In the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown, prolific director and cinephile Mark Cousins adapts his book of the same name into a visual study of the art of looking at the world. Cousins’ films are always personal, but underpinned by his imminent cataract surgery, The Story of Looking is among his most deeply felt.
Cousins frames his film with an archival television interview with Ray Charles who claimed that, although he was grateful for the sights he could remember before he lost his vision – the moon, the stars, his mother – ultimately he felt sorry for the people who had to endure the many ugly things in the world. It’s an intriguing choice for a study on the sublime experience of seeing, and a bold one too: Cousins ultimately repudiates Charles’ assertion, flatly stating that he was wrong that looking is a burden.
Nevertheless, in this film about looking, perspective is key. Cousins begins his journey alone, filming himself in bed. He tells us that he rarely stays in bed past 6am, but today he will experiment by staying in his room all day, simply imagining leaving his Edinburgh flat and walking around the city. It’s a consciously solipsistic beginning that gradually expands outwards, incorporating new perspectives from the people and places that he has met: a colour blind woman who challenged his assumptions about the primacy and experience of colour on film, and who inspired him to watch The Wizard of Oz in black and white, as she has always seen it. Elsewhere, a homeless women whom, when he sees her digging through the bins under his window early one morning, he fears he has ‘violated’ by intruding upon her private vulnerability.
For William Blake, vision was distinct from from simply seeing as a creative act: the creation of the external world through our visionary imagination. In the film, Cousins’ refers to 9th-century Arab scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq’s Ten Treaties of The Eye, which imagines perception as a force that shapes the world as much as it is shaped by it. Cousins himself formulates his vision as the act of looking, at once voyeuristic and exhibitionist, demonstrated through a shot of him floating naked in a rock pool next to a jellyfish. There is something so mundane and yet disarming about the shot: the flatness of the digital image is belied by his vulnerability, by the surprise of seeing him naked, floating like some strange sea creature, and by our participation in the spectacle as willing voyeurs; the experience of looking is created between spectator and spectacle.
Cousins’ eye surgery is at once a frightening ordeal and an opportunity to look further inwards, figuratively of course, but also literally, marvelling at the scans of his eye before and after the procedure and also at the painting he makes of the strange, cave like visions he has while under the knife. Other patients have created similar paintings, while the extreme close ups of Cousins’ eye invariably recall Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Cousins himself is taken back to the chandelier reflected in the whisky glass in The Music Room, to the moving symmetry of musical dance numbers, and the beautiful geometric precision of electron microscope imagery, all microcosmic worlds within worlds, all so much like the eye that looks at them and that reflects them.