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The vision apart from vision

08 July 2016

Stephen Brown sees a film about John Hull

Lip-synching: the actor Dan Renton Skinner as John Hull in Notes on Blindness

Lip-synching: the actor Dan Renton Skinner as John Hull in Notes on Blindness

JOHN M. HULL was a well-respected theologian specialising in religious education (Obituary, 28 August 2015; Back Page Interview, 17 May 2013). He was blind much of his working life. Both he and his wife, Marilyn, briefly appear in the film Notes on Blindness (Cert. U). It uses Hull’s audio diary plus family recordings and interviews with those surrounding him, notably his wife and children.

Unlike Derek Jarman’s final film, Blue (1993), which displays an unchanging screen of that colour as the director meditates on life without sight, Notes on Blindness is acted out, chiefly by Dan Renton Skinner and Simone Kirby lip-synching the Hulls’ voices. It is a technique employed to good effect by Clio Barnard in The Arbor (2010), and works well here, too. The visual style, though, is quite different: more aesthetic, as if to complement Hull’s lack of sight.

There’s a rich warmth to the images — trees soughing, a child walking to school, etc. These are often a little out of focus, suggestive of Hull’s impaired vision. In fact — and this is acknowledged in the film — he couldn’t see anything at all, not, perhaps, even the blue that fills the screen at one point in a nod to Jarman. Only in his dreams does he see, but “Every time I wake up, I lose my sight.”

The film denies us much direct experience of Hull’s anger and despair. We do, however, witness one raging against the dying of the light. It is Christmas. All he wants to do is leave, break free, but he feels he can’t. “O Holy Night” plays on the soundtrack in ironic counterpoint. Marilyn fears John is disappearing into a world that she cannot follow. “Shall I scratch my eyes out, too?” she asks. “Shall I come with you into this world?”

It is true that he is entering another world, but it’s not a slick transition from sight to insight. In a restaurant, a faith healer approaches him and Marilyn, holding out the possibility of regained vision. Hull is sceptical. “If one of my legs was gone, would you restore that?” Instead of renewed vision, he values a growing awareness of his other senses. The sound, feel and smell of rain as he stands at an open door bring deep satisfaction.

At first, he learns to live with blindness but never accept it. Later it’s as if, being denied the frame of the outside world, he has discovered inner resources. His mind is blown with new ideas and new horizons. For the first time we are shown, in sharp focus, a visual record of his Australian childhood.

The film never mentions, as such, Hull’s project Cathedrals Through Touch and Hearing. He pioneered the provision of tactile models and plans to assist blind visitors in these places of worship. Rather, in a John Newton moment of amazing grace, an overwhelmed Hull stands among towering pillars to full organ accompaniment. He tells Marilyn of an intense feeling that God was approaching him.

“It’s a gift. Not a gift I want but it is a gift. Not why I got it but what am I going to do with it?” Watching this picture, I’d say, quite a lot.

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