The Story of Film (2011, Mark Cousins)

A few annoyances – Cousins’s lilting voice makes me laugh for a few minutes at the start of each episode (I never get used to it), and all the statements that the well-known film classics aren’t really the great films (as opposed to Rosenbaum’s distinction between acknowledged greats and personal favorites). I tried to keep my ears sharp for factual errors after reading an early account on Shadowplay, but by the five minute mark I’d completely melted, just enjoying the hell out of the clips on display, the cinematic history lesson and its clever organization. Also, I couldn’t believe he mentioned Samira Makhmalbaf in his introduction.

Part 1: 1895-1918, Thrill Becomes Story

From the earliest works through DW Griffith’s Intolerance in 1916, with spotlights on Lumiere and Melies, Billy Bitzer, Edwin Porter (his Life of an American Fireman gets the most play), Alice Guy, Victor Sjostrom and Griffith.

Part 2: 1918-1928, The Triumph of American film and the first of its rebels

About the industrialization of Hollywood, then the breakout comic stars of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd, the beginning of documentary with Nanook of the North (with a shout out to The Five Obstructions) and realism in fiction film. More rebels: first The Crowd, then Aelita and Yevgeni Bauer, then a spotlight on Carl Dreyer and The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Part 3: 1918-1932, Great Rebel Filmmakers around the world

Focuses on challenges to the dominant Hollywood romanticism in the 1920’s and 30’s. Lubitsch’s style and innuendo, French impressionism (Abel Gance), German expressionism (Caligari, Metropolis, Sunrise), experimentalists (Walter Ruttmann, Entr’acte, Alberto Cavalcanti, Un Chien Andalou and L’age d’or), Soviet montage (Potemkin and Arsenal), Ozu’s humanism and compositional innovations, Mizoguchi’s feminine miserablism and the realistic acting of Ruan Lingyu.

I see that Mark Cousins doesn’t have a better copy of A Page of Madness than I do – a shame. I hope a decent print of it exists somewhere. Five years before that one, he calls Souls on the Road the first great Japanese film.

Part 4: The 1930’s, Great American movie genres and the brilliance of European film

Sound film in hollywood and europe: Love Me Tonight as example.
The genres: horror, gangster, western, comedy, musical, cartoon
Europeans who push boundaries: Cocteau, Vigo, Carne/Prevert, Renoir
in South America: Limite (looks great)
in Poland: The Adventures of a Good Citizen (whoa, looks just like Polanski’s Two Men and a Wardrobe)
in Germany: Leni Riefenstahl (way to go, Germany)
Back in Hollywood, reasons why Hitchcock was “the greatest image maker of the 20th century” then a run through the women of Ninotchka, Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind

Part 5: 1939-1952, The Devastation of War and a new movie language

On to neorealism, but wait – first Ford’s and Welles’s use of deep space and wide lenses – okay, back to neorealism, then film noir (Gun Crazy looks amazing). He calls the Hollywood blacklist “the single greatest trauma in american cinema.” A chat with Stanley Donen, then onto Britain for Powell and Pressburger, Humphrey Jennings and The Third Man (“a compendium of 40’s cinema”). I like how he keeps flashing-forward to Martin Scorsese films influenced by the clips he’s showing.

Part 6: 1953-1957, The Swollen Story: world cinema bursting at the seams

Another world cinema round-up: Youssef Chahine – “the founding father of creative african cinema” for Cairo Station – is the original James Dean. Indian realism in the mid-30’s to Pather Panchali to Mother India. A melodrama called Two Stage Sisters by Xie Jin. A few by Kurosawa. Rio 40 degrees by Dos Santos in Brazil. In Mexico, Dona Barbara and La Perla and the return of Bunuel with Los Olvidados. Then on to Sirk, attacking Hollywood melodrama from within, along with Kenneth Anger and Nick Ray. The rise of television, Marty, and method acting. Checking in with old friends Welles, Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock, then in Britain, David Lean vs. Lindsay Anderson. A sign of sexy things to come: Brigitte Bardot.

