How Marina Abramovic, Frida Kahlo, and Romeo and Juliet inspired the filmmaker’s upcoming documentary
“The Artist Is Present”, Marina Abramovic (2010)
Marina couldn’t do this over Zoom. The laptop camera is just above the screen, so no one ever makes direct eye contact.
Mark Cousins: If you and I were drinking coffee in a café, we’d be moving around. There’d be 3D space. But Zoom conversations are very frontal and hieratic.
I’ve spent a lot of time in New York, where you don’t look at people. You look down. On the subway, you read a book. She seemed to say, “What if we actually looked at each other, one on one?” I was there (at MOMA). I didn’t sit in the seat, but I was in the room. That sense of really looking into these aqueous orbs, these extremely vulnerable entry points in our bodies – she picked up on that. She said, “Let’s really go for this idea of an entry point – just staring.”
You said in your film, by looking at someone you’re also sort of shooting something out of your eyes.
Mark Cousins: In the Ancient World, the idea was that something came out of your eyes, and bounced off the other person, and came back into your eyes again. We know that’s scientifically not true, but it’s emotionally very true. We’ve all been in a Michael Haneke movie where you’re sitting at a Tube station at night, and someone’s looking too much. It can be an assault, a seduction, or all sorts of things.
And also when a movie character stares into the camera.
Mark Cousins: It’s that vulnerability. Suddenly we feel embarrassed when someone looks right at us. Even our friends, we look away in some way.
“Self Portrait on the Border...”, Frida Kahlo (1932)
When we look at this painting, who’s looking at who? Are we looking at Frida Kahlo looking at herself? Or is she looking at us?
Mark Cousins: She’s saying, “Look what’s behind me. I’m standing on this plinth, in the middle of this image. You think you know who I am, but there’s a complexity here.” On the left, there’s the Mexico that we assume we know about her. And on the right, it looks as if it’s an industrial, anti-capitalist America. But it’s not as simple as that.
She loved, for example, modernism and constructivist architecture – we can see it on the right. We can see echoes between the left and right image. This is a manifesto. She’s saying, “Here’s how I see myself. I’m an in-between person. A liminal person.” It’s a celebration of inbetweenness, I think.
But she’s also really staring at us. I think it’s saying, “Don’t judge me. Don’t assume that I’m a Mexican leftist only. I’m more than that. I’m an internationalist. I travel. I have multitudes.”
Another Dazed writer did an article about how Frida Kahlo’s image gets used for marketing purposes in ways that Frida Kahlo herself would have hated. It meant you had Theresa May wearing a Frida Kahlo bracelet on television.
Mark Cousins: There’s a danger of being snobby about this stuff. On one hand, if Frida Kahlo appears on a bracelet worn by a right-wing politician – I mean, that’s a disgrace. That’s appropriation of a complex psyche, to try to make the right-wing look cool. I would be amazed if Theresa May understood what Frida Kahlo is about.
But Frida Kahlo was a brilliant imagemaker. She was an iconographer like her husband. It’s no surprise that brilliant imagery is stolen, because it will always be stolen. We have to remind people of what it’s about. In my film, I try to say what it actually means.
Romeo and Juliet, Baz Lurhmann (1996)
In your film, you describe this moment as Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes looking through their emotions. Is it because light blue is the colour of teenage angst?
Mark Cousins: I think it’s simpler than that. This is the first time Romeo and Juliet have glimpsed each other. I think Baz Luhrmann is trying to say that all desire is filtered through something. The fish tank is a visual way of showing that. Desire is never just purely from the subject to the object and back. There’s always some stuff in between – a kind of occlusion.
Baz Luhrmann told me the story of this image. He said he was in some men’s room, washing his hands, I think in Sydney. He looked up, and he saw a fish tank. He thought, “Of course. That’s what we should put between them.” When you’re making any love story, you always have to ask: what is the barrier? What is the problem? What do I put between them? Otherwise it’s facile.
