Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Bear Witness Of The Light...

On Friday, Fernando Meirelles' adaptation of Jose Saramago's surreal, chaotic novel Blindness opens, offering a cautionary tale about being a witness to atrocity and suffering. If done properly, this tale of warning could be Oscar worthy, offering not only opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime performances but also a glimpse at a kind of terrorism that has never before been explored on film-- or, seemingly, in even the most paranoid's psyche.

The novel starts on an ordinary street, in an ordinary town, on an ordinary day. A traffic light turns red, and the cars slow to a stop at a crosswalk, where a few pedestrians begin their journey. Everything described in such precise detail, it is evident the events which take place are ones to be remembered-- savored, even. The light turns green, and the lanes roll forward slowly-- all except for the one in the middle. At first the cars around him think he's just slow but then maybe he has a stalled engine, and they lay on their horns. The light changes again, and the driver emerges from his car, waving his hands frantically and yelling: "I am blind." He may be the first, but his story will prove to be quite similar to everyone else's: all of a sudden there is just whiteness.

Undoubtedly the film version of this tale, which is written in prose that is often repetitive and confusing due to the use of commas for everything from the traditional to separate dialogue without having to say "He said," "She said" (perhaps the former is only the case because of the latter then), will alter the course of events-- perhaps even starting in that opening scene when a collision will most likely not be avoided. After all, nothing says "stick around" like the opening action of a car crash.

The funny thing is: everything about Saramago's original work seems to scream: "Make me a movie!" He starts out with a small cast of characters, a handful of strangers who all crossed paths on one fateful day and then ended up in quarantine together, fighting to survive side by side in a new society they can no longer see, let alone understand. Though he keeps his characters anonymous by name, their personalities are rich and unique; they are a slice of life from any city, making it easy to believe they could be you. However, Saramago seemed to write for a different time, so it is only expected certain elements, such as the "aging down" of the characters would have to be changed for a big screen adaptation-- in order to attract the widest demographic possible, that is. Julianne Moore is the doctor's wife, a part written for a middle-aged woman in Saramago's world. Mark Ruffalo is her husband, the doctor, and all of their "followers" have been proportionately (though reversely) SORASed.

Inside the old mental institution that houses the blind, or as they refer to themselves: "the inmates," things start out relatively simple: there are only seven of them, and they form a chain line to explore the quarters, find the bathroom, and set up new homes in small, stark cells. By the second day, though, their numbers have doubled, as the government rounds up and ships off anyone who mysteriously goes blind without second thought. In the opposite wing of the building are housed those who the government fears might turn blind, either because they show signs of eye issues or because they have come into close contact with those who have already fallen victim. In the novel, these people are not seen (for lack of better term) and rarely heard. In the film, though, it is assumed that these are the people (instead of a new, rogue group of blind who get herded in about a hundred pages later) who begin to take advantage of the originals by demanding valuables in exchange for their food rations (the irony of how useless those things would be to blind men is not lost on the reader and therefore must be changed for the film version for today's savvier audience).

As events complicate, though, it becomes harder to relate to or even understand why the doctor's wife stays. Being the only one who still has her sight, despite spending night after night with the contaminated, she witnesses heinous act (soldiers shooting into the air to keep their prisoners in line) after heinous act (that rogue group rapes a group of the women) and even catches her husband with another woman. The way Saramago has written her, she is a weak woman; she did not lie about losing her sight and join her husband out of true love but rather out of fear of having to be alone. It is quite poetic then, in how alone she as the sole seeing person. She keeps her secret for awhile-- out of more fear, but this time that others will make her their own personal prisoner, keeping her at their beck and call-- and only finally snaps after one woman dies during the rape. With Moore signed on to play this part, though, undoubtedly the doctor's wife will turn from reluctant heroine in the middle of the story to full-fledged avenger from day one, fighting over blind rights with the soldiers and trying to lead a group out much sooner.

Saramago's third act has the original group (minus one who perished early on) venturing out into what is left in the "real" world only out of sheer luck: the soldiers have all, too, gone blind, so there is no one to stop them. From the film trailers, this would be a relatively unexpected twist unless you had previously read the book: everything thus far makes it look like busting out of the government-imposed prison is the climax, but in reality, the descriptively post-apocalyptic world Saramago describes in the streets is what is the most fascinating and would translate the best on-screen. Audiences can only be kept in close quarters, like that mental institution, for so long without going crazy themselves, but in a movie theater, an audience member can just walk out, to the detriment of the filmmaker's project, so Meirelles would be greatly remiss not to take advantage of the world Saramago created in our small towns: everyone vagrant, as they can no longer find their own way home; shops and easily accessible apartments ransacked for food and clothing; dogs turning wild left to their own devices; the dead littering the street like common trash.

It is unfortunate, though, that the greater themes of this novel will probably get lost in the vast imagery of the film. Already, the trailer boasts solitary men and women wandering alone, and lost, disoriented down an abandoned freeway, and yes, admittedly, it looks quite cool, but those frames can only hold interest for so long before the greater curiosity of "why" is piqued and then prodding. So many films before this one have had moral issues at their core but glossed over them, preferring to show off the flashy-- like a man who just can't take it anymore and shoots himself dead in front of a group of his peers-- and unfortunately, after all of the past disappointments, there is just little faith left that Meirelles' will be any different. I hope he proves me wrong.

The doctor's wife makes her way to a church at one point and is shocked to find that all of the images inside, including and perhaps most poignantly, the statue of Jesus nailed to his cross, have their eyes covered with white strips of cloth, not unlike the tattered rags the blind wear during their time in the mental institution. In a slightly "hit you over the head" with it sort of way, Saramago was offering an explanation for why the white blindness came over these people when it did. Just like an addict, sometimes life and society have to hit rock bottom before they can begin to heal. And just as literally, sometimes one must become physically blind in order to realize how emotionally and spiritually blind they have been-- whether it is in action or simply overlooking the actions of others, it is all a sin. If Meirelles tells this story right, it should give us all something to think about-- as filmmakers and as film-goers, especially in today's technologically enhanced world, we are witnesses to just about everything, and therefore a lot of responsibility lies on our shoulders; what we do with it may mean the avoidance (or the cause) of such an epidemic.

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