What’s a cinephile/filmmaker to do when confronted with the prospect (however unlikely) of losing his sight? Spend his remaining time binging on visual pleasure? Meet with as many loved ones as possible, imprinting their smiles on his memory?
If you’re Mark Cousins, you spend all day in bed, talking into a haphazardly propped-up camera about all the things you remember seeing.
The Story of Looking
Transporting visions and intriguing ideas from a guide who’s definitely not for everyone.
That’s the conceit, anyway, of The Story of Looking, Cousins’ latest documentary, which adapts his 2017 book of the same name. Having discovered he has both a genetic predisposition toward macular degeneration and a cataract starting to cloud his left eye, he spends the day before eye surgery reflecting on what he has seen in a life of travels, both geographical and cinematic. Followers of the writer-director will know to expect a mixture of erudition, surprising insights and self-indulgence, and there’s enough of the latter here to put off many viewers. But even if this essay-film sometimes feels like a second draft in need of another revision or two, it contains enough beauty (visual and otherwise) to justify its existence. Hardly as essential as his epic film-history projects like Women Make Film, it’s much more rewarding than some of his other small, inward-directed projects.
After his coy introduction, in which he sets the camera in bed with him and explains the project he intends to undertake today, Cousins dives into some of the highlights from a life as a professional watcher of things. “My eyes saw a motorbike draw a line on a hill,” he recalls, and we watch that bike carve through dirt from afar, and it’s gorgeous. We see the smokestack of a power plant being demolished, and afterward, the soot lingering in the air eerily takes on the shape of a giant man.
And then he shows us a very real man — seen outside Cousins’ window on this very day, he says, perched on a small rooftop ledge beside a row of chimneys, looking down and appearing to contemplate something weighty. He stands for a long time, and Cousins returns to this shot often, seemingly less concerned with its meaning than the fact that he saw it: We never learn whether the man jumped or was simply taking in the view.
Between walking us through his Greatest Visual Hits, Cousins muses on the way human sight develops. “I started life as a baby,” he admits, just in case you weren’t sure, and he imagines an infant’s experience: blurs at first, then an awareness of movement, then an intense attraction to whatever eyes are nearby. All the while, his talk of universal experiences is enlivened by idiosyncratic points of comparison: An ancient Japanese painting demonstrates that blurry pictures are not all failures; an Iranian mosque exemplifies the eternal bond between blue and gold. Then, 20 or so minutes into this feast, Cousins asks us to look for seven minutes at one of the most soul-numbing things imaginable: a man reading tweets on his phone.
He’s shirtless in bed, his arms tattooed with randomly arranged highbrow brand names (Eisenstein, Dürer, Le Corbusier) as if he were the most pretentious race car at Le Mans. But he could be Margot Robbie in a bubble bath and it wouldn’t change one of the fundamental truths of our age: No one should ever have to watch another person gazing into a phone.
When he’s not making us join him in bed (and flashing his penis at us), Cousins is excellent company. As he ranges from travelogue footage to classic film clips, paintings and curiosities, his quiet, thoughtful voiceover is as polished as those bedroom shots are clumsy. Behind his own voice, haunting songs by Donna McKevitt deepen the reflective mood. (One of these songs adapts poetry by Derek Jarman; surprisingly, Cousins never mentions Blue, Jarman’s own landmark film confronting the loss of sight.)
Cousins talks about varying experiences of color, the difference between physical and spiritual light, the ethics of looking at tragedies, the selfie aesthetic, and more, sounding like that beloved, aging professor whose opinions never calcified, and whose tendency to ramble is easy to forgive. If not every visual example is perfectly matched to the idea under discussion, well, what do you expect from a man who’s pretending to make this all up while he eats toast in bed?