Sometimes the hardest thing to see is yourself.
When I watched Hysterical Blindness the first time, I hated it. There was no plot to speak of, the accents were like nails on a chalkboard, and the main character was a self-centered bitch. Then I watched it again, with the director's commentary turned on, and I saw the movie clearly. Nothing had changed—there was still no plot, the accents were still like nails on a chalkboard, and the main character was still a self-centered bitch—but this time I understood that those irritants were a purposeful part of the director's vision. Most importantly, I understood that Hysterical Blindness is not a story; it is a character study. And it is not meant to be entertaining; it is meant to be thought provoking.
Facts of the Case
Hysterical Blindness, set in the 1980s, is about Deb (Uma Thurman, Pulp Fiction, The Truth about Cats and Dogs, Gattaca), a 29-year-old woman who can't see clearly, both literally (through her bouts with stress-related hysterical blindness) and metaphorically (through her lack of perspective on her life and its events). The movie opens with Deb and her best friend, Beth (Juliette Lewis, Cape Fear, Kalifornia, The Other Sister), making their almost nightly trip to Ollie's, the local bar. Immediately apparent is Deb's obsession with how others view her, as evidenced by Deb and Beth's conversation before they even reach the bar:
Deb: "What are we going to order?"
They aren't at Ollie's for long before Deb, offended by Beth's flirting with the bartender, storms out, accusing Beth of being a bad friend. In truth Deb is the bad friend—too self-centered and self-conscious to care about Beth. Beth decides to stay, and Deb, even more irate, throws a tantrum by destroying the can of hairspray she had been holding for Beth. But she's interrupted when a guy who introduces himself as Rick (Justin Chambers, Another World, The Wedding Planner) gives her a cursory "hello" as he exits the bar. Deb catches the scent of available man and turns on the charm. They have a brief, small-talk-filled conversation that ends with Deb making very sure Rick understands she'll be at Ollie's again the next night.
Thus begins Deb's obsession with Rick and her inability to see the situation clearly. By the next morning, she's wrapped her life around him. ("It's amazing how fast everything can change.") As promised, she and Beth return to Ollie's that night. Deb notices Rick, but he doesn't notice her. Unable to see herself clearly, Deb believes her problem is that she doesn't let men know how she feels; she believes she's "aloof." To ensure that this problem doesn't stop her future with Rick, she comes on with Herculean strength, eventually asking him if he'd like to go somewhere…say, back to his place. He acquiesces, and Deb's clarity lessens even more. ("I didn't just go out and f*** some guy; I slept with him.")
All the while, Deb's mom, Virginia (Gena Rowlands, A Woman Under the Influence, Hope Floats, Playing by Heart), who has been single since her husband left 16 years ago, has started a new relationship. Nick (Ben Gazzara, If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium; Buffalo '66) is a sweet old man with genuine feelings for Virginia, but Deb, again, refuses to see it clearly, believing he will eventually leave her mother, just as her father did.
The movie continues to unfold, and we learn more about the characters, their personalities, and their relationships with each other. How will Deb and Rick end up? Will Nick and Virginia stay together? Will Deb gain some perspective?
I was surprised to learn that Hysterical Blindness started out as a play, because most movies adapted from plays retain that "stage feel." Hysterical Blindness doesn't. Impressively, director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding) was able to wrench it away from the stage and move it into the world, where movies belong. Dialogue is important in the movie, but it's not all there is, as is usually the case with plays. Nair and her talented cinematographer, Declan Quinn, give us scenery, lighting, and movement that aren't possible on the stage.
I was also surprised to learn that Uma Thurman can act. Sure, I've seen her play beautiful women and she pulls it off with ease, but the character of Deb is different. She's awkward, uncomfortable in her skin. She may be technically beautiful, but she masks it with her insecurities. And Uma portrays her perfectly; she gets every facial expression and every nervous habit right. Uma makes me forget that she is drop-dead gorgeous, and that takes talent! In addition, the other cast members rise to meet Uma's standards, not surprisingly considering the skill and experience among them.
HBO has done a wonderful job of transferring this movie to DVD. It is presented in its original 1.78:1 ratio with no errors (that I could see), and the slightly muted colors that help remind us we're in the '80s come across nicely. The audio transfer is also quite good—I had no trouble hearing the dialogue, and the music (especially all those great '80s songs) was crisp and rich.
However, HBO did not do such a wonderful job with the extras. Except for the director's commentary, the disc only includes static features: cast and crew bios, a photo gallery, and text interviews of the cast and crew. Text interviews?! They're actually quite entertaining and informative, but who except a reviewer is really going to scroll through all those pages? The disc would be much better served by video interviews. The only saving grace is the director's commentary, which, as I mentioned earlier, provides amazing insight into the film. Even if you don't want insight into the film, listen to it just long enough to hear Mira Nair, with her adorable Indian accent, describing Uma Thurman's butt—it'll be well worth your time.
The Rebuttal Witness
I watch movies to be entertained, and, as funny as the '80s hair and clothes are, Hysterical Blindness did not entertain me. And, unless it's The Matrix, I shouldn't have to watch a movie more than once just to understand it.
Now that I realize what I'm supposed to take away from this film, I appreciate it. But I don't enjoy it, and I doubt I would ever find myself popping the disc back in, even for background noise. And I certainly won't find a need to reread those annoying text interviews. Therefore, if you're interested, I recommend only a rental.
HBO is found guilty of not seeing consumer expectations for extras clearly. They are hereby ordered to wear their contacts when designing future discs.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Director Mira Nair
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