The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

2015 #112
100 Films in a Year #1000
Mark Cousins | 915 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 15

The Story of Film: An OdysseyWritten, directed, and narrated by film journalist/historian/fan Mark Cousins, The Story of Film: An Odyssey is an epic 15-hour account of innovation throughout the history of moviemaking, which began its premiere broadcast five years ago today. It’s an acclaimed work, to be sure, but one that also attracts its fair share of controversy — about films and filmmakers that Cousins chose to leave out, in some cases about those he chose to include, and about how the documentary itself was made: the oddly framed interviews, the artistic shots of baubles, Cousins’ accent and vocal inflections. (Also, in the context of counting it as part of 100 Films, you may think it’s a TV series. Well, I went over that here.)

In the booklet that accompanies the series’ film’s UK DVD release, Cousins explains how and why the project came about:

There have been histories of the movie genres before, star histories, continental histories, histories of popular cinema, Godard’s essayistic history, etc. But no-one had tried to do a history of innovation in the movies. […] I was angry, too, that movie history is often so parochial, so provincial. We remember Garbo but not the great Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, we worship Pixar but not the great Iranian kids’ films of Mohammed Ali-Talebi. This is blatantly unfair. The playing field is not level. The bullies with massive marketing budgets force their movies on us, whether they’re good or not, thus restricting our choice.

Part of the point of The Story of Film, then, is to widen Western audiences’ understanding of film and its history — a position also not without controversy, but I’ll come back to that.

The original concept was to tell this story over a handful of 90-minute episodes — “three chunky Saturday nights on BBC2 or C4”, as producer John Archer describes it in the DVD’s booklet. Unfortunately, the BBC declared the project was “too big”, which is ironic considering how it ended up. As Cousins describes in this making-of article, to help pitch the series they set out to produce a 10-minute test. When that clocked in at 50 minutes, they realised the final piece would have to be considerably longer than expected. By the time More4 got involved to buy the UK TV rights, the expected running time was 12 hours. It continued to grow, eventually looking like it would finish at 18 hours. Cousins decided this could be honed “to 15 hours but any less and — I told my producer and Tabitha Jackson our Exec Producer at More4 — we’d have to cut out Woody Allen, Robert Altman, people like that… So they gave me 15 hours.”

Those final 15 hours represent tens of thousands of hours of work. Cousins estimates the work needed to prepare and finish the clips from other films (of which there are about 1,000) totalled 20,000 man hours, most of it completed by just Cousins and Archer, working 90-hour weeks on four hours sleep a night, with festival and broadcast deadlines looming. Before that, they spent six years travelling the world — “across China and LA, to Tokyo and the streets of Mumbai, to the urban canyons of New York, the film schools of Paris, to Eisenstein’s Moscow and Bergman’s Sweden” — recording interviews and scene-setting footage. It’s an epic undertaking, whichever way you cut it. As film programmer Thom Powers described it in the TIFF catalogue, “by taking a DIY approach, Cousins preserves an editorial independence that normally gets lost with a bigger budget and committee decision-making. […] After experiencing this history from such a distinctive viewpoint, you may crave similar treatments for music, literature, politics or whatever compels you.”

The end result is indeed a magnificent viewing experience. Cousins’ chosen remit is so wide, and his knowledge so deep, that even the most seasoned cinephile is sure to learn something new at some point. It’s like attending a film course with an immensely well-read lecturer who’s keen to share his accumulated wisdom with you. Indeed, to quote from the man himself again, “in the era of DVD, Blu-ray, streaming and VOD, hundreds of thousands of movies are available, often a click away. At times of such plenitude, it’s easy to get bewildered — what should I watch next? The Story of Film: An Odyssey is […] our passionate suggestions of what to watch next.” Those suggestions encompass the whole history and world of cinema, in a very literal way. This manifestly isn’t just the story of Hollywood and European arthouse — Cousins is also keen to cover the emergent cinema of South America, Africa, and others. Including them isn’t a sop; a case of “everyone gets a prize!” It’s a case of films of genuine import or interest that have been overlooked, for various reasons, and Cousins makes a strong case not only for why these wrongs should be righted, but for why you’d want them to be, too.

