Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In Defense of Interrogation


The last three times I've mentioned that I have Blindness--Fernando Meirelles' 2008 adaption of the José Saramago novel--in my netflix queue, I've received variations of "didn't that go straight to video?" Well no, and in fact, I wish I'd seen it in the theater. There are a few disgusting choices in this movie as well as an intriguing expression of a familiar idea. There's something to be said about Blindness; we cannot stop at the surface, the surface, the surface.

Its plot charges through what happens when All Of A Sudden (!) everybody starts to go blind, epidemic-style. Of course "The Government" has to quarantine folks and of course that means things quickly shape up to Lord Of the Flies dimensions and of course our protagonists (Julianne Moor's cheekbones be poppin' and Mark Ruffulo oddly still pulls off Cute) navigate toward a new freedom. I'll account for the above sass by spelling it out: Yes, yes indeed well-read critics, here the movie sits contentedly with the trite. Blindness' plot serves up the apocalypse and when we feel the film using well-worn tactics, it might be frustrating, boring, or downright painful.

But here's something, I didn't want to watch just another bad movie about the fragility of humanity, so I didn't. Which is not to say that that cliché is not in motion here or that every film is just what we make it--I see the narrative stilts Blindness depends upon; I hear its corny lines; I don't emotionally comprehend a whole lot of the character motivation and I find the pacing of this project (either a crawl or a sprint) to be at odds with its goals--but with a case like this, my favorite people in the world do at least two things that was Rarely done in the critical reception of Blindness; they probe their discomfort or boredom enough to see if there's anything substantial at its roots and, with that accomplished, they ceaselessly look for the best or the most provocative emanations that the object, individual, or artwork has to offer. This isn't about obsessive interpretation nor is it about finding a way to straight praise, it's about seeing the world with an eye toward productivity and construction. It's about wanting to learn so badly that it becomes possible to acknowledge the things that we find dumb and the things that bore us, acknowledge why this is so, and work to push past them and to find something real to talk about. It's true, some films make this critical aspiration nearly impossible or, when exercised, sound naive and altruistic, but Blindness is not that film. With Blindness, it feels at once dangerous and boring to let certain lines in this cinematic drawing go unexamined. It feels dangerous and boring to stop at the surface.

The film's lack of plausibility is not just a disappointment; the lack of comprehensible character motivation isn't just an annoying narrative failure; the empty valor and villainy thrown on characters isn't just silly. These aren't clichés to be bored by, but choices that prove problematic in the most terrifying and grotesque scene in the film. Oddly, nobody I've read says much of anything about the mass-rape scene lying in the dark center of this movie and, I think quite astonishingly, nobody even mentioned that it either shook them from their bored disposition or embodied their complaints with the film. The omission of the rape crime from the "critical" "discourse" (excuse the snarky quotes, but actually don't, just embrace them, thanks) around this film is strange; it seems only natural that the shortcomings of a film would become most apparent in the scene where the stakes are highest and, with Blindness--a movie with a lot of feces and crying and potential treachery, but very little actual violence--the stakes are highest (or the film asks the most of us) when, in explicit detail, eight women are brutally raped and beaten, leaving one woman dead. Here, the film is careless. Importantly, it's not the inclusion of a violent rape scene that I find so offensive--perhaps Saramago's novel pulls it off--but the reliance on action-movie tropes and the clichés of the Lord Of The Flies genre. When you're asking a viewer to watch gratuitous violence and torture, issues of plausibility, character and plot development, and the use of Hollywood/genre cliché become more prescient. What comes off in other scenes as something to scoff at here seems downright irresponsible, leaving (apparently only) this viewer wondering, "Wait why am I watching that terrified woman get screamed at, fucked, and punched to death with all the anger and force her male aggressor can muster?" Here's where it seems to really matter that I found the plot progression--often forced into awkward time lapse/montage sequences composed of visual queues that point at emotional impact without actually achieving it--unconvincing. In this scene it becomes important that the film seems to justify its movements by lazily relying on the audience's cultural cache of Apocalypse/Anarchy genre cliché instead of reinventing and freshly articulating the problems and motivations. We do not know the characters (both rapists and women) deep enough to understand how and why they are making these immense choices (the women "choose" to be raped because they are bartering for food) nor do we know them in a cursory, nameless, apocalyptic fable sort of way which would allow the film to completely abandon the story at hand in favor of a larger allegory. Instead, the film asks us to take these people and their choices seriously while giving us no depth of reason to believe them. It asks us to open up to and allow the most brutal of rape scenes to unfold, with the loudest justification being, "this is just what happens in these types of stories." To make matters worse, by the happy ending of the movie, we're shown three of these women's bodies showering, giggling, calling each other beautiful in all their carefree, sexy glory. Instead of cracking jokes about the cheeseball-factor of happy puppies and cleansing rains at the end of the film, maybe we could take seriously the idea of empty redemption and how that rears a particularly ugly head when we're asked to voyeuristically (framed either as if we're looking through a window or standing back in a dark room and looking through a distant door and stealing glimpses of bare, wet breasts) look upon the naked bodies that were so brutalized previously.

