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The Story of Film: An Odyssey

Posted by martinteller on March 3, 2013

Normally on a weekend I’d post somewhere between five and eight movie reviews.  But for the past two days, I’ve been engrossed in this mini-series.  Mark Cousins adapts his book The Story of Film (full disclosure: haven’t read it) to the screen, a 15-part series — clocking in somewhere close to 16 hours — tracking the evolution and trends in world cinema, highlighting the innovators.  Through interviews (too many noteworthy names to list), hundreds of film clips, and his thoughtful narration, he makes intelligent observations and draws intriguing connections.

It is, of course, a subjective viewpoint.  Although Cousins doesn’t have contempt for populist cinema (among the people he spotlights/praises are Spielberg, Cameron and Nolan), he does often refer to Hollywood films as “baubles” and tends to stick closer to arthouse fare, where filmmakers are experimenting more with the form and pushing boundaries.  He’s prone to hyperbole… I can’t count the number of times he proclaimed a certain movie the “greatest” something-or-other.  You won’t agree with all his assessments… unless you are Mark Cousins.  But he does a good job of explaining what makes those films original, ground-breaking, impressive or noteworthy.  Occasionally he does merely describe a thing without conveying its significance or artistry… but there were several times he made me reconsider my stance on movies I’d previously dismissed, particularly those I watched and reviewed many years ago.  It made me want to rewatch some of them.

On the other hand, the film also made me want to never rewatch anything, to keep exploring cinema.  It would be dishonest of me to say Cousins didn’t introduce me to anything new — well over a hundred of the clips featured were from movies I’d never seen, many I’d never heard of — but he really doesn’t stray that far from the canon.  I would have liked to have seen more of outer fringes… non-narrative films are especially underrepresented.  But kudos to him for spending significant time exploring African and Latin American cinema, and the first three episodes were really, really informative about the silent era.  Even in 16 hours, you can’t examine the entirety of film, and I think Cousins is generally quite equitable in his balance.

On a personal note, a full third of the movies in my own top 100 were represented.  A few others were referred to or danced around (the first two Hulot films but no Play Time, a segment on Tsai without any the four from my list), and there were plenty of others presented that I think very highly of.  There are plenty of places where my tastes depart from Cousins’s, but plenty of overlap as well.  If anything, it only encouraged me to keep exploring my own avenues.  Most of the unknown (to me) territory that Cousins presents didn’t intrigue me, at least not from the brief clips and his comments.  But there was a nice handful that I’ve added to own watchlist: the 60’s Chinese melodrama Two Stage Sisters; a 40’s Mexican parable called La perla; Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper; Long Goodbyes (Dolgie provody) by Kira Muratova; and the documentary-esque The Apple by Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s daugther Samira.  Also two films I knew about but hadn’t considered before: Être et avoir and Catch-22.

Two words of warning.  First, Cousins isn’t the slightest bit hesitant about spoilers.  He frequently gives away the endings and major surprises of films… I now have to wait a few months before watching Sembene’s Black Girl in the hopes that I’ll forget what Cousins revealed.  The other warning is about his narration.  I found his gentle Irish brogue very comforting and pleasant, but there are people who are apparently enraged by the way his voice tends to go up every five or six words, making each phrase sound like a question.  I didn’t mind it, but I can see how it would drive someone bananas.  Rating: Very Good (83)

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