How Notes on Blindness evokes sight loss on film

With audio and video uncannily synched, and its grainy super 8 footage, Notes on Blindness confuses the senses.

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When the Australian-born theologian and university lecturer John Hull went blind in the early 1980s after decades of struggling with his sight, he started recording audio diaries. Excerpts from those tapes, interspersed with more recent interviews with John and his wife, Marilyn, make up most of the soundtrack of Notes on Blindness but it would be wrong to call this a documentary. What we can hear (the voices of John, Marilyn and their children) fits that description; what we see (actors lip-syncing to pre-recorded words, in an idea borrowed from The Arbor by Clio Barnard) does not. The directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney and the cinematographer Gerry Floyd provide a sensuous visual commentary to complement the spoken narrative. The result is like watching scenes from Terrence Malick movies while Radio 4 plays over the top.

The dislocation between the audio and the visual corresponds to John’s observation that blindness divorces people from their voices. What he needs is some kind of sonar or echolocation, like a bat’s or a submarine’s. The closest he gets is when he walks his young son to school. The deal is that John (played by Dan Renton Skinner) will call out “goodbye” when they part and the boy will continue to respond in kind until the volley of farewells is too faint for either of them to hear. Inclement weather provides another boost to the senses. Whenever he hears the thrumming of rain, John stands on the doorstep listening for the different bulletins that are sent to him from roof tiles, car bonnets, pavements and leaves. He says with characteristic eloquence that when it rains, “You are addressed by the world.”

If only it rained indoors, he could have the same comprehension of interior space. The film imagines what that might be like, staging a torrential downpour in his living room. But if water can report on the dim­ensions of his surroundings, it can also obliterate them. In a dream sequence set in a supermarket, the soft splash of wetness underfoot turns into a tsunami, separating him from his family. In those varying uses of water, the film expresses the polarity of choices. “Your consciousness is evacuated by blindness,” John says, almost marvelling at the thought. “It destroys or renews you.”

The mere existence of Notes on Blindness gives some indication of what the outcome was in this case. But any inspirational element is secondary and incremental. Communication between the blind and sighted is the goal. (“Cognition is beautiful,” says John. “It’s beautiful to know.”) The film-makers could have taken the route of Derek Jarman’s Blue, which showed nothing but an unwavering blue screen to evoke the dying director’s fading eyesight. Yet a featureless screen would have denied the visual texture of John’s blindness – his imagination, the dreams that trick him into believing he has retained his sight, the creeping dread as he realises his gallery of memories is fading.

A mosaic of crumbling Super 8 footage reflects that panic but the visual sensibility of this film is not usually so literal. More typical are the images that suggest opacity: John under a blanket, his face stippled by dots of light breaking through the stitches, or a child behind a curtain, feeling his way along a wall. Much of the cinematography is dimly lit, interrupted by sharply defined areas such as the parallelograms of sunlight through which John strides at work. With the exception of John and Marilyn, faces are obscured, which feels right: why should we be allowed to see their son (or the actor playing him) when John has never seen him? The only regrettable omission is God, who scarcely gets a look-in, which seems ­remiss in a film about a man of faith.

Throughout it all, there are those magnificent tapes. John’s perpetually interested voice is set against a patchwork of street noises, sounds of children at play and his daughter’s comical weather forecasts (“Tomorrow will be reasonably hot, reasonably cold, reasonably everything”), all wrapped in the fuzz of degraded 1980s analogue technology. The cassettes get almost as many close-ups as John; their revolving cogwheels stare out at us like eyes that hold the secrets of a world obscured from view. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies

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