I’ll unfortunately miss our final screening of Second-Story Man on Thursday at Cinequest, but am looking forward to hearing about a good crowd. Before leaving I managed to catch a few more films, including The Blind by Nathan Silver.
The Blind is very close to a really great film, but falls in its final 5 minutes. Silver delivers an odd mixture of static, monotone comedy and unspoken horror. It reminds me (pre-ending) of an odd combination of Haneke’s The 7th Continent and Haynes’ Safe – both great films. A couple, Marcus (Jonas Ball) and Kate (Josette Barchilon) have an oddly tense relationship. They rarely speak. They move slowly. They communicate mostly in notes left on the kitchen table (including two notes from Marcus asking Kate to move out). He is an architect – and a stubborn one at that. She is a stereotypical housewife with aspirations of medical school.
What makes The Blind both strange and successful is its composition and the absurdly downplayed acting. The actors seem to move in slow-motion. No one gives credence to, or questions motives. There is quite a bit of implied internal suffering, but none is laid bare. In short, we watch Kate and Marcus exist next to one-another though quite separately (they rarely touch) and wait for the moment of explosion ala Haneke. It comes…just not in a way as successful as any of the Austrian’s films.
Compositionally The Blind is stunning. The camera rarely moves and in fact, the film is a rather interesting example of directing via focus. Focus in a film is often one of its “invisible” elements. The main action is sharp and all else is not, thus our eye is directed to the point of interaction, conflict, conversation, etc. Films that favor shallow depth and deep rack focuses (think Petulia) tend to use focus as a stylistic tool and, with the rise of digital camera technology with the ability to capture an image with shallow depth, are becoming more prevalent.
Silver uses focus neither traditionally or solely stylistically. He certainly directs our eye, but tends to point us to the off-action, to that which happens in the background and is perhaps less narratively important or active than that which we are steered away from.
Case in point (and there are many): Kate dresses in the background at night. Marcus sleeps in the foreground, his back to camera. Marcus is in focus. He has a line of dialogue, but the point of this moment in the film is that Kate feels more of a connection to an elderly next-door neighbor than to Marcus, to the point that she is leaving to care for him at a late hour. The fact that it is Marcus’ back and not his face in focus makes it more non-traditional. We are staring at an undershirt.
This has two effects: first, we initially search the frame for what we “should” be looking at. Our eye fights this frame. We go to the larger and brighter objects (Marcus) but we also go to faces and action (Kate). My eye wanted to settle on Kate. But the focus pointed me to Marcus. Okay. So is this foreshadow? Should I expect Marcus to do something – is Silver telling me in advance, via the focus, that he will? He doesn’t. Should I feel for Marcus here? Is Silver telling me to feel his emotion? Well I can’t see his face. His voice, as always, registers no emotion. So…why bother? What’s the point of setting the focus here – and in similar instances throughout The Blind – to Marcus and not to Kate.
Silver pulls the ol’ form matching content trick. If the plot and characters won’t give us traditional drama then his form will not point us in the traditional directions either. In fact, everything in the film, save the final moments, works so hard to fight against common dramatic events that about halfway through The Blind, the audience either a) falls into its lull/spell or b) walks out (some did). Silver wants to, in this shot, underline the everyday elements. He is pointing to the normalcy (a man sleeping) amidst the strange atmosphere he has achieved. But perhaps above all, he is asking a lot of his audience. He is making us do some subconsciously passive work. Gone in this film, is the ease of watching an actor take center-frame, in sharp focus and three-point lighting and deliver a line of dialogue. This is replaced by compositional elements that make the eye roam, flicker and debate. And by the point of the end of the debate, the scene is over and we are faced with a whole new set of formal elements with which to interpret.