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Mark Cousins's "The Story of Film"

A 15-hour comprehensive history — with an argument.
The DailyThe Story of Film

"There have been lots of books that tell the history of the movies, but so far almost no films," Mark Cousins told indieWIRE's Peter Knegt last September. We should qualify that statement, of course. As Nick Pinkerton notes in the Voice, there have been documentaries on the history of cinema, though some might filter that history "through the director's particular prejudices or national heritage (Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinéma, finally released on DVD last December; Oshima's 100 Years of Japanese Cinema; A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies). Or it might mean sticking to one facet of the timeline, as in historian Kevin Brownlow's extraordinary work on the medium's adolescence, Hollywood."

That point made, back to Cousins: "You can sit in a room to write a book about movies, but to tell the story of how a flickering Victorian novelty became a global art form on film, you have to travel the world, lug your equipment across China and LA, to Tokyo and the streets of Mumbai, to the urban canyons of New York, the film schools of Paris, to Eisenstein's Moscow and Bergman's Sweden. My producer John Archer and I did just this over the last six years, to make The Story of Film: An Odyssey, the 15-hour documentary that we are world premiering at Toronto. We're exhausted and exhilarated."

That premiere was immediately followed by a broadcast of the series on the UK's Channel 4 and, two episodes in, Tom Birchenough wrote at the Arts Desk: "Cousins, who hails from Northern Ireland, has been a familiar figure in Britain's film world, as presenter of BBC series like Moviedrome and Scene by Scene, as sometime director of the Edinburgh Film Festival, and as an acclaimed documentary maker in his own right. He nails his critical colors firmly to the mast from the very beginning of this series — it's not going to be an examination of a multimillion dollar global entertainment industry, but of an art form distinguished by passion and innovation."

Cousins's argument is now unreeling at MoMA through February 16, so it's back to Nick Pinkerton: "Cousins's (inconsistent) stance against Hollywood in favor of 'realist' or 'innovative' filmmaking — pet words, along with 'masterpiece' — is his most cogent, ostensibly iconoclastic position. The Story of Film is nearest to claiming its own identity when delivering on its announced intent to 'redraw the map of movie history that we have in our hands… factually inaccurate and racist by omission.' This is attempted by providing screen time to such figures as the iconic Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, Mexico's Emilio 'El Indio' Fernández, and Ritwik Ghatak, a titan of Indian cinema."

The Story of Film

"Why is it so important to stress the internationalism of cinema?" Sukhdev Sandhu asked Cousins in the Telegraph last fall. His answer: "In today's world we can no longer turn our backs on difference. We can no longer allow ourselves not to know what lives in the Middle East, for example, are like. It follows, therefore, that it is completely wrong to undervalue the brilliant movies from parts of the world that we must engage with. We also have a duty to creative people — especially if they have had a hard time in getting their work made — to value them according to their insights and achievements. Simple meritocracy."

"He is brilliant at showing the development of film language," writes AO Scott in the New York Times: "the grammar of framing, cutting and illumination that emerged with remarkable rapidity in the first decades of the 20th century. Before anyone quite knew what was happening, a novelty turned into a major and protean art form, complete with a pantheon of heroic creators. The canon delineated by Mr. Cousins is not unfamiliar, though he does elevate some lesser-known auteurs and bring a few giants (notably DW Griffith) gently down to size."

Talking with Cousins for Cinespect, Ryan Wells notes the juxtaposition of "the original with the imitators in terms of filmmakers that use styles by a lot of the old masters. How about yourself? When shooting the series (film!) who were you thinking of, influence-wise?" Cousins: "I was thinking of the earliest, quite simple and innocent movies–those of Georges Méliès, for example (now reborn because of Scorsese's Hugo). I wanted the nice luminosity of those films, which is why I filmed a lot at dawn or dusk. I also loved the way that Thelma Schoonmaker, in the Scorsese film documentaries, wiped images from right to left, or did right to left 'push offs.' This reminded me of old magic lantern shows, too, so we did that."

"What was your attitude to interviews?" Time Out London's Dave Calhoun asked Cousins last fall, noting that they're "sparing, and, when they come, feel essential." Cousins: "That was crucial. I did not want to make one of those programs with talking heads all the time. I felt that in a 15-hour film we needed about 40 or 50 characters, something like that, and I think we have about 45 interviews. I wanted to choose people who had done great work or were eyewitnesses to great times. So we have Stanley Donen [director of Singin' in the Rain] and we have the brilliant Japanese actress Kyoko Kagawa who was in all the Yasujiro Ozu pictures and Akira Kurosawa films, and we have Robert Towne [writer of Chinatown] and other great people. We've also got the very interesting Judy Balaban, who wasn't in movies, but her dad ran Paramount Studios and she was engaged to Montgomery Clift and just knew everybody. I was interested in people who could conjure up an era and mood in film history.'" The [brackets], by the way, are TOL's.

And finally for now, let's note two lovingly annotated lists Cousins gave to two British papers last fall, the "ten films that changed the world" in the Telegraph and "the ideas that drove movies" for the Guardian.

Update: "The series has its idiosyncrasies, all of them Cousins's to own," writes Michael Atkinson for Alt Screen. "There's the matter-of-fact leapfrogging across the timeline, from the historical present into its 'future' developments, to see where an innovation or trope will lead (you might've thought Welles's deep-focus compositions and ceilings in Citizen Kane broke ground, but you'd be wrong: Ozu got there first). There's the potentially inconclusive tracing of visual motifs from filmmaker to filmmaker, like the psycho-hypnotic close-ups of bubbling beverages, from Carol Reed's Odd Man Out through Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her to Scorsese's Taxi Driver). And always there is the quizzical nature of Cousins's North Irish narrational voice, which tilts up at the end of every sentence and makes every statement, no matter how 'standard,' a whispery question. It generally makes for grand company, and no devotee of the medium will be less than entranced as the series hopscotches continents and eras, however calmly, illustrating essential points of stylistic evolution with more clarity than any film history class could hope for."

Update, 2/6: Michael Guillén has a good long talk with Cousins at the Evening Class.

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I learned more about the story of film in 15 hours than I have in the last 15 years because of Mark’s fascinatingly idiosyncratic documentary, which reveals (ultimately) that each of us must tell our own story of how film has provided the template of innovation in our own lives. That Mark’s personal story is so embracing of so-called third world cinema spoke to my heart and confirmed my own storytelling. It’s as if film itself could quote William Goyen: “Had I a hundred mouths, I would tell a hundred stories.”
For those of us who can’t make it to MoMA every day at 1PM (WTF?), is there any way to stream or buy this series legally? I would really love to see it.
Cousins has just announced that the DVD of the Story of Film will be released in the UK on April 23 by Network Releasing, and will be available to preorder on Amazon very soon!
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By far the best thing I saw on television last year, and the best piece of crit. on film I have seen/read in about 4 years (last was ‘Death of Cinema’ by Cherchi-Usai). Quiet, contemplative, subtly subversive… sublime.
Great news, re: the DVD — thanks, Michael!

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