Review by Sean Boelman
Documentarian Mark Cousins is known for making films that explore the cinematic medium, but his newest movie, The Story of Looking, takes it a step further. Intensely personal to a fault, this meditation on the meaning of sight is often very profound even if Cousins’s method of presentation isn’t always the most engaging.
In the film, Cousins uses his own experience of preparing for a surgery to correct his vision as a way to explore the role that vision and images have in cultures around the world. The way in which Cousins took an event specific to his life and used it to comment on a universal experience is ingenious, and makes for a powerful argument.
Clocking in at an hour and thirty minutes, Cousins’s thesis is definitely very big for such a short runtime. There are a lot of truly amazing tidbits throughout the movie, but many will leave the viewer intrigued rather than satisfied. It’s almost as if Cousins intended this to be less of a comprehensive study of these ideas and more of a wide-spanning survey.
Cousins does a good enough job of connecting us to his story. A large part of the film is him voicing his anxieties, many of which the audience will be able to relate to. And even though there is no real element of suspense involved, the movie taps into a feeling of overwhelming existential dread.
However, even beyond the story of Cousins coping with potentially losing his sight, the film explores how images are fundamental to culture throughout the ages. Of course, there’s a significant portion of the documentary devoted to the moving image, as cinema is a passion of Cousins, although these ideas have been discussed before.
There is something to be said about the awe-inspiring nature of human communication. The most thought-provoking portions of the movie explore the relationship between sight, experience, and imagery. It’s a cycle that is fundamental to how we see the world, both literally and metaphorically, and it is definitely very fascinating.
If the film does have one significant shortcoming, it is the way in which Cousins presents it. There is some archive footage used, but there are long stretches of the movie that are nothing more than Cousins talking to the camera while laying in bed. Although the things he has to say are interesting, it definitely becomes tiresome
The Story of Looking is a characteristically insightful film from Mark Cousins, even if it will struggle to keep the viewer’s interest. Had there been a bit more style to the storytelling, this would have been one of the best documentaries of the year.
The Story of Looking screened at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival.