Jan 26, 2015

The Blind Photographer

Like many Dutch ‘war children’ who grew up knowing hunger, defeat, and occupation by various foreign entities including the krauts and yanks, auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst (Flanagan, De Witte Waan aka White Madness) was a great fan of writer Willem Frederik Hermans and even adapted one of his stories for his debut feature Paranoia (1967), but when the writer came on the set of the film and began interfering with things, the two great creative egos naturally collided, so it seemed more than a little bit dubious that the two Dutchmen would ever collaborate together again. Luckily, a certain arrogant scheming producer named Rob du Mee was committed to making a W.F. Hermans celluloid triptych and he felt that Ditvoorst was the only right man for the job since they had both worked together on Paranoia which, although a pathetic commercial failure, proved the auteur had a certain uncompromising vision that complimented the novelist’s distinctly dark and nihilistic post-WWII Dutch worldview. At the strange ‘medium-length’ of just under 50-minutes and featuring a sort of distinct and almost ‘Gothic’ doom and gloom black-and-white film stock, De blinde fotograaf (1973) aka The Blind Photographer—a work based on the short story of the same name taken from the Hermans short story collection Een landingspoging op Newfoundland (1957) aka An Attemptive Landing on Newfoundland—seems like it was specially tailored to be an abject commercial failure as a paranoia-plagued piece of darkly mirthful existentialist eccentricity that falls somewhere between Franz Kafka and early David Lynch, albeit with a distinctly Dutch sort of terror-tinged absurdity. Both anti-media and anti-art-faggotry, Ditvoorst’s strange little filmic freak show is like an episode of The Twilight Zone for nocturnal nihilists and autistic acidheads, as a work with its own singularly loony logic, distinctly deranged cinematic language, and delightfully unsettling atmosphere of the farcical yet equally foreboding sort. Created at a time when ‘social realism,’ cinéma vérité, and other forms of largely static and aesthetically sterile cinematic styles were vogue in Europe, The Blind Photographer is most certainly one of Ditvoorst's most perversely potent pieces of celluloid rebellion, or as his friend/collaborator Thom Hoffman—the star of the director’s swansong and magnum opus De Witte waan (1984) aka White Madness—stated in his documentary De domeinen Ditvoorst (1992) aka The Ditvoorst Domains regarding the demented flick and its equally demented director: “Realism fared well in the cinema. Adriaan was instinctively drawn to the absurd, the Kafkaesque. Mystery. Surrealism. He said: ‘I despise everything superficial. Certainly when it sneaks up on you.’ Again he turned to Hermans, the chronicler of Dutch impotence.” Indeed, Ditvoorst’s film transforms the seemingly banal into the deranged, the everyday into the eccentric, and the pedestrian into the preposterous as a work that, in terms of tone and visuals, seems like it was seen by David Lynch when he was assembling Eraserhead (1977), as work that does for the ancient proletarian ghettos of Amsterdam what the American auteur’s first feature did for the post-industrial rot of Philadelphia. The story of an ass-licking yellow journalist who is assigned to cover a story about an visually impaired photographer of the somewhat enigmatic sort whose creepily coddling parents have turned their home into a gigantic darkroom, The Blind Photographer is truly a work that transcends the line between humor and horror, as well as art and anti-art as a sort of absurdist Gothic parable with sometimes Expressionistic overtones.

