Notes on Blindness
NOTES ON BLINDNESS, docudrama, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 4 chiles
“In the early 1980s, theologian John Hull lost his sight. He began keeping an audio diary.” Thus begins a moving portrait that leads the viewer on a journey of insights and perceptions. For the documentary lover, Notes on
Blindness is something unexpected. It’s a dramatic re-enactment of a man coming to terms with his blindness, but the audio — of Hull, a British university professor, and his wife Marilyn — is authentic. Professional actors — Dan Skinner as Hull and Simone Kirby as Marilyn — lip-synch their audio recordings and interviews.
Hull lost his eyesight after surgery, just before the birth of his son in 1983. He was pained at the thought of not being able to read, teach, or lecture, but took a sensible approach to his predicament, hiring people to record the books in his library and figuring out the problem of how to remain engaged with university life. But that meant confronting a world where blind people are at a disadvantage. “I had to think about blindness because if I didn’t understand it, it would defeat me,” he says. As the pictures in his mind begin to dim, the loss of sensory perception is echoed in the film’s visual style, which provides elegiac glimpses of the beauty of his fading world in increasingly blurred but also impressionistic pictures. Hull’s own impressions drive the narrative. He wonders what happens to the part of the brain that processes visual information when the visual input ceases. “The brain itself thirsts for that for which it is accustomed,” he says. The loss of vision is accompanied by a gradual loss of memory of details.
Directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney match Hull’s thoughtprovoking and emotional narration with footage that leaves you constantly aware of visual perception. Hull’s dreams, which he narrates, stand out as remarkably vivid, while his waking life is depicted as one of shadow and haze. We glimpse him and his family through the branches of trees, through panes of glass, or partially obscured by a piece of furniture or other domestic detail edging into the frame. Tender, intimate moments between Hull and Marilyn are shown at a slight remove from the viewer, which increases the sense of impending loss — and with it, the desire to hold fast to moments of beauty.
Hull, who died in 2015, made his peace with blindness. An intelligent man, he was capable of understanding his loss of vision objectively, perhaps because of his commitment to recording his subjective experiences — which also meant a commitment to expressing his fears and daily challenges. While its moments of triumph are subdued, Notes on
Blindness is not without a hopeful tone. Hull did not ask for his blindness, but in the end, it gave him another way to see. — Michael Abatemarco
Seer: Dan Skinner (as John Hull)