“It’s time to re-draw the map of movie history that we have in our heads. It’s factually inaccurate, and racist by omission.” That’s a baldly provocative statement, made by director Mark Cousins toward the beginning of his 15-hour documentary The Story Of Film: An Odyssey—and it’s exactly that kind of strong point of view that makes The Story Of Film more valuable than so many of the cinema histories that have preceded it. Based on Cousins’ own book and assembled over the course of seven years by Cousins with producer John Archer and editor Timo Langer, The Story Of Film combines clips from movies, interviews with creators and critics, and footage shot by Cousins all over the world, capturing both where and how some movies were made. Then it’s all stitched together by Cousins’ narration, in which he analyzes, admires, and accuses in his soft, Northern Irish lilt.
That voice is one of the more initially off-putting elements of The Story Of Film. It’s not the typical “voice of God” narration, but instead has a more offbeat, questioning cadence. Similarly, the footage Cousins shot abroad too often goes for the abstract and poetic: He films a Christmas ornament in the Hollywood hills to stand for American “baubles,” or a Russian nesting doll to represent the many aspects of Sergei Eisenstein, or a man in a gorilla suit to symbolize the spirit of innovation. But without those quirks, The Story Of Film would be a lot blander and less personal. (It also wouldn’t contain moments as delightful and startling as Cousins’ cut between modern, cosmopolitan China and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, which in an instant conveys the infinite regression of Hollywood’s version of reality.)
Here’s what’s important to understand about The Story Of Film: In recounting the history of an art form and its various technical innovations (as opposed to building a canon), it doesn’t matter much which works a historian cites. As a film-studies course, The Story Of Film is perfectly fine, even if Cousins is as interested in Swedish silent-era filmmaker Victor Sjöström and Indian social realist Ritwik Ghatak as he is in John Ford or François Truffaut. Cousins is actively looking to take a more global view than most film-studies courses do, and in so doing, he comes up with a survey that could both suit a neophyte and lead hardcore cinephiles down some alleys they hadn’t previously considered.
Throughout The Story Of Film, Cousins contrasts what he describes as Hollywood’s “romantic cinema” with the films from elsewhere that try to “get beneath the surface of what it’s like to be alive.” Cousins doesn’t always favor one over the other, nor does he consider them to be mutually exclusive. (He greatly admires Alfred Hitchcock, for example, and quotes the director as saying that “movies are stronger than realism.”) He just wants his audience to understand that Kenji Mizoguchi in Japan was experimenting with depth of field long before Orson Welles did in Citizen Kane, and that Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd weren’t the only comedians in the world to rival Chaplin in slapstick inventiveness, and that women have had a much more important role to play in front of and behind the camera than has been registered by most Hollywood-focused histories.
Most importantly, The Story Of Film celebrates the uniqueness of cinematic art, regardless of the artist. In the first episode, Cousins talks about the invention of montage, parallel editing, flashbacks, and movie stars; later, he compares the staging of one shot in The Best Years Of Our Lives to similar approaches in the much artier Code Unknown and Sátántangó, and he talks about the changing qualities of movies now, as the medium transitions from celluloid to digital and filmmakers consider how best to utilize the starker realism of the new images. Throughout, Cousins looks at how people have used light, sets, costumes, and camera movement to tell stories, create associations, and express how people really feel about their worlds. This is what histories like these have always done. The difference is that Cousins doesn’t stop only at the usual ports of call.
Key features: None, save for a stunning 90-second teaser for the series.