A decade on from his 15-hour magnum opus, The Story of Film comes another chapter in the life and interests of critic-turned-filmmaker Mark Cousins. The Story of Looking, is expanded from his 2017 book of the same name, yet this time the director limits himself to 90 minutes and adopts a more personal perspective.
Written, directed and shot by Cousins during lockdown, The Story of Looking is immediate in its intimacy. It opens with Cousins in bed watching an interview with Ray Charles on his phone. While discussing his relationship with his blindness, Charles explains that he can treasure certain things that he’s only seen once, and that there are plenty of terrible sights he’s glad to have never seen.
Alongside these statements as a spark of inspiration, Cousins reveals that he has developed a severe cataract to be surgically removed the following day. As someone obsessed with the act of looking, he is forced to grapple with what vision really means.
Woven from footage of Cousins’ own work as a documentary director, fragments of the films that have inspired him and a handheld visual diary of the day prior to his surgery, The Story of Looking is scattershot but occasionally profound. Cousins loosely focuses on the stages of vision that develop as we grow, from the blurry world that a newborn baby sees to the agony of scrutinising your own reflection as a teenager. But what unravels is more of a stream of consciousness with his trademark meditative voiceover than a comprehensive study of the subject of looking.
Touching on colour’s place within memory, light as the focus of worship and wonder, voyeurism and exhibitionism, the scope is wide but ultimately not especially deep. Most arresting is Cousins’ decision to show the eye surgery itself in enormous, unavoidable close-up. The image of the blade entering his eyeball is simultaneously repulsive and fascinating, a clear challenge both to watch and resist looking away from.
In a recent essay for Harper’s Bazaar, Martin Scorsese bemoaned the term ‘content’ being used to describe any and every form of visual media, flattening a David Lean film so it’s barely distinguishable from a cat video. What does looking mean today when our eyes are more bombarded with ‘content’ than ever? Though he touches on selfies as the modern self-portrait, Cousins isn’t especially concerned with the impact of the internet on visual culture. This is clearly not so much the story of looking but his story of looking.
In the film’s most moving sequence Cousins reads tweets from his followers about their ‘looking lives’, from what it means to see and be seen by a loved one, to the memories of a teacher letting their students stare out of the window at the banal but beautiful outside world. Perhaps after months of staring at the same few walls and only seeing loved ones through a screen, a lightweight but sometimes touching ode to the wonder of looking is enough.
Mark Cousins can sometimes be a tad po-faced but this lockdown project is intriguing.
Unexpectedly zippy for a Cousins’ joint, and the full frontal nudity was a surprise.
It’s no The Story of Film, but there are some genuinely powerful moments here.