Blindness

Blindness movie poster

 

Director Fernando Meirelles has examined desperate pressure cookers City of God) and institutional corruption (The Constant Gardener) before. Blindness proves perfect to meld both themes, with a science fiction twist imagining the downfall of civilization itself.

Blindness is part of a special subset of the horror/sci-fi/disaster genre: the dystopian end-of-civilization nightmare. Whereas the typical entry works by introducing a disrupting element into the status quo (typically a monster), a few instead subtract one fundamental fact of life that we take for granted. The basic recipe is simple: flip one switch, and watch civilization fall in short order. In Children of Men (read The Dork Report review), humanity becomes infertile. In the Happening (read The Dork Report review), the biosphere starts pumping out poison. In the comic book series Y: The Last Man, all males on the planet suddenly die off. In innumerable zombie flicks (read The Dork Report’s George A. Romero Zombie Cycle), death is no longer absolute. It may not be a coincidence that at least two members of the Blindness cast already have relevant experience on their résumés: Julianne Moore in Children of Men and Alice Braga in I Am Legend.

Julianne Moore in Blindness“The only thing more terrifying than blindness is being the only one who can see.”

All of these stories bleed over into the genre realms of science fiction and horror. Blindness, however, is based on the magical realist (if it’s accurate for me to call it that) novel by José Saramago. The novel is set in a generic city, featuring unnamed characters (the movie, filmed in São Paulo, Brazil, effectively preserves both conceits – I didn’t notice until the credits rolled that the characters did not have names). Without getting bogged down in pseudo-scientific details, Zaramago posits a highly contagious “White Blindness” that rapidly sweeps the globe, affecting everyone but one random woman. The movie’s explanation is a far more literal highly communicable disease, diagnosed for the audience by the unnamed opthamologist “Doctor” (Mark Ruffalo). By sheer coincidence, The Doctor’s Wife (Moore) appears to be immune. The obvious challenge for the filmmakers is how to render a prose story about blindness into the most visual storytelling medium of all. Cinematographer César Charlone (who also shot City of God and The Constant Gardener) meets the challenge by creating stunning visuals which paradoxically obscure. The picture frequently flares into a burned-out whiteness, often a relief from the ugly filth in which the characters find themselves living as the safety net of society collapses.

The story brutally details a basically pessimistic view of human nature. Right from the start, humanity’s inherent greed and avarice make a catastrophic situation worse. The very first victim of the disease is immediately exploited by a car thief (ironic, as automobiles are shortly to become the most futile of valuables to steal). As the blindness disease spreads, the authorities (represented by The Minister of Health, in what amounts to a cameo by Sandra Oh) attempt to contain the infected in isolation wards, a weak euphemism for concentration camps. As The Man With the Black Eye Patch (Danny Glover) states in a nicely written but implausibly eloquent monologue, “the disease was immune to bureaucracy.”

Dany Glover in Blindness“I know that part inside you with no name, and that’s who we are, right?”

The infected are made up of characters from many cultural and economic backgrounds, much like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006). Left alone to self-organize, two opposing societies coalesce around two very different natural leaders. The Doctor and his Wife create a fragile but functioning democracy, but the King of Ward Three (Gael García Bernal) forges a depraved Sodom built on exploiting their few resources for short-term base pleasures. Inevitably, the two fledgling states go to war, as much out of ideology as for want of resources. As the ward denizens’ circumstances get worse and worse, the movie itself becomes a punishing experience to watch (an imitative fallacy). In terms of depictions of violence, it is no less explicit than, say, Children of Men, but wholly lacks that superior film’s dark wit and essential thread of hope. Whereas Children of Men had no real villain (Luke, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was actually more of a Che Guevarra-type revolutionary), there is little or no subtlety of character in Blindness’ wholly evil bad guys. Would the central allegory be more interesting to ponder if the villains were not so unambiguously monstrous? Even I Am Legend dropped hints that its vampire/zombie-like monsters possessed crude intelligence, a will to live, and empathy for their own kind.

