When asked as an infant that most ludicrous, yet absolutely mandatory childhood question: “which would you rather be, blind or deaf – if you absolutely had to be?” I would always be quick to respond: “Deaf.”
To this day, nothing’s changed, and I doubt it ever would.
This may come as something of a surprise to those that have known how big a part music, for instance, has played in my life, but there’s just something so apparently debilitating, primal and frightening about losing one’s sight that I’m sure I’m not alone in choosing this ‘option’.
Such a question aimed at John Hull, (played here by Dan Renton Skinner), as a child would have been cruel, not to mention wholly inappropriate considering he was himself without sight for a brief period of time during his own formative years; the beginning, sadly, of a succession of vision-related ailments that would plague him for many years to come, ultimately robbing him of his sight altogether, permanently.
It’s at a point in the early 1980s with John, a successful, established university lecturer, and entering into the early years of fatherhood, that a rapid degeneration of his vision leaves him barely able to distinguish between light and shade.
Fearful of the impact of this visual impairment upon his work, John throws himself whole-heartedly into finding a way to continue within his field of academia, employing a large number of volunteers to record a vast number of important educational books and information onto audio cassette, for his own personal future reference. It seems that the visually impaired were somewhat overlooked during the early years of the 1980s, and John, at least on a personal level, set about rectifying that situation.
Such is the compulsive abandon with which he pursues this mission, not only does he sufficiently distract himself from the bleak inevitability of his situation, but he actually professes to having enjoyed this period of his life.
It’s only once he’s done all that he can to ‘insure’ his professional future; once the i’s have been dotted and t’s crossed, and indeed once the last semblance of his perception of light and shade has been fully extinguished and he’s left surrounded by nothing but darkness, that John is forced to properly confront his life ahead, as a blind man.
Notes on Blindness is written and rather artistically directed by Pete Middleton and James Spinney, recounting John Hull’s remarkable story through extensive access to his audio diaries, in a suitably sympathetic and frequently touching manner.
Clever splicing of original cassette audio with the lip-synching of actors is an inventive and effective means with which to give John’s recordings new life and impact.
The negative effects of John’s blindness are well documented here, be that his sense of isolation, his deteriorating mental well-being, his wife’s concerns of being somehow locked out of his ever insular existence, or John’s increasing feelings of uselessness in crisis situations.
All such factors as they slowly drive John into a very dark place in his own mind, lead him to make a life-changing decision; to chronicle on audio cassette his thoughts and emotional responses to blindness, as a sort of personal therapy, and over a period of many years this would be John’s own attempt to come to terms with and fully understand his rather lamentable predicament.
Notes on Blindness is a film that offers a fascinating insight into the locked-in thoughts, feelings and ruminations of a blind man, some of which are as unexpected as they are thought-provoking: be that the comfort of standing in the rain, each drop landing on a surface forming a sort of sonic landscape by which a blind person is able to navigate by gaining an appreciation of distance, height and to some extent texture, or the conscious decision to ‘give up smiling’ – for if there is no reciprocation from the other party, then the whole gesture seems somewhat futile, so what’s the point?
Ultimately it’s Hull’s appreciation that he must fully embrace and understand blindness in order that it will not get the better of him, that is his saving grace. His decision to refuse to live in hope of his sight being restored again one day, whilst on the surface appearing to be the decision of a man that’s given up hope, is in fact the decision of a man that is – as far as is possible – at peace with who he now is and what the future holds for him.