Beginning simply enough with the mundane inter-title “A Day in the Life of a Reporter,” The Blind Photographer soon introduces the super smug and obscenely arrogant anti-protagonist ‘Journalist’ (Gees Linnebank, who played a ‘homosexual’ in Paul Verhoeven’s Spetters (1980) and had a small role in Dick Maas’ Flodders 3 (1995)), who bitches upon waking up in the morning, “Damn it, I have to get up!” and then proceeds to complains to his half-asleep wife about not being able to find his cufflinks. Before leaving for work, the Journalist’s wife tells him that her mother will be coming over for dinner sometime in the evening and then asks him when he will be home from work, but he claims to have no idea. Of course, little does the Journalist realize that he will never be coming home from work after being assigned to do some investigative reporting on a famous blind photographer that still lives with his parents in a pre-multicultural Amsterdam ghetto. While walking to work, the Journalist, who walks like a spastic chicken with his head bobbing in and out, bumps into a beauteous blonde and he does not even have enough courtesy to apologize to the delightful little dame, thus reflecting his generally repugnant character. When the protagonist finally arrives at work, his slob of a boss says “I found an article…The Blind Photographer” and recommends “We add someone else’s picture. He won’t notice anyway.” After a strange and unsettling walk, the Journalist arrives at the Blind Photographer’s house and is greeted by a somewhat unfriendly old man (Frans Vorstman of Fons Rademakers’ De aanslag (1986) aka The Assault and Alex van Warmerdam’s De jurk (1986) aka The Dress) who tells him that he is the boy’s father and then reluctantly invites him into his home. Unbeknownst to the scummy reporter, the Blind Photographer and his parent’s know all the tricks of the trade when it comes to yellow journalism and he is about to get lost in a labyrinthine nightmare realm of no return.

Upon entering the Blind Photographer’s home, the father asks what the Journalist wants to know and he replies like a true media whore, “Everything. Everything interests me. I’d like to have a chat with your son. The man behind the work, if you know what I mean,” to which the patriarch strangely replies, “Talking to him is one thing, but seeing him is another. Why see him? He’s blind. He can’t see you. So, why should you see him? Something’s wrong, Mr. Journo.” When the Journalist absurdly argues that he would be willing to wear a blindfold to see their son, the Blind Photographer’s mother (Elizabeth Hoytink, who also appeared in van Warmerdam’s The Dress)—an initially seemingly introverted but ultimately exceedingly extroverted woman who hasn’t said a word up until this point as she has been engaged in some hardcore knitting in a rocking chair—abruptly yells out of nowhere “Entrance fee is a buck,” so the protagonist hands over the money and the viewer is soon startled to hear the illusive eponymous character yell, “Well done, mother” in the background. After hearing the Blind Photographer, the Journalist asks if he is coming out and his father hilariously replies in a matter of fact fashion, “He’s a photographer, you know. A photographer is in his dark room. That’s where he feels good. That’s why he is blind. You don’t know much about life. Mr. Press Parasite” and the mother adds, “The paper’s always full of bullshit.” Despite paying the entrance free, the parents are still reluctant to introduce the Journalist to their mysterious son and instead brag about their dark home, which they have more or less turned into a gigantic darkroom in tribute to their superstar son. After calling the journalist a “little newspaper brat” and belching in a fairly rude and raunchy fashion, the father tells the protagonist that he needs to purchase a lantern if he wants see their son since he lives in the darkness, even preposterously bragging regarding his family's lack of flashlights, “You can go buy one. We don’t have one and we are proud of it.”

When the Journalist goes to a local bike shop under the Blind Photographer’s father recommendation to buy a lantern, he discovers that they only have broken ones, with the shop owner arguing, “black light is sufficient when meeting a blind photographer,” so the protagonist thanks the proprietor for his “black light bullshit” and goes on his merry way to a local bar so he can contact someone at his work about getting a properly working flashlight. After bumping into an old fart with slicked back white hair passionately singing some exceedingly intolerable oldie song, the Journalist goes to use the telephone at the back of the bar and discovers a wayward young woman (Pamela Koevoets, who appeared in most of Ditvoorst’s films) on the phone crying to her assumed lover, “so I won’t see you again?” and then proceeding to mumble gibberish while succumbing to a total mental breakdown. Ultimately, the loony lovelorn lady covers her lips and face with lipstick in a sloppy fashion à la Blue Velvet (1986), wraps a scarf around her eyes as if she is a heartbroken fan-girl of the elusive Blind Photographer, and runs out of the bar where she bump into various walls and buildings. After calling someone at his work to tell them to bring him a lantern, the Journalist leaves the bar and is soon approached by an overtly salacious semi-butch prostitute with a dyke haircut and strange eye makeup who ultimately gives him a handjob for ten guilders. After having his pecker waxed by a sub-proletarian pussy-peddler, the Journalist goes into middle of the streets and laughs hysterically while looking fairly proud of the fact that he was just jerked-off by a dirty dame with dude hair. After receiving the lantern from a fat man who also buys some time with the streetwalker, the Journalist is now ‘ready’ to meet the Blind Photographer, though he has no clue what he is getting into.

