Second Sight: How Channel-Surfing, an iPod, and PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED Restored a Movie Critic’s Eyesight

Second Sight: How Channel-Surfing, an iPod, & PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED Restored My Eyesight

The comfort you find in routine can, at times, be
overwhelming. You turn on your computer for the first time in weeks to check
your e-mail. You have hundreds of unopened e-mails in your inbox, but it’s one
of the most recent ones that catches your eye. It’s an invitation to a
promotional screening. You haven’t been to a movie, let alone a promo
screening, since mid-December. You accept the invitation, explaining to the PR
person why you’ve been dormant for the last seven weeks. You get dressed for
the first time where the destination isn’t a doctor’s office. The ride in the
car is mostly quiet, the radio providing most of the entertainment. Certain
turns on the highway seem familiar. Yes,
we turn right, then left, then right again
. You walk into the theater and
the sound of people rushing to the concession stand or their assigned
auditorium washes over you. You remember that most promo screenings are either
in screen 9 or 8, and without missing a beat, the ticket-taker says your
screening is in screen 8. Your party gets allowed in first, annoying the people
still waiting to be let in. (Ahh, the perks of being with the press.) You walk
down to the very front row and take a seat. The screen is huge. You had
forgotten how big the screen was. You wonder how much will you see? Will it be
better than before? The lights go down and, for a brief moment, you panic.
Darkness is something you’ve come to associate with dread, not joy.

I have a friend who rejects the notion of using New Year’s
as some kind of line of demarcation. You don’t need the start of a new calendar
year to start over. Every day provides an opportunity to start anew. This
sounds perfectly reasonable, but I confess the events of this past New Year’s
Eve led me to believe that only ominous things lay ahead for me. I was in my
home office, catching up on end-of-the-year reading, thinking about my year-end
top 10 list, and generally taking it easy. I was really procrastinating because
I had a couple of deadlines hanging over me. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street had just come
out and I was starting to gather my thoughts on a piece about Scorsese being a
director of comedy. I had just spent the last couple of weeks watching every
Scorsese movie in chronological order, which is something I do every time a new
Scorsese movie comes out. It was seeing GoodFellas
at age 11 that made me want to be a critic. I was always a rabid watcher of
television and movies, but Goodfellas was
the first movie where I knew I had seen something different. I became obsessed
with every facet of the movie. I went out and bought the soundtrack on cassette
(!), which began my lifelong obsession with pop music. I also studied the
evolution of gangster movies, as 1990 saw the release of Dick Tracy, King of New York,
Miller’s Crossing, and The Godfather Part III. (To this day my
two favorite movie genres are Gangster and Musical.) I talked and wrote about
the movie constantly. I knew I was still too young to fully comprehend its
themes of Catholic guilt and loyalty, but I kept trying to figure them out.
(I’m still trying.) I soon realized that criticism, be it of movies, music,
television, literature or any other form of entertainment, allows you to work
through your emotional responses to what you experienced, and by doing so you
are bringing into focus the reader’s own emotional responses. It was through
critical writing that I was able to see the
world more clearly. I chose to be a movie critic instead of a music critic
because movies got to me first. As I arrived at this choice, I never really
dwelled on the inherent contradiction of being a blind movie critic. (To be
completely accurate, I was born blind, but through numerous operations as a
child, I now have extremely limited eyesight.) I guess the sight of seeing
someone walk into a theater with a white cane in one hand and a movie ticket in
the other is a little …odd? The inability to register how others see you can be
both a blessing and a burden.  

