The pandemic era has generated the conditions for a new kind of personal vulnerability and existential reflection to enter the creative sphere. Public space has been curtailed, with lockdowns forcing individuals to take a pause from the endless distractions of entertainment and the group-focused solidarity of community engagement and enter into a more introspective solitude. Uncertainty over the global course of the coronavirus, and anxiety over illness and mortality, has raised the stakes of this enforced, insular contemplation, fuelling an urgency in searches for what it all means and heightened examination of life choices and trajectories. The Story of Looking, a new documentary from Northern Irish writer and filmmaker Mark Cousins, exemplifies this shift away from the grand-scale, outward-looking and institutional. It screens in the latest edition of the Helsinki festival DocPoint, which has moved fully online due to a Covid surge in Finland. Cousins, a passionate cinephile, is best-known for his fifteen-hour deep dive into the history of cinema, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which, while also idiosyncratic and personal, weaves together through archival clips the image-based tradition of the movies into a shared compendium of insights. The wispier The Story of Looking, an uneasy negotiation of the passing of time and mortality, and the rapturous moments that make it all worthwhile, was made by Cousins in what seems almost a spontaneous compulsion to ward off the terror of the unknown, as he gathers his courage to go in for a scheduled eye operation the next day, during which he eye will be sliced open for repair.
Cousins’ eyesight is deteriorating due to a cataract and macular degeneration. It’s a discovery that, for someone whose love for cinema infuses his very identity, surely must have seemed little better than a consignment to death itself; a prospect of the lights dimming on a whole way of being in the world and with others. We see him in bed, naked and wrapped in a duvet, his many arm tattoos peeking out — a body-inking practice that also preferences visual signifiers as anchors to memory and self-definition. From there, he muses into the camera, a free-associating trail of thoughts that recalls the story of his looking life, in the manner of one’s life flashing before them during a car crash. What has looking meant for him, and indeed for all of us? The threat of his eyesight extinguishing only brings the question into sharper, or rather more tender and rawly emotional, focus. We may not face a similarly traumatic risk to our vision, but this indoor, reflective anxiety still resonates with our fragile lockdown times. Looking, after all, is a way to connect or console us when we cannot physically touch people, as Cousins reminds us, a lifeline.
Looking, after all, is a way to connect or console us when we cannot physically touch people, as Cousins reminds us, a lifeline.
Cinema is present here as a keyframe of visual experience for Cousins, though he takes as much pleasure from the simple sight of a floating feather through his window at home. He revisits some of the most sensorily rich and rapturous moments that have occurred between his eyes and the screen: the way the colours shift as Kim Novak walks into a room in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), for instance, and the infant reaching out to touch the blurred projection of a woman’s face, as if grappling to determine the boundary between what he sees and what he is or needs, in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). Cousins’ pleasure in sight is by no means restricted to canonical arthouse works or widely accepted masterpieces of painting. Kids taking selfies he regards not begrudgingly or judgmentally, as an indicator of some aberration of narcissism in millennial culture, but with his typically generous and compassionate curiosity, as just another register of self-portrait; one that, joyously, recognises the value in the spontaneous moment. «A blurred photo is a rubbish photo — or is it?» he asks. Even mistakes can contain a smoky sfumato beauty or serve as unintentional routes to meaning and memory. The sheer sensual and emotional power of the gaze is also honoured. Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic is shown staring into the eyes of Ulay, her former lover and collaborator after he made a surprise appearance during her piece The Artist Is Present at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York in 2010, in which visitors were invited to take the chair opposite her silently. As their eyes drink each other in, tears roll down her cheeks.
Down the yellow brick road
Looking is, of course, not always a positive experience. Perhaps it could be even better, in the face of this, not to be able to see. Ray Charles raises such a notion in a television clip from The Dick Cavett Show. He would only want to see again for a day if given the option. He says that he could see a few particular things once, but not forever, as he feels sorry for people who have to see certain things on the news. Voyeurism, and its deleterious effects, in relation to atrocities and human rights abuses are discussed by Cousins, as is the pressure of body image and the comparisons that are damaging to self-confidence and underpinned by vision. But Cousins himself professes that he is comfortable with being looked at, having escaped too much conditioning of Catholic prudishness. He tries to watch The Wizard of Oz (1939) in black and white to emulate the experience of a colour-blind woman he corresponds with but longs for the bright wonder he recalls of the Yellow Brick Road. And yet, he pulls out a flip-top phone, which no longer functions, but contains a photograph he took of his grandmother as she lay dead in an open coffin. He can no longer see it but treasures the object, all the same, sensing she is in there somewhere a ghostlike attachment. Vision is a worthwhile human tool, but memory may be the most valuable of all.