Blindness, like Pete Middleton and James Spinney’s new film describes, is a world of its own. Keeping one’s eyes closed isn’t nearly enough to get inside the mind of someone whose sight has left them entirely, for the taking away of one sense is only a part of it. For theologian John Hull, blindness was like entering a new landscape, both eerily familiar and frighteningly alien, but by recording his experiences of losing his sight on reams upon reams of cassette tape, he worked toward understanding his condition so it would never consume him. Released a year after his death, Notes on Blindness not only draws from these recordings but ingeniously builds the entire movie around them; the result is a quietly profound peek inside an alternate universe of sensation, and how its sole occupant navigates everyday life, and above all, strengthens himself on the extraordinary power of family.
The visual result is an absorbing blend of tangible fact and the elevating power of fiction.
It’s 1983, and John Hull is now completely blind. His future as a lecturer is thrown into doubt, while the day-to-day business of getting dressed, making the tea, and even playing with the kids is now a completely different process. What we’re watching in Notes on Blindness is dramatic reconstruction in essence, but that’s only half of it: a title card introduces us to the fact that the detailed audio diary John kept over the years has been lip-synced to the cast’s actions (Dan Renton Skinner as John, and Simone Kirby as his wife Marilyn), and the visual result is an absorbing blend of tangible fact and the elevating power of fiction. The way the actors inhabit John’s actual words from decades ago is completely transporting, along with the exquisite direction from both Spinney and Middleton; the pitch-perfect approach they bring to each ‘scene’ belies the fact that Notes on Blindness is their first feature proper, but the way they capture John’s life like gorgeous, perfectly-lit and composed Polaroids (ironically fitting, naturally) in a way that truly gets at the thematic heart of his experience comes across more like the assured quality of a veteran filmmaking team.
The invaluable insight from John’s measured, tender reflections is stripped free of the tape, and set against some incredibly beautiful imagery; the most moving moment is when the theologian, during a particularly intense period of contemplation, stands at his opened front door during a rain fall. The tiny water droplets bounce sound off everything as far as his ears can hear, a sort of sonar that allows him to somewhat re-immerse himself in the visual world. It’s a flourish we revisit toward the film’s conclusion, thematically topping the film off with the most emotional full-stop imaginable.
By far the best thing about Notes on Blindness is its form; the use of subject as narrator has been done well before (last year’s Listen to Me Marlon a shining example), but its near-absolute fidelity to source – by lip-syncing John’s words to those playing him – a wondrous feedback loop emerges. Caught up in it, fact informs fiction and, more revelatory, fiction imbues fact with a truth that the tactile details of a single life could never convey. Springing up in the middle of John’s memos are the sounds of his children calling out to him, or Marilyn knocking on his door – in a word, life interrupting. Through his years of self-searching, he never settles for easy answers to explain his life-changing affliction – he believes in God, but never abandons rationality – and while the film doesn’t necessarily see him finding closure, it does end on a cut-to-black message that is as universal as it gets, disability or not. The irony of the visual nature of cinema and the darkness of blindness isn’t lost on this wonderful documentary-feature-revelation; instead, it finds the grace between the two extremes.
Notes on Blindness is out now.