On the eve of an operation to remove a cataract in his right eye – surgery which naturally isn’t free from risk – critic and cinephile Mark Cousins reflects on a lifetime of looking and visual rapture. And once again, this uniquely valuable film-maker has given his audience a treasure trove of insight about what it means to look – really look – at the world about us, and at art and movies, and not to take any of it for granted.
Cousins’ voice is as ever delicate, humorous and good-natured – but fundamentally serious. It is very personal and yet it does not reveal much about Cousins himself in the conventional way. Another type of documentary might have talked to Cousins’ partner, might have shown more about the ordinary day-to-day of his working life, might have asked him how scared he actually was of blindness. But The Story of Looking takes a different path: it avoids centring the discussion in terms of crisis and instead takes the impending operation almost as a dramatic pretext for a brilliant, free-associating critical rhapsody about what it means to look. Consciously avoiding the rhetoric of tragedy or self-pity, we begin with a clip of Ray Charles talking on TV about how he does not miss having sight.
With his own camera, Cousins captures some wonderful images, such as a smokestack in a disused mine being dynamited and leaving behind an eerie human ghost of coal dust. He compares this to a very alarming sight that struck him once on looking out of the window of his Edinburgh flat, and which he videoed: a man in a dark coat, standing gauntly alone on the chimneypots, like an Antony Gormley statue. A vision that Cousins says has haunted him like the woman in the white dress in Citizen Kane.
The flood of dazzling images from all over the world and Cousins’s commentary is almost too much to take in, too much to look at, in fact. But I think it is his best film so far: there is real wonder and passion in it. Some references he avoids, perhaps because they are too obvious. For example, on the question of how modern culture forces us to look and overloads us with visual stimuli, I wondered if we were going to get Malcolm McDowell with his eyes clipped open in A Clockwork Orange, but we didn’t. (I couldn’t look at the footage of the director’s eye being cut into, like the one in Un Chien Andalou.) I also found myself thinking of Jorge Luis Borges, who was a film critic in the 1930s and continued writing about the cinema in the 1950s long after he had lost his sight.
This is a film that asks you to reflect on the difference between looking and seeing, how looking is an art which has to be nurtured and cultivated, and how we all have to be aesthetes, connoisseurs of our own existence.
The Story of Looking is released on 17 September in cinemas.