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Same Vision, Different Form: Abdoh’s The Blind Owl

By Daniel Mufson
Originally published in TDR, Vol. 39, No. 4 (T148), Fall 1995, pp. 97-107.

I’m working on a film. New ideas are coming because the experience is new. Basically my thoughts are the same. Someone said you’re always writing the same book or painting the same painting, but every time it’s so radically shifted that you can’t possibly say it’s the same thing. And in the same way, my film embodies what I’m thinking about, what I’m concerned with—not just my aesthetic but what I’m concerned with in life. What I’m finding out is that the piece is about what’s outside, what’s inside, and what’s outlined and separates the two. How you go from one to the other. How you reshape one in order to enter into the other or vice versa. And that, of course, can denote many things. It can denote the living and the dead. It can denote outside the window and inside the window. It can denote what’s on your face as opposed to what’s inside it. And I’m finding that the film is depicting more and more that sort of a relationship in its poetics and in its language and in its politics and story.

—Reza Abdoh[1]

In 1992, Reza Abdoh wrote and directed a movie called The Blind Owl.[2] It uses many of the actors who have come to constitute the Dar A Luz company, including Tony Torn, Tom Fitzpatrick, Juliana Francis, and Tom Pearl. It will disappoint those who approach it looking for a film analogue of the “faster and louder” aesthetic that critics have used to characterize much of Abdoh’s stage work. The Blind Owl does use a variety of techniques reminiscent of his stage direction, giving it an unusual theatricality. The sense of spectacle is not present, but the images and formal gestures are remarkably bold for a first feature-length film. Several times, the narrative is interrupted by a folk song, sung by one or two characters who perform to the camera or to an unseen audience beyond a wall or ceiling. As in the stage work, there is extensive use of horizontal, or sequential montage, and vertical, or simultaneous montage. Part of the project still entails the aestheticization of the grotesque in an environment where sex and love can be viewed with, at best, ambivalent feelings, and where people refuse to acknowledge a descending and thickening miasma of death.

As a reflection of his stage work, what is most important about The Blind Owl is what it does not do, which is employ the rapid and often disconnected cuts typical of MTV. The speed and fragmentation of Dar A Luz performances have often evoked comparisons to MTV, but the style of The Blind Owl indicates that Abdoh is not at all a director emulating the mix of hypnosis and sensory agitation induced by rock videos or movies such as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. For the theater work, The Blind Owl implies all the more that Abdoh as theater practitioner is not simply being a morbid showman, “vomiting ideas,”[3] but that the displacement of the pace and montage techniques of film and TV is in fact a way of alienating the techniques themselves. The rapid fire of images that cannot be digested is one of the most threatening aspects of film and TV, yet the technique is accepted as a given in both media. In theater, where the technique has seldom, if ever, been seen in extremis, the frenetic juxtaposition of images draws attention to itself as something that—in other media—encourages the surrender of a critical stance. When they reach their most fevered pitch, neither MTV nor Natural Born Killers allows a spectator to think about what he or she is watching, because any pause for thought jeopardizes the ability to assimilate the continuing stream of images. This visual spewing is seldom noticed in filmic media; it has infiltrated much of advertising, TV dramas such as ER, and even the increasingly clipped presentation of TV news programs. Paradoxically, using a method that discourages a critical stance in a venue where the method has not yet been exploited allows the spectator to think critically of the technique otherwise used to discourage thought.

The most jolting aspects of The Blind Owl are its almost blasé but decidedly not idealized attitude towards its subject matter, the way it inserts presentational performances of popular and folk music, the stark and bitter comedy with which it depicts the arbitrary events inflicted upon the characters, and the closing transition from quasi-realism to Symbolist imagery.