The fragile community in the wards disintegrates into a hell of gang rape and open war. Then, amazingly, it gets worse. But as the walls of the prison burn, the prisoners discover the doors have actually been left open. If anything, the world outside has become worse off than the pressure cooker in which they were imprisoned. After a harrowing trip through the devastated city, they experience one fleeting moment of joy as they bathe in the rain. Afterwards, they set up an eden in the Doctor and his Wife’s former home, like a less-satiric version of the fortified suburban shopping mall in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (read The Dork Report review). The Doctor’s Wife’s newly extended family embraces her as their “leader with vision.”


Official movie site: http://blindness-themovie.com/

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The Big Lebowski

big_lebowski.jpg

 

In 1998, when all the world wanted from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen was another Fargo, they got The Big Lebowski instead. The Coens recently repeated this trick by following up another masterpiece, No Country for Old Men, with the happy-go-lucky Burn After Reading. The Dork Report wonders if this compulsion is by design or if the Coens just can’t help themselves.

Viewed with some puzzlement upon release, The Big Lebowski is now the subject of pop art, annual conventions, and action figures. The farcical film noir is ultimately an extended “wrong man accused” pastiche in the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock and Raymond Chandler, but The Coen Brothers infuse it with their trademark anarchic spirit and populate it with characters with low (or otherwise chemically impaired) I.Q.

big_lebowski1.jpgWe don’t roll on Shabbos

The film’s 10th anniversary was recently celebrated in a Rolling Stone feature article, The Decade of the Dude by Andy Greene. John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, and Sam Elliott reveal a wealth of anecdotes and all seem genuinely delighted at the film’s cult status. Goodman, however, alludes to having had a kind of falling out with the Coens after Oh Brother Where Art Thou. The article also states that The Coen Brothers decline to discuss the The Big Lebowski at all anymore, for unspecified reasons. However, the DVD edition screened by The Dork Report includes the original 1998 contemporary electronic press kit including an interview with the Coen Brothers in which they gamely discuss the production (Joel is credited as director and Ethan as writer, but in truth they have always shared the duties equally). The DVD also provides a peek at cinematographer Roger Deakins’ spectacular fantasy sequences and unique bowling footage actualized with a motorized camera capable of running up to 20 M.P.H.

Jeff Bridges reveals the extent of his actorly craft in preparing for each scene: he would simply ask The Coens, “Did the Dude burn one on the way over?” Most often, the answer was yes, so he would rub his eyes to approximate the degree of redness appropriate, and proceed. The Dude copes with the trials and tribulations of life with the motto “The Dude abides,” but the circumstances in which he finds himself during this misadventure leave him less in a state of zen than one of paranoia. No doubt a lifetime of pot abuse has harshed his mellow somewhat.

big_lebowski2.jpgYou don’t &$%# with the Jesus!

Despite having only barely more than a cameo appearance, John Turturro nearly steals the movie with the unforgettable character Jesus Quintana (that’s “Jesus” with a hard “J”), a sexual predator and cocksure bowler. The Coens speak about wanting to write a Latino character for Turturro, but where did the rest of his outrageous characterization come from? Did they just wind Turturro up and let him go? Other notable cameos include David Thewlis (Naked, Harry Potter) as a giggling associate of Maude (Moore), and musicians Aimee Mann and Flea as hapless nihilists.


Official movie site: www.biglebowskidvd.com

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Children of Men

Children of Men

 

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is absolutely one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Two viewings have overwhelmed me with some of the strongest emotional reactions I’ve ever had to a movie. It is, at the very least, one of the best of 2007 (along with Pan’s Labyrinth and United 93), and everything the similarly-themed V for Vendetta could have been.

