It is, perhaps, the most nightmarish of neurological conditions: when the brain stem is selectively injured, a person can be perfectly self-aware and yet completely paralyzed, so that they lose control of virtually all voluntary muscles. The technical name of the syndrome captures the horror: “Locked-In Syndrome“.
This weekend, I watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (newly released on DVD), which tells the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French journalist, who suffered a massive stroke that left him painfully cognizant of his complete paralysis. He ended up writing a memoir by blinking his left eye in response to the correct letter. (Needless to say, the writing process was slow and agonizing.)
Directed by the painter Julian Schnabel, the movie is lush and gorgeous. It’s also an incredibly vivid portrait of what it’s like to be “locked-in”. Most of the movie unfolds from the limited perspective of Bauby’s left eye, so that we see what he sees. When he blinks, the screen goes briefly blank, like a camera shutter. When a doctor sews his right eyelid shut – he couldn’t blink that eye, so it was getting dry and infected – we see the needle thread the flesh, but we see it happen from the inside. Can you think of any other movies that are primarily rooted in the first-person perspective?