The Story Ends

Last week, Mark Cousins’ epic series The Story of Film ended. Next year, Mark goes on tour with it, so watch in case he comes to your neighbourhood. I wrote about the series when it started, and promised to return to it.

Much of my original review was taken up with nitpicking over the early episodes’ factual errors — apparently many of these were due to the wrong edit being transmitted, which was very unfortunate. I’m glad to report that as the show went on, these lapses lessened considerably in severity and frequency, although they didn’t completely go away. TOP GUN wasn’t edited on a computer, could not have been at that time. And THE BIG LEBOWSKI was made in 1998, NOT during the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein appears in the dream sequence because the film is a period movie, not because “the war was on and the Coen brothers wanted to reflect that.” As always, the problem isn’t so much in the mistake, but in its knock-on effects. The Coens come to seem like realists with a social conscience, anxious to inject some political commentary into their light entertainment film — in fact, they’ve always been so keen to separate their films from contemporary reality, they set their film seven years in the past for no real reason. I think that tells you a lot about them, and it’s all different stuff from what you’d infer from the erroneous line.

My biggest criticism has been the use of VO in general — Billy Wilder’s rule that you should use narration only to convey things the audience can’t see or hear otherwise would have been a good one to follow here. Instead, time and again, Cousins describes exactly what we’re looking at. Sometimes this is actually fine — it focusses us on what we’re supposed to notice for the sake of the documentary’s overall argument. But too often it’s exactly as redundant as it sounds, and it not only gets in the way of appreciating the movie clips, it takes up time which could have been spent telling us what we need to know.

There are those who don’t like the quality of the voice-over, and Mark’s voice — “He does that questioning rising intonation, but he does it in the middle of a sentence!” complained one irate friend — but it doesn’t bother me. It’s such a personal and idiosyncratic view of film history that it wouldn’t make sense for anybody else to do it. And I like the voice. (I’ve heard some good impersonations, from Stephen Fry and Adam & Joe. I can’t do the voice, I can only do the walk.)

The last couple of episodes suffered from the fact that recent cinema is much harder to gain a perspective on — LA HAINE is a good film, but is it part of a particularly important movement in modern cinema? Or is it just a good film? If so, why include it, since you can’t possibly include every good film? But there are great encounters with Sokhurov, Roy Andersson, Jane Campion. Even Ken Loach, whom I don’t much like, has a great bit on his approach to editing (remind me to talk about this sometime) — he’s rarely asked about technique, as if “realism” were just a product of pointing the camera at ugly stuff.

The best stuff is in the third quarter, the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties. The multinational perspective offered is genuinely unique in TV history, as we get not only Hollywood and Europe, but Japan, Hong Kong, Africa, Iran, Brazil… the series’ spine is the idea of film as a bunch of memes transmitted through time and across continents, and this helps binds the disparate threads together. But what it doesn’t necessarily create is the STORY promised in the title… since it would of necessity be an open-ended story, one with an insanely long cast of characters and more major incidents than can easily be recounted, where the sensational is at constant war with the significant, crafting a story is a tall order.

Cousins’ enthusiasm is his main driving force, and sometimes it gets in the way, spilling over into unhelpful and woolly superlatives about “the brilliance of the medium,” but when he suspends judgement he’s at his best — the aforementioned critique of TOP GUN avoids the expected slams directed at the film’s right-wing inanities, and instead details, rather deftly, the actual visual and aural qualities of the thing itself.

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17 Responses to “The Story Ends”

  1. I’m not a fraction as knowledgeable as you so hadn’t picked up on the factual errors, and I don’t mind his voice (I find it strangely hypnotic), but I do agree with the use of vo to point out the bleedin’ obvious: but his voice is so trippy that often I zoned out of what he was saying entirely and just enjoyed the clips. Husband liked this aspect, he felt it bit into the illusion of the film and focussed him on what was being done. For me, as a rather ignorant viewer, there seemed to be a lot of returning to the same favourites which didn’t feel as significant to me as they obviously are to Cousins (the idiosyncratic old thing that he is). Still 8 years’ worth is some achievement. Now what we need is The REAL Story of Film from D Cairns Esq. …

  2. I did end up watching most of them with the subtitles on, which I’m not proud about. But at least that way I found out that the More4 subtitlers were taking the piss out of Marlon Brando in The Godfather clips.