Nonetheless, some have criticised the series for its lack of focus on American/Western cinema, which is to spectacularly miss (part of) the point. One of Cousins’ goals is to shake us out of our inward-looking learnt-by-rote Hollywood-centric history of the movies. He’s not seeking to ignore Hollywood, but to share what was going on elsewhere in the world — stuff that, sometimes, Hollywood later appropriated for its own. And besides, I don’t need him to tell me of the rise and fall of the studio system, of the arrival of the film school auteurs, of the birth and growth of the blockbuster, of the indie explosion and near-death, of the rise of a new studio system and the near-dominance of the blockbuster. Some people seem to want a documentary that tells the history of cinema as they already know it; a documentary that does so little to challenge their existing knowledge that they probably could’ve knocked it out themselves given an hour or two. Isn’t it better to have something challenging? Something that says, “you think you know the history of cinema, but are you sure?” Something that shows us something new.

Cousins specifically outlines pretty much all of this in his eight-minute introduction right at the start of the series. He outright says the accepted history of cinema is wrong and needs rewriting. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to accept that he’s right to say that — and whether or not you feel his story adequately makes the case for it will be the deciding factor in whether you should believe him or not — but to expect anything different is to not be paying attention. He also makes clear that it’s the story of innovation in film. Does that make it comprehensive? No, of course not — there are surely many films that aren’t innovative in and of themselves but that are significant and immensely influential. That doesn’t make Cousins wrong to omit them, because that’s not exactly the story he’s telling. But it also validates the argument that this is “a” story of film rather than a catch-all definitive telling of everything important.

The other main complaint about the series seems to concern Cousins’ voice, in particular citing a tendency towards AQI. This might sound like a witless niggle, but when you’re essentially listening to that voice talk for 15 hours, it isn’t a small issue. Personally, I find AQI intensely irritating and so think I’m quite sensitive to it, but I barely heard it at all. In fact, on the whole, I found Cousins’ narration to be uncommonly pleasant, especially as it so often comes with the benefit of some nice, crisp diction. Besides, that upward inflection “is also a feature of several UK dialects, especially in mid-Ulster and Belfast” — guess which city Mr Cousins hails from.

Although The Story of Film works as one (very long) film, it’s also possible to see where the divisions into 15 TV-friendly parts occurred. Here are some of my thoughts on each section, using the titles as found in the DVD booklet (because not everyone agrees on those).

Part One: Birth of the Cinema (1895-1920)

Beginning at the beginning, the opening hour is like a “basics of film” class — it covers all the innovations of framing (close-ups), editing (parallel cutting; the 180 rule), and more. It teaches how films are built to this day from how those rules were discovered and established. When it moves on to things like the birth of the movie star, of special effects, of Hollywood, you realise that so much of what still defines the world of movies was set out back in its very earliest days.

As an opening instalment, it also gives you a sense of Cousins’ stylistic goals for the series. For instance, although this is an artistic history of film (of its concepts, ideas, and meanings), it’s one that’s cognisant of how external real-world forces played a part in that — for example, the American studios being located in Hollywood because of people wanting to avoid the copyrights and patents placed on filmmaking on the East Coast. It also tells the story across the ages at all times. The broad sweep of the narrative structure moves chronologically, but Cousins is unafraid to make connections to films made many decades later to help illustrate a point or to show how ideas or techniques have endured. It’s more effective and informative than remaining slavishly chronological.

Part Two: The Hollywood Dream (1920s)

Sticking with the silent era (more on the significance of that in a minute), this hour covers grand fantasies and romances, like The Thief of Bagdad; the innovations and influence of silent comedians like Keaton, Lloyd and, primarily, Chaplin; and the birth of documentary, not as mere observed non-fiction, but as storytelling in its own right. Cousins asserts that documentary is seen by most as being plainly factual, but it is actually one of the most innovative of all genres. Certainly, there’s more to the construction of documentaries than some people realise.

