Lying in bed in a state of undress, director Mark Cousins watches videos of the famed singer Ray Charles. As the pianist answers a question about regaining his sight, the director squirms uncomfortably in bed. Later today, Cousins will undergo surgery to repair cataracts slowly clouding his vision. While fighting off rising anxiety, Cousins picks up his camera and records the final hours until his surgery. Told with earnest narration, The Story of Looking explores the unknown director’s journey into his mind and future.
Based on his 2017 novel of the same name, Cousins creates The Story of Looking with new and archival footage. Cousins ensures we are never bored watching his massive collection of images, as he seems hell-bent on continually topping the last vision on screen. Adding a stream-of-conscious narration hammers home his philosophical principles while communicating his singular perspectives. Over 90 minutes, his ideas fuse with the imagery on display to craft beautiful mosaics. While not as blunt or hyperbolic as Herzog, Cousins delivers thoughtful commentaries on how we observe our world.
Ever the film historian (his previous works include The Story of Film: An Odyssey and Women Make Film), Cousins harkens back to brilliant visuals crafted by cinema’s greatest minds. The use of this footage opens the doors to exciting discussions on how we utilize this medium to communicate. Through simple color choices, directors create symmetry with our world or hammer home grand ideas. Lighting alters every image, shading our characters in darkness or revealing secrets about our protagonists.
However, even Cousins cannot stay within the academic world. Ultimately footage away from cinema yields the most profound moments in the film. The heart of his story is a human one, and humans crave connections to each other and the unknown. Using social media, he requests descriptions of our world from his fans and followers. Of course, the internet does not disappoint, providing him with truly heartwarming stories while also throwing barbs at him to get out of bed. While the film slows its pace considerably during this segment, it also presents an empathetic light to show how our words affect those around us. As he later takes to the streets, he lets his camera capture the mundane with a new appreciation for simplicity. What once seemed unimportant becomes a vehicle for undeniable beauty.
To elucidate his fears about losing his vision, Cousins expertly recreates his nightmarish reality for us. His footage contains extremely experimental camera tricks, using light and color to overpower or blur an image. Adding a droplet of water to the lens distorts our view and ability to make out what the camera is capturing. Even something minuscule may alter our perceptions significantly. As he reveals the particulars of his procedure, it becomes impossible to ignore the fear this would create in any artist.
While shot in the years far preceding the Covid-19 pandemic, the constraints placed on Cousins begin to feel eerily familiar. Losing his sight will strip Cousins of opportunities for adventure and self-discovery. At one point, he imagines a walk through his hometown of Edinborough. As he ponders if the memory will suffice, Cousins becomes aware of this method’s shortcomings. A lack of connection is instantly apparent, but he strives to find other avenues to create meaningful moments. After 18-months of quarantine, life may feel like it’s slipping through our fingers. To Cousins, his brush with loss has forced him to appreciate the gifts he’s found in his life.
Ultimately Cousins turns the final act into a unique filmmaking exploration. The unexpected turn ends the film with a call to seize the opportunities available to us. A simple yet compelling message can often be the most rewarding. Cousins’ self-examination leaves the audience with countless images of beauty from around the world. Yet perhaps the film’s most essential message, to remain humble, will be its most effective lesson. While The Story of Looking will not reinvent the medium, it will dig roots into your heart and leave you feeling positively invigorated.