Gary Tarn, 2006, GB, 75 mins
Review by Mike Bartlett
The Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago took one chapter to describe the loss of sight in his novel Blindness, and so powerful was his account that I felt physically sick on reading it. Filmmaker Gary Tarn has a true story as his raw material – that of a painter blinded by thieves – and yet the result is nowhere near as piercing.
Not that Hugues de Montalembert’s tale isn’t extraordinary. A successful artist based in New York, his life was turned upside-down when a junkie broke into his house looking for cash and, in the ensuing confusion, threw a base into his eyes. He lost his sight almost immediately. It’s the classic standby of melodrama or schlocky horror films, isn’t it – the painter who loses his eyes? But Montalembert’s stoic acceptance of the situation and his absolute refusal to let it ruin his life is powerfully expressed through his own narration and gives the film a refreshing vigour, far from the maudlin sentimentality of similar projects. There is no sense of any self-pity and the quiet, intense way he pulls the pieces of his existence back together is genuinely inspiring.
But Tarn struggles to come up with a worthy visual complement to this account. We get dislocated shots of New York seen from above or psychedelic light shows during the onset of blindness. Sometimes images are cued by words in Montalembert’s narration, but they veer from being tritely literal to bizarrely opaque. And what’s with the endless muzak, that mainstay of US cable documentaries, left there as if the filmmakers doubt whether any audience will listen to just the bare word? So often, the film feels like background wallpaper as we concentrate instead on the far greater intelligence of Montalembert himself. His comments on the ‘hierarchy’ of seeing are fascinating. He asserts that painters really see while most people don’t take time to absorb their surroundings. More intriguingly still, he relates how becoming blind made him almost invisible to others – not seeing translates into being unseen – but that this became an advantage when friends felt they could therefore confide in him more. Compared to these observations, Tarn’s work seems banal and desperate.
One gets the sense of an ingenue filmmaker biting off more than he can chew – setting himself the task of representing blindness without any formal strategy. Ultimately, attempting to marry avant garde and realistic images only results in a kind of blurred vision.
Discuss this film here