Category Archives: Film

How does film capture illness?

Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care

empathy, n. “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation” (OED).

It’s the parenthetical part of this definition that makes me pause. Is full comprehension achieved through empathy?

This video has been circulating the globe, resonating with a variety of different audiences. I struggle to write about how powerful it has been for me. It’s  fascinating to me how the meaning behind words escapes definition. And perhaps that is mirrored in how videography can bring to life the comparative flatness of literature.

This clip compels viewers to rethink how we share environments with other people, particularly in the unique and vulnerable hospital sphere. Here, illness is the invisible string that brings everyone together in time and space. Medicine, at its core, revolves around the narratives of the ill.

The study of these narratives has been closely intertwined with building a sense of empathy. Today, I am excited and nervous to embark on my own research journey towards achieving the unachievable.

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Filed under Film, Theatre

The Power of W;t

“Hi. How are you feeling today?”

It’s a question often asked, from within and outside the medical sphere, whose answer is rarely sought. Margaret Edson’s play W;t acts out the life of Vivian Bearing, a 50-year-old English Professor who enters into this space with Stage IV Ovarian Cancer. Vivian tells the story of her last few months in the face of death. She reflects on significant moments of her life thus far, remembering her development as an English scholar and teacher. Simultaneously, she observes her new surroundings in medicine, sharply but calmly noting the inadequacies in her care. As alluded to from the beginning of the play, the curtain closes with Vivian’s death.

Edson’s text is clever and precise, and the play comes to life when peopled in the movie. The intertextuality of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and medical terminology was skillfully done. Edson draws a resonating parallelism between Vivian’s life as a scholar/professor and Jason’s life as a researcher/doctor, both who have strived for academic success at the expense of a simple sense of humanity.

Within her 8 cycles of chemotherapy that the doctors monitor to keep track of time, Vivian instead constructs a timeline based on the accumulation of losses. The vomiting side effects of chemo lead her to realize that “You may remark that my vocabulary has taken a turn for the Anglo-Saxon” (32). When she is trapped under isolation precautions, she recognizes the paradox: “I am not in isolation because I have cancer…No, I am in isolation  because I am being treated for cancer” (47). As her condition worsens, Vivian becomes aware of her inevitable fate and the true purposes of her involvement in research.  She feels objectified, having become “just the specimen jar, just the dust jacket, just the white piece of paper that bears the little black marks” (53). Her identity as a scholar, which she reiterates proudly throughout the play, disintegrates along with the fast-growing cells that are killed by chemotherapy: “I’m a scholar. Or I was when I had shoes, when I had eyebrows” (68).

Perhaps my favorite textual moments were the simultaneous dialogues, located side-by-side on the page. These surprised me, and I was unsure how to read them because it was impossible to read and follow both at the same time.While the movie did not create these scenes as I had imagined them, it created a sense of coherence between scenes. Vivian’s memories were integrated into the present, as she would enter into her past wearing nothing but a hospital gown and then bring her past encounters straight into her hospital room. This maintained the dynamic nature of these memories as not merely remembered but relived in the now. 

Although I often imagine what I read, nothing could have prepared me for what it felt like to have Vivian look straight at me from behind the screen in the movie version. She held a hard, steady gaze with the camera, and these close up shots of her face highlighted her humanity and the harsh effects of cancer treatment. And the sounds- Vivian’s emotional breakdown as she nears her end is hard to enact mentally without the sounds of her crying, her fear, her pain.

While the movie seemed to be pretty true to the script, I was surprised by how differently the movie ended as compared to the play. Both end pretty compelling with a young doctor’s mistake, but the movie leaves Vivian trapped inside her hospital bed. In the play, Vivian is able to step out of her bed and embark towards the light. She attains a sense of liberation from 8 months of chemotherapy bondage, slowly shedding the material elements of her identity as a cancer patient. Her cap. Her hospital ID bracelet. Her hospital gowns. The play allows her to die powerful, while the movie strips her of that opportunity.

Cancer has successfully taught her to suffer. Her entire life’s work loses its worth as she recognizes “Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit.. now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness” (69).

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Filed under Film, Literary Narratives, Theatre, Voice

In Honor of Zach Sobiech

An incredible kid with an inspirational story about living life in the face of death:

For Zach, “life is really just beautiful moments, one right after the other.”

Faced with the terminal diagnosis of osteosarcoma, he realized that “my closure is being able to get my feelings into these songs.” Zach’s own illness narratives took the form of music.

Zach died this past Monday, “fly[ing] up a little higher.”

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Filed under Chronicling Childhood Cancer: Illuminating the Illness Experience through Narrative, Film, Voice

Imagining Immobility through The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

Hearing Jean-Dominique Bauby’s thoughts as expressed through his book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and seeing the world from his perspective in its film adaptation simulated his experience as best it could. These are the only functions that remain under his jurisdiction: the cognitive mind for thought, the left eye for sight. Unable to move or speak, Bauby has locked-in syndrome: a mysterious cerebrovascular disease.

It was this condition that intrigued me to explore these works. Entire body paralysis, affecting all voluntary muscles of the body except for the eyes, is incomprehensible to me. Despite this bodily entrapment, Bauby’s alert mind finds a voice through the only part of his body that has retained movement: his left eye. At first, his decisions are made with this movement. Blink once for yes, twice for no. These absolute decisions become a choice between letters, and Bauby blinks to indicate the letter of his choosing. What began as a simple means of communication grows and establishes itself as a platform to create awareness of what it really means to be “locked-in.”

Bauby suffers a debilitating stroke that alters life as he knows it, establishing a new home for him in a hospital room in Berck. Bauby was a successful man, the editor of Elle magazine and a father of three. Locked-in syndrome forces him to retreat to a state of infantilism; he entirely depends on the care of others in order to exercise his muscles, to communicate his thoughts, to exist. He finds escape through his memory and his imagination, reflecting on moments such as shaving his father while fantasizing about extravagant meals. He also connects more than ever with his favorite work of literature, The Count of Monte Cristo, insisting that the main character had locked-in syndrome. Bauby’s outlook transforms through the course of the novel, as his mindset evolves from questions of “Is it worth it?” to an acceptance of his “new life in bed” (4; 129). Although Bauby passed away 10 days after the book’s publication, his life experience has continued to resonate through this memoir.

Although I thought that the film overall immersed the viewer into Bauby’s body, there were a few discrepancies that left me confused. It took me a while to realize what seemed off, but I was not fond of Bauby’s audibility. I think the film would have been more powerful if it had mirrored Bauby’s thoughts, allowing them to exist solely as words in a subtitle rather than as a voice to be heard. Amplifying his stream of consciousness through audible narration deviated from the accuracy of his experience, which I felt detracted from the film. I was also confused to see that although the film was in French with English subtitles, all the words that he spelled letter by letter were spelled out in English.

While these discrepancies hindered the film’s potency, I found studying these works in conjunction to one another to provide great insight into Bauby’s life. His book creates as space for him to tell his tale as best he can, but I do think that the film created a simulation of the “locked-in” experience. That being said, I think it’s important to note that the movie was made in 2007, 10 years after Bauby’s death. The experience simulated was adapted from his textual creation, but Bauby never had the chance to see the film, confirm its accuracy, or approve of its representation.  I wonder, how would he have reacted to this window into his life?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of narrating illness through film?
  2. What elements of Frank’s illness narrative categories can be identified in Bauby’s text?
  3. How does Bauby’s unique method of communication shape his narrative?
  4. Why the diving bell? Why the butterfly?

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Filed under Film, Independent Study, Literary Narratives, Voice