Even this early in the series, there are so many films of which we get fascinating glimpses — it’s sure to leave you with a massive list of things you want to see. Similarly, it’s so dense with information and analysis that it feels wrong to watch too much at once. It’s like eating too much rich food: you still enjoy it, but you can’t separate it out in your mind, can’t appreciate or process it properly. But then binge watching is all the rage nowadays, so maybe that’s just me. (Or maybe people aren’t appreciating things fully, but that’s a debate for another time.)

Part Three: Expressionism, Impressionism, Surrealism (1920s)

The third hour explicitly concerns the people and movements Cousins sees as alternatives or rebels to ’20s and ’30s cinema, both what they did that was different and how it fed back into the mainstream. We’re talking the likes of impressionism (Abel Gance), expressionism (Caligari), surrealism (Buñuel), the Russians (Eisenstein), the Japanese (Ozu), the Chinese (Ruan Lingyu), and more. All innovated in different ways — ways that were either integrated into common filmmaking, or remain striking and boundary-pushing to this day, almost 100 years later.

Some people write off the silent era as “that funny little bit at the beginning before sound came along”, dismissing a 35-year chunk of culture in a single swipe. That’s like ignoring every film made between 1981 and today (which, in fairness, I suppose some people do). Naturally, Cousins is not so foolhardy: it’s over three hours before he reaches the arrival of sound. When he ends this hour by foreshadowing the coming of sound, it’s constructed like a cliffhanger; not only that, but the narration disappears and is replaced by intertitles, to emphasise the point. This isn’t classical documentary making, but playful, individualistic, and clearly iconoclastic. It’s a personal visual lecture, rather than a glossy, polished, manufactured ‘product’.

Part Four: The Arrival of Sound (1930s)

Sound is obviously an important aspect of movies nowadays, but at first it was almost more of a burden. Cousins argues that its arrival standardised American cinema into only six genres: horror, Western, gangster, comedy, musical, and animation. It’s an interesting contention — I suppose his broader point is that Hollywood atrophied, to an extent; its camerawork certainly did, at least at first — but it doesn’t sound quite extensive enough. I mean, surely they made romances?

Still, it’s easy to let such things slide when Cousins is busy drawing fascinating links elsewhere. Here, he discusses the contrast between the white light of Westerns (films about an idealistic age when laws were made) and the dirty light of gangster pictures (films about a dying world where lawbreakers are the heroes of a cynical age, when the making of the laws is long forgotten). These two genres co-exist, yet don’t consciously interact — except in the mind of the filmgoer, when we see both types of picture and can draw such links; links that none of the filmmakers involved ever intended, but which are unquestionably there. Cousins draws out these connections beautifully.

Finally, Cousins paints the ’30s as being about the American genres vs. innovation in European cinema, before taking us to London to meet a man who was both a great genre filmmaker and great innovator: Alfred Hitchcock. Britain bridging the gap between Europe and the US? Twas ever thus.

Part Five: Post-War Cinema (1940s)

Hitchcock said cinema is life with the boring bits cut out; the neo-realists said cinema is the boring bits. That probably explains why I’ve yet to enjoy anything neo-realist. Aside from that, Cousins gives us a nice big chunk on film noir and how it combined multiple influences, and covers the importance of Welles, Stagecoach, and The Third Man, which Cousins thinks encapsulates all of ’40s cinema. As you can see, this is not a documentary maker who’s ignoring established and well-known texts, but is perhaps more selective about which merit inclusion.

From a filmmaking perspective, between the film clips the series is what you might call “artistically shot” — there are very few talking heads; it’s all narrated by Cousins; and there’s lots of metaphorical imagery, some blatant (to represent the bauble of Hollywood we have… a bauble on a tree near Hollywood), others more ephemeral. However, at this point in the series we begin to see more taking heads, because we’re reaching eras where people (or people-who-knew-people) are still alive. It feels like a consequence of that is more close readings of specific films and/or filmmakers, with the series moving away from the “film theory” feel of earlier episodes a little bit, more into the territory of being the story of what occurred.

Part Six: Sex & Melodrama (1950s)

Talking of filmmaking technique, Cousins chooses to frame every interview differently. You might think it amateurism, not knowing how to frame interviewees consistently, but it was a conscious choice. He was, presumably, trying to convey something with how he framed them. Whether that was a worthwhile exercise or not is another matter. It certainly comes across as highly idiosyncratic at times.

At this point, the story of film is really increasingly global: there are great films in America, Britain, Europe, and Japan, as you might expect, but also Egypt, India, and Latin America. On the surface, the different films of these different countries are completely different. Underneath, Cousins demonstrates, they’re linked by trying to come to terms with a new, changing world, repressed emotions bursting forth, and sex. Lots of sex.

Part Seven: European New Wave (1960s)

Cousins begins by tackling the new waves led by four European directors: Bergman, Fellini, Bresson, Tati. There are a couple of significant directors missing from what one typically thinks of as “new wave” there, but this isn’t Cousins being deliberately controversial: after talking about the innovations of those four, he says the directors of the French New Wave came along and “carpet bombed” their revolutions, describing Godard as “the greatest movie terrorist”.

Here, Baz Luhrmann (believe it or not) makes a nice point about changing styles: the Nouvelle Vague wasn’t “real life”, it was an artifice, but an artifice that rejected the big costumes, pretty shots, vibrant colours, and romanticism of mainstream American cinema; and eventually that artifice came back in to fashion, and eventually it will be rejected again. Everything is cyclical, which is practically a philosophy for all life. Luhrmann compares it to language: the words change but the message remains the same; people always say “I love you” or “I want to kill you”, but how they say it is just fashion.

Part Eight: New Directors, New Form (1960s)

As the ’60s continue, new waves and revolutions are everywhere. There’s the Eastern Bloc and the cinema of protest (“rebels with a cause”, as Cousins puts it) and even more new, radical filmmakers in Japan, Africa, Iran, even the UK: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Kes, A Hard Day’s Night. It’s interesting to see very familiar films of British cinema put into this context — Ken Loach discusses the influence of Czech film on Kes, for instance.

Not even America is exempt. In a world where JFK, Malcolm X, and a million civilians in Vietnam protests were all murdered, and where cinema attendance was falling as people stayed home with TV, there were radical filmmakers Stateside too — including Hitchcock! Psycho, for instance, which eschews Hollywood gloss with its plain costumes, plain locations, and plain black & white photography, which Cousins aligns with documentary-influenced independent cinema. More obviously, there was Easy Rider. It was innovative, throwing all kinds of techniques at the screen, and appealed to young people who were fed up with conservative mainstream cinema and wanted something groundbreaking, forward-thinking, revolutionary — and it was a box office hit. The series gets you in the mindset to go beyond the connections Cousins draws and begin to make links yourself. Like, if this is how film as a medium, and society as a whole, seems always to have moved forward, then what thrilling revolutions can we see young people flocking to in the modern day? Disney superhero movies. Belated sequels to childhood favourites. Adaptations of socially conservative novels aimed at teenagers. Oh. Such contrast between then and now is a bit depressing, really.