Consider me impressed that peoeple would rather whip out their quips and talk about the size of their yawns than touch this terrifying scene and its aftermath, which seemed to exemplify many of the criticisms pingponging around the film's reception.

I'd like to push my larger point--that there's no time for snarky bullshit when a film holds things (there's almost always something!) to unravel--from another angle.

As you may or probably don't know, this blog is turned on by light, which is to say, films that play with it, make it dance, shut it all the way out or drench a world in it--these films most definitely tickle What Is This Light's fancy. This fascination with light-tricks is (often) a facet of a larger love for cinema speaking on cinema, of formal and narrative self-referentiality whereby a film uses its medium to say something about its medium. Also in this self-reflexive category: concepts of seeing, blindness, and virtually any formal or narrative concept that draws comparison between extradiegetic actions and diegetic actions. This self-referentiality was part of cinema from its starting blocks around the world, became more complicated with the arrival of modernism in film, and grew more abstract as permutations of this cinematic modernism emerged. From this lineage we get not only things like Man With a Movie Camera (1929) or Haji Agha, The Cinema Actor (1933), but also all those New Waves around the world, and Rear Window's binoculars and Blow Up's camera, and Sunset Boulevard, and Caden Cotard and Esther Kahn's (astonishingly different) wills to experience through imitation. It's a rich and deep and sprawling history, one in which I see Blindness operating with intention and invention.

Enter Ben Polk, who said it best:
"I actually found Meirelles' dark, disorienting visual style appropriate and really powerful. The film's overwhelming whiteouts and blackouts, its chaotic closeups, the darkness and blur on the frame's periphery all serve to undermine our (the viewers') trust in our own vision (a fairly ballsy step for a filmmaker, I'd say) and allow us to share the characters' claustrophobic, radically unstable perceptual experience. Much of the film's power centers on explorations of this experience. There are moments of incredible delicacy, as characters grope and stumble through space or desperately reach for each other. And there are moments of suspense and even real horror as we share in their profound, frantic lostness.

So let me suggest, then, that blindness is neither symbol nor metaphor but the very subject of the film itself."

