Life offers us an abundance of paradoxes. Director Mark Cousins reads a Twitter post in his documentary The Story of Looking that presents us with such a paradox: Why is it that we tend to close our eyes when kissing while violent scenes are often willingly taken in with eyes wide open? Cousins (The Story of Film) presents one of the most personal and profound meditations on looking ever captured on film. Some things are obscured by obviousness–we often take for granted the role of vision, looking, and the gaze when it comes to what is perhaps one of the most visually complex languages of any medium—film language.
Cousins films himself the day before having to undergo eye surgery. His anxiety over the surgery is relayed to us in the intimacy of his bedroom as he recounts the role of the visual in film and the visuals that orbit around his remembrance of things past. The images Cousins narrates over are stunning. He captures a coal power station the moment it is demolished. It is striking that an edifice that powered an economy for decades was there one moment, and then disappears in a cloud of black smoke—Marx’s quote of everything being solid melting into air literarily represented.
And it is this notion of the impermanence versus the permanence of the visual which Cousins makes the viewer reflect on. He asks: Is seeing someone or something once enough to form a real recollection or do we form a false memory of that someone or something? He then turns to a photo he took with an old phone of a grandparent inside of a casket. The impermanence of human life is permanently held electronically inside of a phone. The Story of Looking is filmmaking without artifice, without gimmickry; filmmaking capable of demonstrating to us that life still contains wonder. It is this wonder with life’s visuals that reminds me of another filmmaker consumed by color, light, and memory—Terrence Malick. Cousins’ documentaries are Malick-esque.
Cousins draws from a wide array of sources. The use of color in Vertigo, the scene of an eye being sliced in Un Chien Andalou, Tarkovsky’s tendency to focus his camera on the gaze of animals. He references painting—the technique of sfumato in Renaissance paintings. He references performance art—Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present. He even references our contemporary obsession with selfies and the persistent critique we engage in when assessing our faces and bodies. Cousins reminds us that there is nothing new in these obsessions. He remembers comparing his body to Robert Deniro’s in the famous scene in Taxi Driver wherein a shirtless young Deniro talks to his reflection in the mirror.
Sure, Cousins channels the film’s narrative with these references, but his open-ended approach to the questions and mysteries revolving around looking prompt the viewer to contemplate the role of looking in other artists and thinkers. After watching The Story of Looking, I spent the rest of the day thinking about Joyce and Borges’ visual disabilities in connection to their writing. I thought about Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red, White, and Blue trilogy. I thought about Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and Foucault’s notion of the gaze. And of course, my thoughts ended up in the same place they always do when thinking about arresting visuals—Stanley Kubrick.
Cousins opens The Story of Looking with an old clip of Ray Charles being interviewed by Dick Cavett. Cavett asks Ray Charles if the sudden restoration of his eyesight would be a blessing he would accept. Ray Charles says he would accept such a blessing for one day but would decline the functioning of his eyesight for the rest of his life. Ray Charles then makes a statement both puzzling and profound. He says he feels sorry for those capable of seeing. Those capable of seeing have to witness the everyday atrocities presented to their eyes by the world. Cousins presents us with footage of a man outside his window looking down from a precipice. Cousins is captivated by the man on the precipice. The possibility exists that he may jump down to his death.
That is the thing with vision, we are compelled by both the beautiful and the brutal—Ray Charles was onto something. But it is the beautiful that keeps us sane. During this time of Covid lockdowns, some of my most enjoyable moments have involved going on picnics with my wife. Our plan always involves laying out on the grass and reading. Things rarely, as they say, go according to plans. Most of the time we just stare up at the sky, mesmerized by its blueness, pointing out to each other the shapes we imagine seeing in the puffy clouds. Some of the most wonderous visuals are the ones we ignore in our rushed existence.
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