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Strange awakenings on screen In Focus by Richard Crouse March 13, 2009

comaAccording to Wikipedia the definition of coma is “a profound state of unconsciousness.” They can be caused by head trauma or any number of phenomenon and they are, as The Smiths sang in their Top 20 hit Girlfriend in a Coma, “really serious.” They are also an unlikely inspiration for all manner of pop culture confections from pop songs — both Guns ’N Roses and Stone Temple Pilots have sung about them — to this weekend’s Miss March, a comedy about a twenty-something who comes out of a four-year coma to find his high-school sweetheart has become a centrefold in Playboy magazine.

The most famous movie to use a coma as a plot device is 1978’s Coma. In this medical thriller Geneviève Bujold is Dr. Susan Wheeler, a surgery resident at Boston Hospital who uncovers foul play after her best friend is scheduled for a routine procedure but instead slips into a coma and dies.

Determined to discover how her friend expired she digs into the hospital’s medical records only to discover dozens of cases of patients who have passed away under similar, mysterious circumstances. Her investigation leads to uncovering the nefarious secret of Operating Room 8.

On the lighter side, a German movie called Good Bye Lenin! sees a Socialist woman wake up from a long coma. East and West Germany have reunited and the world she knew is gone.

After doctors tell her son that any shock to her system could be fatal he takes pains to make her comfortable by recreating her beloved East Germany in their house. It’s a touching film about a son’s love for his mother, but also an energetic satire about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Quentin Tarantino used a coma as a way to introduce the Uma Thurman character in his revenge epic Kill Bill. Shot and left for dead at her wedding, The Bride (Thurman) wakes up four years later determined to get bloody vengeance on everyone who double-crossed her. This is a good example of a movie using the “Sleeping Beauty” effect whereby recovery from a comatose state is instantaneous and absolute. In truth, after laying in a coma for years, The Bride would require massive physiotherapy to even begin to bring back the muscle tone required to wage holy hell on her enemies.

Not everyone is happy about the portrayal of comatose patients in movies. One doctor, Eelco Wijdicks of the Mayo Clinic, is pushing for more realism. A recent study published in Neurology magazine showed 39 per cent of viewers would allow portrayals of coma victims on film to influence their decision making should a relative ever become comatose.

“This mispresentation in both U.S. and foreign moves is problematic,” he said.

For a more realistic look at comas check out the drama Reversal of Fortune or, better yet, have a look at Liz Garbus’ documentary Coma which explores the mysteries of the injured brain and its ability to heal by following four coma survivors over the course of a year.

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