Adventurous and intimate and unworried by the wall dividing fiction and nonfiction, Peter Middleton’s and James Spinney’s debut, Notes on Blindness, is a wondrous film, a thing of magic and a deeply human document.
The film, which opened yesterday at Film Forum, is a dramatic account of English theologian John Hull’s loss of sight. Hull is our humanistic Dante, our guide through and into his blindness, its existential challenges to his life, family, work, and sense of self. Notes on Blindness adapts the material behind On Sight and Insight, an audio diary Hull began in 1983, when he was 48, and had already fully lost his sight (he died last July, shortly after filming began). Oliver Sacks, the late, great neurologist and author, notably extolled Hull’s memoir, calling it, “The most extraordinary, precise, deep and beautiful account of blindness I have ever read.”
Speaking into his tape recorder, Hull recorded his daily plans, his chats with his children, his dreams, his philosophical, sometimes painful ruminations on meaning. Learning of this extraordinary archive, Middleton and Spinney saw the foundation for a film. They later recorded interviews with John and his wife, Marilyn, looking back from 30 years on, which adds a different view and an interesting glimpse into the changes in their perspective and memory. These words supply the narration and dialogue of the film, although the Hulls only appear at the end — otherwise their speech is naturalistically lip-synced by two actors (Dan Skinner, Simone Kirby) who portray John and Marilyn with warmth and sensitivity (other actors portray their family and friends). Both Hull’s book and movie are essentially works of transcription, transferring spoken word to a new medium. And yet, Notes on Blindness seems to go beyond the words, transcribing color, emotion, and a changing consciousness.
Notes on Blindness shares this use of lip-sync with Clio Barnard’s earlier, wilier The Arbor (2010). Lip-syncing to recorded audio, the handsomely shot actors in Barnard’s film dually mesmerize and arouse suspicion in the viewer, struck by the film’s conspicuous combination of words taken from real life and use of staged visuals. In Notes on Blindness, however, the strange disjuncture between words and action is used to much different effect.
Middleton and Spinney keenly recognize the autonomy of sound, how Hull could feel so lost in blindness but so thoroughly present in his voice. The recordings form the umbilical cord of Notes on Blindness, wading us into a world of contradiction, and immersing us in a collage of intimate sound and deeply evocative, sometimes surreal sight. (Much credit should go to the remarkable audio design — it’s likely possible to just listen to the film.)
Middleton and Spinney are interested in conjuring a space of seductiveness and strangeness. In this way, they evoke both Hull and his interior life, his dreams, his aching hunger to see, so strong he speaks of it as suffering. The sense of a heightened, closed-off world is enhanced by the cinematography, nearly all close-up and medium shots, nary a revealing establishing shot; only John and Marilyn are fully seen, the eyes of others — the sight John longs to see — remain off-screen.
As the film achingly reviews, when Hull went blind, he entered a frightening new world. His reflections, recorded over years, show him fighting his blindness. And figuring it out. “I am concerned to understand blindness, to seek its meaning, to retain the fullness of my humanity,” Hull affirmed. To do so was difficult. He alternates between gloom and hope, noting the loss of certain things — his fading visual memories of his family and himself, terrified that if he lost the memory of his face, then he would no longer know himself — and the discovery of others: the sound of rain, the vividness of his dreams. One fantastic scene imagines it raining indoors, his house alive in new and never-before-seen ways, “throwing a colored blanket over previously invisible things.” Even in blindness there was always a door, a hint of “a world beyond sight.” In many ways, Notes on Blindness feels like a book and a person being brought to life.
It is thanks to Hull as much to Middleton and Spinney that Notes on Blindness is so philosophically resonant, emotionally affecting, and visually eloquent. In some of his last conversations with Middleton and Spinney, Hull referred to the film as “our film.” Rarely are subject and execution so elegantly matched, or has artifice served so profound and personal a story.
Peter Middleton’s and James Spinney’s Notes on Blindness opens Film Forum (209 W Houston St, West Village, Manhattan) on November 16 and continues through November 29. See the Notes on Blindness website for select screenings in other cities.