Fans of Mark Cousins’s documentaries will know that epic surveys such as The Story of Film and Women Make Film jostle with more personal projects that nudge the Belfast man towards the front of the action. His eccentric, keening voice remains a part of the appeal (if, that is, you are successfully appealed to). In recent years, his multiplying tattoos add flexing subtitles to the commentary.
The Story of Looking may be his most personal film yet. Cousins begins by explaining that, currently wrapped up in bed, he is preparing himself for surgery on a cataract the following day. It is a worrying time for a film critic and director. His eyes are his tools and even the faintest threat of blindness is sure to cause furrowed contemplation. The conceit of the film has the director pondering the many variations of “looking” as he wonders if the process may, for him, be forever changed.
Beginning with Ray Charles discussing his own blindness, moving on to considerations of Frida Kahlo, The Wizard of Oz and the greens in Vertigo, Cousins keeps us with him throughout this oddball journey. He thinks about his own childhood. In one arresting sequence, he brings his camera towards a man standing on a nearby rooftop. Would this be worth noting on any ordinary day? Maybe it is the cataract that focuses his attention.
Cousins reminds us that we are more assaulted by images than at any time in history. The director himself is a promiscuous generator of pictures. This helped during the Covid emergency. “My producers and I realised we could still make the film without travelling anywhere, using all the shots I had on my computer and making a kind of kaleidoscope,” he told Variety.
The Story of Looking made a particularly personal connection with this writer. On first viewing, I watched Cousins contemplate the monocular state with one of my own eyes covered by an eyepatch. The film-maker would never be quite so sentimental as to ask us to “appreciate what you have while you still have it” but that sense is implicit throughout the argument. One ponders how the active process of looking contrasts with the passive process of seeing. One thinks about the ethics of gazing at terrible things.
One also – if one is still so lucky – celebrates one’s ability to see anything at all.
Another oddball pleasure from an utter original.
Opens on September 17th