Nov 18, 2013

Mark Cousins' "Story of Film" as Intro to Appreciation of Deceptive Art

poster for Mark Cousins' Story of Film

Cinema is the most sophisticated and powerful art form. Literary composition, musical composition, photography, illustration, painting, sculpture, play-acting, dance, magick - all expressive mediums used by artists to affect an impact on our consciousness; each profoundly effective, when in the hands of Masters. The hierarchy of art forms could be and no doubt has been a subject of argument between scholars and drunken barroom acquaintances alike. What can not be disputed is that cinema integrates, totally, all other known forms of art. Further, film has danced before us the occult lie of art more blatantly than its precursors...

When Film was created and viewed, on film*, there was no actual movement of the picture. It was an illusion; a flicker; a child's flip-book animation, scaled to the silver screen. Strictly, you were viewing a series of still photographs in rapid succession and, without resorting to overly scientific explanations, your brain created the motion. Your brain can only register so much information at a time before it starts filling in the gaps, or falsifying the data, in order that you may not feel that you are, well, losing your precious mind. Thus you are riding the wave of your own perception; surfing at the edge of your ability to take in the world before you. Interestingly, there is a specific range of speed at which the filmstrip must be run in order for this to work. Too fast or too slow and no magic. So movies are a lie, just as all art is a lie we tell ourselves in order to feel what is true.

Truly, a traditional painting in a gallery is a two-dimensional image on a wall, so it can not tell you a lie. It is what it is. The lie comes from within yourself, as soon as you feel emotions beyond an admiration for the artist's technical skill. [Here is the distinction between The Pure Criticism of technique and personal, emotional reaction often widely broadcast in public forums under the guise of modern criticism.] This is the lie: you participate in your experience by projecting your own ideas, your own truths, replete with attached emotions, into the curves of Picabia, into the hues of El Greco, thus humanizing these objective, lifeless images, breathing them "larger than life," or "cinematic." With cinema, we are reacting and projecting to something that isn't even there.

Frances Picabia's surreal painting Hera
Frances Picabia's Hera

El Greco's painting of Spanish hillside castles under storm clouds
El Greco's View of Toledo

"Movie" has always been a silly word - a slang abbreviation of "moving picture," a term misrepresentative of the form.  "Flick," though a more accurate label for what is happening before our eyes when we view a film, will never enter the vernacular. "Cinema," then. Shortened from the cinématographe [kinemat- "movement" + graphein "to write"] device, an all-in-one film camera, developer and projector, likely first conceptualized by the Lumiére brothers in the 1890's, "cinema" became used to refer to movie halls within the decade. By 1914, "cinema" was being used to refer to movies, collectively, as a concept. Considering these applications, "cinema" most aptly suits our purposes. There is no "movie" without the human eye. There is no audience without a venue. These interactive relationships happen under the tent of "cinema."

the cinematographe camera and projector designed by the lumiere brothers
le cinématographe

Of course, it is likely that the average cinema-goer considers none of the esoteric insights offered here but there are some who do ponder at length. This is the nature of art and of subjective experience itself. There is no "correct" response to a work of art or, even, a B-grade horror film. Bear this in mind as you view The Story of Film: An Odyssey documentary series, directed and narrated by Mark Cousins, billed as a "love letter to the movies," which is exactly what it is.

Love places its own filter on the world: rose-colored glasses. Love has its own priorities and cares little for objective truth. An inherent bias is found in love; factual errors are found in love. Both are found in this series. Mark Cousins, like so many intellectuals, is quick to dismiss Hollywood studio productions as "baubles" while heaping praise on (lesser-known) foreign films. In furtherance of his theses, originally put forward in his book, The Story of Film, Cousins repeatedly, either mistakenly or deliberately, crafts reality to his own vision. [Example: Fernando de Fuentes' Doña Barbara has precisely nothing to do with the brutalization of Mexican women, as the film takes place in Venezuela, since the novel it is based upon takes place around actual historical events which occurred in... Venezuela, having been written by Rómulo Gallegos... a Venezuelan.] Surely, love rarely possesses 20/20 vision. Mark Cousins clearly does have a deep love of cinema and it permeates his Story of Film.

image of woman with gun from fernando de fuentes film dona barbara
Fernando de Fuentes' Dona Barbara

Cousins, an Irishman, delivers his narrative with a soft, reverential brogue that is quite hypnotic, walking you through the particulars of the selected clips. Admittedly, some viewers are annoyed by Cousin's accent, cadence or tone. If one does happen to be taken under the spell of his lilt, however, one might surrender all critical thought and accept Cousins' vision as the "truth" of whatever film clip is being shown. Do not make this mistake. Many "truths" presented here are obviously nothing more than one man's opinion - some rather bizarre. Peter O'Toole's T.E. Lawrence is posited to have a "sexual" attraction to the desert, for instance.

image of scene from Lawrence of Arabia
David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia

Initially broadcast in 2011, The Story of Film: An Odyssey is conveniently divided into 15 one-hour chapters, each tackling an era or "phase" of cinema. The basic premise is to offer a theoretical evolution of concepts (occult allegory, mundane ideologies, mythology, etc.) and techniques (POV, camera-in-motion, editing, etc.) as they developed through the ages, impacting audiences and artists alike. Through careful editing, the influence of classic cinema on modern filmmakers is shown, to marvelous effect. This essay, serving not as a summarization of the entire series, here offers a sample: In the first episode, there is a segment on the "phantom ride" genre of early nickelodeon films, in which a camera is placed at the front of a moving vehicle (such as a locomotive) in order to give the audience the illusion that they are riding with the vehicle. That sequence flawlessly cuts to the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey to illustrate how those early, simple reels influenced a man widely considered to be America's greatest director and the effect is illuminating. These moments are delivered, one after another, through every segment.

The greatest purpose of this Story is perhaps that it not only introduces so many Masters of the form, who may otherwise never be experienced by the average fan of cinema, but also provides clear examples of why they are considered at the top of the class. Krzysztof Kieślowski, Erich von StroheimYasujirō Ozu, Jacques Tourneur and Andrei Tarkovsky are represented multiple times each, typically followed with instances of their influence in modern cinema. Filmed over a six year period, Cousins and his crew traveled the globe in order to interview such luminaries as Bernardo Bertolucci, François Truffaut, Lars von Trier and Samira Makhmalbaf.

[The Story of Film does place its focus largely upon male auteurs. This fault lies not with Cousins but in the industry of his chosen subject matter. The women of cinema are credited, however, and not just the actresses. In an early chapter, Cousins points out that women were heavily involved behind the scenes in early Hollywood. Among others, Ida LupinoAgnès Varda and Jane Campion are cited as influential female directors. Indeed, there are glaring omissions regardless of gender. Claude Chabrol, Andrzej Zulawski, Masaki Kobayashi and Jacques Rivette are absent. Damning is the pity that Sergio Leone is covered at length with no mention of Ennio Morricone's name. But that is to be expected in any project of this nature. The true fan of cinema will view each chapter with a pen and paper nearby, making note of names and titles to be hunted down later, to be fully experienced in their intended context. This diligent seeker will surely find the breadcrumb trail leading to those artists neglected.]

In conclusion, a correct viewing of The Story of Film should serve not as a closing argument but a conversation with a well-informed fellow student of the form, one whose passion may obscure their ultimate reasoning. This is the type of conversation from which occasional revelations of mind are secured.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey is available on Amazon Video and DVD.

Thank you for your time. Are there any questions?


*Though considered within the documentary series discussed here, the introduction of tape and digital into movie-making is beyond the scope of this essay. Perhaps a subject for future rumination.

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