I was also applying to journalism graduate school with the
intent to concentrate on criticism. The deadline was January 4th,
and all I needed to do was write a couple of essays. It was 5:30pm, and I just
opened my Word document to hammer out one of the essays. I got up and went to
the kitchen to get a drink of water and talk to my sister-in-law. I was away
from my computer screen for no more than 15 minutes, but when I returned the
text of the Word document was all blurry. I couldn’t read a thing. I thought
maybe it was my monitor. I turned to the CCTV I have on my desk. (A CCTV is a
large monitor with a camera shoved up its midsection that allows me to place
any kind of written materials on a tray in order to magnify it for reading.) I
had just received the Criterion Blu-ray of Michael Mann’s Thief and it was still sitting underneath the monitor. I turned on
the CCTV and flipped over the Blu-ray so I could read the text on the back
cover. No luck. Concern, not panic, washed over me. Maybe I was just
overworked. I informed my brother of this development and we agreed that I
should shut things down and rest. Seeing as all my doctors are in Houston and I live in San Antonio (and
going to an ER on New Year’s Eve held zero appeal), I hoped things would
improve in the morning.

Morning came and there was no improvement. Everything was a
blur. I could tell if there was light but not much else. When I looked at the
Christmas tree all the lights were just one blurry glob. The blinking red star
atop the tree became a blinking red splash of color. I called the on-call
doctor in Houston and she offered to open the office if my brother and I were
willing to make the trek. We put our heads together and decided it was
necessary to make the trip. We figured the problem was one of three things: 1.)
my eye pressure had gone way up, 2.) my cornea was rejecting, or 3.) my retina
had detached. We took comfort in the fact that all three of these things could
be treated. (As it turned out, we were wrong. )

The on-call doctor took my pressure and turned out not to be
that high. The first thought was maybe the cornea was rejecting. (I had had my
third cornea transplant back in 1996.) My brother and I had prepared to stay
overnight and come back first thing in the morning when the office would open
for business. The next morning the cornea expert ordered an ultrasound of my
left eye. It turned out there was a massive amount of blood in my left eye and
they couldn’t tell if my retina had detached. It looked as if it was still
attached, but didn’t know for sure. We were referred to a retina specialist in
San Antonio who would be better equipped to help me. I was also told that I
should just rest because it was going to take time for the blood to dissolve.
It was January 2nd,
and I realized that this was something that wasn’t going to resolve itself in a
couple of days. It was at that moment I decided to let go of the idea of finishing
my applications to grad school. I just knew that whatever was happening, trying
to carry on and finish an application was simply impractical. Surprisingly,
this didn’t get me too down. Sometimes being forced to let something go can be
a good thing.

An appointment was made for Wednesday the 8th. My doctor turned out to be one of the best retina doctors around. Nevertheless, It
was a long and intense appointment. The fact that it was my first appointment
meant I had to provide an extensive and detailed rundown of my medical history.
Being born with Glaucoma, multiple surgeries, cornea transplants, and much more
were discussed. I realized halfway through giving my history that I’d been
through a lot. I was stunned that things had gone so well for so long. I
remember having the thought that maybe I was lucky my vision had lasted this
long and this blurriness meant things were finally shutting down. I also
realized this was the first major development with my vision without my mom
taking charge. As she had passed six-and-a-half years ago, I hadn’t had to deal
with any kind of medical emergency without her knowing all the answers. With my
older brother now taking point, it hit me: the possibility of losing my vision
meant I was going to have to take charge. I flashed forward to an image of
myself as a blind old man and was having to get around without any assistance. Fear
settled in.

Another ultrasound was done and it showed that there was a
lot of blood and also floaters in my eye. Dr. Mein referred to it as “trash,”
and that he needed to first clean out the trash before he could truly determine
if my retina was attached or not. An out-patient procedure was scheduled for
the following Thursday. (“Out-patient procedure” is a more soothing way of
saying “operation.”) As a kid I would literally get sick to my stomach the
night before an operation.  While I
didn’t get sick, I did regress to that level of dread. I knew the procedure was
necessary. My vision had deteriorated so badly that I could no longer see the
blinking red star on the Christmas tree. At one point my vision had gone all
pinkish-red due to the amount of blood in my eye. I dreaded nighttime. I slept
lightly because the act of waking up in the dark when you knew it was daylight
was pretty rough.