After going back to the Blind Photographer’s home, the Journalist must endure a number of sentimental stories from the eponymous character’s highly hysterical mother. Indeed, as the mother states regarding her son while lying in bed like an elderly cripple, “Please don’t think we locked him in permanently. In the past he did not even photograph. We used to go out. Together. I remember going to De Rijp. Taking the bus. Happily next to each other. He wore binoculars.” The mother also brags that her son used to wear “normal glasses…special glasses, made by a professor. Real blind people’s glasses” and “People thought he could see very well. That nothing was wrong with him,” which causes the Journalist to laugh hysterically in a rather disrespectful fashion. The Mother also tells a seemingly fanciful story about how she saved up 15,000 coupons so that she could get her son a “free camera.” When the mother gave her son the camera, apparently, “He photographed like a mad man. Each day we went out. He was so delighted. Sometimes a thumb before the lens, but happiness counted. Photography is expensive. A rich man’s hobby. We didn’t care. We would do anything to please him. Until the moment came, we told him: ‘a real photographer belongs in a dark room.’ Then we gave him that large back room. Dark as hell.” When the mother hears her husband coming, she warns the Journalist that he must leave, so he makes his way to the Blind Photographer’s ‘darkroom’ where he takes a seemingly endless hallway that resembles a dark abyss. When the Journalist trips over something and complains of losing his suitcase, the Blind Photographer (Dutch TV actor Roelant Radier) laughs maniacally and is finally revealed.

While the Journalist flashes his lantern in the blind man’s face, the titular character states in a somewhat sinister fashion, “Everybody does what I tell them…And they don’t regret it,” as if bragging of the talent that some artists have in regard to coercing people into doing stupid and nonsensical things for their art.  When the Blind Photographer asks the journalist how he found his way to his room, he replies, “I wonder myself. Straight ahead all the time, so to say.” The Blind Photographer, who seems to suffer from Asperger syndrome, does not like the Journalist’s answer, so he states “Straight lines don’t exist” and then proceeds to deliver the following philosophical tangent: “A circle is the geometric place in which all points are at equal distance to a given point. The so-called center point. Every diameter ends at the center point on one end. Why talk of endless circles when there are no circles like that? And every diameter ends at the center point. Nobody will ever be able to point out the center of an endless circle. Then we would have to cut eternity in half…Which can only be done if times comes to a halt…But time doesn’t stand still.” After the Blind Photographer’s longwinded rant, the Journalist remarks that he would like to hear about his work, so the eponymous character shows the reporter a gigantic lens and states, “I have this to thank for everything. A lens made by the famous Petzval. Ingenious object.” Needless to say, the Blind Photographer acts offended when the Journalist is reluctant to write down his mathematical “optical calculations” for his story. Naturally, the Blind Photographer becomes even more offended when the Journalist remarks “I don’t think my paper is interested. Your mother’s story was beautiful. The mother figure is sacred. How can you expect me to write that it’s all lies?” after he tells him that all of his mother’s sentimental stories all complete fabrications.  Indeed, the Journalist and Blind Photographer both have their own bullshit interpretations of reality as men that make a living off of fabricating false realities and perspectives, thus they naturally butt heads when in one another's company.

