Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Hue and cry

As I was saying last time, I decided to attend the 53rd Corona Cork Film Festival despite the fact that my eyesight had gotten very bad and was getting worse. Even though cataract surgery has gotten very routine and has an extremely high success rate, I suppose in the back of my mind I was thinking that I should get to one more film festival “just in case.” Besides, as I noted last time, watching movies was one thing I could use my eyes for without a lot of frustration.

I had made the drive down to Cork enough times that I sometimes joked that I could do it with my eyes closed. Now I was going to find out if there was any truth in that. Actually, it wasn’t that bad. As long as I was extra vigilant (driving in occasional tule fog in my youth was certainly good experience) and trusted that I didn’t need to be reading the smaller road signs, I felt perfectly safe. There were no scares or close calls.

Likewise, negotiating the streets of Cork was no problem. By this time, I knew my way around well enough that I never felt I was lost or confused. And I am relieved to report that my impairment in no way prevented me from finding venues serving copious amounts of free Corona to the press.

My main frustration had to do with reading and writing. It seemed to take forever to write anything because it was so hard to read the screen. I made a permanent nose print on my laptop screen trying to read what I was typing. To this day, I have avoided rereading anything I wrote during that period for fear of finding unintelligible gibberish. Actually, this has always been my policy about rereading anything I’ve ever written.

I did have one momentary bit of panic on the drive to Cork when it occurred to me that it had been a while since I had seen a movie in a language other than English. There would be many such films at the festival. What if I found that I could no longer read subtitles? If that were the case, I might be able to manage movies from French or Spanish-speaking countries, but I could be in real trouble with, say, Asian flicks. When I got to my first movie, I was relieved that, no, I could still read the white text on the bottom of the screen. As well as I ever could anyway.

So my experience in Cork went well, actually much better than I could have hoped. But in a strange way, the festival seemed to be taunting me. Take, for example, the two filmmakers who were the most prominent festival guests. There was a retrospective and public interview with English director Terence Davies, and if there is any way to sum up Davies it is as a visual master. Not a dialog master or a soundtrack master. A visual master. In writing about his films, I found I had to keep referring to the impressive visual aspects, which I could only hope that I was seeing properly. The other notable filmmaker in attendance was Peter Greenaway, whose movies should be found in the dictionary under “painterly.” The thing that jumps out of his movies is the exquisite way every single frame is composed. In writing about his Nightwatching, I found myself throwing around phrases like “Greenaway was trained as a painter, and every frame of his every film looks it” and “stunning visuals,” hoping I was really commenting on the film and not on some side effect of my clouded lenses.

And consider the very title Nightwatching. It is taken, of course, from the popular if unofficial name (Night Watch) of Rembrandt’s breakthrough painting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch. But the title has another meaning, referring to Rembrandt’s recurring and enduring fear of losing his sight. Hmmm. Was the universe trying to tell me something?

But wait. It gets better. From the very first day, the universe (or maybe just the festival programmers or maybe merely my own subconscious manipulating the films I chose to see) seemed to be taunting me. The very first film I saw, shortly after my arrival in Cork, was called Je veux voir, which translates as I Want to See. Oh great, I thought. This will probably be a depressing story about someone going blind. But the je in the title was none other than Catherine Deneuve, and her eyesight seemed to be fine. What she wanted to see was the destruction left behind in south Lebanon after the war between Israel and Hezbollah. But even if failing eyesight did not figure into the movie’s plot, the title seemed to become my personal motto and theme for the week.

The other feature I saw that day was called Burn After Reading, which was of course the Coen brothers’ new comedy. But it could also describe my eyes after trying to peruse small print. But things reached a peak at midweek with the screening of Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness. Based on a novel by José Saramago, this flick was about nothing less than the whole world (well, at least all of the unspecified country where it takes place) going blind. It begins with a young Japanese man who, with no warning, loses his sight completely, while driving his car through traffic. He is brought to a doctor and soon, one by one, everyone who comes into contact with him goes blind as well. In a panic and assuming that some sort of contagion is behind it, the government begins isolating the victims in a quarantine facility—at least until things get so out of hand that there is no point. The movie follows those initial victims as they try to form their own new society in microcosm, and we are off on an allegorical journey through how people behave at the most primitive level. And guess what. In the end the characters come to see, I mean, realize that the blindness is actually a blessing in disguise. Okay.

On the closing night, the last film I saw was a Belgian one called The Silence of Lorna, and I promptly began to ponder whether maybe I should stop concentrating on my eyesight and worry about my hearing instead.

You can probably figure out, more or less, how the story ends. I went home from Cork ready and resolved to have someone slice into my right eyeball. And then I promptly had my surgery postponed for three weeks. The day finally came and, for the first time in my life, I was admitted to a hospital, albeit for only half a day. Everyone there was lovely to me through the whole process, leading right up to the point that the surgeon put a cover over my face, cut out a hole over my eye and used a very strange machine to slice into it. About three hours or so after the surgery began, I was back home, frustratingly, with a plastic shield taped tightly over my eye, so that I couldn’t see anything through my now hopefully good eye. But there was enough of a space between the shield and my face to sneak a little peak and confirm that, yes, there were clear and vibrant colors out there. When I took the shield off, I spent days, if not weeks, closing one eye and then another to do instant before-and-after comparisons of my eyesight. I had not realized how bad it had gotten. I now realized that seeing through a cataract was about as useful as trying to see through a jar of maple syrup. A mere eight weeks later I had the other eye done and was amazed to find that I could see, without glasses, better than I had in more than 25 years. I am not even legally required to wear glasses for driving anymore. At least in Ireland.

But what is the bottom line for my readers? Has everything I’ve written in the past about the visual medium of film now been rendered invalid and inoperative? After giving this considerable reflection, I can offer the following advice. All reviews are still operative. But, in the case of reviews written before the end of November 2008, any descriptions of color in a film should be taken with a grain of salt. Or a jar of maple syrup.

-S.L., 12 March 2009

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