Lars Von Trier:

Part 7: 1957-1964, The Shock of the New: Modern Filmmaking in Western Europe

Bergman, Bresson, Tati and Fellini led the way in making European films personal – a couple examples of each. Then enter the French New Wave, beginning not with Breathless and The 400 Blows but, happily, with Cleo from 5 to 7 and Last Year at Marienbad. New waves everywhere: in Italy you’ve got Pasolini’s Accatone and The Gospel According to St. Matthew plus Visconti and Sergio Leone. Nice how he talks about each filmmaker’s specific innovations, instead of just listing them out like I’m doing. In Spain, Marco Ferreri (The Wheelchair) and the return (briefly) of Bunuel. In Sweden, I Am Curious, Yellow. And then back to France, where The Mother and the Whore knocked the wind out of the new wave.

Part 8: 1965-1969, New Waves sweep around the world

In Poland, Wajda and Polanski (again with his wardrobe short). Czech: Jiri Trnka, Milos Forman and Vera Chytilova. Hungary: Jancso. Soviet: Tarkovsky and Parajanov. Japan: Oshima, Imamura. India: Ghatak (I interrupted his Ajantrik to watch this show, and Cousins gave away the bloody ending) and Mani Kaul. Brazil: Glauber Rocha. I Am Cuba. Iran: The House Is Black. Senegal: Black Girl (by the “founding father of black african cinema” – note the extra word). Britain: Karel Reisz, Ken Loach and Richard Lester. And in the USA, a curious list of titles I would not have come up with: Primary, Shadows, Psycho, Blow Job, Medium Cool, Easy Rider and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Part 9: 1967-1979, New American Cinema

Unlike Adam Curtis, Cousins doesn’t seem to have enough footage to go around. His pillow shots of city streets in between interviews and film clips start to feel repetitive. Anyway, he divides New American Cinema into three categories. 1. Satirical Movies (Buck Henry, Frank Tashlin, Robert Altman, Milos Forman). He brings up some of the great, subversive stuff Buck Henry wrote in The Graduate and Catch-22, then in his interview Henry points out that these come straight from the source novels. Good stuff on Altman though, and always nice to see Artists & Models get some credit. 2. Dissident Movies (Charles Burnett, Dennis Hopper). Nice, but where are Robert Downey and Frank Zappa? 3. Assimilationist Movies (Paul Schrader, Robert Towne, P-Bog, Sam Peckinpah, Terence Malick, Bob Fosse, F.F. Coppola, Martin Scorsese). Shout out to Woody Allen for bringing the Jewish experience onto the screen. A bit about how Schrader’s solution to the emptiness of his protagonists was “astonishing” – he stole from Pickpocket. Then he stole the ending of Pickpocket AGAIN in another movie (the two being American Gigolo and Light Sleeper). I guess that is pretty astonishing, but I wouldn’t go bragging about it in TV interviews.

I don’t know who was responsible for this, but in a corner of the screen during the closing credits, over a picture of Paul Schrader they throw up the words PAUL SHRADER. Perhaps an unhappy Bresson fan at the studio?

Charles Burnett:

Part 10: 1969-1979, Radical Director in the 70’s make state of the nation films.

A globetrotting look at films about identity in the 70’s. I’ve only seen a few films discussed in this segment but need to watch them all – they look stupendous. In Germany: Fassbinder, Wenders (Alice in the Cities), Margarethe von Trotta and Herzog. Italy: Pasolini again (Arabian Nights) and Bertolucci. Ken Russell and Nic Roeg and Gillian Armstrong. Documentaries in Japan: Minamata, The Victims and Their World and The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On with an interview with Kazuo Hara. On to Africa with La Nouba, Xala, Kaddu Beykat, Harvest: 3000 Years and Mambety. Yilmaz Guney with Hope and Yol. The Battle of Chile and finally, The Holy Mountain.

Part 11: The 1970’s and onwards, Innovation in popular culture around the world

“Cinema of sensation rather than contemplation”

In Hong Kong with Bruce Lee, John Woo and Yuen Woo-ping, with special notice given to King Hu as innovator and Tsui Hark for producing every 80’s and 90’s movie he didn’t direct. In India with insanely popular actors Sharmila Tagore (who started in Satyajit Ray’s Devi and The World of Apu) and Amitabh Bachchan, scenes from Mughal e Azam and a long segment on Sholay, which looks like a Western. On to Arab countries with The Message and The Sparrow, and Cousins seems to have gotten Youssef Chahine incensed by calling Egypt a developing country. Then back to Hollywood for the rise of the blockbuster, more “sensation,” with Jaws, The Exorcist and Star Wars.

