Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Blindness - Jose Saramago; Blindness - Dir. Fernando Meirelles; Contagion - Dir. Steven Soderbergh

This review is primarily about Blindness, the novel, but I watched the film adaptation as my final Netflick before it became known as a Qwikflick (and sadly cannot afford this new service--though I admit it is dumb, as much business sense as it makes--another perfect example of the world going to hell), and then the night after went to see Contagion in the movie theater. Because of the close proximity of experiencing all three, and because of the similarities between them, this will be the first ever triple-review on Flying Houses.

Blindness provided me with two personal epiphanies--two philosophical insights, slight as they may be, unworthy of a full essay devoted to exploring them, but appropriate here: #1 relates to imagination and ideation. It can be explained by this simple illustration. Let us suppose I am reading a book. Let us suppose it takes place at a time not in the distant past nor the distant future (in other words, anytime between the 19th and 21st centuries). Let us suppose one of the primary settings in this book is a farm. I know one farm in my life better than any other. It was my grandmother's house, the farm my mother grew up on, which we would visit every single Sunday of my childhood, a one hour drive from our house. If there is ever a farm in a book I read, absent some incredibly long and detailed description, I will automatically associate the farm imagined by the writer with the farm I recall in my mind. This could have been an interesting discussion in the class I took called "Borders of the Western Imagination." Our imagination stretches only so far as our experience. Thus the writer forges a connection with the reader through an abstract measure--a single word, a noun. It is impossible for us to imagine the same object in our minds (unless it is a familiar object that everyone can recall, like an Egyptian pyramid), and this is where my literary epiphany comes in. It has always been clear to me that long, descriptive writing is boring, and that I will slog through it thinking, what a waste of my time, anyone can describe what a house looks like from the outside, but who can describe what it feels like to live in that house. Houses are different from farms. They are a far more common object, you can imagine hundreds of different variations, whereas I have not been to many farms, and primarily remember one. Ultimately, description makes little difference. We are all human, and we all have our imaginations to supplement the words that the writer provides. The story is what matters, the dialogue is what matters, and the reader's ability to identify with the characters and their actions is what matters. Blindness is perhaps the ultimate illustration of this concept.

Oeuvre rule: I have not read anything else by Saramago, but apparently all of his books contain the same style of dialogue, which is like this, I'm not going to use any quotations, Why would you do that, Because I am original, because I don't care what rules I'm supposed to follow, Don't you think people will get confused and stop reading, I don't care if they stop reading, they won't because as I said in my previous post, dialogue is like candy for the reader, and even if we include a two-page-long paragraph dialogue between two characters where you begin to lose track of who is who, readers will go to the end because each dialogue is almost like something you'd find in Plato.

That's a tall compliment, but Blindness has the unmistakable flavor of a myth or a parable, and while published in 1996, it can sit alongside Apology or Phaedo or The Oedipus Cycle as well as any other book released over the past century. For one, it is relatively short. It is not an all-consuming, deeply-nuanced study of a family in decline, but the presentation of a philosophical situation, and a reasonable prediction of all the events that could follow.

Here is the plot, shorn of spoilers (and indeed, if you read the back of the paperback copy, it provides spoilers up until the final third of the book--this is a book that won't really be spoiled, except for a few key events--indeed if you watch the movie and look at its R-rating, the description of why it is Rated-R, that is an even bigger spoiler): a man is in his car. He is waiting for the light to turn green. It does, but he goes blind, and he starts freaking out. Another man comes up to his car and asks if he can help him. He walks him back to his home, which happens to be nearby. The first blind man tells his wife, and they go to see the ophthalmologist (I will just use "doctor" from now on because it's hard to spell ophthalmologist). At his office is a girl with dark glasses (a lady of the night, pun intended), a boy with a squint, and an old man with an eyepatch. Later, the scene shoots back to the man who helped the first blind man. He has gone back to the car, and he steals it. He is actually a thief. However, before he can enjoy his new prize, he goes blind. The scene shoots back to the doctor's office. Doctor sees the first blind man and says, I don't know what's wrong with you, there's no medical explanation for this sort of thing. Later that night he goes home and sees his wife and tells her about this unusual case of blindness. He goes to study from his books, and he goes blind.