The film begins with a shot of a textile factory, closing in on a woman, Anna (Paulina Sahagun-Macias), at work, just before she collapses from an illness—the exact nature of which we never discover. Ricky (Peter Jacobs), the protagonist, is her son, eighteen years old, earning cash through various means, including prostitution. The two live together in a small apartment in  L.A. The narrative revolves around Ricky, but it is framed by the mother’s illness and ends shortly after her death. Over the course of the film we meet Janey (Juliana Francis), a female prostitute engaged in a tumultuous relationship with a physically abusive boyfriend; a diabetic mortician (Tom Fitzpatrick) who calls on the services of both Ricky and Janey, separately; Trenn (Tom Pearl), a friend of Ricky’s who says almost nothing throughout the film and almost serves as a latter day “ghost character” from Jacobean drama, participating, observing, and ultimately haunting the action of the scenes; a peculiar, bossy yet stoical blind man (Anthony Torn),  to whom Ricky occasionally reads; the blind man’s emaciated, physically deformed female companion (Sandie Crisp); Ricky’s estranged father, who pays his son large sums of money to make occasional deliveries, apparently oblivious of everything that is going on in his son’s life; and assorted other sadists, perverts, and freaks.

After Anna collapses in the factory, the first scene comes where characters interact—though, as is true in much of the film, the interaction is tenuous. In the way that the characters are often self-absorbed and tending to their own concerns, the relationship as such is closer to one of intersection than interaction. Anna is in bed, at home; Ricky is tending to her. The sparse dialogue sets the tone for the rest of the movie. He gives her a glass of milk and some medication as she watches television. The phone rings.

anna: Don’t smoke.

ricky: [answering the phone] Hello. Ok, tomorrow at ten. [Hangs up.]

anna: The doctor?

ricky: Yeah.

A knock at the door. He gets it. Two Spanish-speaking women, relatives or friends, have come to visit. For a moment there is a glimmer of warmth as they say a few words of greeting. Ricky tosses the cat sitting on the stoop inside and gets ready to leave.

anna: Where are you going?

ricky: Out.

anna: Don’t forget the sugar.

ricky: I won’t.

He leaves, and suddenly we are looking square in the face of one of the visitors, singing a Mexican love song a cappella, against the noise of a cop show on TV. We see the second visitor in profile. The woman in profile pays no attention to the singing. She stares blankly at a TV out of view, twice smiling a little at whatever it’s showing, which doesn’t sound like something one would smile at. The face of the singing woman is somber. We look at the portrait of their worn faces for about twenty seconds, before the image accompanying the song shifts to the TV screen, showing a man getting shot in the head and falling against a car. Then: back to a long shot of the three women sitting on the bed, until the end of the song.

The whole musical interlude lasts a total of forty seconds, a remarkable lingering pause in a narrative that has barely begun. It’s an early and telling sign that The Blind Owl is not only concerned with the actions that constitute its many vignettes, but about personal environments—constituted by the geography and history and culture that people carry with them. Into the midst of a mother and son who have assimilated into an industrial and postindustrial America wander these two reminders of their ethnic background. Against the tepid and meager dialogue between Anna and Ricky, as well as the barbarism-as-entertainment displayed on TV, we hear a plain but engaging melody of a simple love song: Te quiero mucho / mucho, mucho, mucho / Tanto como entonces / Y siempre hasta morir.[4] Sung without sentiment, without emotion, it is an echo, an aural waving through a thick fog, a receding question: What has become of the old world?

The sign of the old is bracketed in multiple ways, demonstrating Abdoh’s use of montage. There is the sequential juxtaposition between what we have just seen pass between mother and child and the love song; a minimal but effective overlay, where, during the unified image and sound of the woman singing, we can still hear shouts from the TV and can see the flicker of its images reflected on the wall and in the face and expressions of the woman in profile; and the interruption of the violent TV image against which we can still hear the woman’s love song. Strength through contrast does not end with the song, but carries through into the sequence that follows.

The scene to which Abdoh cuts immediately afterwards is one that recurs throughout the movie. It shows the pick-up area under the bridge where prostitutes wait for customers to drive by. The architecture of the space is reminiscent of a stage in several ways: there’s not really a sense that there’s anything behind the camera as it makes its initial pan, and the outer pillars that support the bridge and the underside of the bridge itself form a frame reminiscent of a proscenium. In the foreground, what would be downstage left, two men wearing nothing but boots and black jock straps wrestle in a way that looks half like a cat-fight, half like a choreographed dance. Purple flares line the right row of pillars, while one or two individuals run around carrying a flare in their hands. Our first glance at the scene is cursory. Later, the location will give us brief introductions to one man putting small amounts of flammable liquid on the other’s abdomen and lighting it. Perhaps it’s for some kind of sado-masochistic pleasure, or perhaps it is non-consensual violence on the part of the man with the lighter—it’s hard to tell, as the person getting ignited looks drugged and incognizant. In another moment, a man pulls at a woman by her hair, then throws her on the ground. Many stumble about in a drugged out daze, or a coital or post-coital stupor. Some lean against the pillars, just waiting, bored and numb. It’s a surreal caricature of a netherworld, a modern, urban version of the the late-12th century Japanese scrolls of hell—here, too, there are Gaki Zoshi, Hungry Ghosts, suffering hunger on myriad physical and spiritual levels.