Children of MenThis coffee packs a wallop

The movie opens nearly two decades after the last human birth. Mass infertility is a terrifyingly plausible sci-fi trope in 2008, with looming climate catastrophe, increased rates of autism and allergies, and the imminent threat of a globe-spanning contagious disease outbreak like SARS (a fictional flu pandemic is alluded to in the film). As the infertility remains uncured, so too is it unexplained for the audience. The best science fiction avoids pedestrian pseudo-science that tends not to date well (2001: A Space Odyssey being the exception that proves the rule). The most detail we learn is that women are infertile, and we can assume that cloning and artificial insemination of frozen eggs have failed. So by the time the film opens, the harsh fact that the human race is doomed to slowly die out is a given, and has reduced the world’s societies into chaos. Only Britain has been able to survive, to a point, using only the harshest totalitarian methods. In propaganda commercials glimpsed throughout the movie, Britain congratulates itself for the fascism that makes it possible to carry on; but is this kind of survival worth the price?

Immigrants flood the only country with some semblance of stability, fleeing unspecified atrocities abroad. All we learn of the United States is of a vague catastrophe in New York creepily referred to only as “it.” Immigrants are demonized as “fugis” (for “fugitives,” perhaps punning on the derogatory British slang “paki” for any and all Middle Easterners) and penned in concentration camps. Many shots explicitly allude to infamous images of captive enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay. Several of the fugitive voices we hear are German, causing one to wonder just what exactly may have happened in Germany, and if it may have been something we have seen before in human history. My German is non-existent, but If I’m not mistaken, we overhear one captive German woman bitterly complain to her guard for being locked up in a detention cell with black people. It’s not a pretty picture of human nature, that at the worst of times, the worst of us comes out.

Children of MenAt gunpoint is one way to reconnect with an ex

The five credited screenwriters, usually a bad sign, have done an extraordinary job of adapting the original novel by P.D. James (who, according to IMDB, has an uncredited cameo in the café bombed in the opening moments of the film). I don’t know if I would go so far as to say the movie is “better” than its source material, but it is certainly more visceral and emotionally affecting to a post 9/11 audience. As an adaptation, the many changes are justified and benefit the translation to a different medium and time. Most significantly, the chronology is condensed from months to days, and the relatively polite insurrectionist group The Five Fish has become a full-fledged terrorist organization called simply The Fish. Theo (Clive Owen) is younger, and no longer living a life of wealthy ease. He’s a gambler and alcoholic, and his original motivation to help The Fish is raw money. His cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) is not the all-powerful Warden of England of the book, but rather merely the effete guardian of the Ark of the Arts. King Crimson’s dramatic Mellotron dirge “In the Court of the Crimson King” fittingly accompanies Theo as he visits Nigel, passing into a walled city that separates the privileged elite from the working masses outside (Naomi Klein predicts the future dominance of such places in the DVD bonus features). The Ark is a pointless quest to archive the world’s great works of art, including everything from Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, to Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig.

Children of MenCrying babies don’t usually have this effect on people

Several mind-bendingly impossible tracking shots grace the film, so fluid and justified by the action that the mind barely registers a lack of cutting. There is an incredible level of detail in the art direction, but as Cuaron declares in the DVD bonus features, the goal to was be the “anti-Blade Runner.” Two decades hence, technology has marched on only to a degree. What’s the point of innovation in fashion, automobiles, and consumer electronics when the human race is doomed to extinction? Eerie sights include fields of burning cattle corpses (possibly due to mad cow disease, or more likely the simple fact that the farming economy has collapsed), abandoned and crumbling schools, and the prominence of dog racing as the sport of choice in a world with fewer and fewer fit young people every day.

Children of MenThe Human Project is real

Children of Men may be a punishingly bleak vision of the future, but there is hope to be had. Theo is a broken man resolved to a slow death, both his own and of his species. But there is something special within him; his former lover Julian (Julianne Moore) trusts him over everyone else to do the right thing when presented with a gift of hope: the first human child in two decades. Even animals are drawn to him, including dogs, kittens, and deer. His friend Jasper (Michael Caine) praises the Hindu Peace Mantra, which also appears as an epigram after the credits (over the sound of children playing), and bears repeating here:

Shantih Shantih Shantih

Official movie site: www.childrenofmen.net

Must view: Daily Film Dose’s Greatest Long Tracking Shots in Cinema, including Children of Men.

Must view: a reel of fake adverts made for the film by Foreign Office Design (via Kottke.org)

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.