Soon, the Government begins to notice that people are going blind, and they set up quarantine facilities. Our basic group of characters are all placed in the same mental hospital. They are given food rations, but little direction from the military personnel guarding the facility, because they too are afraid of contracting the "white sickness," called such because the person does not see "blackness" but rather a "sea of milky white." The scenes in the mental hospital comprise the second act of the book. Several key episodes occur, but I will not discuss what happens. Let us just say that the primary allegorical element of the novel is introduced--that is, when civilization and society cease to exist, de facto representatives and leaders emerge in some form or another, either by tyranny or some democratic agreement. What happens to the mental hospital is disgusting. Saramago devotes a good deal of description to the filth.

The third part of the book is probably the strongest section. The last twenty or thirty pages are quite good, too. However, I borrowed this book on a recommendation from a girl who graduated from Fordham Law School. We were talking about Hemingway (as my previous post indicated, back in June 2011, I would soon finish that endless behemoth of a biography on him) and how the ending to The Sun Also Rises is just one of the most beautiful things ever, and how The Old Man and the Sea was a book that you could read anytime, in one day if you had the time, that could just sort of refresh your conscience and remind you of what it is to live and to be alive. She spoke beautifully about literature, and so when I saw Blindness on her shelf and remarked that I had heard great things, and when she said that the ending, also, was worth the total experience, I was convinced. Now, the ending is something of a "twist," and the last section of this book is certainly, to my mind, the strongest part, and the final paragraph can be both mesmerizing and confusing, but still, to a certain extent, I was underwhelmed. That said, I think Blindness is worth reading.

It is something of a long literary experiment, in the vein of Italo Calvino or Haruki Murukami. (I always say those two are experimental because I have only read "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" and "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World"--the latter of which is the only book I have read since April of 2008 that is not reviewed on Flying Houses, probably because I just don't know how I feel about it). The characters do not have proper names. The book is dialogue-heavy, but I don't believe there is a single quotation mark in it. The characters are blind and they struggle to complete the most mundane tasks. And there are not many portions that I find easy to quote:

"We came out of internment only three days ago, Ah, you were in quarantine, Yes, Was it Hard, Worse than that, How horrible, You are a writer, you have, as you said a moment ago, an obligation to know words, therefore you know that adjectives are of no use to us, if a person kills another, for example, it would be better to state this fact openly, directly, and to trust that the horror of the act, in itself, is so shocking that there is no need for us to say it was horrible, Do you mean that we have more words than we need, I mean that we have too few feelings, Or that we have them but have ceased to use the words they express, And so we lose them, I'd like you to tell me how you lived during quarantine, Why, I am a writer, You would have to have been there, A writer is just like anyone else, he cannot know everything, nor can he experience everything, he must ask and imagine, One day I may tell you what it was like, then you can write a book, Yes, I am writing it, How, if you are blind, The blind too can write, You mean that you had time to learn the braille alphabet, I do not know know braille, How can you write, then, asked the first blind man, Let me show you." (292, quotations mine)

Here, Saramago seems to be inserting himself as a character. The "writer" becomes an archetypal figure, as do the other characters, but this time as an even more transparent philosophical mouthpiece. And while the pleasures the book contains primarily relate to larger issues of the comprehensibility of the different facets of human existence, there are a couple traditional "novelistic" episodes that may bring tears:

"Men are all the same, they think because they came out of the belly of a woman they know all there is to know about women, I know very little about women, and about you I know nothing, as for men, in my opinion, by modern criteria I am now an old man and one-eyed as well as being blind, Have you nothing else to say against yourself, A lot more, you can't imagine how the list of self-recriminations grows with advancing age, I am young and have my fair share already, You haven't done anything really bad yet, How do you know, if you've never lived with me, You're right, I have never lived with you, Why do you repeat my words in that tone of voice, What tone of voice, That one, All I said was that I have never lived with you, Come on, come on, don't pretend that you don't understand, Don't insist, I beg you, I do insist, I want to know, Let's return to hopes, All right, The other example of hope which I refused to give was this, What, The last self-accusation on my list, Please, explain yourself, I never understand riddles, The monstrous wish of never regaining our sight, Why, So that we can go on living as we are, Do you mean all together, or just you and me, Don't make me answer, If you were only a man you could avoid answering, like all others, but you yourself said that you are an old man, and old men, if longevity has any sense at all, should not avert their face from the truth, answer me, With you, And why do you want to live with me, Do you want me to tell in front of everybody, We have done the dirtiest, ugliest, most repulsive things together, what you can tell me cannot possibly be worse, All right, if you insist, let it be, because the man I still am loves the woman you are, Was it so very difficult to make a declaration of love, At my age, people fear ridicule, You were not ridiculous, Let's forget it, please, I have no intention of forgetting it or letting you forget it either, It's nonsense, you forced it out of me and now, And now it's my turn, Don't say anything you may regret later, remember the black list, If I'm sincere today, what does it matter if I regret it tomorrow, Please stop, You want to live with me and I want to live with you, You are mad, We'll start living together here, like a couple, and we shall continue living together if we have to separate from our friends, two blind people must be able to see more than one, It's madness, you don't love me, What's this about loving, I never loved anyone, I just went to bed with men. So you agree with me then, Not really, You spoke of sincerity, tell me then if it's true that you really love me, I love you enough to want to be with you, and that is the first time I've ever said that to anyone, You would not have said it to me either if you had met me somewhere before, an elderly man, half bald with white hair, with a patch over one eye and a cataract in the other, The woman I was then wouldn't have said it, I agree, the person who said it was the woman I am today, Let's see then what the woman you will be tomorrow will have to say, Are you testing me, What an idea, who am I to put you to the test, it's life that decides these things, It's already made one decision." (306-307, quotations mine)

So, let's just take a moment here to point out that, yes, Blindness, is worth reading, and Saramago may have justifiably won the Nobel prize--and indeed, reading it in its original language (which translates directly to Essay on Blindness) might shed even more light on how great a triumph of clarity it is. But seriously--writing a book like this is much easier than writing a book like Buddenbrooks or The Magic Mountain. Those take years, and maybe we have to be much more fast-paced in 1995 than we do in 1915, but if you look at the total oeuvre, Mann's probably outweighs Saramago's by 100%. This in terms of page numbers. And it may be interesting to compare how much money each made from his books (this information in the publishing industry in general seems to be kept secret, and should be addressed more directly so people don't throw away years of their lives writing books no one will ever read), or how much time they spent writing their specific novels, compared to whatever "side-projects" they did for money. But they do have one thing in common: their depiction of reality, and of people acting as they really act, rings true. This is another literary epiphany that I have emphasized greatly over the last several years: REALISM IS ALL THAT MATTERS.

Before we enter into film, philosphical epiphany #2 came to me at some point during my high school years. I had a roommate my sophomore year. High school, is, I think, a cliquey time (law school is too but save that discussion for later). People band together in their own little groups. And it caused me to reflect, how, as the group of participants grows, so also does the group you as an individual are willing to ally yourself with. This is the simple illustration: you are in your dorm room with your roommate, and you are having an argument, or playing a computer game against one another on a local-area-network (Command and Conquer, for example). You hate each other. You want to kill the other person. You want to beat the hell out of them. The next day, you and your roommate play on a team, against two other roommates who live down the hall. Now you are friends and you have to work together, and the other roommates are your enemy. The next day, your dorm has organized a basketball tournament, and every floor has to form their own team to play against the others. The day after that, your dorm has to play in a tournament against every other dorm. The day after that, your school has to play against another school in a big football game. The day after that, an All-American team is selected from the group of 15 schools of which your school is a part. The day after that, All-Americans are chosen from every high school in the country. And so on, until Earth is itself the ultimate community, but it does not seem likely that there will be intergalactic warfare anytime soon. The point is this: we are all part of communities, as tiny as an apartment and as huge as the planet. Our concerns shift and we are more likely to be agreeable the larger the community that we function within, because there will be many other people on your same side that will denounce you, or question your beliefs, not out of some personal animus, but out of the altruistic motive of discovering what is best for one and what is best for all. That is, there is a search for reason, not some kind of search for dominance over the other side. This is the basic problem with the adversarial system of law, personal relationships, a free enterprise society, everything.

