Boasting a strong cast and solid production values on a shoestring budget, Aaron J. Wiederspahn's debut film The Sensation of Sight (2006) is a hypnotizing tale of lost opportunities and philosophical musings. This offbeat drama focuses on Finn (David Strathairn, Good Night and Good Luck), a middle-aged English teacher who's undergoing a turning point in his life. After a tragedy involving a young student of his, Finn wanders the streets and sells encyclopedias one by one for $20 apiece. He's almost eerily calm about his decision to leave his wife and son; in turn, both seem downright shocked that a grown man has resorted to roaming the streets. As fate would have it, Finn soon encounters a number of souls on similar paths: from a young man who's lost his brother to a single mother attempting to avoid her ex-boyfriend, these connected individuals all feel different levels of loss and regret.
At over two hours in length, The Sensation of Sight may appear to be a somewhat self-indulgent debut for Wiederspahn---and in a sense, that's a perfectly reasonable observation. The film's hypnotic flow may prove to be a bit too ambiguous for some audiences; it's closer in tone to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (or going back much further, Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru) than any other film in recent memory, albeit with a more diverse cast of characters. The Sensation of Sight isn't afraid to ask "Why?" but rarely answers its own questions, creating a more polarizing production than most will be accustomed to. Those willing to let the film drift by will almost certainly be sucked in during the first few chapters, which introduce many of our central characters and their relationships to one another.
Despite a few rough patches along the way (including several extraneous character moments and pieces of dialogue that feel sorely out of place), the bulk of this production proves to be emotionally satisfying and provocative at the same time---and in many ways, The Sensation of Sight is home to many striking contrasts. Many key sequences drift by with little or no dialogue, while some seem to get dragged down from too much of it. Expertly-placed music cues from the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Damien Jurado and Modest Mouse take turns working perfectly with the scenes at hand...or, in some cases, providing a stark audio contrast to what's going on. Some viewers may find such elements slightly distracting, especially since this insular film demands our complete attention from start to finish.
Nonetheless, the strengths of The Sensation of Sight are what keep this production afloat. David Strathairn's performance is undoubtedly the focal point of our story, but a number of supporting roles are handled perfectly by Daniel Gillies (Spider-Man 2), Jane Adams (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Ann Cusack (Multiplicity), Elisabeth Waterston (The Prince & Me), Ian Somerhalder ("Lost"), Scott Wilson (The Aviator) and others. The film's stunning cinematography by Christophe Lanzenberg also helps The Sensation of Sight defy its shoestring budget, creating an almost timeless atmosphere that mirrors the situation of the distraught Finn.
Perhaps the film's unsung hero, however, is the small town of Peterborough, NH, where it was shot in just 18 days; such an insular location is a perfect match for The Sensation of Sight's hazy, dreamlike flow. As paraphrased from an accompanying featurette on the DVD, Wiederspahn likens the small-town location to a perfect studio backlot, where key locations are often just around the corner from each other. It's in these locations where the characters drift in and out of contact, whether they're the result of planned encounters or surprising reunions. The film's lengthy 132-minute running time threatens to overexpose the characters and their interactions, but it's their details, quirks and shortcomings that keep The Sensation of Sight engaging from start to finish.
Presented on DVD by Monterey Media, The Sensation of Sight plays well on the small screen. A few technical issues and a slight lack of bonus features tend to hamper what could've been a more memorable package, but what's here should satisfy fans of off-beat, atmospheric dramas. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in what appears to be its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, The Sensation of Sight looks fine with one major reservation. The film's cold and muted color palette has been preserved nicely, black levels are decent and image detail is generally consistent. The main problem here is that the DVD has not been flagged properly for progressive playback, which causes noticeable ghosting from start to finish (this is especially evident during the hazy flashback sequences, where the blurring of faces and hands is quite distracting). This problem isn't always as prominent, but it certainly could've been fixed with some effort.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix (also available in 2.0 Stereo) is generally satisfying, though it's not quite perfect. Portions of dialogue tend to get buried in the center channel, which makes certain sequences a bit tough to make out. Combined with several jarring emotional outbursts along the way, this film might have you reaching for the volume button on several occasions. Closed Captions (but no subtitles, unfortunately) have been provided during the main feature but none of the bonus content.
Despite a somewhat padded running time and a few rough patches, The Sensation of Sight proves to be a confident and worthwhile debut from director Aaron Wiederspahn. The film's hypnotic atmosphere, strong performances, beautiful cinematography and striking music blend together quite well---and even during the slow stretches, these characters and their interactions are certainly engaging enough to stick with. Monterey Media's one-disc package is somewhat inconsistent, offering a slightly flawed technical presentation and an all-too-brief collection of decent extras. Though new viewers may want to consider renting this one first, there's enough here to make The Sensation of Sight a solid blind buy. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.