The Artful Doubter
By Robert Enright
Andrew Wright’s video project Blind Man’s Bluff exists because, like millions of other people one night, he found himself watching the Oscars. Appropriately, given what his video would become, it was the award for Best Screenplay. As he viewed snippets from each of the nominated films, he noticed that the presenters were describing everything that viewers were seeing, creating a curious narrative that repeated itself in two forms: the seen and the heard. If a woman walked into a room on the screen, the presenter would say, “a woman walks into a room.” Wright was intrigued by the the nature of this double narrative and felt that the descriptive section “was a piece all by iself.”
In researching the idea he discovered the world of “descriptive video service”, or DVS. “It’s a service that enables people who are blind to ‘watch’ movies. You can order any movie you want through a place in Illinois.” Wright initially secured a copy of The Piano, a film he regarded as art, and was immediately struck by the divergence between the amount of visual information the narrative required and the limitations of its visual description. Beyond that, he realized how easy it would be to get a separate narrative. “Someone could write something and completely change the nature and interpretation of the film. I thought I want to make a piece where I describe my own film, so that I can overlay my own interpretation. “ In recognition of the originating source he decided to look for two things: films that had the word “blind” in their title and films that had not yet been described.
His choice was The Cauldron of Blood, a 1968 B-movie, distinguished only by the fact that it was one of Boris Karloff’s last pictures. Because it is also known as Blind Man’s Bluff, it satisfied Wright’s second requirement. Karloff plays a sightless artist named Franz Badulescu who lives with his wife, Tania, in isolated, unhappy splendour above the Spanish coastal village of Pinderera, a Bohemian community populated by artists, drunks and other hangers-on. The innocence of the village is jeopardized by the arrival of Claude Marchand (played by Jean-Pierre Aumont), a jet-setting journalist with Holiday magazine who has been given the difficult assignment of getting photographs of, and an interview with, the reclusive Badulescu. It seems that in the 1930s - Franz is an artist who is fairly long in the tooth - he was a controversial figure because of his experiments in using actual animal skeletons as armatures for his sculptures.
He may be old, but he’s not out. Franz has serious plans for which he will need some new armatures. He is making a masterwork in which he will transpose into three dimensions - flesh out, in a manner of speaking - an early painting by Delacroix. Not a man of evident modesty, he compares himself to Beethoven. “I’m like him”, he wails to his cruel wife, “I’m doomed never to perceive the beauty of my own creations.” You would have thought Milton would have been a closer ally in the field of sensory deprivation, but the original screenwriters had their preferred aesthetic allusions. (My personal favourite is Wright’s quotation from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, which the aging sculptor reads in Braille: “In the electric age, we wear all mankind as our skin).”
Claude Marchand is both more and less than he seems. “I’m staying just long enough to put this place on the map,” he tells the bartender in his hotel, and to capitalize on the fact that his pen is a mighty engine of commerce, he strikes a deal with the local bar owner to buy up every available piece of real estate. At the same time, to secure the interview with Badelescu, he must pretend to be an art critic, so he enlists the support of a comely painter named Valerie, “for a hundred bucks a day and all the Chinese food you can stand”. Valerie happens to know Tania, who is more guard dog than wife, keeping everyone away from her invalided, but productive, husband. The fact that Tania’s sexual tastes seem to be omnivorous, makes Valerie a useful decoy to help Claude get his much-desired interview.
The twist in the sunny harmony that envelops Pinderera is that its citizens, and even its pets, are disappearing at a conspicuous rate. At one point, Claude wonders why there is so much smoke pouring out of the chimney at the Badulescu villa, but his remains a disconnected observation. He may be a smart-ass, but he’s not smart. It turns out that Tania, with the trench-coated assistance of Shanghai, the owner of the best bar in town and, not incidentally, her lover, has been providing armatures made from the bones of murder victims. She throws the bodies into a vat of acid from which the film takes its alternate title, Cauldron of Blood. By the time the story is over, 93 minutes after it starts, innocents have perished along with the bad guys. Badulescu, in a rage at his wife’s murderous deception, destroys all his sculptures, forces her hand into the flesh-eating vat, and then throws himself over a bluff, generating in his economical suicide the film title that initially attracted Andrew Wright.
It would be hard to describe Blind Man’s Bluff in a way that would do justice to how bad a film it really is. But that is what Andrew Wright not only sets out to do, but what he is able to accomplish. Of course, his describing is tied more directly to the film than what I have just done in outlining the plot. “Describing” proceeds by creating a visual picture of what the film looks like for people who will never see it. All we see as viewers is Alan Sapp, the actor playing “The Describer”, as he reads and reacts to the script Wright has given him. We hear the details of what they have each seen many times. The content of Wright’s art piece, then, is an aural presence sitting in for a visual absence. It is, in his own witty assessment, “the best film you’ll never see.”