  3. The Coens set their films in the past because thay have no social consciousness whatsoever. They’re cynical slugs whose films reflect an extremely active hostility to intellect and truth.

  4. It certainly seems significant to me that their movie set amid Washington power-brokers avoids any actual reference to political events. If I was inclined to be generous to them, which I sometimes am, I would still say that they set their films in the past to evoke certain stylistic and generic models, not because they’re interested in exploring historical events.

    Tim, tell me more about these subtitles!

    Gill, I agree that the VO has a mesmeric feeling, surely intentional and often quite effective. It’s the misstatements that jolted me out of that agreeable state of dream-drifting, which I wanted to feel continuously.

  5. I’m up to episode 12 or 13. Minor quibbles aside, the show is both a fun entertainment, and a recommendation engine for many films I’ve now added to my must-see list. There was one episode about radical films in the 1970’s (the one with Ken Russell and Nic Roeg) that showed so many astounding clips, I had trouble keeping up. Apparently 70’s world cinema is a weakness of mine.

    Agreed about the personal nature of the VO – by using his own idiosyncratic voice, Cousins marks the whole “odyssey” as his individual view of cinema rather than some kind of bland AFI special. He also distinguishes his series by the uniquely varied selection of interview subjects.

    I do want to rewatch the series sometime, making note of all his proclaimed greats. Examples:
    “Come and See” is the greatest war film ever made.
    “Distant Voices, Still Lives” is the greatest British film of the 1980’s.
    The Hollywood Blacklist was the “single greatest trauma in American Cinema” (I would’ve thought it’s the production code)
    Hitchcock was the greatest image maker of the 20th century.
    Etc.

    What is the “greatest film ever made” that he mentions every time during the open? Is it Tokyo Story?

  6. I think it might well be. The word “greatest” should probably be banned from critical discourse.

    But I’d certainly second Mark’s recommendation of Come and See, a real vision of hell (The Ascent is probably a more accurate evocation of the reality of war, though — so does that make it “greater”?) and the others. You’re right about the Code.

    Oh, the “ten reasons Hitchcock is as important as Picasso” was a very bad idea. To begin with, such an argument would have to demonstrate why Picasso is important, which it didn’t…

    I should add that I would be IN NO WAY qualified to make a series like this — I completely lack the breadth of knowledge Mark bring to it.

  7. Any person, no matter how learned or enthusiastic who announces a “greatest film of all time” I just dismiss it. It will be a great film no doubt, coming from the right person especially, but that sort of superlative isn’t one I respect. I’ve heard it from people who watch nothing but action films, too.

    I guess I just despise lists.

  8. In fairness, Cousins speaks of “what might be the greatest film of all time” — he’s aware that such things are necessarily relative… I guess he just forgets sometimes.

    Lists suck. I am thinking of making a list of neglected Xmas films, since I figure such a list might actually be of use over the hols, though.

  9. Apropos of Christmas films (or films I like to watch at Christmas … ), ‘Dean Spanley’ will be showing on New Year’s Day, 12.40 pm, BBC2, for anyone who has yet to see the ‘greatest film to star O’Toole, Neill & Northam and be directed by Toa Fraser’.

  10. Highly recommended — in fact, I’d call it “the century’s first great dog film.”

  11. I’ve noticed a trend at TCM of mixing “Christmas” film that are not as revoltingly sentimental along with the regular fare. I approve of that, though they haven’t yet shown that Christian-Jaque film L’assassinat du Père Noël. They have shown The Cheaters, Remember The Night, and others that are set in the season but not really Christmas treacle.

    Considering the OD’ing of broadcasts of White Christmas, the inevitable It’s A Wonderful Life and others during my youth, it’s a relief .

  12. There are plenty of alternative choices, after all. How come lots of us remember fondly screenings of Richard Williams’ Christmas Carol or Wendy Toye’s Twelve Days of Christmas, but TV programmers have forgotten?

  13. We always watch Christmas movies around now, some of them more Christmassy than others. This week was “Meet Me In St. Louis” (not extremely christmassy except for that one perfect song), the Black Adder Christmas Carol, and Sun Valley Serenade (hardly christmassy at all). The Albert Finney SCROOGE is up next.

    I’m extremely pro-lists… that massive hundred-page list of lists that Sight & Sound puts out each year is pure candy to me. But it’s the same thing as Mark Cousins’ proclaimed greatest-films – not to be taken as objective truth, just reliable recommendations.