When the Blind Photographer asks the reporter, “What are you writing about? A mother or a blind photographer?,” he replies “Perhaps about neither of them. I only write what my audience wants to read about. I don’t care about who.”  Not surprisingly considering his profession as a blatant public novelty and absurd gimmick as a mensch who cannot see yet snaps photos for a living, the Blind Photographer also reveals that he was already famous before anyone had even seen his pictures, adding regarding his parents' supposed scheme to have him imprisoned in their home after he became a household name, “Suddenly it was a good idea to have the film developed…With all the double exposures…Afraid that I would ask for more, they decided to lock me up. I can’t make any new pictures…[I] have to chew on old fame.”  According the the Blind Photographer, he is a perennial prisoner in his own home and his parents do not even have the decency to buy him new film stock.  On top of that, apparently to save the money, the Blind Photographer’s father merely reloaded his son’s camera with the same film over and over again, thus created warped double exposed photographs. When the Journalist asks the Blind Photographer how he knows that his father did this since, after all, he cannot see, the titular character gets rather offended, gets out of his chair, and says to the reporter while approaching him in a menacing and almost vampire-like fashion, “You think I’m blind as a bat? How I found out…I saw it! It’s not that I can’t see. It’s that I cannot look. You’re a big crook like I am…And an asshole too! You think I didn’t see it.” From there, the Blind Photographer flashes the lantern light in the Journalist’s face and begins choking him. While the Journalist laughs hysterically while being choked to death, the Blind Photographer is revealed to have ominous and particularly penetrating completely white pupil-less eyes that radiate a certain sinister soullessness. As the Journalist dies while he is being strangled, his laughter wanes while transcendental neo-classical music plays in the background in what is ultimately an almost sinisterly sardonic climax to a sinisterly sardonic film.  In the end, the Journalist is finally able to 'see the light' (or something).

In the documentary The Ditvoorst Domains, The Blind Photographer producer Rob du Mee states regarding auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst and his relation to the second Hermans adaptation they collaborated on, “He was a strange guy. He was a poser. Always withdrawing. This was often entertaining. Charming in a way. A con artist. But that’s film.” Apparently, Ditvoorst acted a lot like the eponymous character of his film while directing the work, with du Mee also remarking in the doc regarding the director, “The more bizarre it was, the more he started to giggle. He would really get a kick out of that.”  Not surprisingly, du Mee never got to finish his planned W.F. Hermans trilogy, as he and Ditvoorst never collaborated together on another film again.  Interestingly and almost somewhat unbelievably, The Blind Photographer was shot by none other than world-class Dutch cinematographer Jan de Bonet who also shot Paul Verhoeven’s classic arthouse (anti)romance Turks fruit (1973) aka Turkish Delight—a work that is not only considered the most successful Dutch film of all time, but also received the award for ‘Best Dutch Film of the Century’ in 1999 at the Netherlands Film Festival—the same year. It is kind of hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that the same man that did the cinematography for Ditvoorst’s The Blind Photographer would also go on to shoot Hollywood blockbusters like Die Hard (1988), The Hunt for Red October (1990), and Basic Instinct (1992), but that just goes to show the kind of serious whoring a European artist has to do if they want to be in anyway monetarily successful in this Americanized day and age.  Of course, this also explains why Ditvoorst—a filmmaker that is well known for hating producers and not caring about what audiences thought of his work—only directed a mere ten films (including his shorts) during his nearly twenty year filmmaking career despite the fact he originally intended to direct 3,000(!).

As the grandson of a blind woman, I found The Blind Photographer to be an especially idiosyncratic experience that straddled a strange line somewhere between absurdist surrealism and horrifying hyperrealism. Indeed, on top of the titular character’s mother’s fanciful stories reminding me of my own grandmother’s fanciful stories, the Blind Photographer’s borderline ‘sixth sense’ gave me an eerie reminder of what it was like to be in the company of someone that is more than just a little bit visually impaired.  Undoubtedly, it is somewhat of an awkward experience for a blind person to call you handsome or know that you're are doing something that shouldn't be as a child even though they cannot actually see you doing it.  Of course, Ditvoorst’s film is more about the oftentimes overlapping con-artistry of both journalists and artists than the perennial darkness that the blind must endure. When it comes down to it, The Blind Photographer is a somewhat short and rather savagely sweet celluloid joke at the expense of not only both the journalist and artist, but the viewer as well. Indeed, unlike most serious avant-gardist, naughty nihilist Ditvoorst was fully willing to admit that there was a certain amount of preposterous pretentiousness and bullshitting that comes with being an artist. After all, what kind of cynical trickster makes a film about a blind photographer?! 

-Ty E

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