VOD film review: The Story of Looking
Laurence Boyce | On 17, Sep 2021
Director: Mark Cousins
Cast: Mark Cousins
Where to watch The Story of Looking online in the UK: BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema
For someone who has spent their entire lives watching films, the possibility of losing their eyesight would be a cruel blow. That’s what Mark Cousins faces in his latest essay film The Story of Looking, as he reveals not only a possibility of him suffering from macular degeneration but also the fact that he is blighted by a cataract. The day before he is due to undergo an operation to deal with the cataract – to have his eye sliced open as he graphically (but truthfully) describes it – Cousins embarks on a quest to explore how humans “look”. How we respond to the world by how and what we see and how the world can change when there is a possibility of that being taken away.
Those who are au fait with Cousins previous works, such as The Story of Film, will find themselves in familiar territory. There’s a kaleidoscopic array of imagery on offer – film is unsurprisingly a large touchstone, but musings from the likes of art and architecture are also part of his explorations – as he tries to trace how humanity looks (much of it based on his 2017 book The Story of Looking).
Initially it has the sense of good natured chaos that also typifies much of Cousin’s work, eschewing a strict narrative for a structure of seemingly random thoughts and ideas. But two narrative threads do begin to emerge. One charts the physicality of how humans see from the moment they are born. Babies begin their lives by seeing only blurs, which soon coalesce into them seeing movement and colours. Our adolescence become a time when seeing ourselves – and others – becomes an act of joy and discomfort. All our lives, our ways of looking develop as they become crucial to our interactions with the world.
The other thread is, of course, Cousins’ forthcoming operation (and yes, a certain Bunuel scene is invoked). While Cousins has always been an intimate and personable presence in the majority of his films (to an extent that accusations of self-indulgence have often been used as a stick to beat him with), this is perhaps his most personal and confessional work to date. While he outwardly appears stoic, the genuine fear about what will happen to him begins to seep in. While he’s sometimes playful (he undercuts a montage of “going out into the world” by revealing he stayed in bed) there’s also a sense of pathos. A section of reading other people’s tweets about their experiences of looking becomes an emotional account of positive and negative experiences and Cousins once again seems to be reminded of the power of looking – and the possibility of what can be lost.
All these moments pack a powerful emotional punch and there’s a tangible sense of trepidation as he walks into the hospital. To reveal what happens would be to spoil things, but he plays with the documentary form to create an ending that is as playful as it is uplifting. A beautiful and often moving piece of work, this is an inventive and clever addition to Cousins’ oeuvre.
This review was originally published during Sheffield DocFest 2021.