Notes on Blindness (2014): the mediated voice and ‘visual overdubbing’

Dr Nessa Johnston (Edge Hill University, UK)

The feature-length documentary Notes on Blindness (2014) takes as its subject the theologian John Hull’s personal struggle with sight loss, and uses Hull’s collection of audio diaries, as well as more recent recordings of interviews conducted with him and his wife, as source material. However, a cast of actors are employed to perform in lipsync with the tape-recorded voices. Chion (1999) and Doane (1985) have both pointed out cinema’s particular ideological fixation with uniting the audible voice with the visible body through synchronization of the soundtrack with the image track, a technique designed to efface the potential representational crisis posed by bringing together two distinct, materially heterogeneous elements. Notes on Blindness foregrounds the artificiality of the process to some extent, while simultaneously presenting a ‘seamless’ effect of synchronization. Does the film’s approach work as a technique of realism, or estrangement, or neither/both?

The film is also a thematic exploration of the phenomenology of listening, as Hull rediscovers his lived environment through sound alone, so to what extent does the film similarly readjust the viewer-listener’s sonic encounter with the film’s archival voices? Does any adjustment incorporate a freshly discovered sense of the audible materiality (Birtwistle 2010) of Hull’s old cassette recordings, in conjunction with the newly created images, and thus draw attention to the soundtrack and image track’s material heterogeneity? Or do we listen ‘through’ the noise of the tape? Furthermore, how does our knowledge of the source of the voices frame our interpretation and enjoyment of the screen performances, given that Hull’s recordings were never ‘performed’ for the screen? Considering the ethics of the documentary form, what is at stake in this visual re-animation of an audio diary, or visual overdub? This paper will use research of the film’s production/post-production processes as further context.

Bibliographical sources

Chion, Michel, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999),
Birtwistle, Andy, Cinesonica: sounding film and video (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010).
Doane, Mary-Ann, ‘The Voice in the Cinema: the Articulation of Body and Space’, in Film Sound: Theory and Practice, eds. Elisabeth Weis and John Belton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 162–176.
Smith, Jacob, Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

 Dr Nessa Johnston is a Lecturer in Media, Film and Television at Edge Hill University. Her research focuses on the soundtrack in low-budget, American independent, experimental, alternative and cult films. Nessa obtained her PhD from the University of Glasgow, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). She is Associate Editor of The New Soundtrack (Edinburgh University Press), and has also published in Music, Sound and the Moving Image, The Soundtrack and The Velvet Light Trap.