Film history, like art history, has tended to be fairly academic — you take a class, which uses textbooks and screens key movies in full, and dryly study the high points of cinema, from the silent era to the arrival of digital effects.
But in recent years, a more impressionistic, essayist alternative has emerged. Discursive rather than didactic, passionate and argumentative rather than authoritative (but no less scholarly), and idiosyncratic rather than canonistic, it’s also entertaining in its own right. While this kind of film history does lend itself to the book form (e.g. David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film), it’s especially effective as a DVD set because it can use film clips and interviews, new and archival, to convince and cajole.
The four-hour A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies is one fine example, Jean-Luc Godard’s eight-part Histoire(s) du Cinema is another and I suppose Christian Marclay’s 24-hour The Clock fits the description, too, as it consists entirely of film clips that show time, minute by minute.
A new entry, The Story of Film, is the best I’ve seen yet. No film buff should miss this 15-hour, five-disc boxed-set odyssey, which took the Northern Ireland-born Scottish director/scholar Mark Cousins six years to make. Truly international in its coverage (Hollywood is here, but it isn’t given preferential treatment over Asian, European or African cinema), Cousins traveled to five continents to shoot footage and do interviews.
He covers 1,000 films in his clips and commentary, and roughly does so chronologically. The accompanying 44-page booklet lists the clips he uses.
The Story of Film (based on Cousins’ 2004 book) first was screened on Britain’s More4 television network in 2011. Music Box Films recently released it on DVD here.
Among the project’s chief assets is Cousins’ mellifluous voice — his commentary is pleasant, poetic, even, to hear. He is shrewd and smart about film technique; you will learn plenty, for instance, about the reasons directors might favor deep focus over shallow, and vice-versa. And you’ll also learn how to “read” the framing of a shot, as well as the use of lighting. They often play as great a role as dialogue in furthering a narrative.
And his observations about the film clips he shows have the quality of a Whitmanesque reverie — the project could be called I Hear Cinema Singing — that establishes film as a hopeful, worldwide humanist alternative to all that has driven people apart in the 20th century. That is why the accomplishments of African filmmakers like Ethiopia’s Haile Gerima or Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene get equal consideration to Spielberg.
Universally acknowledged classics are here — Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Metropolis 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blue Velvet. So, too, are films beloved by cinephiles but not so widely appreciated by the wider public — Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind, King Vidor’s The Crowd, Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
But then there are the surprises — the advocacies — that will have everyone either discovering new films or reconsidering old ones. Cousins, for instance, sees Haskell Wexler’s 1969 Medium Cool as one of America’s great, Godard-inspired political films; he hails the female director, Vera Chytilova, for having made one of the great Czech New Wave films of the late 1960s, the little-known Daisies.
And while he gives digital effects their due as a technological achievement, he’s far from sure about what they’ve added to the beating, caring, humanist heart of filmmaking. To him, Aleksandr Sokurov’s amazing Russian Ark — a 2002 film consisting of a long, continuous tracking shot of actors in motion through the Hermitage museum — is at least as great a technical accomplishment, and a film, as Christopher Nolan’s showy Inception.
Cousins believes in film as a progressive force — to him, a great movie is one that moves the art form forward through innovation. But that includes innovation in ideas as well as in technology. Indeed, without the former, the latter is empty and dispiriting.
Again and again, he champions movies that give voice to Third World countries, to political change, to feminism and equal rights. (He handles D.W. Griffith’s racist but technically innovative 1915 The Birth of a Nation by also showing D.J. Spooky’s contemporary “remix,” Rebirth of a Nation.) And he’s partial to daring, narrative-breaking “mindbenders” that explore the surreal and the subconscious.
You won’t agree with him all of the time, but you’ll certainly want to see some — many — of the movies he praises.
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