Cousins concludes by saying this era of innovativeness wasn’t permanent — the ’70s would bring old-fashioned romantic entertaining cinema. As per Luhrmann’s theory, “what goes around comes around”, essentially. To be more positive about modern movies, I suppose this is an era we’re in now. I guess you could conflate the indie boom of the ’90s with the ’60s, or the auteur side of the ’70s; while the post-millennial special effects blockbusters are the latest incarnation of the Star Wars/Jaws/etc-driven ’80s. But then again, blockbusters also existed in the ’90s, and popular indie movies exist now — so how do you decide what’s the dominant form of an era? Is that purely the job of history — what gets remembered best. But what about when they all get remembered, as with the ’90s? I’ve diverged wildly into my own half-conceived theories here, but as if to back up my point about a time being more than one thing, the ’70s are about to get three whole episodes…

Part Nine: American Cinema of the 70s

In the first part on the ’70s, Cousins identifies three types of American auteurs/arthouse: mockery/satire (Buck Henry), dissident films that challenged conventional style (Charles Burnett), and assimilationist movies that told studio genre-style stories with new techniques (Robert Towne). Flying in the face of that criticism about Cousins ignoring US/Western films, in most eras he comes back to America, its story and innovations, after he’s done everywhere else. The exceptions are the birth of Hollywood in the ’20s and the radical ’70s, when he starts with America. Does Cousins want to get these famed and fêted eras in the US out of the way before he moves on to elsewhere, to avoid the nagging “but what about [major US film / director / movement]” question that many viewers would be troubled about otherwise? I doubt he’s so concerned with what you or I are pondering. Rather, these are the times when American cinema was most genuinely innovative (at least in Cousins’ opinion).

Part Ten: Movies to Change the World (1970s)

In the second part of the ’70s, Cousins has a particularly bold assertion: “Performance was not only the greatest ’70s film about identity. If any movie in the whole story of film should be compulsory viewing for filmmakers, maybe this is it.” I’ve not seen it, so I couldn’t say whether I agree or not, but it’s an unusual claim.

Cousins rattles round the globe here (Germany, Japan, Italy, Australia), but the most interesting part comes in Burkina Faso. Today, tens of thousands of people there attend the opening of a film festival. Local director Gaston Kaboré argues that consuming film from other countries is interesting, but if that’s all you do then your lose your uniqueness, your own way of seeing and thinking, your identity. This is exactly what continues to happen in countries that primarily consume American movies — they are increasingly Americanised. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to argue that Britain is one of the worst hit by this. Unlike other countries, we have governments with no serious interest in supporting a national cinema, and the lack of a language barrier between us and the US (only aided by the internet, both in terms of global conversation and media piracy) has created an ever-strengthening supply-and-demand culture across both TV and film. Of course, it can go both ways: look at all the British TV series that have had relatively large US success in the past few years. Somehow I think it’s had more of an impact on our little island, though.

Part Eleven: The Arrival of Multiplexes and Asian Mainstream (1970s)

As Cousins closes out his three-hour overview of the ’70s, we (or I) find ourselves in much more familiar territory: first Hong Kong, for the Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, John Woo, Tsui Hark, A Better Tomorrow, Once Upon a Time in China, Dragon Inn, Iron Monkey… then India, for Bollywood and Sholay… then the Middle East, with films about Mohammad and recent events… and then, most recognisable of all to Western audiences, and most influential of all to the world, Hollywood — Jaws, The ExorcistStar Wars. In all instances, this is cinema that moved away from intellectual thought and hard-hitting realism, and more towards feeling, sensation, emotion, fantasy. These things come and go (Luhrmann’s point about the cyclical nature of it all being perhaps the most pertinent observation of the entire series), but it’s hard to argue against the developments of the ’70s still being an influence today.

Part Twelve: Fight the Power: Protest in Film (1980s)

Much of this series is about things that are important within the world of film, but here we find movies that literally changed the world — like A Short Film About Killing, which contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. Elsewhere, director John Sayles and his producer/partner Maggie Renzi give birth to the methodology of what we now know as American independent cinema. Renzi says that Hollywood doesn’t even do what Hollywood does very well anymore — that it takes nine writers to produce a screenplay no better than the first draft — and she’s probably right.

While the list of “films that look worth seeing” continues to grow, sometimes the speed at which they pass by makes it tricky to know how worth seeing they are. For example, in this hour Cousins discusses Yeelen, describing it as “one of cinema’s most complex works of art”. Based on a Malian legend, telling of a heroic quest featuring magic and precognition, it sounds interesting, but it’s also hard to infer if it’s complex in a good, interesting way or in a frustrating, pretentious way.

