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A Bad Case of Blindness

By Ryan Knighton/ 2090 words

Like many cinebuffs, I quietly anticipated Mark Steven Johnson’s film adaptation of Stan Lee’s Daredevil comic. If anything, this flick’s super-sized box office receipts confirm my suspicion that many of my artsy-fartsy comrades snuck down to the monster theatre and exchanged guilty glances, ashamed to admit they all wanted to see Ben Affleck’s portrayal of a blind superhero. I’ll cop to it, though, and admit I was there. In fact, I couldn’t wait. Being a blind guy myself, at least I have the excuse of a mutual interest to hide behind.

Given its marginality, you might think disability would be a rare condition to grace our culture’s pages, canvases and screens. Oddly enough, disability must be one of the few cases in which art imitates more than life’s demographics. Apparently there’s more market share than market.

Consider Jose Saramago’s 1998 Nobel Prize winning novel, Blindness. This narrative about the contagious evisceration of an entire country’s eyeballs has horrified and bedazzled readers around the world. It has also, to my mind, set a benchmark standard for how disability can be used as a fresh point of view from which to study all sorts of goodies about cultural organization, moral privilege and plain old power.

Cinema, of course, isn’t one to leave the scribes alone, so Saramago’s epic will soon be coming to a theatre near you. It probably won’t be the same theatre in which you found Daredevil, but you never know. Hollywood is likely to insist on mixing its own saccharine solutions for disability into a narrative as heavy as his. That’ll help paste it up on the bigger big screens.

Whereas Saramago’s epic is a unique and philosophical thriller about the end of the world through the end of our eyes, much of our television and literature is primarily obsessed with the usual suspect patients – stories about people who overcome the ups and downs of disability to eventually function, lucky them, like everybody else. You might notice an icky celebration of Darwinist thinking in that kind of survival story. With this season’s inclusion of the deaf contestant, Christy Smith, on Survivor, at least we are confronted by an explicit expression of that attitude.

Like television and literature’s malingering diseases of the week, Hollywood, too, has its own long and predictable relationship to the myriad of physiologies. To ham it up as the deaf, blind, wheelchair-bound or all of the above in a self-pitying blender is, for many actors, enough to limp or wheel into an Oscar, or at least up the ramp and into the right room. You might recall Daniel Day-Lewis’ gifted and painterly left foot in My Left Foot; you might remember Robert De Niro’s twitchy rabble-rouser in Awakenings (I preferred the catatonic moments of that performance, myself); and who can forget, of course, Sean Penn’s loveable mentally challenged barrista in I Am Sam. Then again, maybe you remember Sean Penn’s loveable poster boy for Starbucks’ sensitive labour practices. Of course Sam’s friendly manager never got uppity or impatient with him. Caffeine-saturated workplaces are just like that, even when the disabled are working the espresso line.

The list goes on, the weepy acceptance speeches accumulate, and the role of “The Gimp” remains a coveted right of passage for thespians and not-so thespians. I don’t mean to suggest the Ben Afflicted performance in Daredevil will earn him the Academy’s highest high-five. There’s about as much chance of me getting my sight back. I do, however, have to wonder what there is to report back about blindness that is true, or at least a zany action film kind of true, in this movie. It appears we have advanced little beyond caricatures of the disabled, once again, and I have to wonder if this shows how culturally far civil rights movements have left us behind.

As an artist formerly known as sighted, I’m always on the lookout, albeit a blurry lookout, for any and all cinematic visions about my transformed state of being. Having said that, I promise to drop any further blind-sighted puns, and I wish Daredevil‘s sorry screenplay had done the same, since it seems the stampeding herd of visual metaphors are easier to spot than the nose on your face. Nothing against those without noses or herds. Blind puns are about as deep as the film’s chatter goes, so little is touched by dialogue but the surface of things. In terms of soundtrack I am otherwise happy to report that the flick didn’t demand I listen to three excruciating hours of disorienting hoofbeats, like some films about Hobbits I won’t mention.

What Daredevil did expect me and my blank stare to sit through was something much more commonplace than puns and sightless schtick. This movie is an expensive recycling of our limited imagination about blindness. Daredevil, in other words, is another case study in our worst artistic impulses about disability, a lazy and pitying impulse for the most part.

If you haven’t seen it yet, the film is the Jekyll-and-Hyde story of Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer by day, crime fighting vigilante by night, who uses his leftover super-senses to help exact justice when the courts fail. It’s not that he’s a bad lawyer, but, justice being blind and some lawyers being mediocre, sometimes the bad guy gets away and still deserves a good whack on the knuckles with a righteous white cane. Lucky for us Daredevil is willing to pull double shifts.

Equal opportunity watchdogs can relax, too, because Daredevil’s super-senses give him an equal-opportunity’s fighting chance to be a superhero of some calibre. For instance, since Murdock can hear a criminal’s pulse during perjured testimony, the Daredevil knows who’s been naughty and who’s been lying about it. Then he swiftly delivers that old school street justice you might expect – an eye for an eye – and this is all thanks to his razor-fine balance, his bat-like hearing, his bloodhound nose, his Iron-Chef taste buds and, of course, his extra-helping of Freudian neuroses. Sounds like a good time, doesn’t it?

