“Vision is a creation,” says Hugues de Montalembert. “It’s not a perception.” His notion is not new, exactly. Philosophers and academics have pondered the ways that individuals process experience, understand themselves in relation to others, determine difference or sameness in terms both global and specific. Reality is subjectivity, experience is relative. And yet, de Montalembert’s experience has been made new, as indicated in the documentary Black Sun.
The initial change for de Montalembert, a French-born painter and filmmaker, occurred in New York 1978. As the frame glides over city streets from above, he begins to describe an attack by two men, in his home. “There were two,” he says, recalling what would become the last unimpaired visual encounter he would have with human beings. “One very big one and the small, less strong one.” The artist struggled, he says, unaware that “the little one had in his pocket a weapon, paint remover.” Tossed into de Montalembert’s eyes, the weapon did damage: “By the morning,” he says, “I was totally blind.”
Even the word “totally” becomes relative. As Black Sun lays out, de Montalembert was not plunged into a stereotypical darkness. Rather, he says, “I could see the light. Even if my eyelids were closed, I could see through my eyelids.” And so he came to understand another way of seeing. “Not receiving perceptions through the eyes,” he asserts, “would create strong images, vivid images. To the point that I would talk to you and see something like a vision.”
To make this “something” visible for that imagined and actual “you,” to make sense and art of it, de Montalembert has collaborated with composer and first time film director Gary Tarn. Black Sun is an elaborate composition, a series of interviews laid over images and music track in order to suggest the ways that “the brain fabricates” images, for subjects blind and not. Not unlike Derek Jarman’s Blue, the film offers alternative sorts of “language” to approximate and communicate experience. The result is a diversely toned paean to vision, alternately new-agey, resonant, didactic, and provocative.
The interview clips are cut together to construct a near chronology of his life “after,” that is, following the attack. At first, contemplating his own lack of interactions with “blind people” prior to the attack, de Montalembert worries “There is a pit somewhere, where, nicely, with the help of society, they are dumped. I don’t want to do that.” His own tendency to make broad pronouncements is underlined by the film’s tendency to illustrate his judgments. While de Montalembert narrates his realization that not seeing can be very “liberating for many people,” the film illustrates the example he gives: close-ups of shadowy figures in a confessional booth.
Or again, as he remembers his therapy at the Light House, the movie shows blurry eye exam charts, Braille in close-up, and patients’ feet shuffling in a hospital corridor. When de Montalembert learns he has “a very good facial vision, which is like a bat, you receive the waves of the walls or obstacles” (meaning that he will be able to negotiate the physical world “with more facility than if you don’t have it”), the shot transitions to a Braille typewriter, first close on fingers on the keyboard and then, pulled out to show the typewriter in context, near a window that looks out on a city street. Heartened and, as he puts it, broke, he decides to travel and write a book. Writing some 800 pages by hand in Bali, he recalls, he didn’t know when he ran out of ink and “would go on writing.” As you look on rainbow-effect images of tents and trucks in (something like) Bali, he notes, “Once you have written something, I discovered, you cannot write it again. It’s gone.”
But it can be recollected in other ways, refracted and revisited. The movie is most remarkable when it puts together images that are not obviously thematically related to de Montalembert’s narration. “Most people,” he says, use sight “to not bump into something.” You see here a black religious figurine in close-up and then long shot, in a store window, its stiff plastic arms up. The scene cuts to illegible colored lights that come into focus, to reveal that you are looking through a windshield at traffic; wipers cross the windshield, changing the field of vision with each stroke. “I think there is no reality, in fact,” says de Montalembert. “What you see will be different from your neighbor. So who has the reality? There is no reality absolutely.”
This question becomes the film’s most salient, given current technologies, policies, and worldviews that grant jurisdictions and enable presumptions. Reality, obtained through sight, becomes a possession: who has it? who names it? who declares it as such for everyone else? (De Montalembert’s version of this point is both personal and political: “A typical male reaction: blindness is equivalent to castration. At the beginning I couldn’t believe it, but it is very much like that in the mind.” And with that, he cites Oedipus: “The first thing he does is not to cut his balls but to pierce his eyes.”)
Such possession is, of course, frequently determined by media, or by technologies that grant access to and control over media. Black Sun shows close-ups of photographs — portraits of couples and individuals, slightly distorted so they appear to be behind glass. Following several instances of these shots, the camera pulls back to show signage: the photos are in fact paired with other photos both like and slightly unlike tem: they’re part of a display for photo restoration services, before and after images. At last, the camera pulls out to show the entire window on a city street, filled with these doubled photos.
It’s an evocative metaphor, suggesting the intersections of sight, memory, and revision, the ways you access what you know of yourself and your experience based on images “taken” at particular moments and kept (restored or not), emblems of a time now gone. As the camera shows visitors in the Museum of Natural History, with shots of the zebras and monkeys dioramas (again, the images warped through windows), de Montalembert muses, “If you talk to quantum physicists they will tell you about a certain wall called the wall of Planck.” The world behind this wall, he suggests, is “unimaginable,” a “universe without space… There is no more time. It’s impossible for your brain to grasp it, but it means something. That probably time doesn’t exist. That eternity is not.”
In representing what can not be “grasped,” Black Sun is not a documentary in any usual sense. It doesn’t actually find another “language” to express de Montalembert’s experience and its images don’t quite mesh with what he says. It is, almost perversely, a film about what you don’t see. In that space “beyond” vision, where the film can’t go, you might imagine an experience not possessed.