Unparalleled in scope, The Story of Film: An Odyssey marks the completion of a labour of love for writer and filmmaker Mark Cousins. Five years in the making and covering six continents and 12 decades of cinema, it is, as Cousins describes, a ‘love letter’ to the medium. The origin of the project was Cousins’s best-selling book of the same name. One of the few truly indispensable film publications of the last decade, the book showed how filmmakers are influenced both by the historical events of their times and by each other.
Opening with a quote from Lauren Bacall proclaiming that ‘the industry is shit. It’s the medium that’s great’, Cousins determinedly avoided any discussion of the industry per se, showing no interest in box office, marketing or any other part of the hullabaloo that goes hand in hand with any art form that is also a business. In doing so Cousins, whose past activities include a celebrated stint as the Festival Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and presenting the late, lamented Moviedrome, produced an invaluable guide to some of the forgotten treasures of cinema and some of the figures whose work has been obscured by what is unarguably a Westernised history of filmmaking. Those unfamiliar with the cinema of central Asia and Africa will find themselves particularly surprised by the great and often unsung contributions the two continents have made to the film lexicon.
Unspooling over a 15-part series, The Story of Film argues that innovation is at the heart of movie history (the contention that ‘money doesn’t drive movies, ideas do’ are the words of a romantic purist but we should forgive him for that) and extends the central thesis of the book to reveal the true and frequently forgotten global pioneers of filmmaking. As an opening salvo Cousins declares the history of cinema as we understand it to be by its very nature ‘exclusionist and racist’. Revealing how these incredibly influential figures drove cinema forward, Cousins films each section of the story in a different country, visiting many of the key sites in the history of cinema, from Hollywood to Mumbai, from Hitchcock’s London to the village where Pather Panchali was shot. Cousins’s globetrotting gives a potent, illuminating and often rather moving reminder that, though fictive, movies are very much a product of the real world and therefore reflective of our hopes, dreams and aspirations. Cinema, as Cousins points out, is pivotal in shaping how we feel, love, look and hope.
Anyone familiar with the pioneering Scene by Scene series will recall that Mark Cousins is an exceptionally skilled and intuitive interviewer and the ‘cast’ of The Story of Film is mightily impressive. Stanley Donen, Kyoko Kagawa, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier, Claire Denis, Bernardo Bertolucci, Robert Towne, Jane Campion, Wim Wenders and Claudia Cardinale are just a handful of the legendary filmmakers, actors and writers that offer insightful commentary over a series of extended interviews. The use of archive clips is extensive, exemplary and quietly inspiring and while the programme presents an illustrated story of film it also manages to be a particularly accomplished and technically adroit piece of filmmaking in its own right.
Since the disappearance from our screens of programmes such as Moving Pictures there has been little air time given to a consideration of cinema that extends beyond celebrity tittle-tattle and a cinematic border that ends with the Hollywood hills. Invigorating and intelligent, The Story of Film is also remarkably accessible and entertaining and should fulfil the absolutely imperative task of engaging younger, inquisitive minds as well as more seasoned academics. Touring numerous international film festivals, the series gets a prime-time Saturday evening slot at 9:15pm on More4 from September 3. Make a date, and don’t dare break it.