Under the bridge is where Ricky first meets the mortician. Their first scene together in a motel room demonstrates Abdoh’s facility at mixing the comic and grotesque. The mortician, who has a broad, midwestern accent and the dry and drab vocal tone of George Bush, is rolling and sniffing nylons as he hands them to Ricky, who is sitting on the bed, naked from the waste down, and watching a TV show. The show features a woman demonstrating CPR on a baby doll.

the mortician: Cleaned up a kid last night. Shot in the face and his mother wanted an open coffin burial—can you believe it? Had to build a whole face from the ground up and my pump was acting up. [Handing Ricky a nylon.] Put this on. Gotta wear a pump see? [He lifts his shirt.] Diabetic. Put your leg up on the table. Flashing. [He takes a picture.] Spent last Christmas in Puerto Vallarta. Mexico. That’s where that one comes from. A third degree burn. [He sniffs the nylon and hands it to Ricky.] Put both your legs up on the table. [Takes picture.] Stand up. Flashing! [Snaps picture, looks at polaroids.] These are good.

The mortician goes to the bathroom, and Ricky takes out a sandwich and eats it while watching the CPR show. Close-up on Ricky, while in deep focus we can see the mortician looking at the pictures as he masturbates over the bathroom sink. The mortician’s heavy breathing mixes with the woman giving artificial respiration to the plastic doll, which we had heard intermittently earlier in the scene. “What’re you doing?” the mortician growls from the bathroom. No answer. He repeats the question more harshly. Interspersed with the deep focus shots of Ricky and the mortician are scenes from the CPR show, which must be the most absurd lesson in CPR ever recorded.[5] The sequence begins with a shot of the motel room, with the TV playing to an empty room: “Please go call 911 and report back to me.” Once the room is inhabited, we continue to hear the oddly circuitous lesson:

the medical specialist: The first step that you must perform in giving CPR to a child is to shake him and call outloud his name: “Johnny, Johnny, are you ok?” This is how CPR would work in an actual emergency. Let’s go through the steps in detail. [She respirates the doll.]“Somebody, please, go call 911 and report back!” There’s no heartbeat. “Johnny, Johnny, are you ok? Help! Help!” [She smacks the plastic doll on the back.] Shake him, gently but firmly, and shout out his name: “Baby, baby, are you ok?” If the infant does not respond or wake up, you need to then call out for help: “Help! Help!” This alerts bystanders to come and help you. Even if you are home alone, a neighbor may hear you.

In toto, the scene exemplifies the comically creepy. The medical specialist is the one who seems eerily out of touch—“Baby, baby, are you ok?” The way she feels

a need to demonstrate how to call for help, along with the detached tone of her delivery, is a parody of every insipid filmstrip from grade school health classes. Behind the parody, though, is the possibility that the potential for the emergency to occur is real. Meanwhile, the satisfaction of the mortician’s fetish is shown quietly, casually, in a pedestrian and businesslike tone devoid of eroticism.

In the sequences like the one above, usually featuring Tom Fitzpatrick, sexual aberration is made mundane and unerotic. Conversely, in the sequence with Anthony Torn, the grotesque is made beautiful. The transformation is shown best in the first scene where we see between Ricky and the blind man. After Ricky burns his hand while taking a pot of rice off the stove, then clumsily hands the blind man change for a purchase he made, he leads the blind man to the bathroom before returning to the kitchen. Rather than return to the kitchen with Ricky, The Blind Owl stays in the bathroom and frames a long-shot of the blind man, from the front, having a bowel movement. But it’s not grotesque, in spite of several factors that should make it so—the revulsion that would ordinarily be part of sharing a scatological experience, compounded with the obesity of the actor. The softness of the light and the sudden vulnerability of a character—conveyed in his voice and posture—who had just been so gruff manages to attain a certain kind of loveliness. It was not unlike Lucian Freud’s paintings of the obese Australian performance artist, Leigh Bowery; naked as opposed to nude, Tony Torn’s performance nevertheless owns a sullen, taut dignity. After the blind man finishes relieving himself, Ricky helps him into the tub and bathes him.

