Archive for Top Gun

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.

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