To say that film is an inherently visual medium is perhaps to state the obvious. It is rudimentary to the art of cinema that a filmmaker’s job is to show, not tell, the audience what is happening onscreen. This prioritization of visual cognition distinguishes film from other modes of storytelling, such as literature or song. As such, the act of human visualization cannot be overemphasized in the realm of film criticism.
Most popular moviemakers are happy to indulge the form’s visual component (sometimes at the expense of narrative and character development), but rarely do we get films that actually question why visual storytelling is such a potent medium for exploring the human condition.
The answer, of course, is because we as humans depend so hopelessly on our eyes for constructing a workable framework for encountering objective reality. If I tell you to imagine an orange, you may eventually come to contemplate its leathery texture or its citrus flavor. But the first thing your mind does is to visualize it. The connection between vision and our ability to make sense of reality is inextricable.
Notes on Blindness is a sad and thoughtful new short by indie newcomers Peter Middleton and James Spinney, which confronts and interrogates the role of visual perception not only in the art of filmmaking, but as it relates to the inscrutable endeavor of human existence.
The film uses the actual recorded thoughts of theologian John Hull, who lost his sight at the age of forty. We listen to Hull has he calmly contemplates fate, meaning, and reality within the context of his intense personal subjectivity, as he questions his sense of self and his capacity to maintain a meaningful connection with the outside world.
“To be seen is to exist,” he says, struggling to remember what his children look like.
Hull’s ruminations are interlaced with poetic cinematography and gracefully edited sequences by cinematographers Gerry Floyd and James Blann, often evocative of the quietly intense scenic canvas of Terrence Malick.
Throughout, the film employs creative and thoughtful techniques for filmically conceptualizing the plight of human blindness. For instance, the shots blur progressively, creating a sorrowful distance between the viewer and the camera’s subject. At certain instances, this is achieved through a measured lack of focus; at others, it is replicated by the presence of dense fog or enveloping snowfall. As we lose touch with the captivating images onscreen, we lose touch with the film’s internal reality.
Frequently, deliberate patches of abysmal blackness punctuate the visual sequences. These fleeting moments of colorlessness continually remind the viewer of the preciousness of our eyesight. We experience miniature bouts of vision withdrawal, waiting impatiently for the disorienting darkness to recede and our sense of visual reality to return.
The result is a touching simulation of Hull’s profound loss, as we experience the claustrophobia and loneliness that he must have felt, trapped deep within his own mind. It will be interesting to see where the project goes from here, as the film has been green-lit for a feature-length treatment called Into Darkness.
Notes on Blindness premiers today, and can be viewed through the New York Times website. It will also be featured at Sundance Film Festival on Friday, January 17th, 2014.