Review: The Story of Looking
by Kaleem Aftab
- Mark Cousins stylishly adapts his own book about how we observe the world around us
Based on his own book of the same name, which was released in 2017, the film version of The Story of Looking offers further investigations into Mark Cousins' attempt to discover what goes on in our minds as we look at the world around us, both on and off screen. The film essay served as the closing-night movie at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2021, providing rich rewards for those fortunate enough to feast their eyes on it.
As he has demonstrated throughout his writing and directing career, Cousins is a master of looking at the world through cinema, bringing social and personal issues to the fore as he does so. In his seminal book The Story of Film, he championed world cinema, later turned it into a film, and reappraised the pivotal role of women in cinema history in the mesmeric, 15-hour Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema [+see also:
film profile]. He has made films about Orson Welles (The Eyes of Orson Welles [+see also:
interview: Mark Cousins
film profile]) and is the master of the increasingly popular film essay, a medium he pushes in new directions in this new picture.
Cousins continues to successfully translate his florid, inquisitive style of prose into an impish narrative in this transition from page to screen. He himself is the main protagonist. He wakes up at 6.20 in his bed in Edinburgh, and films himself watching Ray Charles talking at the Antibes Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival in October 1961. The blind singer is talking about his wish to glimpse his offspring just once.
It's a big day for Cousins. In 24 hours’ time, he is to undergo a cataract operation, which should stop him from having blurry vision in one eye. How would a man who has dedicated his life to watching the seventh art cope with losing his sight? As he says, "Throughout my life, movies have been my extra eyes."
Cousins observes the world around him over the course of this day. He looks at a tree from his window, noticing colours and making associations through them, remembering buildings and places. He recalls movies, two very different musical ones: the Hollywood classic Grease and Satyajit Ray's Bengali masterpiece The Music Room.
Upon this, he adds another conceit, looking at how our vision changes and morphs from birth to death. It's through this avenue that Cousins comes up with his central thesis: "We are projecting when we look." It is his interpretation of Cézanne's idea of "the optical experience that develops within us". He posits that what we see is driven by and influenced by our memories, both good and bad.
This journey from birth to death does lead to the film's one major misstep, which happens when Cousins ventures into the world of fiction, imagining himself as an older man living in Sweden. There is a connection to his directing career here, as the only fiction film he has made thus far was 2016's Stockholm, My Love, starring musician Neneh Cherry. Through this device, the future Cousins informs us that the operation we have just seen him undergoing was successful, just like this movie.
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