“The Story of Film” (2011) at MoMA (Feb 01-16)

by on February 1, 2012Posted in: Essay


AUTHENTIC OLD-SCHOOL film-lovers never tire of hearing the epic bedtime story of cinema’s epic journey – the Cinemiad, if you will – and as a result we know the story terribly well, from primordial Lumiere-Edison soup to the unholy ascent of St. Spielberg and beyond. So well, in fact, that such geological histories of film, be they text or movie, have only so much to tell us, and if we enjoy them, it’s in the way we bask in old photo albums or radio songs. Pedagogy best profits the neophytes or laymen, to whom the coming of talkies or the career of Charlie Chaplin can seem like new slices of nostalgia pie, and for whom the retro texts of The Artist and Hugo are actually revelations.


But it ain’t necessarily so, says Mark Cousins, an Irish film scholar and former host of the now-defunct BBC interview series Scene by Scene, who has just triumphantly returned to U.K. airwaves with a suitably epic 15-hour mini-series, The Art of Film: An Odyssey. This massive BFI/Channel 4 co-production is a recounting of the Cinemiad that manages to be as accessible to the mezzobrow newcomer as it is filled with mystery for the dedicated moviehead. Certainly, for such a monster to strut its haunches and spread its wings on mainstream television, as ecumenical a tone as possible must be adopted. But Cousins wants to have his custard pie, courtesy of Mack Sennett, and eat it, too. And so the lilting strategy at hand is to take what David Bordwell calls the Standard Version of the medium’s birth and maturation and buttress it with forgotten global phenomena, with historical corrections (narrating, Cousins loves saying how you might’ve though such-and-such developed from something else, “but you’d be wrong”), and with contemplations of the actual places where film-historical lightning struck, glimpsed again and again as they stand today, often with new buildings and without commemorative plaques.


Godard’s cosmically bottomless coffee cup in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)

THE SERIES has its idiosyncrasies, all of them Cousins’ to own. There’s the matter-of-fact leapfrogging across the timeline, from the historical present into its “future” developments, to see where an innovation or trope will lead (you might’ve thought Welles’ deep-focus compositions and ceilings in Citizen Kane broke ground, but you’d be wrong: Ozu got there first). There’s the potentially inconclusive tracing of visual motifs from filmmaker to filmmaker, like the psycho-hypnotic close-ups of bubbling beverages from Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out through Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. And always there is the quizzical nature of Cousins’s North Irish narrational voice, which tilts up at the end of every sentence and makes every statement, no matter how “standard,” a whispery question.


It generally makes for grand company, and no devotee of the medium will be less than entranced as the series hopscotches continents and eras, however calmly, illustrating essential points of stylistic evolution with more clarity than any film history class could hope for. (Cousins’s portrait of the creation of crosscutting doesn’t even mention The Great Train Robbery but instead goes to Edwin S. Porter’s Life of an American Fireman, which was initially edited to show the simultaneous actions inside and outside a burning house separately, one after the other in their entirety, and then later recut by Porter to weave the two streams together.) More deep-dish than Todd McCarthy’s Visions of Light, less provocative than Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, and many times the breadth of both, The Story of Film could be a life-saving gift to the right viewer – say, the cinemanic Idaho teenager who doesn’t know anyone else who can name-check Sergei Paradjanov, and yet needs to know so much more.


But the point of such a monolithic project – besides smooching up to the pliant buttcheeks of film critics infuriated by cultural amnesia, besides taking the subtitle’s worldwide journey for its own sake – is to teach. It’s hardly a slight or paltry agenda, given how fiercely we as a culture are pitched, sold and marketed The New Shit at every turn and on every public and private surface, given how increasingly convinced we are that ephemerality is a virtue over permanence and that thoughtless youth is the be-all-end-all quality to which we should aspire, ironically, as we age. Cinema is its own history, but just as a frighteningly small swatch of the English-speaking population ever deigns to read a book, period, or acquaint themselves with the most general idea of what has happened in the last century-and-a-half of visual art, so precious few are the viewers aware of any film made before 1977, bustle and thrive as they may in a mediascape comprised almost entirely of recycled cinematic tics, tricks, and lies.


Sidelined cinematic heroes (clockwise from top left): Youssef Chahine, Forough Forrokhzad, Ritwik Ghatak, Harriet Andersson, Jan Trnka, Ruan Ling-yu, Glauber Rocha and Leigh Brackett.

