Friday, April 10, 2009

fade to white...and then pitch dark....

It was almost ten years ago that I first heard about Jose Saramago’s book Blindness. By then, I had read his The History of the Siege of Lisbon. Even though the core concept of ..Siege of Lisbon was interesting (how adding a single word in a novel could alter the historic meaning), I was baffled by Saramago’s writing style which consisted of sentences spanning multiple pages and not separated by any periods. Plus there were no quotes for a conversation between characters as their words were separated by commas. This meant that I could not stop at just any place in the middle of my reading and had to continue on for another 50 pages or so before a natural stoppage appeared. In a way, this style is good because it ensures that the reader is fully engaged and forced to read each word slowly lest they lose track of things. But on the other hand, this style does make for an exhausting read. Shortly after I finished reading the book, Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature and his other books gained popularity. And Blindness was a title that popped up quite a bit in conversations with friends. It turned out that the book’s popularity spread in an infectious manner, just like the blindness disease in the book, and most people around me swore of the book’s greatness and urged me to read it. Unfortunately, since I was exhausted after reading The History of the Siege of Lisbon I was not in any mood to tackle another book written with endless sentences.

And that was that. Then three years earlier, I found Blindness in a book sale and decided to finally buy it. Unfortunately after repeated tries, I couldn’t make it past page 150. I had hoped to finish the book before Fernando Meirelles’ film version was released but I gave up and decided to watch the film instead. Oddly, the first 30 minutes of the film were quite painful to view as having known the story, there was no mystery and everything appeared quite superficial and poorly done. The film did eventually become interesting when the dark savage human nature was exposed. Still, I was left with mixed feelings regarding the film. Reading the book, one can conjure up their own visual path while objectively following the character's plight. But the problem with the film adaptation is Fernando Meirelles’ attempts to impose a visual style (example: having multiple shots of the blurred white vision the characters have) thereby wanting the audiences to experience the characters disorientation. As a result, the film is caught between a visual style which does not integrate well with the depiction of the characters. I felt the strongest aspect of the film is near the end when the visual style is temporarily suspended and we observe the savage humans at work. We observe how morality can be easily dropped within a mob when individuals either find comfort & a safe haven in their group or get a fake sense of power when encouraged by a thug. In a way, the latter part of the film makes for a character study to observe humans at their worst akin to Philip George Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment documented in his book The Lucifer Effect. But even if the visual style of Blindness was dropped in the editing room and the film became a pure character study, it would still pale in comparison to the intense German film The Experiment. While The Experiment is based on Mario Giordano’s book, it is loosely inspired by the Stanford prison experiment and shows how humans either conform or rebel against roles they are thrown in.

Saramago does not explain the blindness disease in the book because he is more interested in studying the human condition. In that regard the blindness is a hook to get people isolated together so that Saramago can conduct his Stanford prison like experiment. Although, Saramago’s experiment is not a study of pure blindness as the characters contain a woman who can see and a man who was born blind thereby making him more aware of situations around him. Not having finished the book, I can’t comment on how rich his story is but besides the visual style, there is nothing original in the film – the characters act as one would expect them to given the situations. There are some who take a power role and demand things from others while some easily become the victims. Then there are the rebels who want to fight. Sure one can say aspects of the story hold up a mirror to our society when some rules are taken away. But these aspects could be studied in other ways and not by infecting characters with a mysterious blindness.

It was by pure coincidence that after I finished watching Blindness I saw Errol Morris’ documentary Standard Operating Procedure. Morris’ film looks at the incidents of abuse that took place at Abu Ghraib and is a real life horrific case study in the manner of the Stanford prison experiment. In fact, Philip George Zimbardo talks about Abu Ghraib in his book The Lucifer Effect because he was asked to testify in the courts regarding one of the soldiers involved in those sick acts.

Standard Operating Procedure is a visually sharp film that allows the audience to make up their own minds regarding the incidents. Morris ensures his camera lingers on the soldier’s faces a bit longer than usual and lets them naturally open up. There are plenty of instances where Morris shifts his camera’s position (either to the left or right) as the soldiers talk thereby ensuring we take the soldiers words with a grain of salt – did the soldiers act on their own? Or were they just following orders?

The outcry from the prison pictures ensured that the soldiers who were seen doing things in the pictures were the only ones accused. But Morris shows that there were other personnel standing outside the frame who were also guilty but were spared. And no one seems to be talking about the setup of the prison and the interrogation procedures as they contributed to the abuse. This is where Philip George Zimbardo's work is important as he talks about the environmental conditions that play a factor in tranforming people from good to evil behaviour. But people don't want to listen to that either. They just want to get rid of the "bad apples" so that they can get on with their happy lives. Blindness & The Lucifer Effect do show how most people can become those "bad apples" given the circumstances but our current society is more interested in blaming individuals rather than studying the overall situations that cause individuals to act in certain ways.

Blindness and Standard Operating Procedure do make a dark double bill of sorts – they depict humanity at its worst and the combined crimes from both films range from rape, sexual abuse to murder. In Blindness everyday people mutate into villains while in Standard Operating Procedure it is the military that resorts to evil.

Ratings out of 10
  • Blindness: 6.5

  • Standard Operating Procedure: 9

  • On another note: the events in Abu Ghraib are predicted in Jon Ronson’s hilarious yet dark book Men who Stare at Goats, a soon to be made film. In Men who Stare at Goats we learn about some of the techniques used to disorient Iraqi prisoners so that they would talk. In one case, the prisoners were trapped in dark shipping containers with strobe lights keeping them awake along with loud blaring music of the Barney song (yes the purple dinosaur) repeatedly played. What kind of demented torture technique is this? But this is just a minor torture technique as opposed to the other truly sick ones that have been going on for decades yet the public is blissfully unaware. So when the Abu Ghraib pictures came out, people just wanted closure by punishing those in the pictures as opposed to questioning the entire setup that has encouraged such acts for decades.

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