can’t remember exactly how a given play developed in my mind. I think what happens is that I write in a very high state of excitement and frustration. I follow what I see on the paper in front of me—one sentence after another. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a dim, possible overall idea—the image that starts off doesn’t just engender what happens immediately, it engenders the possibility of an overall happening, which carries me through. I’ve got an idea of what might happen—sometimes I’m absolutely right, but on many occasions I’ve been proved wrong by what does actually happen. Sometimes I’m going along and I find myself writing “C. comes in” when I didn’t know that he was going to come in; he had to come in at that point, that’s all.
~ Harold Pinter

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