Seeing Is Believing: We Make Our Own Reality, Say a Blind Artist and Mad Musician

By Segal, Victoria | New Statesman (1996), May 8, 2006 | Go to article overview

Seeing Is Believing: We Make Our Own Reality, Say a Blind Artist and Mad Musician


Segal, Victoria, New Statesman (1996)


Black Sun (12A)

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (12A)

One night in 1978, the French artist and film-maker Hugues de Montalembert was walking home through Washington Square in New York when he was mugged by two men. Finding that he had no money, the men turned vicious and ran off only when their victim's screams grew too loud. With horrible irony, they had thrown paint remover in his face, and as de Montalembert chillingly explains, "It is a base, not an acid. Water will not make it go away. It continues to dig." The next morning, this man whose "life was based on seeing" had lost his sight for good.

Gary Tarn's evocative documentary Black Sun examines how de Montalembert adapted to his blindness, combining the subject's own understated narration with Tarn's digital images of faces and places, often treated and distorted to suggest visual disturbance. De Montalembert is a remarkable man--within 18 months of going blind, he travelled to Indonesia on his own and wrote a bestselling book in painstaking longhand--yet this artfully fractured film is more interested in his enduring artistic impulses than in any cliched "testament to the human spirit".

He describes how his brain started to generate images because it was desperate to see, projecting erotic or disturbing pictures: "I was making films in my head." Tarn's footage of cities and street scenes from New York to Rajasthan reflects this, focusing on random moments of daily life--the face of a taxi driver, the mentally ill muttering on corners, a convention of deaf people signing excitedly, a grid of buildings seen from the air. "In vision, there is no reality," says de Montalembert. "What you see will be different from your neighbour."

But it is Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston that really drives home de Montalembert's words. There are those who will find the lo-fi music of the manic-depressive artist and cult singer-songwriter Johnston about as appealing as a cat running up and down a piano; their neighbours, meanwhile, see his songs of love, demons and motorbikes as works of naive genius, the underground-rock equivalent of "outsider artists" such as Howard Finster. One devotee claims that "you tune into his world, hear the symphony". Kurt Cobain was a huge fan; both Tom Waits and the Flaming Lips have covered his songs. You either get Johnston, or you get a headache.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

While the invisible Hugues de Montalembert remains firmly at the centre of Black Sun, the bloated, physically unpredictable Johnston is ultimately a void at the heart of Feuerzeig's film. …

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