The Story of Looking

So, a couple of things went up like flares that the filmmaker might be a twat. He starts the film lying naked in bed talking the camera next to him, like you’re lying on the other pillow, in this suffocatingly heavy-handed visual metaphor for being brought into an intimate and personal story. As he lectures the camera, I noticed his naked torso and arms were covered in tattoos, the signatures of famous people, in various fonts and scripts. I began to feel the dread that I’d somehow woken to discover I’d slept with yet another film fuckboy. He mentions he’s speaking from his flat in the centre of Edinburgh and the feeling of doom is complete.

The needless cockshot later in the film is almost surplus confirmation at that point.

So, is this self-indulgent pretentious bilge? Yes. Is it worthless? No.

The Story of Looking is an essay/poem/memoir on what visual culture means to the filmmaker, what looking is. The film explores art in photography, painting, film, and performance, while talking about the development of our sight in infancy and childhood. And there is a lot of interesting stuff said. He talks about growing up in a working class Catholic family, where the glory of God made manifest in art, in architecture, in beholding creation, was seen as positive good of looking. And how, when he got older and moved into a middle-class presbyterian environment, the act of looking was seen as a negative, that it was a shallow practice, open to deceit and distraction, in opposition to the transcendental nature of reading and inner imagination and thought.

He talks about the separation between light and colour, their respective forms and functions, in life and in art. He talks about the experiences of those missing colour through colour-blindness, or light through complete blindness. He talks about focus and blur, the blur of vision, the blur of memory, the blur of ruined film or smudged paint or ink.

The hook he hangs this semi-structured ramble on is that he has begun to develop a cataract in one eye, and it will be removed and replaced with an artificial lens. It is for this reason he beats you about the head with how personal and intimate this soliloquy is, up to and including flashing you his knob.

Except it’s not intimate or personal. It’s the opposite of that. He intellectualises the subject into the abstract, distancing us and himself from any emotion the prospect of his sight being lost or changed is actually causing him. Despite being literally brought into the folds of his skin, he could not push the audience further away than with this intellectual exercise.

As I’m educated on the use of light and colour in film, I spend 90 minutes learning almost nothing about Mark Cousins. And his sense of trepidation about his operation is effaced completely with this aria to visual culture. And beautiful though much of it is, it does what any intellectual exercise does – leaves me cold.