Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Eyes of Me (PBS “Independent Lens,” 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was The Eyes of Me, a documentary by Keith Maitland centered around the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) in Austin, and in particular around four students in the school in the 2005-2006 school year. Chas is an African-American, tall, lanky, dressed in “street” clothes and with an ambition to be a rapper and use rap music to communicate his existence. Meagan is a heavy-set blonde woman with an ambition to be a social worker and a fierce determination to learn to cope with her disability. Debbie is a freshman who has an outgoing personality, a disinterest in boy-girl relationships (she likes boys as friends but isn’t willing to go farther with them). Isaac is a boy from Paris, Texas, darkly handsome (during the film he’s depicted as dating a fellow student named Chastity — who hopefully is not going to decide later in life that she’s a Lesbian and then that she’s a man! — who breaks up with him because he’s seeing someone else; later he’s thrown out of TSBVI for “inappropriate physical contact with a fellow student,” and not only is he charismatically handsome but he’s also the most compelling character among the four even though (or maybe because) he’s the least sympathetic: he’s got the combination of grandiosity (he says at least twice that his ultimate ambition is to be the first blind President of the United States) and irresponsibility that’s supposed to be the early warning symptom of psychopathology.

The film is intensely moving mostly because it’s so matter-of-fact; things happen to these people, some of them typical high-school things and some of them the result of people forced to grow up faster than they were anticipating (for his senior year Chas gets tired of living on campus, rents an off-campus apartment with a roommate, has to get himself legally emancipated at 17 to do so — then loses the apartment and ends up doing the couch-rounds with friends when the roommate walks out on him without paying the rent or bills), that are only tangentially related to their struggles as blind people. The film does an excellent job of showing the sheer cumbersomeness of being blind: the size and weight of Braille books (Chas is shown writing his lyrics in Braille on a clunky typewriter — he has a computer, which he uses to record his songs, but probably can’t afford the sort of specialized printer it would require to do print-outs in Braille) and the sheer difficulty of moving around — in one scene Meagan is being trained in how to cross a street safely and director Maitland mixes the sounds of traffic unusually loudly so we can get an idea of how blind people are forced to use their hearing and develop that and their other senses to make up for the big one they don’t have.

There was an interesting panel discussion afterwards with three students at a similar high school for visually impaired people in San Diego — all boys: Andrew (white, shaved head, dressed in a white T-shirt and black running shorts — an outfit he picked because he’d been an athlete before he lost his sight and it symbolized his determination to stay in shape), Raymond (a heavy-set Latino-looking kid in a dark shirt and blue jeans) and Ian (also Latin-looking but considerably skinnier, dressed in a leather jacket and jeans and the most child-like of the three in terms of his demeanor) — and they, like the people in the movie, discussed some of the myths that surround blind people. One of the most revealing parts of this movie is that it demonstrates how some are born blind, some achieve blindness and some have blindness thrust upon them; Isaac’s story in particular — his retinas were detaching and his grandparents (whom he was living with at the time) had no health insurance, so he couldn’t get eye surgery in time and they ultimately detached completely — is especially heart-rending (and yet another example of the tragedies caused by America’s proud, steadfast refusal to make access to health care a matter of individual right and insistence instead on leaving it to “the market”), while others like Meagan in the movie had some sight throughout their childhoods but gradually lost it.

What’s frequently misunderstood is that there are levels and degrees of blindness — the gap between perfect vision and total darkness is huge and there are some people who can see the difference between light and dark, others who can see vaguely defined blobs and shapes but can’t get enough visual information to their brains to process them as actual objects, still others whose eyes send them huge amounts of light but nothing else (those are the ones who wear the wraparound shades Ray Charles made famous — not to help them see but at least to give them the comfort of darkness instead of just undifferentiated, searingly bright light). Andrew’s story, like Isaac’s in the movie, was one of having normal vision until just about two or three years ago, whereas Ian has been blind since about one and thus doesn’t have the memories of the visual world that some blind people have to fall back on. The teacher who brought these students to the screening fielded a question about how blind people dream by saying that it depends on how long they were blind — someone blind from birth would not dream in visual imagery while someone who had gone blind later on would have dreams involving vision because he or she would be drawing, unconsciously, on their memories of what things looked like when they could still see them.

The teacher also debunked the myth that blind people automatically develop hyper-sensitive hearing to compensate; as is shown by the sequence in the film of Meagan learning to cross streets on auditory cues alone, this is a learned skill and they have to work at it. The discussion also mentioned guide dogs as one way of recognizing whether someone is blind (though I pointed out that with the proliferation of service dogs for people with other disabilities, even that isn’t as definite an indicator as it used to be) along with the blind canes, which blind people frequently use as a sort of artificial set of eyes (which seemed like news to some of the people in the audience, though I’ve seen enough of it — especially when blind people use the buses and their canes help them negotiate the steps to get on and off of them — that I’ve recognized it and known what it was).

I had several questions, including how blind people experience movies — I know some films on TV come with “special audio programs” that describe the visual information in a narration (essentially turning a movie into an old-style radio program) but I hadn’t realized some theatres offer these as well, giving blind patrons a device that broadcasts the SAP to them while the fully sensed people in the audience obliviously watch the film normally — and also how blind people seem to be attracted to music. I couldn’t help but think of the many successful musicians who’ve been blind, including all those bluesmen who had “Blind” in front of their names — Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell — as well as the blind jazz pianists Art Tatum, Lennie Tristano, George Shearing and Alex Kallao (the last a real cult artist who made two LP’s for RCA Victor in the mid-1950’s but pretty much dropped from sight after that before being rediscovered doing a residency at a Sausalito, California bar in 2007) and later stars like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, José Feliciano (who in some ways had the most remarkable career at all because he was so talented that before he became a star in his own right, he was a successful studio musician even though most studio calls require the ability to sight-read music) and Andrea Bocelli — and I noted that three of the four students featured in The Eyes of Me (the marvelous title comes from one of Chas’s rap songs) were involved in music: Chas is shown working on rap material, Isaac is seen practicing drums, and Debbie stars as Cinderella in the TSBVI school play, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods — a musical.

Raymond said he had had a lifelong interest in music and had at one point played piano and violin and has now settled on ukulele (that seems like a bit of a comedown in his ambitions, though it also reinforces my theory that blind musicians seem to gravitate towards the most tactile instruments, the ones played exclusively by touch — saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk remains the only major blind jazz musician I can think of who played wind or brass instruments), and I was left with a fascinating glimpse/look/whatever into the world of the blind (one myth dispelled by the live people discussing the film last night was that blind people — most blind people, anyway — do not get offended when the word “see” is used around them; they accept it as a metaphor for perceiving the visual world in whatever way they can). The Eyes of Me is a marvelous film and manages to pack quite a lot of content into a 56-minute TV running time (though I suspect that, as with some of the other PBS Independent Lens presentations, there might be a longer version extant made either for theatrical showing or DVD release), and it manages the tricky and difficult feat of telling the stories of people with disabilities without milking the tear ducts and making you feel sorry for them.

More information on The Eyes of Me: