Story Points

Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey, currently running on UK TV (channel: More 4) and just screened at Toronto International Film Festival, is an amazing achievement — a fifteen hour, ten part series covering the entirety of cinema history, worldwide. I have a few problems with it, but that shouldn’t take away from the scale and breadth and vision on display. One correspondent wrote something like “It’s an amazing opportunity, I hope he doesn’t blow it,” but while that’s all true, it should also be said that this is an opportunity Mark created — it didn’t exist until he dreamed it into being.

We might equally call the series (inspired by Mark’s book The Story of Film) not an odyssey but “An Odd Essay, since it’s also a very personal and quirky look at the cinema. Some people seem find Mark hard to take (see Shane Danielsen’s interview here if you need an example), and if that includes you, you’ll probably have problems with the show. Knowing Mark a little, and his editor, Timo Langer, an ex-student of mine, I’m probably a little prejudiced in their favour, but at any rate I never minded his voice-over, which here has a dreamy, meditative quality, soft like the whispering narrator of Godard’s TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER.

Mark’s decision to trace the connectedness of film-making, not through the money or the technology, but through the transmission of film language and ideas, across time and continents, is one I wholeheartedly embrace. It’s a little like the David Bordwell-Kristin Thompson model, only Mark is less focussed on technical precision, which is sometimes a problem. But it means the show has a bracing dynamic, sweeping forward through history following the major movements, but able to at any moment leap back or forward to trace a single idea exploited by one filmmaker and then borrowed by another, perhaps fifty years later. So the journey is never predictable.

Imprecision of a different kind haunts the show, possibly as a result of its intensive post production phase: I can’t understand why Mark allowed himself to call THE KID Chaplin’s first picture (first feature, possibly yes), or refer to the studio Chaplin co-founded as “American Artists,” both of which seem like elementary blunders. Of course, it’s the stuff you think you know that always trips you up, because you don’t think to check it…

Bauer’s POSLE SMERTI.

This kind of stuff is bothersome because I really watch the series to find out stuff I don’t know, rather than to nitpick over the things I do: I enjoyed hearing about Evgeni Bauer and seeing clips, for instance. In a way, this kind of show suffers less than a book from occasional factual mistakes, since the films are allowed to speak for themselves, in the language of images. Nonetheless I worried that I might be picking up misconceptions about Bauer since I’m not aware of his work enough to notice if Mark made any mistakes.

The section on the silent clowns in episode two was probably my least favourite overall, both for the factual mistakes and the overall slant. I love Harold Lloyd but I think you could stand to exclude him in a series of this scope (Mark’s book doesn’t mention Bava or Argento — is Lloyd a more major figure than the entire giallo genre?). I don’t understand why Keaton came first, given the show’s approximately chronological structure (unless it’s because Mark really thinks Chaplin’s oeuvre began with THE KID in 1921?). And I don’t think Mark has a very strong conception of either filmmaker, at least as portrayed here — the statement that Chaplin was “much more interested in body movement” than Keaton is certainly debatable, but I think it’s conclusively disproved by the image (of the two men together in LIMELIGHT) he puts on the screen to illustrate it. And a shot of Keaton wiping a smudge of dirt from his engine in THE GENERAL is used to suggest that his character is “obsessed with details” — which is sort of understandable as a (mis-)reading of that image in isolation, but isn’t borne out by a single thing that happens elsewhere in the film. What that tender gesture very clearly means to me is that Buster’s Johnny Gray is IN LOVE WITH HIS TRAIN.

Some sections are divided between the terrific and the less-than-terrific: Mark’s commentary takes us through the Odessa Steps massacre from POTEMKIN, and is incisive and informative (with a guest appearance by DePalma’s widescreen colour stereophonic sound homage/swipe in THE UNTOUCHABLES), but a brief bit “explaining” Eisenstein’s theory of the Montage of Attractions left me confused. I suspect it’d have left Eisenstein confused too. I think Mark’s focus on the big picture sometimes results in a  loss of precision on detail work.

Elsewhere, though, we do have the amazing scope (after only two episodes it already overwhelmed me to consider the sheer scale of the undertaking thus far: now, after four episodes, it just seems an inconceivable project) and all the advantages of using film to talk about film. And unlike just about every film documentary made for British TV in the last ten years, Mark respects his material enough to show the clips in the right aspect ratio. The bloody philistines at BBC4 should take note.

The biggest virtue of taking a broad view like this is that different national cinemas finally get the respect they deserve. I’ve never seen a British film documentary talk about Ozu, and while the importance of I WAS BORN, BUT… in Y.O.’s oeuvre is well understood by most serious cinephiles, you’d struggle to find this acknowledged in many textbooks or documentaries. LIMITE, by Mario Peixoto, may be an anomaly as a great Brazilian film of the 30s, rather than the harbinger of a major movement, but the clips shown were thrilling, and I rushed to procure a copy. The film histories I was brought up on were racist by omission, and this is the first “complete” history ever broadcast. There certainly aren’t many cinephiles with the breadth of knowledge to even think about attempting this, and even fewer with the energy to make it happen.

Coming up in future episodes: interviews with Gus Van Sant, Ed Neumeier (on ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS), Buck Henry, plus profiles of Kira Muratova, Paradjanov, Assja Djebar, Sokurov, Tati, Bergman, Imamura, Roy Andersson… much more… and “a surprise at the end.” (Yes, I’ve been speaking to Mark.)

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26 Responses to “Story Points”

  1. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I really don’t think he’s pulled it off. The factual errors are just sloppy, while there’s a huge gap between his stated ambition and what’s presented on screen. I also feel that anyone not well-versed in film history will be lost. It’s great to see usually unexplored by-ways (major and minor) exposed in a mainstream documentary series like this, but the barriers to entry (including that oh-so-annoying voice over) are huge… A brave attempt, but an honourable failure I feel. I’ll see if the next few instalments change my mind…

  2. Thanks for these wonderful and helpful comments, David. The entire series played at TIFF but was such a daunting investment of time that I didn’t see any of it. But I look forward to catching up with the series on DVD.

  3. Well, Mark says the second half is the better. I kind of agree about those errors, it seems like it would have been easy and free to run the show past somebody who would have spotted them, although it was probably time that got in the way of that.

    Exploring the interconnectivity of film ideas across time seems to be building, the further we get into it the more connections and influences become apparent, and I like the way he’ll casually refer back to something from four episodes ago.

    I agree it’s not going to appeal to anyone without an interest, but I’d love to hear how it plays to interested parties without a lot of film history knowledge…

    I recall discovering Bigger Than Life and Leave Her To Heaven via Scorsese’s American Cinema doc, which was far more important than the critical insights offered, and I’ve already added to my to-watch list from Mark’s show.

  4. Love that you’ve put Fellini’s Satan on your banner!

  5. I’ve been agnostic about Mark Cousins ever since I bought his book “The Story of Film’ back in about 2004. Soon after starting it, I became so aware of, and annoyed by, the errors and typos it contained, I started to record them all. OK, so maybe the publishers were to blame to some degree, but any author who allows a book to go to print with so many mistakes is not doing their job properly. Detail is always important, otherwise readers begin to doubt, as I did, everything that the book has to say.

  6. That was kind of my problem… I overcame it by focussing on the positive. There’s stuff that’s wrong, and other stuff that’s unnecessary, and other stuff that you question because the factual errors make you doubt. But even after all that, I do find a lot to appreciate, more so in the show than the book.

  7. Fellini’s lil’ devil is a harbinger of Halloween!

  8. Christopher Says:

    a single error can ruin the whole pie

  9. Yeah, but perhaps not when it’s a film historical pie. In fact a lot of textbooks have deliberate errors inserted in them so copyright violations can be proven, or so I’ve been told.

    I’m actually bothered more by the bits I don’t think are valid observation, than by the factual errors. But for every one of those there are two or three things of intense interest.

  10. If observation and opinion is your forte, that’s fine. Make it clear that’s what you’re producing, and everyone is free to accept or reject what you say. But if you make any claim to the creation of a factual record, (it is called ‘The Story of Film’ after all), then you have a responsibility to make it as accurate as you possibly can.

  11. Well, it’s “The Story” not “The History”… I agree it should be accurate though, and I know it’s meant to be. Mark admitted to being very embarrassed by the mistakes he’d spotted in the book. My favourite, which I gleefully pointed out, was the description of Johnny Guitar being shot in a new widescreen process called TruColor. The film isn’t in widescreen, and TruColor, as it’s name suggests, was a new COLOUR process. That one was the editor’s mistake, though Mark went along with it. He was rueful about it, then admitted that wasn’t the most embarrassing one…

    Although the film took a long time to make, growing all the while, in its final incarnation it had to come together rapidly, so I assume there just wasn’t time to run it past ANYONE.

  12. I’m far more thankful for Cousins work pulling together a larger world view of film history than I am concerned about the errors as that is pretty much par for the course in these sorts of docs as could be seen in the Ken Burns films. I have grown more than a little annoyed at the usual Hollywood, France, Italy, Japan and assorted hangers on view of film history so often perpetuated, so anything attempting to correct that is a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned. That said, I agree that not having those sorts of errors would have been preferable, but as David says, the interpretive issues tend to bug me a little more since they are harder to dispel than factual errors.

  13. That’s my view too. As some of the other countries portrayed came relatively late to the film-making stage, that aspect of the series still hasn’t fully kicked in yet. I’ll write again at the end of the series and try to assess it as a whole.

  14. david wingrove Says:

    THE STORY OF FILM is such a vastly ambitious project to take on, so I feel a little uneasy criticising it when I honestly don’t know anyone else who’d have the nerve to try!

    I admire immensely what Mark Cousins is trying to do, and the energy and passion he has so obviously invested in the project. The fact that I so often disagree with his approach seems almost beside the point.

    “It is better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing perfectly.”

  15. Yes, and I quite enjoy encountering a view of cinema different from my own, if it’s well argued.

  16. News from Mark — the factual errors cited by Mark were all spotted and corrected before broadcast — and then due to a screw-up in TV-land, the earlier, uncorrected edit was broadcast. So by the time you see the DVD or Festival version, these niggly things will be fixed. And subsequent episodes should be more howler-less.

  17. I had a bad feeling when the trailers for this referred, in large print, to a contribution by “PAUL SHRADER”, and the episode I watched had pretty horribly off-beam summations of Hawks (“the quintessential studio director”? not hardly) and Hitchcock, but the good bits on the whole outweigh the bad, and the vaguely Chris Marker-ish essayistic structure, and the weight given to lesser-known filmmakers as mentioned above by David, all mean this is quite a surprising and unprecedented thing. It’s not perfect, and it’s infuriating sometimes, but it’s made with real passion and a real point of view. Could have done with being more of a group effort though that might have evened out the peculiarities for good or ill.

  18. Again, we can assume the trailers are the work of the broadcasters, who seem to be a little unreliable, but bless them for showing the thing at all. Hawks was never under long-term contract to any studio: you’d think, if someone were a quintessential studio director, you’d be able to name the studio. But one kind of knows what’s meant: it’s just that the words are all wrong. Which is kind of damning BUT —

    As you say, the good is considerable. I’d have loved to see it supported by more cash and a full crew — Mark’s decision to photograph it himself is questionable, given the out of focus interview with Stanley Donen, but that probably helped save money and thus made the range of interviews possible.

  19. Here was another unfortunate mistake that may need correcting for the DVD then, noted by Jonathan S at criterionforum.org:

    “A small point perhaps, but I was rather appalled that he misidentified [in the first episode] – both in the commentary and an on-screen caption – his clip from Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune (1902), perhaps the most famous of all early films, as La lune à un mètre (1898).”

  20. Plus somebody claims he says Nanook takes place in Alaska, but I don’t remember if that’s true. Maybe we should keep notes! Actually, it would be cool if the mistakes weren’t edited out, but the DVD could have a special “Errata” feature taking you through all the errors. A much, much shorter odyssey, consisting only of false statements, would make a wonderful supplement.

  21. Similar debates (concerning accuracy and objectivity) aroused almost ten years ago, when JAZZ (Ken Burns), another ambitious and epic narration of history of an art form, was broadcast on PBS. Some experts were furious at the lack of any serious pause on modern jazz, when three hours (from 12) was dedicated to swing and big band of the 1930s. But nothing like JAZZ has happened since, and no new narrative has formed by any other filmmaker or scholar. So it is the sole visual history of jazz music, and I don’t think anybody has the courage to break the silence, and fill the gap, and for instance, make a 10 hour long film about modern jazz. Now, as time is passed, many people are reconsidering the values and impacts of Burns’ work. “In a classic example of how time can inevitably alter one’s prior impressions,” one observes in his revisionist viewpoint of the Burns’ work, “and this is not to say the series is without flaws…but taken as a whole for what it was, there has been no better pure television series on jazz music.”

    All I’m trying to say is when we watch a project, as massive as this, reaching a balanced point in which our personal visions and desires, and limitations imposed by a very limiting format (public TV) could be very difficult. Criticism of a 15 hour long film, could be 8 times more than what a normal feature film can get. I believe Mark Cousins has done a very brave attempt, and like other acts of bravery in this medium (OUT 1?) I think taking this cinematic journey (and as Mark says, “a bumpy one”) is more important than probably stopping the ride for the minor obstructions which happen during any long trip.

    Even now, hardly reached the half of the series, I know that at least two universities in UK are using the Story of Film to teach film history and technique to bachelor students of film studies (one is Metropolitan University of London). So I think we must look at SoF as a good start for those youngsters who want to explore the world of cinema. I met a Japanese film study student who is watching the series and apparently so exited about it. Do you have any other suggestion for that young man to give him a broad view of an art form, show him nearly 1000 clips (films+interviews), and introduce him to Forough Farrokhzad, or the cinema of Noriaki Tsuchimoto, and at the same time keep the track of Scorsese and King Vidor?

    I don’t know any, so I’m happy for that Japanese student, and for myself.

    source for the quotes: http://www.openskyjazz.com/2011/09/reconsidering-ken-burns-jazz/

  22. Thanks, Ehsan! I agree — for specific parts of the journey, there are certainly more precise and in-depth documentaries, but this whistlestop epic is the only thing of its kind that attempts the big picture. If it encourages people to check out Brownlow and Gill’s documentaries, or Scorsese and Jones’, it’ll have already done a great job.

  23. You’re absolutely right about “parts of the journey”, and allow me to add Richard Schickel to that list.

  24. True. I’ve been nitpicking every episode over on the criterion forum (and I did suggest that Tom Sutcliffes 2000 BBC series Watching tackled the overaching themes of cinema in a much more concise and precise manner) but it is still nice to see a programme about cinema on UK television again.

    I still think though that if it were titled “A Personal Story of Film: An Odyssey with Mark Cousins” that would immediately defuse most of the criticisms that a monolithic, engraved on stone tablets “THE story of film” suggests! Plus a ‘personal journey’ would actually help turn some of the mistakes, ommissions and issues I have with the series into charming, individualistic quirks!

    Having said that the episode shown tonight (the sixth one on the late 1940s and 1950s) is perhaps the first fully satisfying one that I have seen. If the rest of the series continues in this vein then it will certainly have been succesfull overall – that one focuses more on in depth commentary on the films, introducing rarer films from Brazil, China and Mexico, as well as providing some nice film criticism too.

    Plus it features, albeit brief, interviews with both Youssef Chahine and Xie Jin, both of whom died in 2008. So this particular episode is extremely valuable if only from that perspective.

  25. Mark sounded more enthusiastic about the second half of the series, so hopefully it’ll continue strong. I’m looking forward to catching up with my recording of tonight’s show.

  26. Thanks for an even-handed discussion of a project which seems be getting a lot of people hot under the collar. I love the series, and think the nit-picking is a little mean-spirited given the ambitious scope of the series, and more importantly, the passion and love for the moving image that Cousins displays. This is not a dry academic work, but a bundle of love letters to film. The series is full of moments where Cousins is saying (to his fairly mainstream audience) “you probably haven’t seen or heard of this, but isn’t it wonderful?”, and for this, I love it.

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