Features | The Art of Not Seeing: On Blindness and blindness

By Jason Anderson

In With Borges, his memoir about spending several years in the ‘60s as a reader for the elderly writer after meeting him in a Buenos Aires bookshop, Alberto Manguel fondly describes one of their occasional forays to the cinema. By then, Borges—who lost his vision due to a genetic condition—had been completely blind for several years, the lifelong process of “that slow nightfall, that slow loss of sight” having finished its business by 1955. Nevertheless, the writer—a film critic for the Argentinian literary magazine Sur from 1931 to 1944—remained an enthusiastic moviegoer, especially when it came to gangster pictures and musicals. Manguel writes of the time he accompanied Borges to a screening of West Side Story (1961), a particular favourite: “He has sat through it several times and never seems to tire of it. On the way, he hums ‘Maria’ and remarks on how true the fact that the name of the beloved changes from a simple name to a divine utterance: Beatrice, Juliet, Lesbia, Laura. ‘Afterwards, everything is contaminated by that name,’ he says. ‘Of course, perhaps it wouldn’t have the same effect if the name of the girl were Gumersinda, eh? Or Bustefrieda. Or Bertha-aux-grands-pieds, eh?’ he chuckles.”

Manguel notes that it was “easier to sit with Borges watching a film he has already seen, because there is less to describe.” The author would pretend to see what is happening on the screen, drawing from the descriptions of some former companion. Yet he remained a critical viewer. As Manguel notes, “He comments on the epic quality of the rivalry between the gangs, on the role of the women, on the use of the colour red.”

One irony here is that in his essay “Blindness,” the most famous of his writings on the subject, Borges lamented that of all the colours he’d been robbed of by his disease, the first were red and black. As a result, his nighttimes were spent in “a greenish or bluish mist.” Therefore Borges’ true experience of viewing West Side Story that day—if it can be described in terms a sighted person would understand – must have been closer to the steady cobalt image of Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), one of the tiny handful of films about blindness to be made by a blind person. (Yes, it’s a small pool, though it may expand exponentially if Iranian director Mohammad Shirvani makes good on a recently announced plan to produce documentaries by seven blind female filmmakers.)

Or given Borges’ trouble with mistiness, maybe what he saw was more like the milky, slightly blue-tinted whiteness that continually swallows up the frame in Fernando Mereilles’ new adaptation of Blindness, José Saramago’s novel about a city’s collapse after all but one of its citizens are inexplicably struck blind. Or for all we know, Borges may have believed he was seeing Maria. Unfortunately, no anecdotes have surfaced to date about how Mereilles’ film has been experienced by a sightless audience, so there’s no way to know whether these patrons will be any more charitable than the reviewers who gave Cannes’ opening night selection such a thorough kicking. Borges, for one, might have complained about the absence of any musical performance besides Gael Garcia Bernal’s rendition of “I Just Called to Say I Loved You,” a sick joke in a movie that could’ve used a few more. Yet Blindness is intelligent and courageous enough to deserve defenders of some sort. At the very least, it merits consideration within the slim canon of films that struggle to sincerely convey the experience of sightlessness rather than use the condition as a hackneyed trope. Epitomized by the likes of both Thai and English versions of The Eye (2002 and 2008) and Hollywood Ending (2002), that other kind of blind cinema was memorably analyzed by Joe Queenan in a typically wise-assed essay, who expressed envy for the blind because they got “to go through life without ever seeing Shelley Winters.”

Blindness may also belong to a category of literary adaptations—including Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), and Alan Rudolph’s Breakfast of Champions (1999)—whose dogged faithfulness to their sources inadvertently prove just how unfilmable the books were in the first place. Being a capital-a Allegory that is intentionally free of cultural markers that would situate the story in any specific time or place, Blindness presents a daunting challenge. Yet the film’s cosmopolitan casting serves the concept well, as does the manner in which its Canadian and Brazilian locations defy easy identification—the places are at once modern and decrepit, new and old, First and Third World. Though the film fails to figure out what to do about the book’s unnamed omniscient narrator—spoken in voiceover, his words are sporadically and awkwardly attributed to Danny Glover’s character—Don McKellar’s script otherwise brings the appropriate amount of emphasis to key moments and deploys a lighter touch with scenes that could have easily been overwrought and heavy-handed on screen, like the discovery of the church whose religious icons have all been blindfolded.
One common complaint about Blindness was that Mereilles had unduly sanitized the tale, minimizing the impact of the shit-strewn hallways and rotting bodies that Saramago doesn’t flinch from describing. Accusing the film of downplaying the book’s brutality, Nick James wrote in Sight & Sound that the gang rapes that mark the lowest point for the quarantined characters were “passed over quickly as an inconvenience.” Yet a movie that accurately replicated those scenes as written would be unreleasable in the current marketplace unless Criterion’s newly revamped edition of Salo (1975) tops the DVD sales charts. Some cineastes secretly (or not so secretly) crave the hard stuff but Mereilles and McKellar know they can only go so far. Though the horrors are far more suggested than explicit, those scenes nonetheless go right up to the edge of what a mainstream, Miramaxed audience can tolerate these days, at least when the sex and violence don’t have the same alluring packaging they get on a typical episode of CSI: Miami.

