Mark Cousins – Take an idea for a walk, and see what happens

Last evening I saw the ethereal What is this film called Love? by Mark Cousins at the ICA.
Despite my short attention span for art films, this was fantastic. And Mark was around for the Q&A and to give insight into how and why he made the film. And so I loved it even more.

To sumarise the plot if you could call it that, in roughly 2006, Mark spent some time in Mexico and found himself with three days of nothing to do. So he decided to walk around around a city, Morelia I think, using a Flip camera to capture things that caught his eye. The night before his first day of walking, he had a Eureka moment. Mark has always been fascinated by Sergei Eisenstien and his Mexican odyssey, and therefore decided that on these three days of walking around the city, he would be accompanied by a laminated picture of Sergei that he would have conversations with, if only in his head. The results are amusing, honest and very poignant, and a film that inspires you to travel and to explore somewhere new.

And therein lies the success of Mark’s brilliant line which I am adopting as my own – Take an idea for a walk, and see what happens.

During the Q&A, Mark explained why even though the Flip camera frame was limited, it was also very liberating in a way. For him this movie is all about the little rectangular frame and what fell within it’s four edges. Something he had and sought very little control over.

In some ways, money is the enemy of the little rectangular frame, the enemy of creativity. All you need sometimes to make a good film is an idea, and the right combination of frame and thought…

Mark’s film is also about self loss in a way and a search for ecstasy.  During these three days of filming he was mostly alone. He didn’t use his phone or his laptop, and though you do see a lot of him in front of the frame it’s almost like he’s not the Mark that you see socially or when he’s surrounded by people he knows. It’s like the person you are when you’re alone, when no one’s watching. As he said – Sometimes when you go travelling, you’re almost disappointed that you brought yourself along.
Maybe losing the ‘you’, makes it better.

Mark’s also been very inspired by Virginia Wolf and her essay Street Haunting: A London Adventure. Going back to read it this morning, here are a few inspiring lines about how she goes rambling through the streets of London on the pretext of buying a lead pencil.

– No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner. As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter–rambling the streets of London.

– As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience. 

– How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley. But this is London, we are reminded; high among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish yellow light–windows; there are points of brilliance burning steadily like low stars–lamps; this empty ground, which holds the country in it and its peace, is only a London square, set about by offices and houses where at this hour fierce lights burn over maps, over documents, over desks where clerks sit turning with wetted forefinger the files of endless correspondences; or more suffusedly the firelight wavers and the lamplight falls upon the privacy of some drawing-room, its easy chairs, its papers, its china, its inlaid table, and the figure of a woman, accurately measuring out the precise number of spoons of tea which—-She looks at the door as if she heard a ring downstairs and somebody asking, is she in?

– For the eye has this strange property: it rests only on beauty; like a butterfly it seeks colour and basks in warmth. On a winter’s night like this, when nature has been at pains to polish and preen herself, it brings back the prettiest trophies, breaks off little lumps of emerald and coral as if the whole earth were made of precious stone. The thing it cannot do (one is speaking of the average unprofessional eye) is to compose these trophies in such a way as to bring out the more obscure angles and relationships. 

And when Virginia finds her mind wandering with stories and thoughts she knows not where they come from –

– When Nature set about her chief masterpiece, the making of man, she should have thought of one thing only. Instead, turning her head, looking over her shoulder, into each one of us she let creep instincts and desires which are utterly at variance with his main being, so that we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run. Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience sake a man must be a whole. The good citizen when he opens his door in the evening must be banker, golfer, husband, father; not a nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debauchee in the slums of San Francisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah howling with skepticism and solitude. When he opens his door, he must run his fingers through his hair and put his umbrella in the stand like the rest.

– Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.

– One must, one always must, do something or other; it is not allowed one simply to enjoy oneself. Was it not for this reason that, some time ago, we fabricated the excuse, and invented the necessity of buying something? But what was it? Ah, we remember, it was a pencil. Let us go then and buy this pencil. But just as we are turning to obey the command, another self disputes the right of the tyrant to insist. The usual conflict comes about. Spread out behind the rod of duty we see the whole breadth of the river Thames–wide, mournful, peaceful. And we see it through the eyes of somebody who is leaning over the Embankment on a summer evening, without a care in the world. Let us put off buying the pencil; let us go in search of this person–and soon it becomes apparent that this person is ourselves. For if we could stand there where we stood six months ago, should we not be again as we were then–calm, aloof, content? Let us try then. 

And finally, walking into the stationery shop…

– It is always an adventure to enter a new room for the lives and characters of its owners have distilled their atmosphere into it, and directly we enter it we breast some new wave of emotion. Here, without a doubt, in the stationer’s shop people had been quarrelling. Their anger shot through the air. They both stopped; the old woman–they were husband and wife evidently–retired to a back room; the old man whose rounded forehead and globular eyes would have looked well on the frontispiece of some Elizabethan folio, stayed to serve us. “A pencil, a pencil,” he repeated, “certainly, certainly.” He spoke with the distraction yet effusiveness of one whose emotions have been roused and checked in full flood. He began opening box after box and shutting them again. He said that it was very difficult to find things when they kept so many different articles. He launched into a story about some legal gentleman who had got into deep waters owing to the conduct of his wife. He had known him for years; he had been connected with the Temple for half a century, he said, as if he wished his wife in the back room to overhear him. He upset a box of rubber bands. At last, exasperated by his incompetence, he pushed the swing door open and called out roughly: “Where d’you keep the pencils?” as if his wife had hidden them. The old lady came in. Looking at nobody, she put her hand with a fine air of righteous severity upon the right box. There were pencils. How then could he do without her? Was she not indispensable to him? 

– …one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others. One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men? 

– That is true: to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet. And here–let us examine it tenderly, let us touch it with reverence–is the only spoil we have retrieved from all the treasures of the city, a lead pencil.

– Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting: A London Adventure


I’ve been away for a while.
Not physically but mentally.
Like there was a wall blocking me from writing about the interesting, inspiring things that I’ve seen and experienced recently.
Blame it on the house move and that I need to find a new favorite writing spot.
Blame it on the distraction of work and the long hours.
But I’m back. And with a long list of posts all currently listed in my little black moleskin book.
And even though I hate that most of the artist films I’ve seen and loved are not online, we’ll try to make this work.

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