What does it mean to translate that which escapes conventional language? How do films speak of silence, visualize blindness, generate empathy about subjects that might be alien to wide swaths of their audiences? Two films that played this week at the Cleveland Film Festival-- Returning Home (2015) and Notes on Blindness (2016)--offer models whose mixed success presents warnings as well as guideposts for other filmmakers.
The pillow fight between brothers that opens Returning Home goes on at length for two or three minutes, and that should have been a warning: this is a film that will engage in overly earnest, often sentimental metaphors at every opportunity (the post-pillow fight torn couch, for example), in a manner that's technically impressive more than it is emotionally engaging. That's ironic, given that its writer/director, Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken, who was at the screening for a post-viewing Q&A, later described his purpose as finding an entry point for talking about feelings, and the difficulty of expressing difficult emotions within certain cultural frameworks. He said that people "don't talk about [their] feelings in Nordic countries," and he wanted Returning Home to explore why it's "important to be there for people around you."
Returning Home does so through the genre of the post-war film, observing the fall-out from the coalition efforts in Afghanistan on one fictional Norwegian family when their father Einar returns home from the conflict. Ingar Helme Gimle has a sad, angry face that allows him to register both ferocious dominance and child-like helplessness, sometimes in the same moment: even when his large body dominates the frame (forcing the space to become vertical, a nice stylistic contrast to the earlier, pre-return horizontal openness of the framing), it's his lack of confidence that we sense.
The first-feature earnestness I noted above does generate some nice effects. Dahlsbakken has fun with the margins of the screen, often utilizing a "split-screen" effect by having simultaneous action occurring in the left and right of the frame (as when Einar returns home and hugs Fredrick in the upper right of the screen, while Oscar smokes dismissively in the left), or in the foreground and the background (during the "welcome home" dinner, Einar and Frederick arm-wrestle in the former, while Oscar and his mother quietly drink in the latter). There's a matte quality to certain shots, where an image of a uniform drying on a clothesline or the light hitting the snow of a mountain can feel like an interstitial that takes on a haunting power. And Dahlsbakken has a taste for long takes, letting a scene play out so the full effect of its unspoken emotional awkwardness is felt.
I also found myself fascinated by the smaller visual touches that popped up-- the pink of Oscar's Crocs (a nice feed into the movie's color scheme of blues, pinks, grays, greens amidst dark shadows), Batman Returns poster on Fredrick's wall, the white/blue light streaming into the mother's bedroom, and the framing that enlarges the pills and hand-cream on bedside table. In one great moment, the camera tracks across an epic mountainside, and captures father in an almost casual way, like he's an aside, as it continues rightward across the landscape: it's a lovely way of visualizing the scope of what the father means to the boys, and the paradox that his PTSD and their own pain means neither side can fully communicate it in the rush of imagery and emotion.
At the same time, it's a fine line between "slow" and "empty": even as we stay inside the spinning, donut-making car with Oscar and his girlfriend, for instance, it never really feels like anything is happening. I don't just mean narratively-- I mean that the effect of such lingering can sometimes come up empty, generating only a trace meaning of the themes Dahlsbakken wants to explore. It's the difference between an earnest student telling you what his thesis will be, and making you understand that thesis (it sometimes felt like Jerry Lewis' line to Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy: "Don't tell them it's the punchline; just tell them the punchline").
During the Q&A, Dahlsbakken (who was quite personable, in a quiet way) shared background on his personal ties to the film: that his own brother did the cinematography; that the names of the brothers in the film were flipped because of casting (it seemed easier to call Fredrik Grondahl's character "Fredrick"), that the movie reflects depression in his family, that he utilized a friend's displaced military experience. He spoke of his own lack of film training, and his interest in film theory, as well as the ways in which the limited budget and limited amount of 35 mm film stock meant there were only three takes for each set-up, forcing him to largely use wide shots, like he was directing a stage play. Despite the fawning questions, I liked the Q&A a lot, and appreciated Dahlsbakken sharing his experiences. I still felt like Returning Home was an abstract exercise, a film that impressed more than it involved.
That still places it a step or two above Notes on Blindness, the ambitious, admirable, and ultimately disappointing effort from co-directors James Spinney and Pete Middleton, which documents the descent into blindness of academic John Hull beginning in 1983, and his subsequent attempts to adjust to and then document his experiences. "Documents" is the key, tricky word here-- the film uses audio recordings of Hull and his wife Marilyn, and then has actors Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby (both very good) lip-synch to the cassettes. If the movie didn't let us in on this strategy, I doubt you'd be able to tell: Skinner and Kirby are superb at matching their lips and body movements to the recordings in a manner that feels entirely naturalistic. Together, they (and the actors playing their children) ground all of Spinney and Middleton's experimental play in something real and felt.
That's good, because that experimental play fails as often as it succeeds. From the first close-up on spinning tape-heads during the credits (as we hear interrupted fragments of recordings, of the credits, pieces of voices cut together), the real question or subject of the film seems less Hull's experience itself, than how that experience is framed and visualized. How do you translate and perform audio recordings? And in finding answers to those questions, in narrativizing a life, what cinematic tropes/cliches does that translation rely on, in order to make the ineffable felt by the audience? One of the epigraphs at the end of the film comes from Hull (who died in 2015), talking about the need to close the gap of understanding between the blind and the sighted. That's a great goal, of course, but it's worth asking if it's a meaningful closure when it's achieved by overly familiar, sentimental imagery (wind blowing through grass, kids running through grass, flared light against blurred image, light through curtains, light reflecting off water, Windam Hill-style piano music, rain rain always rain) that, like the omnipresent subtitles that translate Hull's accent, seems determined to force a clarifying symbolism on an experience that is often described as unruly, frustrating, and contradictory.
Like Returning Home, that doesn't mean the film (which grew out of a short film of the same title from 2013, and is accompanied by a VR movie in the CIFF "Perspectives" space), is without any visual pleasures. I loved the shadowy molding of faces during some of the "recording" sessions (framed in a darkened room, like a message from the underground), and the way blurry leaves look like amoebas through the lens-- we're floating in Hull's world. There's a pleasantly dizzying meta-play when we see Hull pressing the tape-player to record, then listening to playback, because we're always listening to one recording or another, something the movie reminds us of visually when we see Hull climbing the stairs in his University building, and the stair-rows look like one of his cassettes turned sideways. In theory, I liked the segmented, anecdotal structure the film plays with-- it makes sense that these recordings (done over a period of years) would allow us to drop in on snippets of a life at random moments, in a manner reminiscent of 32 Short Stories About Glenn Gould.
But Blindness is much less interesting than that film, or others that explore illness and the body through blends of found footage and recreation (like last year's Heart of A Dog), and much less assured in its tempo: there were numerous moments when it felt like the film had reached its end, only to continue on in a manner that felt increasingly insidious in its twee, sentimental lectures.
"Thoughts just came tumbling into my mind," Hull says at one point, which makes perfect sense for a life, and less sense for a film (there are ways to make the "random" and the "tumbling" float and signify and feel, but Notes on Blindness only intermittently achieves them). The "shallow focus" of foreground and background used throughout ultimately feels like the movie's unintentional signature.