The morning of my eye procedure was also the day the
nominations for the Oscars were announced. My brother read me the list while we
waited to be called to get prepped. I wondered if I would get my vision back in
time to watch the telecast. I was excited that The Wolf of Wall Street got nominated, and then realized I might not get a chance to see a Scorsese movie for a second time in theaters. I
always see a Scorsese movie at least two or three times in a theater. Was it
going to be the last Scorsese I would actually see?

By the time they came to wheel me away I told my brother,
“I’ll be right back.” I was awake for the entire procedure. They numbed my eye,
then they put a speculum under my eyelid in order to keep it open. (Think Alex
in A Clockwork Orange minus the
ultraviolence.) My vision became like an out-of-focus animation cell. I figured
I was staring into the light. I started to see these Tylenol-red lines floating
around. I assumed it was the blood in my eye. Then, I would hear this bzzz sound, and the red would go away.
Dr. Mein didn’t play music but I thought I heard some soothing ambient noise.
His voice was calming as he whispered to the other people in the room. He was
good at whispering to such a degree that I couldn’t make out anything he was
saying. You know that old saw about when you lose one sense the other four are
heightened? It’s mostly true, but not in a David-Strathairn-in-Sneakers kind of way. You become acutely
sensitive to every sound or ache or surface—and you usually assume something’s
wrong. You retreat into your mind, and that’s not always a good thing. I
remember at one point during the procedure, I flashed back to High Jackman’s
final scene in Prisoners. One of my
favorite movies of 2013, the movie is all about a survivalist who is constantly
preparing for the worst-case scenario, and when it comes he realizes being
prepared is not the same as being ready. I realized that I was always prepared
in the back of my head of going blind, but now, in the middle of surgery, I
realized I was far from ready.

The procedure went well. The doctor got rid of the “trash,”
and it looked as if my retina was still attached, but we didn’t know to what
extent the damage had been done to my eye. I had come to realize that Dr. Mein
never tipped his hand in getting your expectations up. Every piece of good news
was delivered with a cautionary warning. The retina was attached, but we had to
also make sure the cornea didn’t reject and my eye pressure stabilized. There
were a lot of moving parts that needed tending to. (At one point I was told
that the eye is one of the slowest things to heal in the human body.) My family
became like the family at the end of Silver
Linings Playbook
: we were excited with scoring a 5 instead of a 10. We had
to wait a few days before determining what else could be done. It turned out I
had what is known as a choroidal, which meant that the connecting tissue
between the retina and the sclera had torn. This required a gas bubble to be
injected into my eye. The purpose of the bubble was for it to push the tissue
back up against the retina. This meant I had to bend over at a 90 degree angle
every 15 minutes out of every hour I was awake. (Think getting prepared for
impact when a plane is going to crash.) I could also kneel over a footrest to
achieve this position. Luckily I didn’t require a full gas bubble. If I did, I
would’ve had to lay on my stomach 45 minutes out of every hour for weeks. The
bubble I got took up about two-thirds of my field of vision. The bubble
consisted of a neon-pink border surrounding a darker circle that surrounded a central
circle that is supposed to provide a hole to see out of. It’s like looking
through a circle of dirty water. Before the bubble I couldn’t see anything.
Now, all I could see was this bubble.

And so it went. I developed a new routine that gave me a
little bit of structure. January went by slower than a Bela Tarr movie. It
became Good Morning America followed
by Live with Kelly and Michael followed
by The View followed by CNN.
Sometimes I would change things up and listen to The Price is Right. I say “listen” because I couldn’t make out
anything on the TV screen. The afternoon consisted of The Ellen DeGeneres Show followed by Jepoardy!. The end of Jeopardy!
signaled that evening was about to start which meant nighttime. With my
brother and sister-in-law at work and my niece at school, I had to rely on my
memory to remember which channels were which. I surfed for anything that would
distract me. I became an armchair expert on the Michael Dunn trial. (Sadly, I
called the verdict the moment I heard his bullshit testimony.) I looked for
movies to listen to that were light in tone so I wouldn’t have any dark
thoughts or images in my head. Stripes was
a good one. I had seen it so many times growing up that I could practically see
it in my head. One night my brother came across The Shining and I made him change it. I didn’t need those endless tracking shots swirling in
my head. I remember thinking is this what I have to look forward to if my
vision doesn’t improve? The thought of going out to the movies and attempting
to be part of the critical conversation became an alien notion. What’s the
point of going to a Scorsese or a Fincher or a Nolan or a Malick if you can’t see it? I called my sister at one point,
and trying to put a positive spin on the situation, I said, “I guess I can
become a rock critic.”