“Shōrin-zu byōbu”, Hasegawa Tōhaku (1595)
I’ve read that when you see this in person, you’re overwhelmed by how big it is, and the size of the empty space.
Mark Cousins: I haven’t seen it in person. I’d love to. Hasegawa was kind of the Leonardo da Vinci of Japan. He was interested in what Leonardo called sfumato – the smoky image.
There are no people in this image. This is late 1500s in the western calendar. You expect somebody in the foreground. But no, it’s just about the longing to see the trees. Like the Romeo and Juliet image, it’s about what’s stopping you seeing the trees. In this case, it’s mist and smokiness. It’s one of the great works of art in human history.
When the histories of art are usually written, this doesn’t occur, because it’s written by western people, I think. But this is as great as the Mona Lisa, which was painted in the same century. It’s got the same idea of the ineffable, the unreachable beyond yourself.
With your film, do you want to show there’s more to art history than the Mona Lisa?
Mark Cousins: I’m not an educator. I’m a filmmaker. You just want to show beautiful images. But I also wanted to make sure that I don’t stick to European ideas of beauty or nature or the body or anything, frankly. You want to say to people: the education you had in Europe, which taught you what the great artworks are, it’s shit, or it’s very, very limited. We have to plant a bomb under that, and inform ourselves about what happened around the world.
Devi, Satyajit Ray (1960)
The dream sequence in Devi makes me think about why humans can be so squeamish about eyes. There’s Buñuel slicing up eyeballs in Un Chien Andalou, and Kubrick’s torture scene in A Clockwork Orange.
Mark Cousins: You know when you hold an egg in your hand – have you ever had the desire to crush it or throw it to the ground? The eyes are extremely vulnerable and complex and magnificent. That’s why filmmakers film them a lot.
This is the actor Sharmila Tagore, and I’m lucky enough to be friends with her. She’s visited me, and I’ve visited her. This is one of the great scenes in cinema about eyes and looking. A father-in-law is suddenly thinking that his daughter-in-law might be the goddess Kali. This is a profoundly bad thing to think. He’s making a very dodgy, right-wing comparison between his young daughter and a Hindu goddess.
It’s a terrible moment, and yet it’s so visually beautiful. He’s connecting between his inner eye, and her eyes, and the goddess’s eyes. Those connections are sort of what I did when my eye was being cut open. As a filmmaker, you want to show the richness of these connections.
Persona, Ingmar Bergman (1966)
I have no idea what’s going on at the start of Persona. But I’ve never questioned it – it just feels right.
Mark Cousins: Well, I don’t know what on earth is actually going on. But I do know that when babies are really young, they see black-and-white in blurs. Maybe this is what a mother looks like to a baby. What is that thing? We know it’s a face. A woman’s face. An out-of-focus face. A black-and-white face. But what is it?
It’s a lovely, primal scene. You could say this is the first moment of looking.
In Bergman’s screenplay, he described “the transparent ribbon of film rushing through the projector”. Maybe he’s connecting filmmaking with the recreation of childhood?
Mark Cousins: It’s the sort of mythic encounter with your mother. But we don’t want to get too fancy about it. It’s just a lovely sense of wanting to touch the world. Looking is a kind of touching.
Autumn Sonata, Ingmar Bergman (1978)
You spotted a connection between Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata and her earlier performance in Casablanca. When you watch films, are you watching in a journalistic way?
Mark Cousins: I’m not a journalist at all. I watch films in quite a childlike way, like the previous image. I’m not trying to intellectualise it. I think you watch with your emotions, and try to be unguarded and open. But then afterwards, you can use your brain to work out what you’ve just seen.
You say you’re not a journalist – what about your Sight & Sound column?
Mark Cousins: That was like 1 per cent of my time. 99 per cent of my time is filmmaking, and 1 per cent is writing.
Casablanca, Michael Curtis (1942)
How did you feel when you spotted the connection?
