Dir: Fernando Meirelles, 2008. Starring: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, Gael García Bernal. Mystery/Thriller.

A friend's mother used to have one of those tacky plates expressing homilies hanging up on her kitchen wall. Hers read, "Lord, if you can't make me thin, please make all my friends fat." There's a sort of religious fanatic's wish fulfilling fantasy expressed in that message, namely: "I don't want to be happy, but others to be more miserable." Only, it doesn't quite get the desire for power correct; more accurately, it should've read, "make my friends fatter than me." Peter Parker would've hardly captured the dork imagination had he only been given the strength of his high school arch-nemesis, Flash Thompson. No, he needed to become vastly superior. A thought experiment regarding this fantasized superiority complex comes by way of Fernando Meirelles' film adaptation of Nobel-laureate Jose Saramago's novel, Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (An Essay On Blindness). I haven't read the book (too busy with comics), but it sounds pretty close to the film's.

The story takes place in the not-too-distant future in an unnamed city where an epidemic of "white blindness" breaks out. The afflicted characters describe the blindness as swimming through milk, and the grey shapes fading into a white fog digitally created for the camera eye reinforce this description. A more allegorically rich name for the film might've been The Ganzfeld ("whole field"), since the affliction bears a close resemblance to the old gestalt effect of creating a sort of snowblindness with a homogeneous distribution of light across the retina. The ganzfeld parallels the redistribution of power relations among the blind and the seeing within the story. As it were, "seeing the light" no longer has any beneficial effects for the sighted (just as belief in a god has no real moral benefits for the religious, if the millennia-old Christian support for torture is any indication).

Since blindness can occur just as much from a lack of contrasts within light as it can from the simple lack of light, it makes for a telling allegory of societal relations centering on faith (even if the film as a whole fails to follow through with the full promise of its conceit). As some of the currently popular atheist ideologues (such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) would have it, ridding the world of religion would reduce evil (a dream that isn't that far removed from the totalizing desire of the religious fanatic). What Blindness shows (badumpbump) is that any such homogeneous effect would, at best, provide for a temporary state of equilibrium in the social structure. As faith qua sight begins to disappear, the blind willingly lead the blind through the building in which they've been quarantined. But is this charity – good will towards fellow man – or an act of desperation resulting from what was lost? It doesn't take too long for a rebellious group to form around a charismatic leader, the Bartender (Gael García Bernal), who decides to take control of the food supply. Blindness becomes the new source for the same old ideological struggles, now denuded (who needs clothes when no one can see?). As such, the one person who retains her sight, the Doctor’s Wife (Julianne Moore), hides her (now super-) ability, pretending to be blind in order to belong in what remains of her society. Sight is rendered socially otiose, a useless filter.

I can't help but think of Bill's disquisition on Clark Kent in Kill Bill 2, where he (David Carradine) gives a Nietzschean spin to Superman's secret identity. Therein, Tarantino suggests that Superman is the true identity and the bumbling Clark reveals his contempt for Earthlings as a mocking imitation. Another possible interpretation, more consistent with Superman's own thought balloons, is that Clark represents the small-town values with which he was raised and can never completely escape, regardless of how much power he might possess. Superman is no übermensch, but a being who uses his power to reinforce his (and others') place in the flock, regulating extant social structures. It's the all-too-human Lex Luthor with the Zarathustran dreams. Moore is Superman to Bernal's Luthor. Like Superman, the Doctor’s Wife eventually uses her extra-ability for some violent superego retribution to the unbridled id impulses of the power-grabbing upstarts.

If you’ll recall, the arrival of the adults in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is what stopped the children's savagery. It wasn't that the shipwrecked kids became wholly alien to civil society, but that they were cut off from the filtering mechanisms, which normally regulates our inclinations (father is dead). As an inverse of the standard horror film, where the monster is the repressed, the appearance of the adults represents a thankful return of the oppression. Similarly, the white blindness doesn't so much create a new totalizing desire for power as it breaks down the repressive mechanisms that were in place during the old ocularist order. Defending the last vestige of ocular control, the Wife's struggle with the Bartender points to another prominent Nietzschean idea:  With the failure of faith in a previous order, the desire for control doesn't disappear, it's just filtered through different social structures.

Posted by:
Charles Reece
May 12, 2009 3:55pm
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