The weekends were marked by awards shows and the NFL playoffs.
I listened to the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, and
the SAGs. I became detached from the proceedings. Not being able to read or
type meant I was unable to engage on social media. I wondered if I ever would
again. I knew technology for the blind allowed for talking computers that read
the onscreen text, but things like Facebook and iTunes were not very blind
friendly. Would I ever make a playlist again? I know there are more important
things than managing your iTunes library, but the prospect of not being able to
do the things you do without thinking was the first thing that popped into my
head. Some friends would call and let me know what was happening in the real
world. That’s how I was able to keep up with the yearly Armond White fiasco and
how the Ebert doc was being received at Sundance. I thought about Ebert a lot,
and how he managed to preserve his critical voice long after he lost the
ability to speak. Would I be able to do the same? I had cornered the market on
blind movie criticism, not realizing it was a one-of-a-kind skill set. 

I tried to visualize what
I was hearing. The new seasons of Girls
and Justified started, and the
very verbal natures of these shows allowed me to construct the blocking and
settings in my head. On the days my dad would come over to keep me company,
we’d watch Justified and listening to
Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder do his soft-spoken intimidation of people provided
some fleeting moments of relief. True Detective
was more difficult. With its Sam Shepherd-meets-Jeff Nichols “poetic”
dialogue, its back-and-forth structure, and its backwater setting, I knew I
wasn’t experiencing the whole story. I intuited that the pregnant pauses, the
sideways glances, the visuals were a
major part of the story. (I stopped watching after three episodes.)

I then remembered an essay by my friend Ian Grey about his
recovery after a major accident and how movies and music saved him. I grabbed
my ipod, and after using the sound of the clicking wheel in order to guess
which “Artist” I was selecting, I started to listen to music. The media
coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles coming to America prompted
me to revisit Beatles for Sale and my
personal favorite, Rubber Soul. The
Stones’ Emotional Rescue and
especially side two of Tattoo You were
on a constant loop. (The Prince-like ballad “Worried About You” from Tattoo is a particular favorite.) I
reconnected with The Kinks’ second record, Kinda
Kinks
, with “Nothin’ In This World Can Stop Me Worryin’ “Bout That Girl,”
“Never Met A Girl Like You Before,” and “When I See That Girl of Mine” being
highlights. One day I stayed in bed and switched from Syl Johnson (“Let
Them Hang High,” “I Can Take Care of Business”) to mid-‘60s Joe Tex singles (“I
Want To Do Everything For You”), and Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Supper Club, with a performance of “Bring It On
Home to Me” that is so overwhelmingly powerful it can make anyone into a
believer. Listeningng to the Cooke performance made me think of Michael Mann’s Ali and how it was used as the bedrock
for the movie’s stunning opening sequence. I then suddenly realized that my
love of music and movies is pretty much equal, yet I chose to concentrate my
writing on an art form that is, shall we say, more challenging than the other.
I don’t know why. I may never know why.

