Nostalgia & Paranoia in Awakenings

This clip from the 1990 Penny Marshall film, Awakenings, takes place in 1969 and is adapted from Oliver Sacks’ memoir of the same name, which relays the true story of catatonic victims of an 1920s epidemic being awakened, and subsequently  returned to their catatonic state, through the use of an experimental drug. In this scene, Leonard (Robert DeNiro), the first patient to be awakened, has been slowly deteriorating, displaying clear signs that he will soon become catatonic once more and is thus saying goodbye to the nurse, Paula (Penelope Ann Miller) with whom he’s fallen in love while awake.

The film at large plays on many levels of nostalgia. Made in 1990, it takes place in 1969 and is therefore an interpretation of how people in the 90s viewed sixties New York City. The patients who are being awakened have been catatonic since the 1920s and therefore psychologically exist in that era and are viewing the sixties from having skipped three decades. Throughout the film nostalgia is formally expressed through prop and wardrobe choices. In this particular scene, that holds true.

Taking place in 1969 it is interesting to think of how that year is portrayed in comparison to actual films from the late 1960s/early 1970s that we’ve watched in class recently. Robert Sklar’s article, “Nadir and Revival,” discusses the historical context of the time. Television was threatening film. Directors were following French New Wave and auteur trends and America at large was extremely contentious with riots, protests and recent assassinations. Not much of any of this is expressed in Awakenings. There are moments of culture shock and references to current events when the patients are learning about the late 1960s, but the movie does not give the thick undertone of rebellion and conspiracy that can be felt from many of the films actually made in that era. In fact some of the slow shots (particularly in this scene) almost evoke a rose-colored nostalgia of a time when things moved at a longer pace compared with the technologically booming early 90s. However, as Sklar points out, films actually being made around the 1960s were doing anything to be cutting-edge and flashy in order to grasp the attention of television prone audiences.

The film is not actually in black and white. This is the only YouTube clip I could find in this scene and the person who uploaded it made the choice to change it to gray scale. Perhaps I could analyze their reasoning for that, but that would stray a bit from the prompt. Just note that the film is actually in color so the black and white effect is not actually a way that it address nostalgia.

In general, the film addresses personal paranoia as the other awakened patients in the hospital witness Leonard’s deterioration and know that it is their coming fate. In this clip, the camera circles around Leonard and Paula dancing from the perspective of onlooking patients, who the camera cuts to in between shots of the couple. It’s one of the most emotionally evocative moments in the film as far as fear from the other patients is concerned because it has them all silently watching this beautiful and tragic moment in the middle of a cold, sterile room and knowing that they’ll all be facing a similar farewell soon. The close up shots of Paula’s distraught, even disturbed face, reveal the heavy foreboding of the situation. From the onset, it’s been a risky experiment with an unknown future. The shots of her face and the contrast of the clinical setting with the tender dance emphasize the paranoia by highlighting the jarring fact that an institution is controlling peoples’ ability to live.


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