Documentaries can speak to the human condition in a manner no other medium can. They also can have jokes about erections and jello, so they really have something for everyone.
Two new documentaries available beginning this Friday, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life and Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, provide exciting and distinct snapshots of artists reflecting on their respective work.
Oliver Sacks was a prolific author who became most well known for his transgressive writing about neurology. He was also funny as hell, making him a fitting voice to tell his own story.
In Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, Sacks makes use of his impeccable wit to talk through his struggles with drug addiction, mental health, and sexuality. It's heavy and heartfelt to watch Sacks reflect, captured in what he knows will be the final months of his life.
To say Sacks had a troubled life would be an understatement, but a troubled life is relatable during this troubled year, which makes it all the more cathartic to see Sacks work through it. He confronts his self-destructive tendencies head-on in the doc—from early morning, drug-fueled motorcycle trips to a reckless encounter with a wild animal. It's clear he isn’t a perfect person. The documentary doesn’t gloss over those flaws.
His Own Life particularly highlights Sacks' struggles to connect in relationships. His loneliness is pervasive throughout. It seems much of this stems from his parents believing his homosexuality was a pathology (wrong) and even fearing it would be similar to his brother’s diagnosed schizophrenia (terribly wrong). But all of that history molded Sacks, inspiring him to commit to a career dedicated to humanizing those dealing with neurological problems.
The documentary addresses Sacks' criticisms, especially those surrounding how he wrote about folks like Temple Grandin. The doc brings in British academic and disability rights activist Tom Shakespeare, who criticized Sacks for being someone he saw as "the man who mistook his patients for a literary career." Shakespeare's criticisms are valuable, and it's a topic that deserved greater detail from the filmmakers.
Still, I'd be lying if I said seeing Sacks find companionship in the last years of his life didn’t elicit both joy and sadness. Showing Sacks as he looks back on an extraordinary life proves to be revelatory.
A visual treat with a desire to get at something more profound, this doc follows chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi in the buildup to an exhibition for The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum tasks Ottolenghi with creating an exhibit highlighting Versailles' culinary history and the documentary follows him as he launches into this project with a genuine passion.
Cakes of Versailles is very interested in how the history of food intersects with all other aspects of culture. It often reminds the viewer of this interest, even though it saves much of this information until its very end. The interest comes off as rushed, especially when it tries to draw an analogy between Versailles' decadence and modern-day excesses. There's a strong case for this argument, but it's ultimately half-baked. With a short runtime of an hour and fifteen minutes, it seems bizarre that the filmmakers didn't just extend the runtime to tackle their complicated central idea.
That said, there are cakes. Getting to see chefs work is inherently fascinating, especially when they act as artists. In Cakes of Versailles, one chef even pairs their architectural background with 3D models to create wholly original cakes. It's magnificent and mouthwatering and nearly makes up for the doc's aforementioned half-baked ideas. Sure, it's not exactly back-to-back food porn, but hey, it's still tasty.