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Critical Dialogue: The Story of Film

By Max Nelson on February 01, 2013

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Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan

The opening minutes of The Story of Film, Mark Cousins’ recent 15-hour-long journey through movie history, don’t so much ease us into the subject as submerge us. Our first sight is of an Allied soldier floating deep underwater, struggling to shed his heavy backpack. The camera surges to the water’s surface, revealing the war-torn Omaha Beach of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. “This scene,” Cousins says in his lilting voiceover, “was actually shot at a peaceful beach in Ireland.” With a snap of the fingers he then brings us out of the fray and into a scene from Kieslowski’s Blue: a serene, radiant Juliette Binoche, eyes closed in a public park, can’t see a frail, struggling elderly woman who needs her help—but we can. “This is filmmaking,” Cousins continues: “Cinema as an empathy machine.” Perhaps, we’re left to wonder, there’s not so great a difference between movies that immerse us in a given place, and those that immerse us in the mind of another.

Cousins’s associations are frequently imaginative and often not intuitive—they are at least as much the passionate musings of a cinephile as the detached observations of a historian. In the current issue of FILM COMMENT, Jonathan Rosenbaum quotes Cousins on finding the perfect tone for the film’s narration: “‘I wanted to create the sense that I was sitting beside you in the audience looking at the screen with you, talking in your ear.’” “You might even say,” Rosenbaum continues, “that Cousins wants to be our friend rather than our teacher.”

You could say the same about Martin Scorsese, who opened his tribute to Italian cinema My Voyage to Italy by stepping on camera to present a replica of the family living room where he first watched Rossellini’s Paisan at age 6. Soon after, he scatters bits from his uncle’s home movies among generous clips of Neorealist classics, as if inviting us to make his personal movie-going history our own. At The Movie Projector blog, R.D. Finch argues that Scorsese manages to indulge in these personal asides “without ever falling into the trap . . . of making himself the main subject,” instead patiently allowing whole scenes to play out free of his controlling influence, sure that they will captivate us on their merits alone.

My Voyage to Italy Martin

My Voyage to Italy

Like Scorsese, Cousins hopes to treat cinema history as a tale to be passed on: from expert to novice, but also from friend to friend. Unlike Scorsese, he assumes the burden of telling the story of film on top of his own: in The Village Voice, Nick Pinkerton observes that Cousins “aspires to take in everything from Edison and Lumière onward,” rather than “filtering cinema through [his] particular prejudices or national heritage.” Accordingly, The Story of Film plays at a faster clip than My Voyage to Italy, but manages still to luxuriate over individual passages, to single out small on-screen gestures, to follow the digressive, associative logic of a story over the rigid linear sequence of a historical account.

But Pinkerton also argues that the style of its storytelling tilts dangerously close to that of hearsay and myth, and ends up “too reliant on received film-buff wisdom.” Rosenbaum doesn’t disagree—he cites more than a few of Cousins’s gaffes—but is quick to add that “historians and critics, particularly those who want to be lively, are entitled to be wrong at least part of the time.” Cousins’s method might be forgiven its slips if it allows for such “outlandish comparisons” as this take on In the Mood for Love: “As in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Terence Davies, hope has left the building, so rapture has migrated to the images and sounds.”

In such moments, Cousins aspires to be as much of a cinematic magician as Davies or Wong Kar Wai—albeit a magician whose art lies in explicating and evoking the magic of others. In an interview conducted for Cinespect, Ryan Wells asked Cousins about his own cinematic influences. “I loved the way that Thelma Schoonmaker, in the Scorsese film documentaries, wiped images from right to left,” Cousins replied. “It reminded me of old magic lantern shows.”

Lilian Gish

Given all his affinities with Scorsese’s highly personal brand of film history, it might surprise us that Cousins chose to name his own odyssey The Story of Film—surely his story couldn’t be the only one! Unless, perhaps, the story of film is nothing but a succession of smaller stories, of private moviegoing epiphanies and above all discoveries, including but not limited to Cousins’s own. “After the broadcast of the first hour on UK TV,” Cousins wrote a year and a half ago on Indiewire, “I got an email from a colleague at the Daily Express newspaper saying that his 13-year-old daughter, who watched it, now wants to see Lillian Gish movies. If we get that little girl excited by movies, that alone might make all the sleepless nights worth it.”

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