The filmmaker and writer on the novelists, musicians and directors – from Egon Schiele to Virginia Woolf – who have shaped his thinking
When granny liked something, she would say: ‘That’s right up my fandango.’ The following artists are right up my fandango. They’ve influenced me. They’ve joined me on the race of life, the race to enjoy and understand.
We can think of the people who inspire us as part of the tapestry of our lives. I have an unlovely way of understanding influence. I tattoo the names of my artistic heroes on my arms. I reckon that if they’re ingrained on my brain, then they should be on my skin, too. It’s a matter of witness bearing, like the blue plaques on London buildings that tell us where someone famous lived. My tattoos of Paul Cézanne, Marie Curie, Albrecht Dürer, the great Iranian poet and filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad, Le Corbusier, Virginia Woolf and the rest declare that they, in a way, live in me. They colonized me. I am mestizo because of them, in that my identity feels mixed in with theirs.
I could write about just a few of my many colonizers, but I’d rather capture the flow, the passion, the assault of influence. So here goes.
I will start with the most obvious, one of the greatest artists of recent generations: Tammy Wynette. When I was a kid in Belfast, before I knew heartache, I heard it in her voice, on the country music radio stations that my mum played. One of the questions creative people face is how to do sadness. Tammy knew. The crack in her voice as she sings ‘Stand by Your Man’ (1969) sounds as if she’s buckling under the weight of emotion. I soon became suspicious of the song’s message – women, be dutiful, no matter what – but the rasping clarity of her beautiful voice soared out and above social and political questions. I’ve often sought such flight in my work.
In those teenage years of plaintive Tammy, my teachers began to notice that I was bad at reading but good at images. I gazed longingly at picture books of photographs and paintings. Cézanne’s watercolours entranced me, as did postwar American abstract art. I particularly liked the big, rainbowy paintings of Morris Louis. They appealed to my growing feeling that looking was life’s biggest pleasure. As there were no books or artworks in our house, I found my way to the Ulster Museum in Belfast where I was thrilled to find one of Louis’s colour field paintings. Except it was labelled Morris ‘Lovis’. My young brain couldn’t compute this. A nobody like me, someone from the underclass, hadn’t spotted a mistake in our local temple of art, had he? As it turned out, yes, he had. Wow. This meant that I had some art knowledge, that I had begun to speak just a few words of the language that was spoken by art people in art places. I wanted to become fluent. I wanted to joke and dream in that language.
Years passed. I grew up and studied film. At university in Scotland, I met Alec Finlay, the son of the artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. We went to Little Sparta, Ian’s garden in the Scottish borders. If Tammy was emotion and Morris a visual flood, then Little Sparta was like being struck by lightning. I’ve been going for 30 years now, but still recall the shock of the first time. Little Sparta has land mines. Studded into its wild beauty are sculptures, grottos, temples and visual puns about the classical past, the French Revolution, idealized romantic love and World War II, which marry elegy and provocation. The garden reveals that nature is a kind of war and my head could hardly cope. ‘What? Nature is the opposite of war, isn’t it? It’s peace, escape and solace? No, it’s not.’ The Mark who smugly spotted a misspelling in an art gallery had his thoughts dragged around like a trawler drags a net.
I left university and became a film director. Having hardly been anywhere in the world, in my mid-20s I flew from Moscow to New York for a documentary I was working on, Dear Mr Gorbachev (1989), about the letters that were written to the Soviet leader. The plane banked over Manhattan; it was autumn, so the city was shrouded in mist. I’d had three mini bottles of wine and, on my headphones, a song began to play. It was ‘A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Every Day)’ (1963) by Ike and Tina Turner. I was far away from Tammy by now and was in love myself. I cried as I listened. Tina sounded like she was singing in a cave or a cathedral and below me was one of the wonders of the world, another kind of cathedral. Call it aesthetic overload or a feeling of: ‘God, I’ve got here, to this solitary, boozy, autumnal, privileged, visual, sonic moment.’ It was the central artistic event in my life.