A similar beautification of the weird occurs later in the film, where we witness the performance of a transvestite, lip-syncing to a song in Spanish. The performance is utterly inessential to the plot, coinciding with Ricky’s visit to the bar where it takes place—a visit which is also not crucial to the narrative. The man in drag, again obese, loses himself in the opening measures of the song; at first, he gently sways his shoulders, but then begins to move his arms slowly, gracefully, up over his head, then down to shoulder level, caressing the shape of a semi-circle through the air. The motion of his arms accelerates into movement similar to the vogue dancing featured in the film, Paris is Burning. Remaining stationary, the singer nevertheless allows the music to take over the movement of his entire body. His commitment to the performance is strong, and it is surprisingly easy to forget he is not actually singing the song. Interrupting the beautiful choreography of the transvestite’s song and dance are a couple of shots of the Mortal Kombat video game Ricky is playing. The popular video game  not only replaces the transvestite lip-syncer’s placement as that which is degenerate, but the inversion of conventional, conservative notions of normalcy and decadence amplifies the distance between the two forms of culture: the transvestite attains a transcendent beauty, while the video game epitomizes an inhuman humanity, the product of a sterile and insipid imagination.

It’s not only the film that tranquilly depicts characters and situations of what is not common to film culture, but the characters themselves who appear unfazed under myriad, disturbing situations. In one scene, Anna, Janey, Trenn, and Ricky are all lounging in the apartment. Anna and Janey, whom the mother knows to be a prostitute, are sitting on the bed together, watching television. Trenn, a skinny man with a mohawk haircut, sits on the floor, leaning against the bed as he reads. Ricky is making hot milk for his mother; as he hands her a glass, Anna says: “I don’t like him. Who is he?” “His name is Trenn, he’s my friend.” Janey hands Anna a drawing she made: “It’s for you.” Suddenly there is a knocking, as the phone rings simultaneously. The ensuing actions occur extremely quickly, but almost entirely without panic. Ricky opens the door to a handsome but angry man who says, “Where’s Janey? She’s coming with me.” We see Janey run to the bathroom and vomit into the toilet, as Anna says, “She’s not going anywhere, call the cops.” Ricky shuts the door against the irate man, who then proceeds to smash in the front window of the apartment, as Trenn answers the phone and hands it to Ricky. “Who? Delilah?” he says into the phone, over the sound of breaking glass—“It’s for me,” Janey says. “Delilah” is the name she uses to solicit by phone. “5’10”, 125,” she says. “100 [dollars]. Do I sing? Yes, sometimes, I sing. About an hour.” She hangs up, the phone rings again, this time it’s the blind man calling for Ricky. Janey rushes out the door. Trenn sits in a chair and sings “Baby Driver” for about fifteen seconds, until Anna says, “Be quiet,” and Ricky, heading to the blind man’s, tells Trenn, “Let’s go.” These reactions are not those of the descending, but of the descended—they casually and numbly inhabit their own alienation and suffering.

Towards the end of the film, more and more shots and sequences disrupt the quasi-realism that has predominated the film. An under-the-bridge shot is framed as a section of a movie; the arrival of police to document the discovery of a dead man in a car blends into the filmic construction of the scene—which Trenn and Ricky meander through, apparently in character. This scene cuts away to a shot of two unknown children in an unspecified, incongruously rural area, playing on a swing that hangs on a tree. Then we see Trenn and Ricky at home with Janey and Anna: it is the sequence depicting the mother’s death. Ricky carries his mother to the bed, then goes to make milk as Janey naps on the floor and Trenn reads something funny in the paper. Trenn is laughing, laughing hysterically, as Ricky brings Anna the glass of milk. Ricky pauses before his mother; she looks dead. He leans over to lift her head and be sure, and is jolted, physically, by the feel of her head, lifeless, in his hand. He spills the glass of milk on her as Trenn’s laughing stops abruptly.

