Sundance 2016: ‘Notes on Blindness’ is a beautiful exploration of darkness

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Notes on Blindness
Written & Directed by Peter Middleton & James Spinney
United Kingdom / France, 2016

How to externalize the internal is at the crux of all cinema. How, then, do you project the thoughts of a subject who can’t see the external world? The heartrending documentary, Notes on Blindness, conquers this problem with the compelling words of its hero, and the visual stylings of directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney. The result is a resounding testament to the human spirit and a daring education in empathy.

In 1983, John Hull began his tireless efforts to understand his degenerative blindness. By making copious audio recordings and keeping detailed notes, Hull sought understanding to “retain the fullness” of his humanity. Hull’s wife Marilyn became his staunchest ally, bolstering his spirit and helping him refine the systems necessary to master this terrifying new world. His three young children, the youngest of which was born after Hull was completely blind, surrounded him with love and boundless energy. If blindness was a lifetime sentence, at least Hull would not serve it alone.

Now, some 30 years after Hull’s quest for understanding began, directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney have brought his recordings to life through dramatic re-enactments and abstract visualizations. Hull and Marilyn provide most of the voiceover narration themselves, while actors Dan Renton Skinner (Hull) and Simone Kirby (Marilyn) portray them on the screen. The lip-synching is generally seamless, and the curious choice of employing actors underscores Hull’s assertion that blindness forces one to “re-create their life.”

MarilynThough Middleton and Spinney often render Hull’s story in darkness and shadow, the visual splendor of Notes on Blindness cannot be understated. Much of the action is presented in an ethereal haze, as if waking from a dream, while other segments are blindingly bright with color and texture. Particularly riveting is a driving rainstorm that begins outside before entering Hull’s home and soaking everyone to the bone. Rain is a repeated motif, as Hull finds it extremely comforting; its liquid properties giving contour to everything it touches.

In that way, Notes on Blindness is an unabashedly poetic film. A spiral staircase ascending skyward resembles the optic nerve’s pathway deep into the brain, while a blinding snowstorm envelopes Hull in an existential panic. Because their subject can’t see, much of the imagery employed by Middleton and Spinney is abstract. Not only does this create breathtaking and poignant landscapes, it’s a powerful cinematic device to make tangible the intangible; to bring the internal into glaring relief.

Besides beauty, there is plenty of heartbreak. Hull’s words convey the terror and anger unleashed by the darkness. Particularly heartbreaking are the interactions with his children, who have difficulty grasping the involuntary nature of their father’s blindness. He’s constantly plagued by guilt over his compromised parenting abilities. When an injured child sobs in the distance, Hull stumbles to find them amidst a swirl of indiscriminant visual cues. “The discovery that you’re useless as a parent is not a nice discovery for any father to make,” Hull laments.

notes rainUnfortunately, the action gets slightly repetitive as Hull continually grapples with the same issues. It’s not distracting, exactly, but it leaves you craving insight on a wider spectrum of themes. Still, it’s hard to complain about Hull’s exhaustive debate between accepting the futility of his situation and continuing to fight. For Hull, an academic theologian, blindness represents no less than a “religious crisis.” The struggle to reconcile his disability with his faith is a fascinating conundrum that probably consumes much of Hull’s audio archive.

The danger of a docu-drama like Notes on Blindness is that it may teeter into sentimentality. Middleton and Spinney guard against this by emphasizing Hull’s methodical nature. When he finds there are no audio recordings of academic textbooks, Hull mobilizes an army of volunteers to record a new library for him. He ponders what happens to those regions of the brain dedicated to visual processing when the circuitry goes dark. This clinical emphasis counterbalances Hull’s unshakeable faith, and illustrates the complex dichotomy that helps him survive.

And always, through all of Hull’s struggles and soul-searching, there is Marilyn. It’s an inspiring love story that rivals anything Hollywood could produce. Marilyn wonders how she will take this journey into darkness with her troubled husband, begging him not to leave her behind. Thanks to this poignant and visceral film, audiences can experience the full gamut of Hull’s emotions, as well. Notes on Blindness is a beautiful example of how cinema can illuminate even the darkest reaches of the human condition.

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