Sunday 2 December 2012

The Blind Man (2011)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Michael Coleman and Jess Weaver

Congratulations to Travis Mills and Running Wild Films for reaching the ten grand they've been aiming at on Kickstarter! Now 52 Shorts, 52 Weeks, their 2013 project to adapt no less than 52 stories from the public domain into contemporary short films in a single year, will go ahead, for release in 2014. They've made a few such adaptations in the past, so it seemed appropriate to commemorate by checking out the first one they made last year: The Blind Man, based on the story by D H Lawrence first published in 1920. It's a fascinating movie, not least because Mills isn't only its director, he also plays the title role and in a dedicated piece of method filmmaking he does so while blindfolded. I can buy that as an actor but as a director too? That's perhaps the very definition of ambitious. Mills restricted himself from reviewing any of the shots until they were all done, an interesting concept but frankly one that shows.

The picture begins with the blindfolded Mills lifting a railroad tie in his back yard. He really isn't auditioning for The Karate Kid: The Next Generation, he's building a game of horseshoes even though he can't see to play. Obviously life hasn't treated Martin well, but that doesn't show in him, it shows in his wife, Isabel. He's carrying on regardless, though notably disassociated, but she's lost in a world she can't understand, clearly finding it tough to cope, so Benny coming to visit might be a good way to regain a grounding. He's an old friend, from before she married Martin, apparently a good one, given how long they hug. 'I hope it won't be too uncomfortable for you,' she tells him; and while she's talking about his room, Martin is obviously an unspoken double meaning. That's only partly because of his eyes, apparently lost in an accident, and partly because the two men really don't like each other.
There are a number of angles to the source story, which uses disability as a means to highlight communication and common ground. By blindfolding himself as both an actor and a director, Mills explores those angles in interesting ways. Beyond forcing himself to share in Martin's lack of sight, he also forces himself to communicate with his small crew more effectively than would normally be needed. Perhaps to push this experiment another step further, this entire short, all seventeen minutes of it, was shot in a single day. That's not much opportunity to do retakes or alternate shots, let alone much time to adjust lighting levels, which means that while the idea is fascinating, it's far from successful. Jason Cowan's camerawork is occasionally annoyingly jerky. Some scenes run longer than we expect them too. Most obviously, the whole thing seems to have been shot in natural light, which is fine in the back yard but not so effective indoors.

The catch is that by exploring character themes as a director as well as an actor, Mills pulled a fast one on his audience. To one way of thinking, the lack of light is an annoying flaw. As Isabel and Benny talk for the first time, they're in silhouette. Inside the house, lighting is inconsistent and frequently not enough. Yet, on the flipside, this ably highlights the focal point of the movie. While we struggle to see what's going on with Isabel and Benny, we realise that we still have it better than Martin, who can't see at all. Of course, that parallel may never have been intended and this may simply be Mills discovering how tough it is to direct while blind. It's what Occam's razor would tell us. Certainly, that doesn't explain why the film misses the finalé's key bonding moment. In the end, thinking about this film becomes more fun than watching it, but a day and $100 proved an interesting, if flawed, experiment. Bring on the next 52 of them!

The Blind Man can be viewed for free on Vimeo.

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