We cut to an exterior shot, looking in from a window at Anna lying on her bed. A stream of autumn leaves begins to fall inside the room, onto the bed; as they fall, a little boy walks in and shares the camera’s point of view as he puts one hand on the window pane. Anna’s body becomes covered with leaves. Next, we are inside the apartment with Ricky, staring at his mother—Trenn and Janey have disappeared. We hear a scraping, and Ricky looks behind himself to find the little boy who was at the window, raking halfheartedly at the leaves and branches that cover the apartment. The boy does not look up from his work. There is no dialogue during the sequence, only the slow, doleful tune of wind instruments.

Two short scenes come between this image and the peculiar ending sequence of the movie: a short scene between Ricky and the blind man, and an almost wordless scene between Ricky and his father, where the father hands Ricky some cash and tells him to take care of the funeral arrangements. We then move to the final sequence, a funeral procession of sorts that moves down what would otherwise be a deserted street in L.A.

There is a cacophony of musical strains competing for attention, and the diversity of music, oscillating against ambient noises, almost approximates the diversity of people walking down the street. There is a small parade of old men playing horns; a man riding a circus-type bike whose seat lifts him high in the air; a rock band is located at one point on the street and plays intermittently; the people marching are a small and motley crew and don’t really seem connected to each other. They then come upon a dozen people performing what looks like a Mexican folk dance. The camera advances beyond them to two kids standing before a cart of watermelons. One boy suddenly starts to wrestle the other for possession of half a watermelon, until they drop it and it breaks on the street. It holds a place alone on the screen, except for some isolated, bodiless pairs of feet that we see towards the back of the frame; slowly, an old man walks over and picks up the broken pieces of watermelon, and then walks out of the frame. The camera pans up to look at the street that was just traversed.  The Central American dancers have stopped dancing, and are now milling about. Trenn and Ricky are on opposite sides of the watermelon stand, both looking back at what is now a desolate road.

The ending sequences are rich in symbols that are not looking for glosses by equations, where one can safely infer that the boy raking the leaves is Ricky as a youth or that the fight over the watermelon represents some broader struggle. Cumulatively, the sequences feel like a steady stream of authorial velleities that, if carried to fruition, could have functioned as allegories or parables—which would have been reductive. The weak impulses finally subside to a stillness that can be filled with suspended numbness, mourning, or resolution, depending on the viewer.

In a film replete with scenes concerned with sex, there is remarkably little tenderness. When they do come, the tender moments are fleeting, small, and not sexual—when Ricky bathes his mother or the blind man, or when Trenn and Ricky, just for a moment, dance together in the blind man’s apartment. No one hopes for romance, as such; solace comes most often in the shape of tolerance passing for companionship.

Blind owls, the characters are figures of insight that cannot see; their suffering should breed wisdom, but it’s barren. These are people that observe, but they don’t reflect. They have a point of view, but no perspective. Events pass through them, but they survive. Trenn gets hit by a car at the end of the movie: “Are you ok?” Ricky asks. Trenn says, “Yeah. I’m hungry.” They get up and move off, without further comment. Abdoh’s characters have a fixed mysteriousness. It would be inane to talk about an arc traveled by any of them, rites of passage or coming of age, a coming to terms with anything or an epiphany of any sort. If there is intellectual activity, it is only minimally reactive. When a character takes physical action, it resolves one vignette or feeds into another, but never leads to a deeper perspective or evolution. Trenn goes in and out of prison, other of his relationships are alluded to mysteriously, but he’s an enigma—his ethical sensibility and personal priorities exist, but they’re unknowable. One or two characters have passing thoughts of escaping L.A. Janey’s boyfriend want the two of them to go to Kansas, the blind man asks Ricky to go with him to Montana, but it’s more likely that Chekhov’s Irena would get to Moscow than any of these characters to their destinations. More velleities, blips of hope on a desolate screen. They, too, carry a ruined city beneath their skin.

[1] Interview with Andréa R. Vaucher, in Muses from Chaos and Ash: AIDS, Artists, and Art. New York: Grove Press, 1993, p. 179.

[2] The Blind Owl was shown as a video at film festivals in Portugal and Holland. The producer, Adam Soch, says he is still looking to get enough money to convert the movie from video to film before distributing it.

[3] Cited in Bell, 1995.

[4] “I love you very much / very, very much / As I have always / and will always till I die.”

[5] Soch says the movie is actually used to train people in CPR, and was not made expressly for The Blind Owl.

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