There are numerous occasions when his description works far better as prose than the images he is describing work as film. When the gypsy children run through the village in search of the old woman who can explain the fate of a hapless umbrella vendor, Wright captures a sense of momentum and rhythm that the film never achieves. But he is obliged to write within significant limitations. His descriptions have to fit between the film’s actual dialogue sequences. We are able to read the subtitles that scroll across the bottom of the screen; but a blind person can only hear the soundtrack and would find any overlapping of description and dialogue aurally confusing. Wright has only as much time to describe the story as he can wring out of the hour-and-a-half it takes for the film to wind its campy way from start to finish.
What is remarkable is how much wringing he is able to effect. He uses throughout his script a series of fictional devices that extend, amplify and layer the filmic narrative. There are numerous occasions where he adds flourishes that force us to consider the characters in the film in radically different ways than how they first appear. Pilar is a mute maid who works for the Badulescu’s; in the course of the film she is whipped by Tania, sexually assaulted by a the bartender from Shanghai’s, and is even briefly employed as a model for one of Marchand’s photographic shoots on the beach. In the villa she is doing some perfunctory house-cleaning when she opens Tania’s armoire, only to discover it is filled with evidence of an advanced interest in SM; leather, cuffs, chains and some photographs of women in bondage. Her reaction - “Not my place to judge” - not only goes well beyond what we would normally know about her character from watching the film; but it is alien to how we assume her character would react.
Wright has great fun with the thoughts he assigns to the characters; at one juncture Tania is working in her grisly laboratory when she is approached from behind by her trench-coat lover and collaborator. Suddenly, the script gets all Harlequin-romancy: “He grabs her by the arms and tilts his head to nuzzle her neck. She gasps quietly, feeling the strength of his embrace. She closes her eyes and lets her head fall back. ‘You make me young again’, she would remember thinking, or saying later.” Tania has only a short time to live. When, in the course of this propelled narrative in which she finds herself, will she have time for an erotic reminiscence? The line is one of the mad, false starts that Wright deliberately drops into his narrative. On the surface, it wants to act as an example of character development, but it is actually a diversion. “I don’t like to do anything twice because I get easily bored”, Wright admits and so he employs in his self-described “feature-length story of intrigue, art, murder, and questionable film-making”, a steady stream of narrative diversions.
Wright will save his most outrageous interior observations for Elga, the pretty artist’s model whose lithe body collapses into a pile of bones in the opening credits to re-form as the title, Cauldron of Blood. Tania convinces her to spend the night at the villa after she has been stalked by a mysterious stranger, at which point the young woman falls prey to tania’s wicked plot. But the “description” takes a decided shift in point of view. We enter Elga’s consciousness in her last, struggling moments as she is being strangled. Hearing that her murderer “smells strangely of spice and Chinese food”, she asks herself, “Could it be?” Then the script moves towards an interpretation that is certainly outside the experience of anyone who has been able to view the actual film. “She feels the wet and warmth of urine running between her legs. ‘I’m losing...he’s too strong...I can’t breathe...is this what it feels like to die?”, she asks rhetorically, and then dies, transformed from a radiant, nightgowned beauty into a what the script calls the “now naked bundle that is Elga.”
Wright’s description of her death has more to do with story-telling than with filmic evidence. He is constantly pushing the fictional limits to the extent that he almost gets a narrative running parallel with the film story. I am tempted to regard his script as a kind of subversive screenplay for the film that Cauldron of Blood might have been, all the while recognizing it as the screenplay for the actual film that is Blind Man’s Bluff .
There is another way that Andrew Wright complicates his inquiry into how we tell a story and what that story means. It concerns the performance of the actor, Alan Sapp, who plays the role of “The Describer”. The conceit here is that Sapp is not only reading the script he has been given by Andrew Wright, (the writer and director of the DVS), but that he is reacting to the film itself as he watches it on a monitor. Of course, we don’t see the image on that monitor; what we observe is Sapp, sitting in a room, wearing headsets through which he hears the actor’s dialogue. We are able to watch his body language at the same time that we hear his reading and see his reaction to what he is seeing. Sapp is playing a double role; he becomes our eyes in his assigned function as “The Describer”, at the same time that he is also an intelligent man reacting to a particularly campy film How much this last role is also a performance, and how much of it is scripted, adds to the layers of competing description and disclosure that sit at the centre of Wright’s narrative project.
Sapp is all of an actor, film critic, and an enthusiast. The credit sequence, which is a metonymy for the film, is also a showplace for the entire range of reactions he will use. He has a droll sense of humour, which the credits allow plenty of opportunity to exercise. He refers to the cast as “people whose names you’ve never heard and will never hear again’; when the obnoxious town drunk appears he exclaims, “That’s quite a tie Pablo has on”; and in watching Karloff’s performance he turns to the camera and says, “I wonder if he’s got his lines written on the inside of his glasses?” Much of the time he seems to be ad libbing, as if he were providing colour commentary for a parade. (When he has to keep on top of two fights-to-the-death and Badulescu’s tortured rage at the villa near the end of the film, he actually takes on the tone of a sports commentator).
