The Story of Film: An Odyssey
(2011; dir. Mark Cousins)—Beat the heat this week by staying indoors and soaking up Mark Cousins’ 15-part history of cinematic innovation. Running 15 ½ hours and featuring nearly 1000 clips, Cousins’ massive monument to fair use and great movies from around the world is highly recommended to smart people like you who’ve figured out that the American cinema isn’t the only game in town but have no idea where to begin. Can you dig it? More importantly, can you set aside the free time to dig it?
Cousins is quietly enthusiastic without sounding pretentious or crazy, and his hard-earned, nicely skewed point of view only increases the charm of his soothing, hyperbolic voiceover. He hates The Lord of The Rings
, loves Baz Luhrmann (“Not since interviewing Bernardo Bertolucci have I met a director who so understands their own work and, moreover, has a convincing theory of art” he writes in The Story of Film
’s accompanying booklet) and says that the one movie you should see if you haven’t already is Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammel’s 1970 freakout Performance
, which contains Mick Jagger’s greatest role, one of the earliest music videos, and a point-of-view shot of a bullet travelling through a person’s brain.
Cousins is a curious and generous interviewer as well. Early on, we discover that Norman Lloyd, a.k.a. Colin Quinn’s buddy at the assisted-living facility in Trainwreck
, is a human Rosetta stone who can tell first-hand stories about nearly all of the major American filmmakers from the first half of the 20th century. We also get Charles Burnett stammering about the “propaganda” of Hollywood characterization, Terence Davies professing his love for Vermeer, Stanley Donen angrily dismissing the idea of the “camera-stylo”, Youssef Chahine predicting the Arab Spring five years early, and Indian star Amitabh Bachchan (star of Sholay
, ran for five years in Mumbai, how could you forget) dismissing his own charisma by insisting that appearing on camera is just a job.
Cousins’ informal numerology is also something to behold. He lists the eight challenges to the romantic cinema of the 1920s and ‘30s; the seven reasons Alfred Hitchcock is “the pre-eminent image-maker of the 20th century”; the six major US film genres emerging in the 1930s; the five kinds of identity crises in European film of the 1970s; the four European directors of the 1950s worth knowing well; the three kinds of films in the New American cinema of the 1960s and ‘70s, and the three key transgressive works of the New Korean Cinema of the ‘00s. Although his own images can’t compete with the ones he’s selected from film history—and really, how could they?—his most affecting footage juxtaposes clips and photos of key locations from old movies with the parking lots, apartment complexes and abandoned buildings they inevitably become.
The Story of Film
is an excellent road map and, like the films of Yasujiro Ozu, it’s great to have on in the background if you plan on taking a snooze. If anything, it isn’t long enough.