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FILM REVIEW: The Story of Looking – Sheffield DocFest

Reviewer: Rich Jevons

Director and Writer: Mark Cousins

Mark Cousins’ The Story of Looking, the closing film in this year’s Sheffield DocFest, is a journey into our visual lives. This is something many of us take for granted but for Cousins, with an impending eye operation, this has come centre stage in his attention. While Cousins lays in bed we see him watching Ray Charles talking about blindness in 1972, asked if he would like his sight restored and if so what he would like to see? But he responds by saying he would prefer to have full sightedness for a day only to see his sons but is “not all that hung up about it”. This gets applause from the studio audience and impacts upon Cousins too.

For him this poses the question: “When you see something once is that enough?” and he meditates on seeing the cosmos with eyes closed shut. Though we know little about Cousins, he dives in deep with a confession about his granny who Cousins took a picture of her on his smart phone when she was laid out in her coffin, to remember her. But since then, the phone has also ‘died’ producing a “double death”. Nevertheless, he keeps the broken phone which he believes contains the memory of his loved one.

Another bombshell that Cousins reveals is the fact that his eye operation is the following day, making this film a celebration of sight as well as looking forward to a life post-op. To break out from the restrictions of filming in his bedroom, Cousins shows us film clips (seemingly fragments and random images) including a power station being blown up and a man standing on a nearby rooftop, hinting at suicide.

While the content and outcome of the operation would be a spoiler, Cousins is open about the way this brings about both “sadness and exhilaration.” As a release from the claustrophobic scene of his bedroom and in the first of many classic film clips, we see a sequence by Tarkovsky where a boy sees a goat’s eye. Then we see the cityscape of his hometown Edinburgh with its 5,000 people per square mile before Cousins goes on to discuss Jarman’s sacred colour blue – the background to a Japanese film’s fight scene, the blue of Van Gogh’s shadows, and the blue and gold in Russian icons.

Next, Cousins reads out the messages he has received from friends and family responding to his upcoming operation, one of which suggests looking is a ‘lifeline, anchor and safety’. Also for consideration are those who are colour-blind, how they will view films like A Matter of Life & Death or The Wizard of Oz where the transition from monochrome to full colour is an essential part of the film.

A bit of light relief is offered when Cousins boasts of drinking from a cup used by Hollywood actress Jane Russell. This offers an excuse for an excerpt from her film with Monroe, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with all its stardust and glamour. Cousins links this to an examination of his own adolescence when he felt his body was a failure, a product of body fascism, further explored in self-portraits by classical painters; while in a more modern approach he discusses whether selfies are crass or a leveller?

Luckily, internet porn sites were not fully developed when he was a teenager, but he recalls ogling Jenny Agutter in Walkabout and we see Cousins naked underwater, juxtaposed with an exotic jellyfish that also looks remarkably like an eye. Ultimately, this creates more questions in The Story of Looking – if Cousins is an exhibitionist doesn’t this make us all voyeurs? Or in fact is the gaze itself capable of violation? Is it possible to investigate the eye in film without Hitchcock’s Spellbound with its surrealist sequence by Dali? After Cousins’ operation, we are introduced to his older self in the future and a single positive comment: “I felt joy, total joy.”

Reviewed on 13th June 2021 at Sheffield DocFest

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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