Mark Cousins: I was so moved because it’s about the framing, and the exact same tilt of the head. But look at the difference. It’s very moving. I’m 56 now. You feel the emotion of looking back at your younger self. You think, “What the fuck? Do I even know that kid?”
It’s also a feeling of: “What happened between Ingrid then and now?” So much happened in her life, in particular.
Do you ever watch old videos of yourself? You could go onto YouTube and find your David Lynch interview from two decades ago.
Mark Cousins: I’ve never Googled myself or watched a single thing I’ve been in. I would probably cringe. For me, looking is a very present-tense thing. Looking at you now, looking at the sunlight, looking at the pasta sauce that I will make when we finish this call – whatever it is, looking just feels so current.
Long before mindfulness, there was looking. It’s simple. You don’t need to work at it. And yet it constantly takes you out of yourself in a brilliant way.
The Wizard of Oz, Victor Fleming (1939)
You were challenged to watch The Wizard of Oz in black-and-white.
Mark Cousins: A woman called Clare Murphy in Newcastle asked me to watch The Wizard of Oz in black-and-white. It’s like the blood has gone out of it. That’s a terrible thing to say, especially thinking about people who are colour blind or completely blind. But I have to be honest from my point of view.
The drama isn’t so much about the courage or heart of the characters; it’s about the relationship between black-and-white and colour. It makes you realise how much colour is related to aliveness.
Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder (1950)
Was Sunset Boulevard quite a formative film for you?
Mark Cousins: It was. I was brought up in Belfast in the ‘70s and ‘80s. This was another world. Nostalgic, dangerous, gothic. This is a movie star who’s been fucked by the system. They valued her when she was young and beautiful, and then they threw her to one side.
This out-of-focus moment is the moment she loses it. She’s moving into the camera for her close-up, and she thinks she’s 22 again. The film industry is so obsessed by youthful beauty that it won’t deal with someone like her – and she loses it.
The Story of Looking, Mark Cousins (2021)
So to end, I have an image of you swimming naked in your film.
Mark Cousins: There’s a number of reasons for that image. The first is, we think of storytellers as brainy people – the story comes from your head. It’s quite an intellectual thing to do. But you and I and everybody is a brain and a body as well. It’s good to say, “Bodies are parts of our lives, as well as our minds.”
The second thing is, it’s nice to objectify yourself. There’s a lot of discussion about objectifying people. But what if you decide to make an object of yourself, and be in control? Throughout art history, people like Albrecht Dürer, Egon Schiele and Frida Kahlo painted themselves naked or semi-naked, because they wanted to take control of the image, and the discourse around the image, and their own body.
I wanted to do that here as well, and make the film raw and honest and slightly challenging. And maybe slightly exhibitionist. When you saw this, what did you think?
I was not expecting it at all.
Mark Cousins: The whole history of cinema in particular is mostly men deciding what’s appropriate, and what feels measured, and what feels extreme. It’s men saying, “Is that necessary?” The whole conversation is about: “Nudity will be in the film if it’s relevant to the plot or the story” – that’s the way it’s talked about.
What if none of that’s true? If nakedness is such a part of everyday life, like a tree, or a sunset, or a pizza, then why are men so scared of that? And they are. Men are contradictory about this. They send dick pics, for example, which are boastful things. Look at me.
This is not a boastful image. It’s a way of saying, “I will objectify myself a bit.” Or I will just do it because: why not? The people who think it’s inappropriate, need to answer that question.
In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segel’s nudity is done for comedy. And also Mark Wahlberg at the end of Boogie Nights – I think.
Mark Cousins: It’s played for laughs, but it’s a big dick. It’s all about the penis. When this film showed at Sheffield DocFest, that very good filmmaker and curator Campbell X started messaging me. He said, “Thank you for the nudity. Nothing is made of it.” He said that men showing their penis is a kind of kryptonite. It’s a kind of scary thing in some ways.
I think he’s right there. It’s too intense, or too much of a taboo. You have to take the taboo away.