Part 12: The 1980’s, Moviemaking and Protest around the world

“Speaking truth to power” is the theme of the episode – he uses that phrase about thirty times. Another globetrotting decade-roundup. The Chinese “fifth generation” filmmakers like Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang (Horse Thief) and Chen Kaige (Yellow Earth) are discussed with Stanley Kwan. In Spain, “protest had a sex-change” with Almodovar, who he pits against Victor Erice. Cousins declares Come and See the greatest war film ever made, Kira Muratova one of the most underrated filmmakers, Yeelen “one of cinema’s most complex works of art,” Distant Voices, Still Lives the greatest British film of the 1980’s, and John Sayles & Maggie Renzi “America’s state-of-the-nation filmmakers.” I like how he demonstrates different filmmakers’ techniques with his own camera, training us to watch for specific techniques in the following clips.

Part 13: 1990-1998, The Last Days of Celluloid before the coming of digital

A great round-up of self-reflexive Iranian cinema starting with Samira Makhmalbaf, then her dad, then Kiarostami’s Friend’s Home trilogy. I showed this section to Katy, since she suffered through Where is the Friend’s Home with me, not understanding the fascination. Though his mantra is “the last days of celluloid,” the point in this episode isn’t film itself but the filmmakers who are still making personal art in new ways as multiplex fare gets ever more glittery and disconnected from reality. So there’s Wong Kar Wai and Irma Vep, an interview with Tsai Ming-liang who discusses Hou Hsiao-hsien. Miles away from their cinema is Shinya Tsukamoto with Tetsuo, then Ring and Audition (what, no Pulse?). Interview with Lars Von Trier, discussion of La Haine, L’Humanite, Rosetta. Claire Denis says she was greatly influenced by Touki Bouki. Crows, Wednesday and Haneke.

Part 14: The 1990’s, the first days of digital, reality losing its realness in America and Australia

Discussion of the possibilities of digital with Gladiator and Terminator 2. The opposite ends of the digital spectrum with Toy Story and Blair Witch, then asian innovation in House of Flying Daggers. Referential postmodernism in Goodfellas and the movies of Tarantino and the Coens. An interview with Gus Van Sant. “No movies in the 90’s was more complexly connected to film history” than Elephant – I wouldn’t have guessed that one. I love when Gus reveals his utter cluelessness about video games. Cousins is such an auteurist that he puts the name of Tomb Raider’s lead designer over the footage. Matthew Barney with Cremaster 3. Robocop and Starship Troopers mixed sci-fi, comedy and politics. Jane Campion talks about the unconscious and subjectivity in An Angel at My Table and The Piano, and we close on a good interview with Baz Luhrmann.

Part 15: 2000 onwards, film moves full circle and the future of movies

“The clash between reality and dreaming.” A hilarious metaphor, referring to innovation as “the gorilla.” Post-2001, documentaries got big: Fahrenheit 9/11, To Be and To Have, Zidane. Reality in fiction photography with The Assassination of Jesse James, Climates, Mr. Lazarescu, The Headless Woman, Battle in Heaven. In Korea: Oasis, Memories of Murder and Oldboy. American dream films: Mulholland Dr., Requiem for a Dream. Then the combination of reality and dreams with Songs from the Second Floor, and digitally screwing with perception with The Rules of Attraction and Avatar. The boldness of Tropical Malady (he pronounces the director’s name Vair-suh-THACK-ull). Cousins ends the series in the present, not with some hot young filmmaker who may be the voice of the future, but with sixty-year-old Aleksandr Sokurov: Mother and Son, Russian Ark (“perhaps the most inventive film ever made”). But wait, here it is, an epilogue set in the future: Inception, Eternal Sunshine and a lovely post-cinema roundup closing in Burkina Faso.

Of course, while watching The Story of Film I kept seeing clips and hearing mention of great films that I never got around to watching, and so I hereby declare The Story of Film Festival, during which I’m watching one never-seen film from each episode. Lineup below – will update as I go.

1. Intolerance
2. The Crowd
3. Nothing But Time & Entr’acte
4. Daybreak
5. Gun Crazy
6. Rio 40 Degrees or Cairo Station or Mother India
7. Curious Yellow
8. Daisies
9. The Last Picture Show
10. ?
11. A Touch of Zen, Dragon Inn or Chahine’s The Sparrow
12. The Horse Thief
13. Beau Travail
14. Gerry or An Angel at My Table
15. Mother and Son