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…
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.)