Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 06, 2008 6:48 pm 
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In the country of the blind, Julianne Moore is king

Blindness is an "allegory" from a book by Jose Saramago about an epidemic. Yes, another sudden planetary epidemic. This time they're not rabid or suicidal, just losing their sight. People think it's contagious--don't they know it's just symbolic?--so in a futile effort to prevent the inevitable universal blindness, the first victims, the focus of our story, are locked away in "wards" where they're poorly fed and given no medical care. This is relatively low-budget sci-fi ($25 million); unlike Children of Men ($76 million) or many other such movies there's no effort to show the problem spreading: it's just L.A. . There's a Ministry of Heath trying to do something--starting with the quarantining-- but the poor Minister (Sandra Oh) goes blind and that's the end of that.

Mireilles' work is nonetheless getting more ambitious and sweeping and further from home and less effective, much less this time, despite a "quality" cast that includes Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Don McKellar, Alice Braga, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Danny Glover, as good guys, bad buys, an expensive hooker, and a wise one-eyed old black man. As token Asians and for a touch of detachment and elegance there's a Japanese couple, Yusuke Iseya and Yoshino Kimura.

There's only a handful of people who are distinctive characters. Manohla Dargis thinks the actors make them too distinctive--that the "allegory" wants them to be ciphers but Moore, Bernal, et al. are too good for that, too specific, and things get confused--not "symbolic" and "allegorical" enough. Yes, this is true, and for another reason this is yet another book that, whatever its original merits, has gotten completely confused when transmogrified into film. Note that City of God and to a large extent The Constant Gardener are narratives of action. An allegory is a horse of a different color. Mireilles doesn't really know how to lift the limited action to a level of higher meaning. He keeps fading out all the color and flashing a white screen--and that's descriptively valid a few times, since in the story, the blind people see white instead of black. But the effect is playful rather than empathic. Mireilles falls in love with this white-out effect and uses it too much. The one value of this movie, which has very little to tell us, is that, since all but one character (Moore's) is blind, for a while it makes us think what it might feel like to be sightless.

But the movie, presumably better as a book, if dramatized as Mireillles does it might be more successful as a radio play. If empathic eliminations of the visual are what he wants, that's the better medium.

The story by Sarago, as filmed here, reveals little new about people, less than the average disaster movie. It's hard for the people to interact. Julianne Moore sneaks into the quarantine ward with her blinded opthamologist husband Mark Ruffalo--and thank God for that: without this one sighted person on hand the story might work in a book, but not a mainstream movie. She leads Ruffalo around and they become a little team; he takes a leadership role in the ward. In another ward, Gael Garcia Bernal takes charge, declaring himself "king" of the ward. He begins a criminal regime, commandeering the rations for all three wards and demanding that the other two wards give up first their jewelry and later their women for food. He has a secret weapon: a man blind from birth, who can function well in this environment. Irony, folks: in the country of the newly blind, the congenitally blind man is king. But Julianne Moore still trumps that because she can dodge bullets, and a blind man can't aim a gun worth a damn.

Sarago presents a Hobbesian view of mankind. As soon as the people are blind, social order goes all to pieces. Blindness is also, it turns out, very, very messy. The blind folks trash their surroundings. Oh, the lavatories! And the ward's floors, covered with junk. But this disorder isn't any sort of revelation. Blind or not, people tend to behave chaotically if abandoned in a locked ward with inadequate food.

Mireilles ought to have chosen a story more suited to his talents. He may indeed have been wrongly seduced by the novel idea: visualize the world of the non-visual. And when the little band escapes the ward and wanders into an Armageddon Los Angeles, that's a good visual shtick: people staggering around helplessly amid trash in a big empty city. We watch that from on high with pretty music playing. They're like zombies, but more pathetic, less threatening--though they do get into nasty food fights in a gutted supermarket in the next sequence.

There's a hint at the end, as in Children of Men, of a little community of "good" people when Fuffalo and Moore take their pals to their big apartment to live, take showers, and one of them gets his sight back, as if a shower and clean clothes and a quiet night's sleep in a decent place could remove a major disability. But, of course, the blindness is allegorical. Only for what?

Armond White calls this "Apocalypse porn." All I can say is that what may have been a novel with something to say just becomes a scary sci-fi end-of-the-world movie with limited plot and a lack of the usual explanations, action sequences, suspense, or even a conclusion, since the ending is vague and ambiguous. An apocalyptic theme that might work well in the bare prose of a good book that lets the imagination soar is in danger, as here, of turning into one more highfalutin sci-fi horror movie.

This was one that premiered at Cannes but did not make the cut for the NYFF.

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