The Story of Looking Review | Cousins’ Latest is a Feast for the Eyes

Mark Cousins is always a notable presence in his own films. His voice, his authorial stamp, recognisably familiar both in tone and intent has always accompanied his investigations into the personal and the cinematic. For Cousins, the personal and the cinematic are linked.

Consider his previous documentary, The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018), a postulation of Welles’s visual life – of what he saw and experienced – structured around a letter written by Mark to Orson. The personal, Cousins’ voice, suffuses the cinematic, both his subject and his method. That cinema is his subject is clear, if nothing else thanks to the canonical aspirations of The Story of Film (2011), but he also structures his films around cinematic impulses. This creates a distance, as with the rhetorical letter he penned for his film on Welles. What sets The Story of Looking apart, for better and worse, is the collapse of that cinematic distance.

The Story of Looking is an intimate film. Mark Cousins spends the day in bed – naked, we later learn – directly addressing the audience. He’s pensive, the result of anxiety around an upcoming procedure to remove a cataract from his left eye. The topic, “a journey through our visual lives,” is loosely structured around our physical maturation and “optical development,” to borrow a phrase the filmmaker borrows from Paul Cézanne. The result is diaristic and freely associative.

An early remark that our earliest images are blurred engenders a reflection on the opening of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, where a young boy reaches out towards an unfocused image of a woman’s face. Closely linked to Cousins’ understanding of looking is the experience of memory. He shows us a phone with which he took a photo of his grandmother before her casket was closed. The idea was to preserve a final image of a loved one. The phone is now long dead. He keeps it, however, as an object containing an image from memory, something like an externalisation of the mind itself. The phone, initially intended to reproduce an image, becomes a totem referring to the memory of an image.

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Yet, the film is not so ponderous as I might make it sound. It’s structured simply around what Cousins sees from the window of his flat, alongside found images and video previously captured by the filmmaker. His reflections pass through adolescence and teenage years and cover topics from movement to colour and shadow.

Cousins is at his best when he allows his own understanding to be challenged. He shares with us correspondence he shared with a colourblind person. Their discussion begins with Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, which makes expressive use of colour. Being “starved of Technicolor” means nothing to his interlocutor, who encourages him to watch The Wizard of Oz in black and white. Cousins notes that the lack of colour radically alters the experience of the film, forcing the score to carry the weight of Dorothy’s transition into Oz. A more rigorous, essayistic film could do a lot with this. The personal, diaristic aspect of his approach precludes such extended explorations. His style here also turns up a few stretches of abject boredom.

The worst of this method is a sequence where Cousins reads out a selection of replies to a query he poses on Twitter. This holds all the fascination of sitting in a room while someone reads to you from their phone. If nothing else, it’s fortunate Mark has more interesting friends than we do. Another dud is the coda, wherein Cousins imagines himself in the future, looking back on the events surrounding his eye surgery. This reintroduction of cinematic distance neutralises what otherwise works in favour of his approach. Your patience for this will largely be dictated by how much you enjoy spending time in Mark’s company. Fortunately, these duller moments are not without their insights. Laura Cumming, responding to his query on Twitter, provides a theory of looking that clearly impresses Cousins: “Insatiable lust, constantly fulfilled.”

The filmmaker speaks of his visual life in exultant terms, as a never-ending reverie. It will come as no surprise that he speaks sympathetically of the selfie, linking it to the long history of self-portraiture. Selfies are self-regarding, yes, but this need not be automatically interpreted as narcissism. He posits that we largely photograph ourselves in moments of happiness or else in the presence of famous monuments. He then reasserts the centrality of memory to our looking. We take selfies because we will eventually fall away from these moments. These images will fade into memory. As memory fades, so will these images. That is, unless they can be in some way be technologically recalled. Images nurture memory, as memories are fed by images. With this in mind, we may likewise read Cousins’ method sympathetically, self-regard and all.

What ultimately works for and against Cousins – in each of his projects – is the innocence of his gaze. That “insatiable lust” with which he identifies makes his films rich in free-associative montage. Reflecting on his eyes leads him to the famous opening of Un Chien Andalou before a discursive turn towards Ingrid Bergman’s eyes in Autumn Sonata and Casablanca. His discussion of the selfie seamlessly incorporates Albrecht Dürer and Frida Kahlo. These images flash on the screen, a demonstration of Cousins’ encyclopedic interests.

Only once, however, does The Story of Looking attempt to put pressure on our visual lives. An image of a German woman averting her gaze at Buchenwald is taken as an example of abnegated responsibility. Cousins then ponders the ethics of “rubbernecking” car crashes and the responsibility of the spectator in relation to the proliferation of beheading videos on the internet. He perhaps shows his hand when, scrolling through thumbnails on a pornographic website, the image is blurred, much like the inarticulate seeing explored early in the film. Whatever questions might be posed in these sections are dropped, leaving them to serve an ill-formed rhetorical function. Why would we condemn the woman in Buchenwald when we seek violent images in the home and on our motorways? Cousins’ style, intimate, lustful, can’t answer these questions, but nonetheless carves out a foundation for how we might further develop our visual culture.

Taking a closer look: Mark Cousins, director of The Story of Looking.

Cousins reminds me of the earliest practitioners of cinema, for whom the act of recording and projecting images represented a world of possibilities. A train pulling into a station could send spectators scrambling for safety and ancient epics could be constructed in miniature on a desert backlot. Image making and sharing is far easier now, resulting in a new naivety not dissimilar to the images of early cinema. We take photos of ourselves, directly facing the camera, pulling exaggerated poses to make up for the silence inherent to photography. We stand in thrall of the proliferation of images; our lust stoked, never sated.

As our visual culture grows, so must our questioning thereof. The threads left dangling by Cousins can be picked up and pulled apart, enriching our commitment to cinema and life alike. As we answer these questions, and satiate our lust, we can begin to tell our own stories of looking.

The Story of Looking is showing in cinemas now.

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