The list of movies that feature blind characters is long: Charlie Chaplin's 1931 "City Lights," "Butterflies Are Free" (1972), "Jennifer 8" (1992), "Scent of a Woman" (1992) and the 2000 "Dancer in the Dark" are just a few that come to mind.
And now we have M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village," in which Bryce Dallas Howard plays a blind woman in danger, and "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi," starring Takeshi Kitano, as the cult Japanese hero, a laid-back yet lethal fighting machine.
Most of these movies rely on the conceit of blindness as a device. As in: She's blind and can't see the guy with the big stick trying to whack her. Or: He's blind but he's one heck of a sonar-conscious ninja warrior. Cool. They tell us that blindness is horrible and scary, or they tell us blindness is something akin to saintliness. Those who can't see? They're truly special.
Although Hollywood and other filmmaking centers have no standing orders to educate us or make positive statements about anything, it's still the unwritten code that they bear some responsibility. Many people's primary experience with blindness comes from the movies. More and more, the movies "teach" us about the world.
Scriptwriters are, in some way, Western culture's secular mullahs. But blindness as a dramatic tool goes back at least as far as the Bible. The wife and son of Isaac, who is blind, dupe him into thinking he's blessing his favored son Esau, but instead he gives the blessing to Jacob.
What screenwriters can do is to make us appreciate, at least for a few moments, what it is to be blind. Or provide some sort of quickie insight.
The 1965 "A Patch of Blue" uses blindness in an intriguing way: to illustrate the impossibility of racial colorblindness. Gordon (Sidney Poitier), an African American, becomes close to Selina (Elizabeth Hartman), a blind white girl who is unaware of his race. Gordon knows the realities of the world. Despite being in love with her, he can never allow himself to have a real relationship.
In "Zatoichi," the title character is astoundingly alert. His opponents come at him with everything, but he uses all his other senses to prevail. We're impressed at the ability of a disciplined mind to overcome anything -- surely not the worst take-home wisdom in the universe.
The character played by Howard in "The Village" is forced to walk through a terrifying woods where, she's told, unspeakable monsters are waiting to tear her to shreds. She hears a rush of feet coming toward her. Using her stick to flail at any trees or branches in the way, she runs headlong into the darkness. Yes, the blindness is just a suspense device. But Howard's extraordinarily graceful performance pulls us in.
Howard takes the beatific baton from Audrey Hepburn, who plays probably the best-known blind character in the movies: Suzy Hendrix, a housewife in New York who, in "Wait Until Dark" (1967), finds herself beset by three hoodlums who want a doll full of heroin packets Suzy has unwittingly brought home. But the bad guys haven't counted on her courage and her will. It's a terrific thriller with one of the best shriek-aloud finales around. And Suzy's courage and resourcefulness make us think differently of blindness.
Is there a movie that perfectly captures blindness in its complexity? Not really. But my favorite is a lesser known but engrossing Australian psychodrama called "Proof." A grim and noirish triangular story, it's about three characters who alternately abuse and love one another. As Martin, a blind man, Hugo Weaving steadfastly refuses to let his condition impede his right to be as nasty as anyone else.
In the funniest moment, he's obliged to drive a car because of a group of bullies chasing him. Naturally he crashes. When a doctor looks at his eyes, she declares: "You've been blind all your life."
"I know," replies Martin.
"What were you doing driving a car?" she asks.
"I forgot," he says.