Mark Cousins en Nigella Lawson seem, at first, an unlikely pairing. He is an author and film-maker from Northern Ireland, based in Edinburgh, who makes enraptured documentaries about the wonders of cinema. She is one of the most recognisable faces in the food world, a cookery writer and broadcaster who, with each new offering, seals her status as a national treasure.
Looking closer, their friendship – and it’s a relatively recent one, conducted mainly via Twitter – begins to make sense. Cousins approaches everything he sees with unbridled enthusiasm and a sense of almost childlike awe, to which Lawson clearly responds. She shares his love of the movies, particularly Italian cinema, while he is evidently a great fan of her TV work, declaring it “more noticeably aesthetic, more into imagery and feel, than many” food shows. And they are both fascinated by visual allure – its pleasures and many pitfalls.
Cousins’s new documentary, The Story of Looking, which examines the role of visual experience in our lives, kicks off as the 56-year-old prepares for an eye operation to reverse the effects of macular degeneration. For Lawson, who says she is “enormously moved” by beauty, the film triggered a flood of thoughts. I began by asking them how they know each other and where, exactly, their interests align.
Nigella Lawson: I met Mark through his [2011 documentary] The Story of Film, which I found transfixing. It imprinted itself on my brain. And I felt somehow mesmerised, ook, by his beautiful voice. And then we talked on Twitter, until a couple of years ago when we met up in the world’s noisiest, most crowded pub, not far from me. There was something about Mark’s hyper-aliveness and warmth that made me feel energised.
Mark Cousins: One of our first points of contact was when, as I watched one of your TV shows, I tweeted that film-maker Luchino Visconti might have liked it. I meant the lush imagery of the kitchen, the lighting, the objects. A kind of TV baroque. Which maybe makes you the Claudia Cardinale of cooking!
NL: We are both people who respond intensely to what’s around us and, as someone who is very much less visual, I find parts of my brain light up when Mark is describing or deconstructing an image. And although it’s hard to write this sentence without sounding precious, I am enormously moved by beauty – we probably all are – and need to fuel myself with it, whether it’s the beauty of food, the way the light falls on a room, or the sudden juxtaposition of objects in my view. En, like Mark, I have an intense emotional reaction to colour. Actually, I have what could be described as a mini form of synaesthesia: I don’t always experience beauty quite in the form it’s expressed.
MC: I love that we come from very different worlds, but can talk about cinema, byvoorbeeld, as if we’re old mates. That’s one thing I love about movies. Immediately we had lots to talk about. I know I’m passionate in what I do – making imagery. An optimism. You’re an optimist too, Nigella, aren’t you? I can see it in how you enthusiastically engage on Twitter.
NL: I am reluctant to describe myself as an optimist. Until recently, I think I would always have insisted that I was a pessimist. But maybe age makes one realise what a waste that is; when there is little time left, one gets greedy to wallow in it. But I am an enthusiast, and yes, I accept that is a form of optimism, and I feel I need to be optimistic, and nervously declare I am much more of one than I ever thought before.
But Mark, I know so little about cinema. I’ve always taken refuge in words rather than images. I suppose that is why I felt so lit up by talking to you. The joy of a new language, or rather an expanded vocabulary.
MC: I’m really into your idea that beauty is fuel. I often feel happier by seeing everyday things like a nice bus shelter, or the grey light here in Edinburgh, where I live. These things take me out of myself – what Joseph Campbell calls “the rapture of self loss”. The visual world – when it’s beautiful, and even when it’s just surprising – draws me out like a poultice.
NL: There is an essential connection between the rapture of self-loss one gets from a huge landscape or a big sky (I crave a big sky, which is hard to come by in London) and a film, or at least a film seen at the cinema, where the image is so much bigger than you, the person watching: you are forced to gaze up in wonderment. But maybe beauty has such an irresistible pull that it’s impossible not to be drawn into it: when I look at a bowl of lemons, say, on my table, I zoom in and it becomes large, all-encompassing.
MC: Can I ask about looking and ageing, Nigella? When I was making The Story of Looking (book and film), I was moved by two images of Ingrid Bergman, 36 years apart. The exact same composition, but I found myself imagining what the older woman had seen that the younger hadn’t – the birth of her twins, the end of the second world war etc. The older Ingrid had more images in her head.
As I get older, I feel I’m on a physical decline but an imaginative incline. We accrue as we get older, don’t we? Older Ingrid is more alive than younger Ingrid?
NL: I reacted in two opposing ways to that double image [in the film]. My instant reaction was to feel how cruel it must be to have such a witness to the (to use a cliche, sorry) ravages of age. But that was replaced by the feeling that the older Ingrid is so much more of a person; she inhabited her face, herself, so much more. Of course, there are other factors: when young, women are too often – as you said in your film – “looked at but not seen”; when older, perhaps it becomes easier for us to take up space less pleadingly, less ambiguously. I don’t know. Most generalisations are problematic.
I used to feel slightly squeamish about old age. I’d look at a wrinkled old apple lingering in a bowl (I promise I will try not to let fruit in bowls be my standard reference here!) with all the juice gone from it, and see it as analogous with the ageing process in us. And there is something disconcerting about the notion of withering on the vine. I feel now that the physical depredations of ageing – in aesthetic terms – don’t matter. What makes a difference is health (natuurlik) but also curiosity. You’re absolutely right to say that by the time we’re older we have accrued – images, ideas, experience, life – but what’s vital is keeping open to more. Once people lose curiosity, and see worth only in what’s in the past (in a personal and political sense) we atrophy as people (or as a country, you could say).
