Friday 24 September 2021

The eyes have it: "The Story of Looking"

We rejoin Mark Cousins in bed. For fully seven minutes at the start of The Story of Looking, we're propped up on a pillow in Cousins' Edinburgh flat, listening to the critic-turned-theorist-and-filmmaker outline the parameters of his latest essay film, on the act and art of looking. TSOL began life as a (smartly written, gorgeously illustrated) book, but Cousins' return to this line of thought has been precipitated by a personal crisis: a diagnosis of macular degeneration in his left eye, for which he is scheduled to undergo surgery as the film begins. The bulk of the film takes place pre-op, with Cousins reconsidering many of the topics he contemplated on the page: what he can see and what he has seen, how we see, what the look means and the problems looking brings. Yet there's also a sequence on the op itself, complete with extreme surgical close-ups of pointy objects disrupting cataracts that actively dare the viewer not to look; and a moving post-op coda that considers seeing the world through old (rather than new) eyes, and concludes with a stretch of slow cinema during which one feels one's own eyes being very deliberately recalibrated. (You've heard out the theory, Cousins seems to be saying, now here's some practice.) Repeatedly, though, and as befits an essay film made by someone in a temporary state of physical enfeeblement, The Story of Looking returns us to the sight of its prime mover lying in bed: eating toast, snapping selfies, checking Tweets, getting mildly sloshed. Like the protagonist of JK Huysmans' novel À rebours, shutting himself away in order to catalogue everything outside his door, Cousins conjures up an entire world of wonders without really getting out from under his duvet. You can do that, if you've looked well enough.

This is a film about looking, then, but it's also a work of careful, sustained, considered looking in itself. The cutaways are to clips from those movies that number among the most amazing to look at (Persona, Vertigo, Zhang Yimou's Hero); in this respect, this Story tessellates with The Story of Film, but we also see artworks and architectural marvels that broaden the frame of reference, and highlights from Cousins' own magpie-like image gathering, many of them equally spectacular. A power station's cooling tower is blown to smithereens, leaving a silhouette of coal dust in its place. A black-clad fellow perches precariously alongside the chimneypots of a property adjacent to Cousins' flat, recalling the angels who watch over Berlin in Wings of Desire. Cousins' landscapes speak to many hours studying Kiarostami: motorcyclists carving lines into hillsides, sheep moving over the face of a mountain. Yet equally he's compelled by the microscopic (a feather borne along on the breeze), knowing full well that the human eye has been equipped to locate astonishment in both. The soundtrack is rife with stimulation - prompts set out in that uniquely jabbing, probing syntax, where even the definitive statements sound like the kind of question a critic is prone to asking themselves while at work. Even those bedroom scenes serve a purpose, clearing some space for the viewer to envision and work through their thoughts: Cousins knows a film can suggest something without having to show it. (Which is why he shows us the build-up to an alleged beheading in Saudi Arabia, but not the fateful blow.)

This kind of work has precedents. I was set to thinking not just of the book - which may be more comprehensive in setting out Cousins' thoughts on this subject, but less personal, somehow - but also Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma, with its encyclopaedic squirrelling of cherished images. Yet where Godard hides behind those images - obfuscating, like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain - Cousins inserts himself front and centre, as somebody to be looked at. He digs out his childhood photographs, compares his chest to that of Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, and stages his own homage to Jenny Agutter's naked swim in Walkabout. "Am I an exhibitionist?," he asks, as his penis bobs before us. The answer to that will lie solely in the eye of the beholder, but there's certainly a different philosophy in play here: Cousins is a far more enthusiastic, all-in exponent of the pleasures and joys tied up with looking than the guarded Godard has been. (I can't see the latter reaching for the "You're the One That I Want" number from Grease, somehow.) One of this story's subtexts concerns how looking has changed in recent years - how critical study is now less detached and more democratic. Cousins doesn't strike us as one proclaiming from on high - we're right next to him on that pillow - rather someone seeking further engagement; he doesn't want the last word, but to open up a space for further reflection and conversation. If Agnès Varda had popped round to see this theorist-and-filmmaker at the end of Faces Places, she would have received the warmest of welcomes.

The emotion inherent in that is another part of this story, and another point at which Godard and Cousins part ways: the latter allows his voice to crack, and his eyes to water. And a big part of this Story's poignancy derives from the fact there's nobody around to open the door to; the usual sources of conversation aren't there. The chronology's a little fuzzy - the hospital scenes, when we get to them, are noticeably mask-free - but some parts of the film were apparently completed during the first lockdown, and a kind of solitude is written into those bedroom scenes: it's as though the filmmaker is going through the film alone, with only the camera as a confidante, and only wifi to connect him to the outside world. What Cousins succeeds in evoking here is a period when we were all falling back on what we'd already seen and done, taking stock of our own visual imagebanks, and wondering what we might ever see and do again. This will go double in Cousins' case, given the physical concerns of the past few years, but one of the most moving aspects of the past few months has been seeing old faces, and reminding ourselves just how those faces move - how they sometimes light up like screens, and in ways the scratchily makeshift pixels of a FaceTime or Zoom call couldn't ever fully replicate. (If, as the saying goes, we're all light, then some of it was visibly dimmed by our laptops.) As the world has reopened, and our horizons have once more expanded - at least a little, for now at least - we've all had to learn to look anew and see again; Cousins' film, being a refresher course for the eyes, connects very closely and affectingly with that ongoing process of regeneration.

The Story of Looking is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Video, the BFI Player and the Modern Films website.

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