Not quite. Granted this is not a Nobel Prize winning premise, and “campy” does seem to be the mot juste, but what perplexes me is how this screenplay managed, despite the license to goof with gimpiness, to still sound, smell, taste and feel familiar to the point of cardboard bland. Daffy dialogue and requisite action film one-liners aside, Daredevil is an example of cinema’s common inability to tap into anything original about blindness with its multi-million dollar white cane. To borrow from Quentin Tarantino, I worry this also reveals our culture’s ability to “bring out the gimp” for some fun without having to think about who, or what, is behind the mask.

The kind of blindness in Daredevil is as old as the Ancient Greeks and Affleck’s role was more or less tackled already by Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. Yes, they play essentially the same character and when the blind smell stale stereotype, no special effects can blow enough smoke our way.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to play sensitivity police for Hollywood’s ham-fisted maligning of my differently-abled identity. Nothing could be more dull and proper, and nothing would please my old semiotics professors more. I really did want to see a romp about the superblind, honest. But I do accuse Hollywood of a greater crime against its own nature. If its mandate is to at least entertain, then Johnson’s film is guilty of boring me with my own identity.

With its uses of super-hearing and super-guilt, the film’s antiquated treatment of blindness is about as peculiar and unique as Robin Williams telling another joke about Stevie Wonder trying to colour coordinate in the morning. Who can’t see that coming? I certainly can, and just as easily as you could see more tempting blind/sighted puns coming your way.

Daredevil, despite its name, nurtures a safe fidelity to the tired history of blind iconography. Through these icons the narrative of blindness usually bumps into our art for two reasons and rarely do they change.

First of all, blindness is never just that. It’s usually a metaphor for a character’s guilt. Oedipus didn’t cut his nose off to spite his face after he saw what he’d unknowingly done to his mom and pop. Appropriate to the metaphor, he gouged his eyes out instead, hoping this would relieve the pain of what he found unbearable to see about himself.

Ben Affleck’s young Matt Murdock is no different. He witnesses his father’s transaction with some known criminals and, unable to bear witness to the perversion of his father’s purity, young Daredevil runs smack into a truck full of bio-hazardous waste, the kind that burns your eyes but leaves you pretty much beefcake otherwise.

Like Oedipus, what the young Daredevil is now truly blind to is how he will be instrumental in destroying his father. Old man Murdock is supposed to take a dive at an upcoming boxing match but instead chooses to fight to win, in the name of his son, bringing certain death upon himself as an act of love and atonement. Poor little Daredevil’s the cause. Sure he got the order bass-ackwards, but he still managed to blind himself and inadvertently kill his father in the Oedipal end.

Daredevil shows us once more that the blind are always running around art trying not to see their complicity in things unfortunate. We now might call this form of blindness denial or repression or, if you’re into life-skills workshops, a species of anger management. Even at the end of Pacino’s triumphant speech in Scent of a Woman he declares he’d take a flame-thrower to the evil and snotty prep school if he had his eyesight back. Someone with a bad case of self-denial wanting to torch the joint? Well, we have to wonder if that isn’t the same pathology of denial repeating itself.

But Oedipus isn’t the only worn-out model for blindness in our art. The other common treatment comes from Tiresias, the blind and suicidal hermaphrodite whom the gods compensated with the power of prophesy. Seeing the future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though, so many treatments of blindness in art take some liberties and give us the whole enchilada of super-senses, a version of mystical ability.

Daredevil clearly suffers from a highly amplified case of this mystical ability and, again, he’s no different than Pacino’s Colonel Slade when the blind curmudgeon drives a Ferrari at high speeds by narrative power alone and identifies week-old whiffs of soap when a gal passes him by. Like most blind folks, I’ve always wanted these abilities, too, but the problem is we have to be interested in memorizing the brand name repertoire of perfume and soapy smells out there. We’ve usually got more pressing things to do, like find a way home from the cineplex.

Daredevil dares little, then, other than recycling the ancient blind cliches and calling it heroic. In my mind, if it has to be campy, and that would have been refreshing, more original and honest would have been a showdown between Affleck’s Daredevil and Pacino’s Colonel Slade. They could have squared off after bumping into each other in a back alley and really gone at it in blatant Oedipal and Tiresian style. What would that look like you ask?

According to my screenplay both characters would exchange opening blows, which would consist of mocking each other for cheap tastes in shampoo and cologne. Suitably on the ropes, the losing hero would then retaliate with a hefty onslaught of Freudian analysis about the other’s obvious self-loathing and sensory over-compensation. "What is it you don’t want to see?" Affleck would sling at Pacino. Then Pacino would come back with the big guns and call Daredevil a daddy’s boy. On and on it would go in the cinematic ring and, because of its honesty, I’d be there, front row, grinning away at the soundtrack.

If the used motifs and thematic subtexts are wearing thin, to camp it up requires we at least deviate from the old script and ensure the gags and good time are a surprise. I don’t suspect Hollywood is comfortable enough with the disabled to cozy up to us with a sequel like that. And maybe movie-goers of the sighted persuasion aren’t ready for a story about blindness as simply and absence, one without compensations or a need for a good shrink. Until we are ready, then, I’ll just have to sharpen my villainous knives and wait for Don McKellar’s adaptation of Saramago’s terrific novel. Nothing is better for a blind guy’s self-esteem than playing with knives, you know.

2100 words, March 10, 2003

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Ryan Knighton

Ryan Knighton lives in Vancouver, teaches at a college in North Vancouver, and peers at the world with a strange but distinctive focus. He just signed a whopping book contract based on a series of pieces that appeared on this site, and his publisher made us erase them.

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