The life and work of Mark O’Brien, disabled poet and journalist.
Dir. Jessica Yu, 1996, 35 min
There’s a movie coming out later this year called The Sessions. It stars John Hawkes, my favorite character actor, in a role that’s apparently earning him a lot of Oscar buzz. Based only on the trailer (which is usually fallacious, but whatever), the whole movie looks like it’s angling for Oscar attention. And when you compare the sentiment expressed in that trailer to the impression that Breathing Lessons gives of the real-life man whose experiences inspired the film… well, there’s quite a disconnect.
Mark O’Brien contracted polio when he was six, and was left paralyzed and forced to make use of an iron lung for the rest of his days. In spite of his disabilities, he doggedly pursued the most normal life he could have. He went to college, made a living as a journalist and poet, and even had intercourse with the help of a sexual surrogate (that particular episode of his life is the basis for the upcoming movie). He was deathly afraid of nursing homes, and generally opposed to the idea that disability in any way should degrade a person’s standing in society.
The documentary forces you to confront your own privilege as a physically and mentally untroubled person, and the subconscious prejudices you may hold as well. While watching, the thought that I might prefer to be dead rather than live like Mark popped into my head, and lo and behold did he proceed to dismantle that attitude. It’s horribly condescending, really. Society isn’t built to handle outliers like this, and thus we shuffle them away into spaces where we can ignore them. The prospect of being disabled terrifies us because it is reminiscent in some way or another of death. It’s one step from the ideal towards the end. But, as Mark points out, everyone eventually becomes disabled, unless they die first.
Being one step closer down the end of the road than most people has given Mark an interesting perspective on life. He’s not a relentlessly chipper, inspirational “magic cripple,” nor is he unduly dour. He is, all in all, just a person. And I think that’s all he wanted to be seen as. And now Hollywood might be exploiting his condition for cheap inspiration (Or the movie could be perfectly respectful and non-cheesy. Who knows).
Breathing Lessons is also a great meditation on how art can save us. What Mark hates more than anything else is boredom, which comes with the territory when you’re confined to a giant metal tube for twenty-three hours a day. Writing is a way for him to transcend his physical limitations and transform through creativity. The movie features several readings of bits of his poetry, and it’s quite lovely. The metaphysical is a recurring theme in his work, and Mark often wonders just what role God plays in all of this; why he was struck down at such a young age, and why his siblings outright died young. Ultimately, he believes that art helps people shape the universe alongside God’s handiwork. It’s an evocative sentiment, whether you share his beliefs or not.
This is the first film from Jessica Yu, who would go on to direct In the Realms of the Unreal, one of the best cinematic explorations of what art is and what it means to different people. In many ways, you can see how this look at Mark and his life is a warm-up for what Yu would do later. She has an affinity for unusual subjects with even more unusual pursuits. This doc won her an Oscar for Best Documentary Short, and it’s certainly worthy of it. Yu allows O’Brien to speak totally for himself, and makes the movie more into a visualization of his thoughts and explanations than a purely biographical piece.
Truth is better than fiction, and Mark O’Brien refused to ever be the subject of pity or undue admiration. Which in itself might make him even more of a subject of admiration. Breathing Lessons doesn’t aim to uplift you, though, at least not in any cheaply sentimental way. It simply seeks to make you consider life from a different point of view, and think about how it could be something entirely different than what you believed before. It’s a rather beautiful little film.