CLOSE YOUR EYES

Thomas Emmet explores the depiction of blindness in cinema

Close your eyes. Keep them closed. Mushy carpets and the stale salt smell of popcorn greet you. There is the light tearing of ticket stubs and the dull sound of trailers on a loop. The mechanical whirring of an escalator in the distance leading to screens and bathrooms. In the screen the seats are comfortable, worn by those who sat before, a  double crescent imprint on each. You can slide into groove effortlessly. The cup holder beside you is sticky, but not uncomfortably so. There is the susurrus of the audience: teenagers gossiping, couples whispering breathless compliments, parents shushing their spawn. A silence descends slowly and then all at once and suddenly there is the bombardment of sound from the speakers. The movie has begun, but with your eyes closed it’s very difficult to enjoy.

Blindness in cinema is a rarely touched upon topic. A selection of forty-five films is listed on IMDB, a number just above January 2014’s total film releases. Film is such a visual medium that it seems anathema to have central characters that cannot respond to the visual nature of it. Or perhaps it is too complex for directors to take a risk upon in mainstream cinema.

It forms the backbone of focus Daniel Ribeiro’s first feature length film The Way He Looks, adding the weight of emerging sexuality his protagonist’s troubles. Based on the Iris-winning short film “I Don’t Want To Go Back Alone”, the Brazilian film tackles many aspects of blindness. The film opens with Leonardo (a superb Ghilherme Lobo) lying by the pool in the heat of summer discussing the varying levels of boredom he feels. It is not immediately apparent that he is blind, until his friend disappears below the water and he cannot find her.

The film is on the whole a very average coming of age story, resplendent with teenage awkwardness, first kisses and a group of intolerant machismo boys who torment Leonardo. There are two scenes that stand out however. Avoiding a yawn-inducing assignment on Greek culture, Leonardo and his new friend, soon to become crush Gabriel (Fabio Audi, charmingly clumsy and dashing in the same breath) go to the cinema instead. Leonardo asks Gabriel to explain what is happening in each scene, despite being hushed by other cinemagoers. This scene acts as a catalyst as the two teens become closer through a shared hilarity at the pulp horror unfolding on the screen they are watching. The other scene is Leonardo’s soft-core wet dream, where shapes vaguely resembling characters in the film move against one another, kissing and touching. The characters are white tinged and eerily inhuman, yet this adds a first person perspective to the blindness on screen.

The film also deals with Leonardo’s need for independence both from his parents and his childhood friend. Set upon travelling to America for a year, he struggles with an overprotective mother who refuses to leave him in the house on his own, should something happen, and a father who benevolently wants what is best for his son. The mother tends towards being shrill and clichéd, which undermines the film, but the father is likeable, notably when he teaches his son to shave on his own. The film tackles the usual tropes of the genre but the blindness aspect adds some fresh ideas to the mix.

Daredevil, the highly underrated 2003 superhero film, tackles blindness as a superpower. Ben Affleck, milky eyed and doubtfully ginger, negotiates a daytime job as a lawyer (the superior director’s cut has him take on a case which runs alongside the main plot) and nighttime ventures as The Man Without Fear. Blinded as a child by an unfortunate chemical lorry accident, the story was never going to be realistic. It does however play on the concept that, with one sense obliterated, the others grow stronger. This manifests itself in a strange glowing vision that Mark Steven Johnson uses to great effect. Rain, sounds and movements all reverberate to create Daredevil’s throbbing vision, a precursor to The Dark Knight’s lauded tracking prototype. Affleck is solid, balanced perfectly by Jennifer Garner, channeling her Alias character as ninja wunderkind Elektra Natchios. Colin Farrell hams it up as a dire Bullseye, a travesty only surpassed by his title role in Alexander and the late Michael Clarke Duncan has fun with The Kingpin of Crime. What is impressive about the film is the attention to detail of Matt Murdock’s blindness, from the braille tags attached to each item of clothing to the combination locks on his door, though this relies more on his super- hearing than anything else. The films darkness (literally and in relation to the sightlessness) proved to be its undoing, as it has little legacy, aside from a small following like myself. It will be very interesting to see how Netflix adapt Daredevil to the small screen, but the cast (including Charlie Cox and the incredibly talented Deborah Ann Woll) looks promising.

Al Pacino’s Oscar win as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade is a more generic blind character. Having never been a fan of his shout-and-its-acting approach I expected a more reticent, calmer character from Pacino. But as the adage goes, “If wishes were horses…” Pacino does in fact shout more due to blindness, or perhaps more importantly his characters career in the military. He yells, sometimes nonsensically, staring straight ahead and generally nursing alcohol beneath his nose. Christopher O’ Donnell, surprising anybody who saw him with nipples on his Robin costume, does a serviceable job as his teenage foil and weekend guardian. The one moment that does resonate is Slades admonishment of Charlie for holding his arm to guide him rather than the other way around. The repetition of “Hooah” goes from loud to irritating to jarring as the film progresses. The tragically missed Philip Seymour Hoffman turns up as an entitled student, almost an origin to his character in The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Kill Bill Volume 2, the inferior contribution, has a moment of perverse black comedy where a character is violently blinded and left to die in a trailer in the middle of nowhere. While technically not an addition to the canon of blind cinema, the scene remains Tarantino’s most humorous since Pulp Fiction’s “I shot Marvin in the face” moment. Darryl Hannah, already cyclopic, has her eye torn out during a fight with Uma Thurman’s vengeful bride after a playful Western standoff where instead of staring at each other and waiting to draw they use samurai swords. Thurman’s solution to this standoff is to rip out Elle Driver’s eye and stand on it leaving her to claw her way around the trailer home blurting expletives. The Book of Eli, a very workaday post apocalyptic work with aspirations to biblical overtones uses blindness in an entirely unbelievable way towards the end of the film, leaving viewers both confused and annoyed. Why Gary Oldman ever accepted his underwritten role is beyond me. Jessica Alba’s horror film The Eye about a blind woman getting a cornea transplant and then seeing dead people is another example of blindness being used as an effect, rather than the exploration of a blind character.

One of the few films on blindness to be made by a blind director is Derek Jarman’s “Blue”. Made while Jarman was partially-blind and dying of AIDS-related complication, the 1993 film consists of a blue screen and nothing else. Narration from Jarman himself and Tilda Swinton and a full soundtrack of incidental noises and music provide the only break from the aforementioned blue screen. An incredibly odd experience to watch in its entirety, it moves from alien to intimate as the running time continues. The title credits shake subtly so that you can just about read them, adding to the oddity of the experience. For Jarman, a director known for odd short films and an off centre adaptation of the Tempest that offended critics with its extreme nudity, this was his last film. It is relatively unknown and this is hugely sad because it is an excellent study in blindness from the shouts of passing pedestrians to the pensive score from Simon Fisher Turner.

Blindness in cinema is still a hugely unmined area of the craft. The fact that an indie film from Brazil is the most enlightening on the subject is a clear indication that is hugely overlooked. Even Jarman’s experimental work is not as widely appreciated, as it should be. Overexposure to Al Pacino’s ululating may have resulted in the topic not being given the attention it deserves, but it is a fascinating subject matter that I hope will eventually get the cinematic exposure it deserves.

Now you can open your eyes.