To continue in this vein, I felt this movie drawing a peculiar connection between the viewer and on-screen action. These people suffer from a "white sickness," a blindness of overexposure as compared to the dark universe usually portrayed. As Ben describes, this gives birth to a certain dark and bright aesthetic of confusion. I think this looks good but I also love the way this aesthetic operates; we don't watch the action unfold around these people as a normally-seeing, unaffected person might and, even with all the dark and bright washes across the screen, we also don't ever fully align with the vision of the afflicted. In one of the most beautiful sequences of the film, a woman walks into the ward calling for her husband. The screen is white but we see her outstretched, red-nail-polished hand come in and out of focus as if we and the camera are seeing from her perspective, with her damaged sight. But as we walk on, following her red nails through the white and listening to her forlorn call and response with her husband, the camera drifts and spins and, though the screen is still shrouded in white, it's clear this is no point-of-view shot; her delicate search extends from a separate body and finally both she and her husband come into the frame, burning at the edges with white, their hug celestial. It's beautiful and it exemplifies the third vision being created here: not the distant, untouched observer's, not the diegesis-bound blind, but a third perspective whose exact location is unknown. The vision granted us here is a gift, an expressionistic light-obsessed lens that allows us, quite miraculously, to at once watch the film from the outside and see as our protagonists do. With this single sight, both visual spaces are navigable. In a way, this type of third-party perspective could be argued for any number of films (we perceive a film as a rational outsider and as the insane person at its center, for example), but here, with the ultimate boundaries of light and dark, the Blindness' address to the audience feels explicit. Light literalizes this third perspective (or, really, vision) in a way that, to go back to the example, can't be done with the perspective of insanity; sitting in a movie theater, you can make me see white or experience a completely dark room but you can't make me insane. When the world of the film, when our lens goes white or dark, the extradiegetic Brooklyn 2am bedroom hits pitch black or lights way up. These light-tricks are a literal connection between me, Martha in real time, and the vision put forth by the film. To place this back in film's lineage of reflexivity, this can only be done at the movies. In what other medium would this strange vision, so dependent on light and movement, be possible? Concerned with various ways of seeing, Blindness is a movie that reflects and capitalizes on a special potential of its medium.

Here's hoping I found some version of productivity.

6 comments:

Bennifer said...

Your idea of "third vision"--neither the detached (but absorbed)viewer, nor a type of visual first person--is right the fuck on. That, I think, is a huge part of what is so hugely cinematic about this movie. Merleau-Ponty says that one of the conditions of subjective vision is one's own visibility, so that any act of seeing is also a instance of being seen--the perceptual world as a kind of decentered visual field. In other words: totally, dude.

Yeah, I thought that rape scene was the apex of the weakest part of the movie--as you say, the most conventional, most hackneyed and thereby most offensive bit. Although, the scene that followed, the one in which the women all give their dead buddy her last ablutions was so, so tactile and beautiful I couldn't believe it. That's the "making new rituals" I was talking about.

Interesting, too, how the rape scene was gross in a totally predictable way. Whereas the moment in which, after everybody's escaped and the heroes are walking hand-in-hand through the city, the black dude loses contact with the others and just kind of innocuously walks away never to be seen again, was deadpan and totally, totally terrifying. It really got at the horror of their experience for me.

We probably look like idiots talking about this movie this way.

martha said...

Yeah, that last moment they have with their woman, their slain, really got me too. It's so delicate. In hindsight, after all those words about the righteousness of praise, I wish I'd actually put a bit more praise in here. So thanks, thanks for reading my words as productive, not just angry, and thanks for being productive in response to them! I hereby declare a ceasefire in the BlogWars '09!

Anonymous said...

Martha,

You're so smart. Great essay, as usual. I've love reading your stuff!

-Andy L.

David Marin-Guzman said...

I really enjoyed your review - in particular the way you articulate the 'third vision' of the film. I disagree with the rape scenes as being predictable and hackneyed - what was so daring and unusual about it was why quite a few of the women just accept their fate (in particular the Japanese woman). In a controversial move I believe it suggested there was some sort of libidinal, obscene investment in the sense of order and exchange Bernal's character had impelemented. Their blindness has led to such a state of vulnerability that even this obscene form of barter provides some masochistic fulfilment (of course this fantasy attachment completely evaporates during the actual act). Any other film would have portrayed this as a much fraught and melodramatic decision.

I actually have written a lengthy analysis and defense of the film here: http://daveguzman.blogspot.com/2009/06/underrated-film-1-blindness.html
I consider it Meirelles' best film to date (I believe City of God is a far more ugly film than Blindness) and perhaps the most radical film of the year.

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Ramesh chauhan said...
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