In the recent 327 Cuadernos, the written diaries of Ricardo Piglia are filmed in a way that privileges the physicality of the Argentine novelist’s notebooks, which embody the poetic and historical content of their pages. In the documentary, affect matters more than precision, and the smudged faintness of ink reveals more than whatever literal sentences said ink could ever have aimed to outline. Piglia’s aging hands, the brittleness of the paper he wrote on, and the yellowing of the pages all mirror one another without the smallest bit of redundancy. As the camera favors very tight close-ups, refusing to reveal details by zooming so incredibly deep into them, a film about writing becomes a film about the inability to read, or to find redemption in reading.
In Notes on Blindness, Pete Middleton and James Spinney take a very different approach in their attempt to illustrate the 1980s audio-recorded diaries of writer and theologian John M. Hull as he started to go blind. The filmmakers cast professional actors to perform Hull’s original recordings, which include not just his voice but that of his wife and child, in a lip-synching feat so flawless it all but erases the uncanniness of its method.
Throughout the documentary, we see lush tree branches, raindrops on rooftops, and smooth slow-motion shots of old fauteuils by window sills, vegetation swaying in the wind, surreal rain falling in a kitchen, and so forth. But instead of trying to match the mournful beauty of the spoken lines (“Part of my brain is dying…”) by preserving its quietness, its grief, the visuals try to compete with the voiceover’s gravitas, and inevitably fails. Notes on Blindness could have functioned as an essay film if Hull’s recordings had been left alone, but it immediately becomes a fiction film marred by sumptuous imagery and persistently sappy music.
Its fatal mistake is to make up for blindness, instead of embracing it as something other than a liability.
Middleton and Spinney insist on granting a source and presenting a body to the sounds we hear, essentially robbing audiences from the experience of identification, or at least solidarity, we could have shared with the late Hull. One of the greatest pleasures of a film such as Derek Jarman’s seminal Blue is the way in which the refusal to match sound to any image whatsoever (the screen is congealed in Yves Klein blue throughout) leaves the viewer feeling naked and disoriented. Because our ears are perennially open and our eyes immediately seek sources for the noises we hear, Blue becomes something akin to anti-cinema. Notes on Blindness, however, refuses to inhabit the very privation of the senses that takes over Hull, denying its potential status as a gift, or an opportunity, albeit one that Hull is hesitant to accept.
The idea of the unwelcome gift, so closely related to the penetrating forwardness of sound, for which we have little to no shielding recourses, appears in various essayistic works in both literature and film that consider the degeneration of the body, from Seneca to Jorge Luis Borges, from Walter Benjamin to Oliver Sacks, from Jarman to the recent Joaquim Pinto film What Now? Remind Me. What all these have in common is a way of approaching the subject, making due with bodily loss through optimistic mourning, by making that loss a fundamental part of the creative process and its form.
Notes on Blindness, on the other hand, makes the fatal mistake of trying to make up for blindness, instead of embracing it as something other than a liability. How much could we have learned from visual privation, as a literal condition and a metaphorical possibility, were we not allowed to see as well, were we allowed to roam inside perplexity instead of compensated for the privation that plagues Hull? How much could we have been affected by the birth of Hull’s child if his cries had remained faceless, if we had been allowed to wallow in a little bit of desperation?