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Mark Cousins in 'The Story of Looking'

Mark Cousins unpacks key moments in his visual odyssey The Story of Looking

How Marina Abramovic, Frida Kahlo, and Romeo and Juliet inspired the filmmaker’s upcoming documentary

In her 1930 essay “Street Haunting”, Virginia Woolf escapes her house to purchase a pencil. In doing so, Woolf floats through London alleyways, investigates the atmosphere of balconies, and remarks that it’s “always an adventure to enter a new room”. As lockdown taught us, being stuck indoors isn’t simply about a lack of fresh air; it limits the options for our eyes. Yet when Woolf wrote her evocative prose, perhaps with a new pencil, she was probably at home, confined by four walls. “COVID has been a long cabin fever,” Mark Cousins tells me over Zoom in early September. “But when you’re indoors, there’s a joy in imagining or thinking about all the things that you’ve seen.”

In The Story of Looking, the latest visual odyssey from Cousins, the 56-year-old filmmaker addresses the camera from his bed. After discovering a cloudiness in his left eye, the director is less than 24 hours away from cataract surgery. In the meantime, unable to leave the flat, the charismatic Cousins takes the viewer on a memory road trip through international cinema, through centuries of art and philosophy, and through the story of looking. There’s the greens of Vertigo, the blues of Hero, the multitudes of Goethe’s colour wheel. There’s Cousins’ personally shot footage from around the globe – and also down the road. Then there’s Cousins himself, swimming naked in a lake, recreating Jenny Agutter’s backstroke in Walkabout.

Born in Belfast and based in Edinburgh, Cousins is a cine-literate filmmaker whose work includes I Am Belfast, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, and his Peabody-winning 15-part series The Story of Film: An Odyssey – Seth Rogen once tweeted, “If you’re REALLY into movies and have about 14 hours to kill, I highly recommend (it) – it’s gooood.” Otherwise, The Story of Looking, which Cousins adapted from his 2017 book of the same name, is a more digestible 90 minutes. Instead of buying a pencil, he fixes his eyesight. “Getting a new lens is a metaphor, in some ways, for seeing anew,” Cousins says. “I thought I’d use the operation as a storyline to structure the film around.”

However, despite the loose three-act outline, the film (Cousins tells me off when I call it a video essay) tinkers with tone, rhythm and mood. At times, it’s surprisingly intimate, with Cousins pausing to check his phone, then it might suddenly drift into a poetic, lyrical montage backed by a stream-of-consciousness voiceover. In the final stretch, it turns sci-fi. “I was in Scotland, filming this seaweed with my phone,” Cousins says. “As I filmed it, I thought, ‘This is the ending. Why don’t I imagine that I’m 30 years older, that I’m living in another country like Sweden, and I’ve got hindsight?’ Paul Virilio says it’s our duration which sees. In other words, as you get older, you see all the things that you’ve lived. I thought I’d jump 30 years into the future.”

Here, we talk to Cousins about a selection of images that appear in The Story of Looking. Discussion points include the problem with Zoom calls, the inbetweenness of Frida Kahlo, and the taboo of male nudity.

The Story of Looking is released in the UK and Ireland from September 17