A Review of Breathing Lessons
, an Early Film about The Sessions Mark O'Brien

by Mike Reynolds

for Ability Maine

 

The first time I heard of Mark OBrien was in February 1997, when I was in college. I was writing for my campus newspaper and trying to organize a disability-awareness week when I saw a press release about the film Breathing Lessons, a documentary about OBrien's life by a young filmmaker named Jessica Yu. The film had been nominated for an Oscar for best short-form documentary. After watching this amazing movie, I contacted Yu (who was incredibly helpful) and arranged for a screening on campus. I was also lucky enough to speak directly with O’Brien by phone.


In March of that year, Breathing Lessons won the Oscar. One of the most memorable sound bites from the Oscars of that year was Yu's quip about which had cost more, the film or her dress for the Oscars.


Below is an edited version of my review, which was originally published in The Maine Campus
on February 26, 1997. Breathing Lessons can currently be watched free of charge at snagfilms.com.

 

 photo of mark in his iron lung smiling

Breathing Lessons Offers Insights into Independence

When the Academy Award nominations were announced at four a.m. Pacific time on Februrary 11, the biggest story was that neither Madonna nor Courtney Love was nominated for Best Actress. The other story (that seemed to be covered endlessly) was the number of awards The English Patient
had been nominated for, although the film only began showing relatively recently in Bangor (probably as a result of the many nominations).

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has over 20 separate categories to recognize everything from cinematography to makeup. Some categories are less popular than others. As a result, many of the movies nominated in these categories are unknown in popular culture.

The Academy Awards is the biggest event in Hollywood. People worry about things like “who will show up in what dress by what designer, and did it cost several thousand dollars”? The members of the Academy are all respected in the motion picture field, and their peers are the people nominated.


The Academy Awards is also, to a lesser extent, a showcase for independent filmmakers, foreign films, and other non-mainstream films.
While film festivals such as Sundance may showcase the cutting-edge ideas of young filmmakers, the Oscars gives these independent
filmmakers a worldwide audience, so that they can see if their low-budget works will receive the kind of recognition an Oscar brings.

One category that illustrates this is Best Documentary — Short Subject. This year, five films are nominated. One of them, Breathing
Lessons
: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, was directed by Jessica Yu.

“It is one of the best recognitions to be nominated,” said Yu in a phone interview, when asked about her nomination.

Breathing Lessons
is a half-hour documentary about the life of Mark O’Brien, a poet and journalist for the Pacific News Service who now lives in Berkeley, CA. O’Brien's writings are worthy of attention on their own, but the source of O’Brien’s work is a story in itself.

Mark O’Brien is a 47-year-old writer who has used an iron lung to breathe since contracting polio at the age of six. OBrien is one of an estimated 120 people in the world who is dependent on such a device. O’Brien’s life, experiences, and poetry are at the heart of Breathing Lessons
.

Answering the phone, O’Brien’s voice sounds like an answering machine — one can hear his breathing over his voice. When asked about his reaction to the Oscar nomination, O’Brien stated, “I did not think we were even eligible. I was very surprised.”

The idea of a film came to light when Yu covered a film festival for Pacific News Service. “The editor told me I had to meet this reporter. I was hesitant because it seemed like a heavy, serious story.” Yu continues, “Yet when I first talked to Mark, I knew I could do this.” Yu described her previous films as “funny and kind of offbeat.”

The film does live up to those adjectives. O’Brien’s own writing is described as brutally honest, funny, and as having a refreshing point of
view. “I guess it’s an occupational hazard,” O’Brien joked when asked about his frank style of writing. In one of his essays, he candidly describes seeing a sexual surrogate.


Breathing Lessons
received much of its budget from grants Yu wrote. Additional money was provided by Pacific News. “A great deal of the money was pocket money,” Yu stated. The film took almost a year to complete and premiered in December 1995.

When asked what the most anticipated moment was, Yu immediately responded, “The two days after I sent it to Mark to see it. I was
walking on eggshells hoping he liked it.”

 

The film is an honest portrayal of O’Brien's life. It opens with his poem Breathing:

Grasping for straws is easier
You can see the straws
This most canopy, the air, look you
Presses down upon me
At fifteen pounds per square inch.


The film continues with OBriens memories of his childhood before the onset of his polio. O’Brien's parents decided to bring him home rather than place him in a nursing home, where the average life expectancy was only 18 months.

O’Brien later did spend two years in a nursing home, years he frequently refers to as horrific and terrifying. He was tutored at home as a child, excluded from the public school system. As it would turn out, his way out of the life he deplored was to attend college in Berkeley, CA.

In another poem about the loss of a younger sister to pneumonia, O'Brien wrote, "I was the one who was supposed to die, which became one of the most memorable lines of the film.


The film is a funny and emotionally moving tale. This is not a story about a hopeless person with a disability. It rather serves as a document of how one person has chosen to lead his life, despite various obstacles and difficulties. The film has already received numerous awards and selections, from such acclaimed film festivals and associations as the International Documentary Association, the South by Southwest film festival, and the Sundance Film Festival.


Because of problems associated with his disability, O’Brien is only able to get in his wheelchair twice a month. Yu went to numerous screenings of the film all over the continent and brought a book in which viewers could write messages to O’Brien. She gave the completed book to him last Christmas. O’Brien will be watching the awards show at home. He probably will have a party with his friends. Yu will be at the awards, having a good time at the ceremonies.


The film is also slated to be shown on the cable network Cinemax, tentatively scheduled for May 22, as part of their Reel Life series. O’Brien is currently working on an autobiography to be published in the fall. “I don’t care if it is sandwiched between Police Academy 1 and 2, as long as it is on,” Yu commented.