The Story of Looking gazes lovingly at the world through Mark Cousins’s eyes

The prolific documentarian bares all for a personal rumination on the nature of seeing, a primer for (or companion to) his 2017 book of the same name.

The Story of Looking (2021)

The Story of Looking is in UK cinemas from 17 September.

A palimpsest of Mark Cousins’s identically-titled 432-page history of the human gaze (published in 2017) and a disarmingly personal reflection on the nature of vision as he awaits a cataract operation on his left eye, Cousins’s latest film frequently (and, doubtless, cheerfully intentionally) risks accusations of self-indulgence, tweeness or, to borrow his own self-description, daftness, but it’s an oddly affecting experience.

Much of the film takes place in Cousins’s bed, as if to remind us of a place where we routinely encounter nebulous images that form themselves exclusively in our mind’s eye, evaporating by the time we wake up, as fleeting as the brief, uncanny impression we’re offered of a giant humanoid figure formed by lingering coal dust when a power station chimney is demolished. Cousins’s journey begins as he observes the world immediately around his Edinburgh flat while recalling favourite visual memories, ranging from the magnificence of the Friday Mosque in Isfahan (“the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen”) to a tiny white feather fluttering on the edge of a windowpane.

He discusses core components of looking, such as focus (undeveloped in newborn infants) and colour. He corresponds with a colour-blind woman, and empathetically watches the iconic transitional sequences in The Wizard of Oz (1939) or A Matter of Life and Death (1946) with the colour turned down. He praises the creative use of blurring, the use of near-abstract motion, and how a picture’s composition highlights potent details that in other circumstances we might miss. He explores different types of visual memory, at one point producing an obsolete flip-top phone, which potentially (but possibly irretrievably) contains a furtive snapshot of his dead grandmother. And is there a philosophical difference between a self-portrait and a selfie other than snobbish dismissals of the latter for being artless and ephemeral?

The Story of Looking (2021)

Cousins also reflects on the purpose of looking, and reactions of the voluntary and involuntary kind. He spends much onscreen time naked, at one point reclining in a rock pool, his penis perfectly illustrating James Joyce’s famous description of a “languid, floating flower”. But, as he teasingly asks us, “does this make me an exhibitionist, or an object in your eyes? Does it make you a voyeur?” Other types of voyeurism are suggested by photographs of the Nazi death-camps, and video of a Syrian refugee child crying – Cousins stresses that this was filmed with a parent’s permission, but was that sufficient?

There are fewer film clips than one might expect, although their comparative scarcity makes them doubly resonant when they appear: the child groping at a blurred vision of his mother in Persona (1966), the smoke curling upwards into the projector beam in Sunset Boulevard (1950); the colour symbolism underpinning the swordfights in Hero (2002); the shifting colours as Kim Novak returns to the hotel room in Vertigo (1958); similar sidelong glances performed by Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942) and Autumn Sonata (1978), with half a lifetime in between.

Inevitably, one of the clips is from the opening of Un Chien andalou (1929), which foreshadows an artificial lens being inserted into Cousins’s left eyeball in extreme close-up. It’s an unnerving sequence not so much because of what’s happening (the squeamish may disagree) but because his eye is still staring at us, still apparently ‘looking’ despite the technical impossibility of it resolving anything but a blur. But similar stares by Gustave Courbet and Albrecht Dürer’s self-portraits, a baby, a deer, and indeed a goat at the start of Ivan’s Childhood (1962), can’t technically ‘see’ us, though it’s hard to shake off the impression. By contrast, the endurance artist Marina Abramovic deliberately concocts situations where she is unquestionably looking directly at her spectators, sometimes with unexpectedly emotional results.

It’s a deeply personal film, to which responses will inevitably be equally personal. It’s not necessary to have read his book (only mentioned in the end credits), although many may be inspired to buy it for the substantially greater amount of detail about an endlessly fascinating topic, and Cousins’s magpie approach here offers a perfect introduction. In the very last shot, he shows us over four minutes of a Scottish hillside reflected in Stonehaven Bay, in which seaweed is visibly floating. He picks out a tree that reminds him of Abbas Kiarostami’s films, but otherwise lets our eye roam around the image unimpeded, giving us space to pick out our own favourite details, to decide how we ourselves want to look at it.