SO TEACH Cousins does, with a sotto voce delivery that’s both seductive and soporific, as if cinema is a luxurious nap he’s beckoning us to have. Alongside the landmarks and giddy splooges of beloved scene-making, he endeavors to bring to prime-time what platoons of scholars and critics and pendants have been hollering about for decades: political correction. Yes, our received notion of how the medium has been contrived and developed — which in turn has helped inform our notions of the world and its peoples — is absurdly ethnocentric and misogynist. Yet we are but the choir, and Cousins is spraying the crowd; he doesn’t want to exclude the non-specialist, to have the strange but common creature for whom cinema is not an obsession but a recreation to miss the boat.


Thus, we’re told that Hollywood was, in fact, “built by immigrants, women and Jews” (Wall Street didn’t get seriously involved until the coming of sound), and figures like aboriginal Biograph film star Florence Lawrence and script-factory-ess Frances Marion get impressive shout-outs. At every step of the journey, Cousins can hardly help training in on the pivotal white men – Chaplin and Von Stroheim and Renoir and Ford and Fellini and Bergman and so on – but he insistently swings his gaze right and left, to the Industry femmes that have been forgotten (Leigh Brackett is honored, mentioned perhaps for the first time in any media in more a quarter century) and to the even more neglected Third World provinces of film culture. The story of doomed Chinese movie icon Ruan Ling-yu (and her meta-biopic by Stanley Kwan), how Youssef Chahine’s Egyptian hit The Iron Gate synched up (but did not intersect) with America’s rebel-love for James Dean in the late ‘50s, the significance of Forough Forrokhzad’s short The House Is Black in “mothering” Iranian cinema, the vital presence at home of Indian master Ritwik Ghatak – these stories get woven in as gentle chastisements.


Another pleasure to be had in the way The Story of Film rolls is its disinclination to prioritize Hollywood. This is no TCM sigh-fest – the Dream Factory looms, but often as an authoritative force to rally against. Covering the 1920s, Cousins carefully renumerates the European contingents battling “Hollywood romanticism” – the German Expressionists, the Russian propagandists, Denmark’s archdruid Carl Dreyer – as if each had only American exports on their mind as they revolutionized form in their peculiar ways. Cousins can hardly wait for the 1960s to arrive, when virtually everything that happened was seen as a defiant reaction to Industry conservatism and formula, even when it wasn’t. Cousins’s dialectical, even inherently Marxian, perspective can barely contain its own disdain for the mainstream – which, of course, entails the vast majority of narrative cinema, then and now. This may seem natural to the auteurists among us, but is this actually history? Is The Story of Film authentically the story of film, or rather the story of its roguish malcontents, unpopular geniuses and marginal masterstrokes?


The Story of Film in 90 seconds (official trailer).

The correct answer is the latter one, frankly, not that we’d have it any other way. It’s proof to the relevance of our cineastical elitism that a 15-hour docu-series recounting 100-plus years of crowd-pleasing “popular cinema” would bore the most stubborn of proudly lowbrow troglodytes. Cinema may be a popular medium but its history belongs to the best and the brightest, in artists and audience alike. This may well have been Cousins’s secret, private point – there is, after all, very little talk in his series about box office or movie stardom or the bread-and-butter studio moviemaking that exploited popular tastes, squeezed genres of their every last drop of creative juice, and sequalized hits until they died of exhaustion. (To be fair, one trifling episode of the series is devoted to the invention of blockbusters and multiplexes. It is not, relatively speaking, a thrill.) No, for Cousins history’s cinematic phenomenon are exclusively a matter of what cineastes and their critical brethren saw and loved: a Godardian cut, an Ozu camera angle, a Kalatozovian crane shot.


This may be the best thing about Cousins’s marathon of film love: it is a labor of love conceived, executed and articulated by a genuine film critic, one of those left-of-center mutants for whom innovation and expression are all that’s important – not nostalgia or middle-class comfort or high-rolling superstardom. If you’ve read me this far, about this unwieldy movie-beast, then it’s clear you are one with the Cinemiadic Mysteries. Cousins never finds a way to properly sequence the disobedient career of Luis Bunuel (not surprising), but when he takes time to remember such sidelined figures as Alice Guy-Blache, Jan Trnka and Glauber Rocha, you know he’s got your back. When a sequence ardently tracing the direct influence that Bergman’s Summer of Monika had on the French New Wave (in particular Godard’s Une Femme Mariee, and then, mutatis mutandis, Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo) comes to rest on a long, heartbreaking Harriet Andersson camera-stare, it’s as if you are receiving a benediction. To hell with the masses!


Michael Atkinson has written for The Village Voice, The Guardian, Film Comment and many other publications. He is the author of the popular Hemingway Mysteries, amongst other works.


The complete 15 episode run of The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) is playing at the Museum of Modern Art, February 1st to the 16th.

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