Part Thirteen: New Boundaries: World Cinema in Africa, Asia, Latin America (1990s)

With only a couple of hours left(!), Cousins reaches modern concerns — here, it’s the last hurrah of celluloid and realism, before digital and fakery took over. Part of Cousins’ thesis seems to be that world cinema filmmakers were reacting to fantasy cinema by trying to show the real world, but that became a last gasp before fantasy cinema took over. It’s almost like a battle for the fate of cinema, between realism and fantasy; and fantasy won. So we have Dogme 95 and La Haine, but also Iranian filmmakers who played with form and reality, like making fictional versions of true stories using the real people; or Abbas Kiarostami, who made a film, then made a film about searching for the actors from that film, then made a film about an incident from the making of the second film. And fantasy and reality collide in places, like Michael Haneke and Funny Games, where the evil youths wink at the camera and rewind life like we rewind videos. That was groundbreaking, and obviously only possible in the home video era when rewinding, y’know, existed.

Part Fourteen: New American Independents & The Digital Revolution (1990s)

As we get closer to today, you find more and more references to the past. Is film coming full circle? Or at least becoming more self-aware; referencing itself more often. We’re talking Tarantino’s post-modern screenplays, the Coen brother’s re-appropriation of classic genres and imagery, Gus Van Sant’s film-history-aware visuals, the satire of Paul Verhoeven, Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant romanticisation of real life, and so on. It makes you think: is this the absolutely perfect time to be making a major “history of film” documentary?

It also reminds you that style or genre do not have to negate substance. Starship Troopers was born out of Verhoeven’s desire to make a film about young men coming into the prime of their lives at an exciting time for their country when everything was developing — that time and country being Germany in 1935, and the men being excited by Nazism. No Hollywood studio would ever make that movie, of course, but take those themes and do them as science fiction…

Part Fifteen: Cinema Today and the Future (2000s)

Unsurprisingly, the concluding hour feels somewhat less clear about what was particularly innovative and what exactly was going on that was most significant — it’s coming up to the present day and looking to the future, which is too recent to get a proper handle on. Nonetheless, Cousins does find genuine innovation, like the single-take Russian Ark. It’s not a film I liked, and even the analysis here incidentally alludes to why: you need to know what you’re seeing, and the context of what came next (in history) to get the point. If your knowledge of Russian history isn’t on the money, if you don’t know what you’re seeing depicted and what came after it, the film offers you no succour, and feels aimless. But innovative? Yes. Indeed, it’s a filmmaking feat that has only recently been emulated.

Talking of emulation, it seems unlikely anyone else will make a documentary as comprehensive and insightful as what Cousins has achieved here. For anyone serious about a love of film, it is a must-see. That doesn’t mean you’ll always agree with it, or accept it as the definitive telling of the story of motion pictures, but it is nonetheless a wide-reaching and thoroughly educational overview of what is arguably modern times’ most significant artform.

5 out of 5

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2 thoughts on “The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

  1. Good, fulsome writing! I remember this being screened and tending to watch it very late on Saturday night/Sunday morning, often the worse for wear and taking in little of what was being said! Since then I’ve bought the set and I like it a lot, though I’m stuck somewhere around episode nine (for no good reason). I see it as a great lesson in world cinema, an eye-opener into film making regions that normally don’t see the light of day in this country. As for Mr Cousins’s speaking voice, I like that too – idiosyncratic and enthusiastic. Nothing at all wrong with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, I know all about leaving off TV series at random points in the middle for no good reason!

      The biggest ‘downside’ to the series is that some of the most interesting-looking films it highlights are from those less-explored regions, so they’re also some of the most obscure and hardest to easily come by (as if there wasn’t enough stuff to watch anyway!)

      Liked by 1 person

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