Archive for The Story of Film

The Old Lady Baby

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on February 12, 2014 by dcairns



RIP Shirley. One of her youngest fans, the daughter of a good friend, discovered her on “the YouTube” and was mightily taken by her performance as “the old lady baby” in this clip ~

Mark Cousins excerpts the same scene in The Story of Film, and makes the complaint that Temple is too performative, not natural enough — I think a difficult point to make stick when the kid is singing a song, but he has a point more generally. Of course ST was the consummate pro even as a toddler — what you see is an incredibly skilled artifice, amazing in one so young, and a different kind of talent than those kids who are simply able to behave onscreen. With the amazing Bobby Henrey in THE FALLEN IDOL, which Monte Hellman has called the best-directed film he’s ever seen, we have a series of authentic bits of behaviour, extracted by director Carol Reed and assembled into a narrative. AD Guy Hamilton thought Henrey couldn’t act at all, because all he saw was the effort it took from Reed to get those moments, and all the other moments which were wrong and couldn’t be used.

Shirley, of course, would have been perfect every take of every shot. It’s just a different kind of talent — and she had more of her particular kind than any other kid who’s acted on the screen.

Unsettling images from BABY TAKE A BOW, or as I call it, THE BLUE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE.

The Story Ends

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 21, 2011 by dcairns

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.

Story Points

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2011 by dcairns

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.)