The only thing I can’t help minding about getting older (and even then, I don’t mind with great vigour) is losing the sharpness of my memory.
MC: I know what you mean about memory. I find myself, as I’m trying to remember something, taking a kind of torch inside my head, looking for the name or image that I previously could instantly recall.
And yet, and yet… Each day for me feels like a prototype. Tonight I’ll cook a meal again, and do Nigella salt and vinegar roast potatoes again. Yet none of this feels jaded. It’s as if looking is a kind of software upgrade.
I remember when, in my teens in working-class Belfast, I saw Brideshead Revisited on TV. Back then, it was cool to be bowled over by punk. But I was bowled over by Brideshead’s fantasy and tremulous beauty – the buildings, music, hair, emotions. The opposite of my life. It was new – visually new. I think I’m always hungry for the curiosity you mention.
I’ve also been into the idea of being on camera. For work reasons, I’m photographed a bit – not nearly as much as you. In those circumstances, I prefer when the photographer takes complete control, and tells me how to pose etc. I like being their object, when they have a strong visual idea. I’m less good when the photographer just says “be yourself – act natural”. ek dink: “What’s that?”
NL: “Just be natural” is as irritating as “just relax”, frankly! I don’t like a photographer to be a dictator, but I do need them to be a guide. Maar, actually, I don’t ever like having my photograph taken, or very rarely. Perhaps once or twice it has felt like a fluid creative endeavour or an intimate exchange. But the difficulty is that when one’s having one’s photograph taken – though perhaps I should say, when I have my photograph taken – I feel reduced to an object.
When I’m being filmed, I feel much more of an active participant. I suppose that is largely because I am talking, and because I’m not scripted, I’m working out what to say, my focus is entirely on the words, not the image. And I’m still looking out at the world, at what’s around me: to some extent I see my descriptions of the food as I make a recipe as a kind of cooking version of a sports commentary. We start with a very wide shot, and so nothing that’s going on in the pan can be seen, so I feel compelled to make a picture out of words. Of course, later those words are used over a closeup shot of the pan in question, but I still feel the need to do it. And I don’t mean just to describe the process, but to describe the beauty of the moment. For me, food is so much about beauty, and about revelling in it at every stage. I’m impatient to share that, and I feel instinctively that it’s a way of making sense of it, at least in part.
Killian Fox: Mark, you turn the camera on yourself in The Story of Looking, more than in your previous films. Could you both reflect on what it feels like to be caught in the camera’s gaze?
NL: I’ll let Mark take this one first. And I’m very pleased about the salt and vinegar potatoes!
MC: “I feel compelled to make a picture out of words.” You use words in a visual way. As a viewer, I so enjoy your full-on way of describing the cooking, the experience. And when you’re photographed, you feel that you’re “reduced to an object”. That’s terrible. Women are obviously more objectified than men in visual culture. The media doesn’t require me to look a certain way, as it wants you to. And yet there’s a torque in this. In The Story of Looking, I film myself in bed – and naked twice. Why did I do this? With a bit of a feminist impulse to make sure that women’s bodies aren’t the only things on display. To scare myself. To transgress a bit. We want a wildness, don’t we?
NL: I felt enormously protective of you watching that. And then admiring. Or actually, both. It did seem to me – especially in that scene of you naked in the river – that you were illustrating your point about voyeurism. You made us as viewers acknowledge ourselves as voyeurs. But I suppose this relates to Killian’s question about being aware of being watched by so many others. I’m not sure it’s possible to do that. It would be too crippling. Of course, one is intellectually aware of it, but I have to sweep that away from my head, and I actually manage quite easily. I have a very small crew and I’m talking to them, relating to them, and in my own head and space as well. I can’t keep in my mind that it isn’t an entirely enclosed, personal experience.
Away from the immediacy of what I’m doing, being watched or, rather, scrutinised can make me anxious. I suppose when being watched turns into being defined, it kills the necessary element of playfulness, or makes everything too fixed; it becomes a distortion. What I loved – among many things – in your film is that the sweep of images seemed to acknowledge the fluidity of life, the dance of the random, so as a viewer I felt I was unravelling your images rather than unpicking them, if that makes sense. You turn the viewer into part of the experience, rather than a critic.
KF: Mark talks in the film about our looking lives and the cache of images (buried visual treasure) in our heads. Could you both pick out a couple of images from your lives that are indelibly etched into your memory?
MC: The Eiffel Tower when I was 15, Paul Weller singing Mr Clean, Kolkata at dawn, Jane Fonda’s face as I worked with her, Brideshead Revisited on telly.
NL: That’s a hard one: the images that came into my head were not comfortable ones, and I have no desire to flesh them out with words, or expose them (or myself). And then, by policing myself, I can’t give myself the freedom to allow other images to come to the surface.
KF: What are some of your favourite films? And do you gravitate towards visual beauty more than story in cinema?
MC: For me, cinema is myth and magic and image as much as story, so Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment is as good as it gets.
NL: My instant, instinctive response was two films that have nothing in common with each other: Fanny and Alexander en The Sound of Music. I was poleaxed the first time I saw Fanny and Alexander, as I have been every other time I’ve seen it. Any description of it seems inadequate or embarrassingly trite: it has such an immensity, and it’s so full of the pain and the joy of being alive. And its beauty is so rich that in trying to talk about it, I see only images from it.
Turning to The Sound of Music feels like an exercise in bathos now! But it forms such a part of my life. I remember going to see it with my mother when it came out – I must have been five – and I drank it in. And I think there’s hardly been a year since when I haven’t watched it. It strips away my conscious, cynical self, and I’m drawn in afresh every time.
The Story of Looking is in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from 17 September