Then, one day I was sitting on the couch with my dad,
channel-surfing, and came across Peggy
Sue Got Married
. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola during his ‘80s
wilderness period, it’s a movie I saw many times as a kid. Having not seen it
in years, we decided to watch. A variation on Back to the Future (which came out a year earlier), Peggy Sue Got Married is more fanciful
and slyly more profound. It contains Kathleen Turner’s finest performance as
Peggy Sue, a 43-year-old wife and mother who is given the opportunity to go
back in time and make different life choices. What surprised me is how vividly
I could recall the movie even though I hadn’t seen it in years. An early
sequence got to me: It’s 1960, and Peggy Sue has passed out after giving blood
at her school’s blood drive. A couple of teachers decide to take her home.
Sitting in the back of a car, the radio starts to play The Champs’ “Tequila” as
she looks out the window. The camera stays on Turner’s face as she sees the
landmarks of her youth. Everything feels new again. (The Oscar-nominated
cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth is warm and nostalgic without being gauzy.)
When she arrives at her childhood home, Peggy Sue tentatively approaches the
front door. An off-screen voice cheerily says, “I left the door open!.” It’s
Peggy Sue’s mother, played by Barbara Harris. The moment her mom enters the
room Peggy Sue reaches out to touch her. Without it being said, we realize that
her mother has been dead and she’s seeing her for the first time in years. The
scene climaxes when she sees her younger sister Nancy (played by Sofia Coppola
in a fine bit of acting), and rushes towards her. (It’s never stated, but we sense
that maybe her sister is either dead or that they don’t speak to each other.)
Even as a kid I knew this scene was an early emotional peak in the movie, but
now it resonated even more. The seemingly random development of not being able
to see (and possibly facing the reality of not seeing again) was being
reflected back at me as Peggy Sue saw her childhood one more time. Ebert
believed movies were the best vehicle to create empathy, and my ability at that
moment to use critical thinking in order to make this connection with a movie I
hadn’t seen in years gave me hope.

Slowly, my vision started to get less blurry. While January
moved at a snail’s pace, February went by in a flash. I became acutely aware
that time moves both agonizingly slow and incredibly fast. The four light bulbs
that hang over the family room table went from a single bright blurry glob of light
to four separate blurry globs of light. I would look into the bathroom mirror
and see an out-of-focus reflection. For a moment I thought I was having an existential
crisis. Then, one day I found myself sitting at my desk in my home office for
the first time in weeks. I turned on my CCTV and I was able to faintly make out
the back cover writing of the Thief Blu-ray.
Soon, I could read it without straining. I decided to go to a promotional
screening and watch Liam Neeson save a plane full of ungrateful passengers. I’m
glad I chose to see a B-level highjack-airliner thriller as my first movie to
see instead of something more significant. It took the pressure off of thinking
too much. (For the record: Non-Stop is
a fun entry in the highjack-airliner thriller genre, but still doesn’t beat the
terrific Executive Decision.) Two
days later my dad and I went to see The
Past
. (We sat in the front row so my dad could whisper the subtitles to
me.) I caught up on True Detective.
(Its Zodiac-like plotting is quite
impressive.) I got to see the Oscars. And I got to see The Wolf of Wall Street for a second time in a theater. My doctor likes
what he sees so far. There’s no telling how long my vision will stay healthy. A
year? Five years? Ten? The cornea I have at the moment has been intact for
nearly eighteen years. Do I have that much time left? Maybe half that time. I
don’t know. What I do know is I’m ready.

Aaron’s Ten Best
Movies of 2013

1.    
Fruitvale Station

2.    
12 Years a Slave

3.    
American Hustle

4.    
Before Midnight

5.    
The Wolf of Wall Street

6.    
Prisoners

7.    
Blue Jasmine

8.    
Rush

9.    
The Past

10.   Gravity

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

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Comments

Mike De Luca

I'm thinking of "The Right Stuff" and Fred Ward pumping his fist in the air, shouting,
"Go, hot dog, GO!"

Drew

Great piece. Hang in there, Aaron. Back by Midnight is still my favorite film podcast to listen to.

Craig Simpson

Although, as in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (which you perceptively referenced), we all learn as we get older to settle for imperfection, this piece is sublime – much better than a 5/10.

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