    Watching episode 13 now. THIS JUST IN: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE is “the single greatest work of autobiography in cinema.” I love the Kiarostami trilogy round-up… I watched those movies so far apart, I hadn’t realized some of the connections between them.

  14. I saw A Moment of Innocence thanks to Mark’s recommendation, and it is indeed wonderful. A dazzling mix of fiction and fact, you’re never quite sure how real anything is. So, if it turned out he’d faked the whole thing, what would it be the greatest work of then? I don’t think its greatness hinges on its being truly autobiographical, it has more to do with the way it keeps us uncertain.

    But since that’s based on us believing it has some relation to fact, I guess an admission of fakery from MM might wreck our response to the film. My definition of documentary: a documentary is something you watch, believing it to be a documentary.

  15. I agree about the voice over problems – it was not too noticeable a problem during the silent episodes but I remember when they were showing clips from Double Indemnity that a conversation would start playing from the middle of a scene, Cousins would then begin to talk over it, and then finish talking and move on without the scene itself being over!

    That, I think, makes assessing the films away from Cousins’ voice very difficult to do, and once a couple of mistakes are noted I found myself unwilling to believe his statements on other films, especially when he did not allow the films themselves enough time to prove his point themselves, something which for example Scorsese’s film documentaries always did.

    This might have been due to lack of time, but I think I would rather have had fewer things dealt with in better detail. I also think this is a stylistic thing because Cousins often did the same thing with interviewees – I especially remember one of the Stanley Donen interviews started with Cousins’ narration, gave Mr Donen one line that basically affirmed what Cousins was saying and then went straight back to the narration talking over him again!

    I don’t really have a problem with Cousins’ actual narration – it is a bit addled and drifting off into fluffy self-regard at times, but that can be quite a nice way of conveying the transportational feel of a great film. I do have much more trouble with, and can see annoyance arising from, the imposition of ‘this must have happened…’ offhand comments without letting the material open up on its own terms, as if Cousin’s if too busy trying to make a piece of the jigsaw fit into his thesis without caring if it might be the wrong one.

    I acutally found the sections where he did ‘commentary style’ close readings of film sequences to be the best, since there you could assess along with him and often see what it was he had noticed in the films. You mention above about why Cousins would choose to highlight La Haine – I remember back in his first series of Moviedrome series of introductions in 1997 that he showed both the remake of Scarface and La Haine together, tracing the development of the “World Is Yours” banner from the tragedy of the original 1930 Scarface through the post-modern empty facades of the 1980s remake into the repurposed “Le monde est nous” billboards one of the characters passes in La Haine (which was a fascinating premonition of the way urban rap culture, albeit French here, would co-opt the Scarface myth).

    Unfortunately Cousins does not connect his discussion of La Haine in the latter episodes of The Story of Film with his reiteration of his “World Is Yours” critiquing of the original and remake of Scarface during the 1930s section of the series. That would have been a brilliant opportunity to tie, maybe even bookend, the series.

    However it would involve talking of the way that ‘world cinema’ takes ideas from the ‘Hollywood bauble’ and reinterprets them, so it would not perhaps have fit in with the oppositional thesis that was being created here.

    I think that was my big problem – for a quick overview of world cinema shown in a regular slot for three months of the year every Saturday at primetime on an important national TV channel, it was a success. Individual rare film clips and specific discussions were interesting and even enlightening, and the interviews invaluable. However when it came to Cousins applying all of these elements into a judgement of what constitutes an overarching ‘story of film’ however, there were real problems; and it was deeply ironic that a series that constantly complained about the ‘Hollywood bauble’, to the extent of almost totally ignoring the vast amount of classic Hollywood from the 30s to the 60s (outside of Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Ninotchka, if I remember rightly), climaxes with a use of Inception as an example of the future of cinema.

  16. Sometimes it really felt as if he was riffing off the clips in front of him, rather than telling us about the films they came from. Agree that the close analysis was great, and I could have done with more of it.

    I don’t think Mark really has anything but love for classic Hollywood cinema, he was just downplaying it in order to justify spending more time on less obvious work, which was fair enough.

    Perhaps he needed more time in order to SUBTRACT voice-over from some of the show — a DVD release might profitably allow the viewer to switch off the VO altogether and simply drift through the clips, making their own connections. It would be a nice alternative option.

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