He can also be lewd; in describing Elga’s bikini-clad body on the beach he gets more graphic insinuation out of the word “thigh” than has anyone in film history. He also asks questions about themes that are introduced and that the screenplay simply abandons (like the real estate caper). In this regard, he gets to read his script and eat it, too. Nor is he above offering advice to the characters whose motivation and actions he describes. In the fight scene he is so exasperated by Claude’s stupidity that he says, “Why don’t you just throw Shanghai in the fire?” Whenever Tania is on camera with either Valerie or Elga, whole scenes are delivered with his eyebrows arched high at the weighty Sapphic undercurrent. (Actually, Sapp’s eyebrows would be in the running for an Oscar nomination for the Most Expressive Facial Part were awards given for that sort of thing). The effect of his asides, observations and occasional tirades is further to complicate the narrative. We can’t tell whether his reactions are authentic or staged (for the most part, they are rehearsed) and this ambiguity adds to the video’s appeal. It is a genuine pleasure to watch.
Andrew Wright has an oppositional nature. I don’t mean that he is cantankerous (in truth, his temperment is just the opposite) but that he is inclined to entertain ideas and attitudes that come from opposite corners of various processes of thinking and doing. It accounts for his interest in combining the archaic (photographic practices like the Camera Lucida, Camera Obscura and the pinhole camera) with the high-tech (digital photography and video). Similarly, he likes to blur the lines that exist between art forms and what he describes as the “distinction between manual dexterity and mechanical procedure.” In a recent exhibition called Skies at Peak Gallery, he produced 8 foot prints of the sky that he called “photographic conundrums”. He was attracted to their contrariness; they are both arbitrary and specific, they are negative images that appear to be positive”. In Video Rocketry he fired a rocket into space with a mounted video camera in the hopes of recording the its trajectory. The images that came back were low grade and poetic, qualities (because they are not high-tec and scientific) that are equally consistent with his artful doubting. “I do want people to question where I am in relationship to the story being told, “ he says. “I like the idea of troubling. There is a relationship to the French word trouble, which means out of focus. So not only is the idea troubling, but so is vision itself.”
He also likes the tension he can get from working within closed systems - whether in space or time - and then seeing how much he can stretch the boundaries of the already constrained. Whether it’s a question of turning an entire gallery into a giant camera from which he secures unpredictable pictures, or whether it’s a question of the explosive narrative details he is able to get inside the restricted framework of a movie with a predetermined length, he is looking for ways to access different levels of information. He calls the process “a simple re-negotiation of visual information, of space, and of knowledge.” It is critical to his overall art practice. What he accepts is an attitude that is skeptical of any kind of epistemological certainty. He is committed to a way of knowing by doubting. Knowledge is provisional, a product of the assumptions we make about its presentation. He recognizes that one set of information can be followed by another, and in that exchange a new set of conclusions can be drawn.
There is an image that embodies Wright’s sense of the certainty of not knowing, and the serendipities - aesthetic and conceptual - that can emerge from this space of wished-for uncertainty. The C-Print, called “Bluff” (2003), shows a fake stone wall shot outside a manufacturer in Guelph that supplies walls, trees and stones for the commercial landscaping industry. Wright saw it one day sitting in front of a warehouse down a side road and was “gobsmacked. There is no apparent purpose to this thing almost in the middle of nowhere. There was no other information about the company - no sign, no name. Yet it was clearly placed to be shown - a display ad. The incredible plenty of visual information inherent within this thing is contrasted with a complete lack of evidence of its origins or purpose. It is exactly like Blind Man’s Bluff: ridiculously overwrought with description and information in one sense and, at the same time, woefully inadequate to reproduce any sense of the real or its context.” But Wright is not blind to the rich ambiguity of a bluff that is a bluff; it’s a come-on, a facade, and consistent with the intelligent and rewarding visual shell-game he plays with such attentive innocence. “I think that part of my artistic strategy is to deliberately approach a medium from a position of un-connoisseurship, so that I can avoid the pitfalls of convention.” Andrew Wright’s approach is most certainly not conventional. Blind Man’s Bluff joins other bodies of his work in a wide-open plain in which the singular piece of defining punctuation is a question mark.
(All quotations in this in this article are taken from an interview with the artist conducted on February 8, 2004, and from an e-mail the artist sent to the writer the following day).
Robert Enright is the University Research Chair in Art Criticism at the University of Guelph, and the Editor-at-Large for the Winnipeg-based arts magazine, Border Crossings.