Tammy, Morris, Ian, Tina and Manhattan: these art hurricanes came frequently and continued to do so. Next was Le Corbusier’s La Tourette monastery (1960) near Lyon in France. I’d read the architect’s books and been to some of the buildings, such as his Marseille outcrop Unité d’habitation (Housing Unit, 1952), but this building was, for me, uncategorizable. It stood on its site like one of those stalking, fighting machines at the start of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – but it was like an Eduardo Paolozzi sculpture, too. Inside its small chapels – which are unlike any I’ve ever seen – it was brutally serene. I’m not sure that I’d been anywhere that channelled light so well or made the act of looking so enriching.
By this stage, I was in my late 20s and beginning to reject the classical style of observational, commentary-less, documentary filmmaking that I’d been working on. I became more interested in subjective and poetic forms of non-fiction cinema and began looking around to see what could inspire me. There were the great essayist filmmakers, but what sang out more was the writing of Virginia Woolf. Her charting of the motions of her own mind (a mind very different from mine) fascinated me. She was like a great weather forecaster making poetry out of isobars. I thought I could be a punk Virginia, and so I made a film, What Is this Film Called Love? (2012), about three days I spent in Mexico City, wandering around with my camera, trying to film what she might have filmed.
It was liberating. I’d made films about holocaust deniers, Gulf War training, children in Kurdish Iraq, but I needed to get closer to home, to refresh the way I filmed and spoke with images. Virginia, for me, had an adjunct in Egon Schiele. He looked at his own body like she looked at her own mind. I’d seen his pictures in my teens, but not until my late 20s, when I lost inhibitions about my own body, did I look so closely at his anglepoise sketches with their hands like voguing Madonnas. None of the artists that had gripped me so far had really taken to bodies.
Since my 30s, I’ve got to know musicians, artists, filmmakers and architects, so the nature of influence has shifted. The people I know inspire me in more direct ways. PJ Harvey is a Schiele drawing, but what you notice is how, notebook in hand, she’s hungry for knowledge.
Filmmaker Jonathan Glazer is even more so. He watches and rewatches things that inspire him. The best film of recent years, in my opinion, is his Under the Skin (2013). It has the DNA of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (Orpheus, 1950): the scenes where Scarlett Johansson lures men down into what looks like an oil sump seem related to Cocteau’s visualization of the underworld. But Glazer transforms everything he sees and finds new gold where others have dug. He can screen out the usual visual conventions and archetypes and, by doing so, come up with new ways of looking and creating tone in cinema, in anxiety, in love and in design. I don’t know him very well but have had a few dinners with him. Lucky me.
And then there’s Neneh Cherry. I made a film with her – Stockholm, My Love (2016) – in which she plays a troubled architect. She’d not acted before but her sense of willing, calm and precision meant that almost everything was a shot. I’d admired her from afar when she first became famous as a musician. Now I was making cinema, and even music, with her – there are three songs in the film sung by Neneh.
Lest this becomes too long a list, I’ll allow myself to mention just one more artist. I was on the jury at the Venice Film Festival last year. To escape the crowds one day, I went to the church of Madonna dell’Orto in the north of the city. I’d been there before but, this time, the massive Jacopo Tintoretto paintings on either side of the altar struck me more than ever. I’ve long said that Tintoretto is my favourite painter, but this time I was drawn deeper into these two pictures, I think because I’m completing a film about the drawings and paintings of Orson Welles. Of all the world’s filmmakers, few look upwards more than Welles – and Tintoretto is the master of looking upwards. In Welles’s greatest movie, Chimes at Midnight (1965), there’s a bed scene where people seem to roll so close to the camera that they almost touch it. In Tintoretto’s work, there’s often a similar foreground lolling; Christ Carried to the Tomb (c.1550), in the Scottish National Gallery, features just such a composition.
Framing and blocking of this kind is the opposite of the imagery that I produce with my camera. Perhaps my catholic upbringing has inured me to the baroque. But I love its energy, its bulging, vertigo-inducing, unmathematical, undisciplined, Dionysian torque – which is, perhaps, true of influence in general: it is often the opposite of what and who you are. It is the thing you can’t do. It’s the art or idea that you’d never find of your own accord.
Main image: Morris Louis, Where, 1960, (detail), magna on canvas, 2.5 x 3.6 m. Courtesy: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., The Estate of Morris Louis and DACS, London; photograph: Lee Stalsworth
Mark Cousins is a filmmaker and writer who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. His latest book, The Story of Looking (2017), is published by Canongate. His films include: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), I Am Belfast (2015) and Stockholm, My Love (2016).
First published in Issue 194