February 6, 2012

A Century of Cinema: Mark Cousins Tells 'The Story of Film'

The history of film has many authors--many forgotten and many more overlooked. Irish documentary filmmaker, writer, film historian and film festival programmer Mark Cousins spent six years making his poetic and enlightening The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Based on his well-regarded book of the same title, the 15-hour documentary traces the art of international cinema by way of its innovators.

Utilizing more than 1,000 select film clips and more than 40 interviews, Cousins examines the question of innovation without ever using the word auteur or discussing the critical theory of auteurism. Rather than a comprehensive history of popular film, The Story of Film focuses on the poetics of the medium and how the cinematic language has soared across borders.  "I tried, where possible, to find where ideas came from," Cousins explains. "I tried to show what might never have been seen--not that it's new, but not seen." Among his own innovations are his all-inclusive observations:  His story of film features not only women filmmakers but also work from outside the Western world and from six continents. Africa, Iran, Korea and Japan all get their due in this sweeping documentary, which flows from early nickelodeons and cinema's discovery in the late 1880s to today's global industry of digitally made blockbusters.

 "I've been told that the film is very subjective," Cousins says. "I would argue passionately that the standard histories are far more subjective, if they're written by Europeans or Americans." He contends that his documentary is indeed more objective, as it encompasses a global view.


Mark Cousins, on location behind the Hollywood sign. Courtesy of Mark Cousins


A cineaste's dream, The Story of Film was prominently showcased at the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) in January, where Cousins also programmed a related selection of archival films that have profoundly influenced filmmakers. As PSIFF's artistic director, Helen du Toit, explained at the conclusion of the film's multi-day screening sessions, "My hope with this film is that it will open up a new window in ways to see, experience and celebrate cinema." With its spotlight on form and innovation, she described The Story of Film as "a complete rewrite of film history that redraws the map of world cinema."

Although the documentary features dozens of filmmakers and the aforementioned 1,000 clips, Cousins edited out some of his own favorites, Eric Rohmer and Preston Sturges among them. From the project's inception as a book, his deliberate choice was to be blind to popularity, though many popular films, including James Cameron's Avatar and Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, do make the cut. "I was not trying to be a snob, but I looked at those films that were pushing the boundaries of the medium," Cousins explains. 

When it came to his requested fair use clips, he credits his producer, John Archer, for getting him everything he wanted, many times from the filmmaker directly. And unlike most compilations that often use excerpts from a film's trailer or other marketing materials, Cousins requested specific scenes, noting that The Story of Film is all about the detail of the moment. "The focus on one moment is an easier way for a viewer to arrive in a film and get its poetics," he contends. "I go into a moment to let it explain more."

The story begins in cinema's first days with Thomas Edison, the Lumière brothers and the discovery of moving images. From its inception, Cousins argues that ideas and passion have driven moviemaking more so than money and marketing. He delves into Hollywood mythmaking and the early silent movie stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, and then moves on and contrasts the gloss with documentary's influential pioneer Robert J. Flaherty and his seminal Nanook of the North.

As Cousins weaves his multi-part polemic, he intercuts interviews with filmmakers and film clips with interstitial scenes that link his thoughtful segments. His cinematic style for the interstitials was quite purposeful;  the shots are often static and wide, as his overall intent was to mimic a vintage magic lantern show. "Edits, pushes and wipes all come from the right," he explains of the transitions. "The luminosity [of those shots] comes from that moment when cinema was excited about what it could do."

Cousins narrates the film, and his lilting brogue infuses the film with a scholarly and charming personality. His narration informs throughout the 900-minute film; as director, he adhered to a stylistic set of rules. There are no titles to identify filmmakers, no still shots used, and there are very few close-ups. Often his narration overlaps film clips as he describes and demonstrates the evolution of cinematic language and how those ideas crisscrossed the globe. "You have the feel the filmmaker is in the audience with you watching," Cousins explains. "I'm sitting next you whispering in your ear, watching with you."

Previously, Cousins and Academy Award-winning documentary director Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September) co-edited Imagining Reality, their history of documentary film. In The Story of Film, Cousins touches on nonfiction film and its influence on narrative works, citing the Lumière brothers' earliest reels, such as the Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory; Robert Flaherty's work; and a key interview with Haskell Wexler, who details the influence of 1960s documentaries on mainstream movies. Cousins argues that the most fertile and important moment for documentaries is found in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Japanese explored a longer form that was more dedicated with a more aesthetic range, than their contemporaries elsewhere. (A prime example: Noriaki Tsuchimoto's Minamata: The Victims and Their World).


Japanese actress Kyoko Kagawa, featured in Mark Cousins' The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Courtesy of Mark Cousins


Source material came from Cousins' book The Story of Film, which he wrote more than eight years ago; he began working on the documentary in 2005, and production stopped and started again throughout the six-year process due to the extremely lean budget he advises. Funding came from various sources: grants from the UK Film Council and British Film Institute and a pre-buy from Film Four. He spent two years editing the film. "It was physically hard work to travel around the world with a camera in my backpack," Cousins reflects. His toughest challenge, however, was the need to edit down the contributions of key principals (Alfred Hitchcock, for one) and inventive cinematic movements (the French New Wave and new Korean film) to just minutes of screen time.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey is currently screening at Museum of Modern Art in New York City through February 16.  A deal with a US distributor is pending. 


Courtesy  of Mark Cousins


Kathy A. McDonald is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. You can follow her on twitter @writerkathymcd.