June 18, 2017

A last glimpse of the land now being lost forever


Notes on Blindness (James Spinney and Peter Middleton, 2016). “Do you remember the way the tide came in, right up the main street?” As we hear this Sebaldian sentence, we see actors playing the theologian John Hull and his wife Marilyn, gazing out of a window. It is a complicated moment: the audio comes from interviews with the Hulls before John’s death in 2015, recalling a memory from their honeymoon in 1979, which present-day actors re-enact in 70s period costume. Past and present, real and unreal, are mixed up. And of course, John could still see at that point. It is one of the few shots we have in Notes on Blindness of him (or someone playing him) looking out into the world.
Can you ever communicate the experience of someone losing their sight? Can film put itself into that subjectivity? (See Blue by Derek Jarman.) And if you are used to identifying the meaning of everything, what does going blind meanJohn Hull started to record thoughts on audio tapes; these notes became a book (Touching the Rock) and eventually formed the basis for a short film, in 2014, which was then expanded into a feature by the same directors. It is a work expressing intellectual enquiry as well as humility. 
There are ways in which I prefer the 12-minute short to the 90-minute feature. There is less emphasis in the short on building a narrative, sometimes too literally, and we see less of the lip-synching actors playing the Hulls and their children. Some key moments appear in both versions of Notes on Blindness – his terror at feeling enclosed by his growing and finally total blindness; his difficult question, “Who had the right to deprive me of the sight of my children?”; and his sense that the sound of rain, which varied as it struck different surfaces in the garden, restored a moment of beauty to him, which extends to a fantasy that it is raining inside the house, Solaris-style – but the longer version inevitably brings in other memories that are crucial to his story. Two stand out. On a holiday to Australia, where his parents live, John is shocked to discover that Australia is no longer there for him, as though things he knew long before he went blind would somehow have remained visible. And the second important moment is a theological understanding: if this blindness is meant as a gift of some sort, don’t ask why but ask what.  
He comes to accept the blindness, finally. He begins to even find it stimulating in unexpected ways: “There is something so totally purging about blindness, that one either is destroyed or renewed. Your consciousness is evacuated. Your past memories, your interests, your perception of time, place itself, the world itself. One must recreate ones life. In my case, fortunately, I had a central core around which to recreate it. That was my good fortune.”