Notes on Blindness/The Town Moor – A Portrait in Sound

Notes on Blindness Peter Middleton & James Spinney

When I consider how my days are spent… in this dark world and wide…’ (Milton)

In 1983 John Hull, a professor of Theology at Birmingham University, lost his sight completely after a succession of worsening eye problems. He began to keep an audio journal about his blindness, his changing emotions and his relationship with the newly unseen world round him. Also using a recorded extended conversation between John and his wife on the subject, this film takes us deep into his internal landscapes, bringing us as close as possible to the experience of being blind and also offering insights into time, memory and perception of the world.

John and his wife are portrayed by actors lip-synching the recordings, a method so delicately done that it is utterly convincing, and Dan Renton Skinner (can this really be Bosh from House of Fools?) makes a moving and credible but never pitiable John as he moves between the stages of acceptance and accommodation of his new condition. There the comfort of the of well-known surroundings and the marshalling of new ways to continue his work – the students and colleagues who learn how to communicate, the armies of volunteers who record textbooks for him – are a positive that energise him, but though he never seems to fall into that really deep despair we might expect, there are dark moments and a reluctance to move away from this comfort zone. A trip to see his parents in his homeland of Australia, reluctantly faced, is a double-edged experience. The family occasions work well, but he does not find any connection to his old remembered places without being able to see them, and is finally glad to return. Sometimes memory is more potent than reality, and watching this you realise how this is true for the seeing as well as the blind, actuality never quite living up to those blue remembered hills.

In the most striking and memorable sequence of the film (based on a short made by the same film-makers a few years ago) John speaks about rain, and how it brings out the contours of a landscape – in this case his garden – in a way nothing else does. It’s a visually beautiful piece of filming, enhanced by listening to the rain as it falls with new insight as to what we are hearing. For a while you will never listen to rain with the same disregard. If only, he ruefully says, it rained inside rooms to bring them to life for him in the same way, and the film obligingly moves into a surreal sequence of rain falling in his study, across his keyboard, over the furniture, with their different echoes and resonances. Dreams and imaginings feature a good deal. John can see in dreams, and the old familiar places and new unseen images are there for him while sleeping, including a striking and disturbing time when he has vivid and realistic dream of the daughter he has never seen waking him up.

Often fine-looking, but shot often in the half light of interiors, simultaneously dim and secure, it’s about so much more than one man’s blindness.

The Town Moor – A Portrait In Sound

Purely coincidentally, 20 minutes after seeing Notes on Blindness I crossed the landing of the Tyneside Cinema to their Gallery to ‘see’ Chris Watson’s ‘dark cinema’ experience.  Put together from recordings made throughout the day and night on Newcastle’s Town Moor, a huge partly wild open space right by the city, it is a reworking and expansion of a programme originally made for BBC Radio by Chris Watson, artist, musician, and veteran sound recordist. There are runners, thunder, wind, unidentifiable machines and motors, funfair and circus, happy people returning after a night out, shufflings and calls of unknown wildlife, the way sound subtly changes from day to night. With 3D ‘ambisound’ and complete darkness to make this an immmersive experience, it’s a perfect companion to the previous film. We listen as we’ve maybe never listened before, our minds trying and often succeeding to bring up matching images.

But is it truly a film? I might have enjoyed this as much hearing it in the darkness of my bedroom, but bringing it into the cinemagoing experience, sitting with strangers in the dark in an unfamiliar space makes it the strange hybrid of public as well as private experience that cinema is. Pity that health and safety dictates the necessity of the pesky emergency exit signs, and over the 40 minutes the screen area began to seep a little white light around its edges. For us, unlike for John Hull, light always gets in.

(Town Moor continues at the Tyneside till 24 July)

Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, July 2016

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