What’s more, the fact that so much is left unseen is just another of the film’s off-putting visual strategies. In the scenes charting the first stages of the epidemic, the perspectives of the characters are consumed by the “milky sea” that Saramago describes as the sufferer’s predominant experience of the “white sickness.” The lighting in all of these early sequences is hard and bright enough to induce a migraine. The actors’ placement in the frame is equally unusual at times—as more and more of them succumb, they become increasingly decentered. We still see them, but just as they have grown uncertain about their eyelines, the viewer is only confident about their approximate position. And for a long section of the film, there is not a single piece of synched dialogue—the cut to the speaker comes too early or too late.

Though they hardly mount an all-out assault on these conventions—much of the movie follows the same rules as any respectable piece of middlebrow Oscar bait—the efforts of Mereilles and his frequent collaborators, cinematographer César Charlone, and editor Daniel Rezende, do much to destabilize viewers’ usual expectations about what (and how) we see when we look at the screen. Detractors may wish Mereilles had taken greater risks but his strategies do point to an awareness of Blindness’ sightless-cinema precedents. One film that he encouraged his actors to watch was Black Sun (2005), Gary Tarn’s extraordinary documentary-cum-essay-film-cum-tone-poem about Hugues de Montalembert, a French artist and writer who was blinded in a 1978 mugging but who, like Borges, remained an eager and adventurous world traveller. Tarn pairs Montalembert’s narration with travel imagery that is often distorted and manipulated to such an extent that the film could be construed as a variation on Jarman’s Blue with an expanded palette of colours.

Not that the screen image in Zeitgeist’s DVD reissue of Blue should be considered a single unbroken colour—included in the four-disc Glitterbox set along with The Angelic Conversation (1985), Caravaggio (1986), and Wittgenstein (1993), the transfer preserves the flecks of black and white on the print, signs of wear that add to the film’s inevitable yet fiercely unsentimental air of poignance. Since I knew the movie best from the soundtrack disc, my prior experience of Blue had been primarily aural. Simon Fisher Turner’s score remains swoony and lush, yet is also marked by an air of mischief, what with the way in which the music seems to parry with the various pieces of clatter and chatter in Marvin Black’s sound design. But I’d never realized how sumptuous that blue could be, and how much energy the film derives from its vibrancy. Though the subjects of falling blood cell counts and failing body parts dominate Jarman’s typically erudite and mellifluous narration, the sound of his voice has too much force for his pensées to seem like murmurs from a deathbed. Blue remains fiercely and defiantly lively, as well as the kind of film that demands to be seen and not just heard in order to be understood.
The same description applies to a Cannes discovery about blindness that was far less heralded than its competition counterpart. Surprising, delightful and unabashedly odd, Slovakian director Juraj Lehotsky’s Blind Loves is a documentary that delves into the personal lives of several sightless subjects, a roster that includes a middle-aged music teacher who experiences an underwater adventure worthy of Jules Verne, a 16-year-old girl eager for a first love and—most movingly—a pregnant woman who wonders about the gulf that will exist between her and her sighted offspring. Rendered with an intimacy that recalls the docs of Ulrich Seidl –albeit with none of the accompanying misanthropy—Lehotsky’s Quinzaine prizewinner is not so much about simulating the blind’s perspective of the world than portraying the inner worlds formed by the subjects’ imaginations and emotions. Lehotsky is able to do so with such care and patience, his film has a sense of fullness that Blindness only rarely achieves. Whereas the reception to Mereilles’ movie suggests that Borges was being overly optimistic when he wrote that “people always feel good will toward the blind,” Lehotsky’s film elicits the same spirit of kindness that Montalembert describes discovering among strangers in Black Sun. And while the sighted cannot fully understand what it is to live without red, black, or blue, then it still serves them well to be reminded that there are many ways of seeing besides one’s own.

More from the Magazine