After that incomprehensible thought pattern, let's move on to Fernando Meirelles. First of all, if you have not seen City of God, please watch it next weekend. I only saw it once, like 5 years ago, but it stands out to me as one of the best films of the decade of the 2000s. Second, I thought The Constant Gardener was real boring. Sorry, but I don't remember anything about it. Finally, Blindness is ultimately a poor adaptation of the book, but its heart is in the right place. This is meant to be an absolutely faithful adaptation. And it is. No characters are named--except "The King of the Ward 3" who is played by Gael Garcia Bernal. Now, he is one of my favorite actors--I really liked Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Science of Sleep and those movies show that he has kind of an incredible energy. His character is definitely in the book, but he is also given an auxiliary role so that his character could also be named "the bartender," which is not in the book. Also, Sandra Oh plays the "Minister of Health" which is not in the book, really, or if she is, in disembodied form. Either of these actors would have been good to play one of the major characters, but to me they are basically wasted in the roles they are given. Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo do fine with the material they are given, but everyone else seems rushed to develop their character, or they just come through less clearly than in the book. Many key moments are transported directly from the text of the book (like when the Doctor asks for a show of hands when voting on something, and then realizes the absurdity of such a directive), but many are left out (like the second long quotation from above). The book's third act in particular seems cut down sharply. There are several key scenes there that would have made the movie much better.

Basically, there are several problems with the film. #1: Blindness is meant to be read, not viewed. It all has to do with the comprehension of our senses. Reading is, in a sense, a blind activity. We are not looking at objects--we are looking at words and imagining objects. When you watch a movie, you are looking at the objects. The director and cinematographer make an effort to portray the "white sickness" through combinations of visual trickery, but it feels like an empty exercise. #2: Blindness the book is much funnier. The book is hilarious, whether or not always intentional, and the movie is pretty serious all the way through--excepting the one joke about raising hands. #3: The movie is marketed as a "thriller." And it is made like that, with an emphasis on plot--what's going to happen to these people? A more dreamlike, detached, philosophical approach might have made for a better adaptation. It appears as if the producers were shooting for the moon--they wanted a big-budget blockbuster with an uber-art house director adapted from a Nobel-prize winning author that millions of people all over the world would see. But Harry Potter Blindness is not. That said, I still believe that an adaptation of White Noise would be a huge success. BUT IT HAS TO BE DONE RIGHT!

Of special note in Blindness is the final shot. It gave me a different interpretation than what I had of the text, and upon re-reading, it is the correct one.

If one was reading Blindness in September 2011, one could not help but think of its similarities to Contagion when the posters started showing up in New York. Here is a movie that everybody knows. It is the follow-up to Outbreak in a sense, fifteen years later, with a bit more sophisticated technology, and a slightly amped-up cast. Many elements from Blindness and Contagion coalesce. In particular, the quarantines that are implemented. However, the key difference is that society does not crumble in Contagion quite the way it does in Blindness. It's less philosophical and more realistic, though plenty of readers will admit that what happens in Blindness is totally plausible--if such a "white sickness" were to actually happen. Contagion is very scary. The first thirty minutes scared me. I really liked it for a while towards the middle. Then towards the end, (I won't spoil anything, though it seems this film is incredibly popular, and has already made more money and attracted a bigger audience than either Blindness ever will) I started to get bored.

But yeah, a depiction of a disease that is visceral rather than invisible will generally be more engaging on film. The converse will generally be more engaging on page.

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