The Story of Film: An interview with Mark Cousins
By Gary M. Kramer.
Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film: An Odysseyis a fascinating—and fantastic—documentary that traces more than 100 years of cinema in 900 minutes. Featuring clips from 1,000 films, Cousins hopscotches from cinema’s early start in New Jersey and France and visits Asia, Africa, and South America while also chronicling the Soviet silent era, Italian Neo-realism, American film noir, and CGI. In a recent email exchange, Cousins discussed his remarkable project about innovations in world cinema.
Gary Kramer: You have an incredible passion for cinema. What excites you when you see a film?
Mark Cousins: When I see a film I feel like I am going to outer space—to the stars. It affords what Joseph Campbell called “The rapture of self loss.” Many of my favorite films aren’t escapist entertainment ones, so I’m not just talking about the fantasy element of the movies. It’s more the case of going somewhere dark, settling down, looking upwards to a luminous screen and then going on imaginative journeys outside your own country or class, age or gender or race. I feel quite childlike when I watch films.
GK: Did I spy a tattoo of Eisenstein on your bicep when we met? I noticed you wore an 8 1/2 pin on your label. What drives you to worship a film/filmmaker?
MC: You are eagle-eyed! Yes, I have an Eisenstein tattoo and am thinking of getting others. Though the word “worship” is unfashionable these days—it’s what teenage girls feel about Taylor Lautner!—I like it a lot. The poet Rilke wrote (I can’t remember the exact words) “Poet, what do you do? I praise. But what do you really do? I praise.” In my work I end up praising—worshipping—the medium of film for its beauty, magic, poetics, etc. I agree with Pier Paolo Pasolini when he uses the word “stupendous.” The medium is stupendous. Lots of individual movies are fucking awful, of course, but the medium… wow. I feel like dancing naked, and drinking wine like Dyonisus, when I see a great film.
GK: Me too! The Story of Film was a book, and now it’s a documentary. What prompted you to embark on this monumental project?
MC: My producer John Archer suggested that we try to make it into a film. I thought he was nuts (he is), but we took it bit by bit. One of the reasons I accepted his challenge was that when I was writing the book I kept thinking “if only I could simply insert the clip into this text rather than trying to evoke it with words.” Making the film allowed me to do that. What needed to be evoked with words (the commentary) in the film was not, then, the clip, but the imaginative process that went into the making of it.
GK: People may complain that The Story of Film is not comprehensive, but I don’t think it’s trying to be. This isn’t a survey course of film history, but a presentation of what innovations in the industry prompted people to rethink how cinema is made and even consumed. You talk extensively about trends such as French New Wave, and Dogme 95, but touch only briefly on recent topics such as avant-garde film (Un Chien Andalou), motion capture animation (Avatar), or even micro-trends like Mumblecore (Blair Witch Project). How did you structure the timelines/segments/themes?
MC: You are right that it isn’t at all comprehensive. It doesn’t touch on Sam Fuller or Neil Jordan or Michael Snow! However, some people have said that it is very subjective. I argue that it is in fact more objective than most film histories because most film histories are white westerners writing about the cinema that they know best (white western cinema), with Asian cinema added. Such histories say little about African cinema, for example. I am a bit more objective because I think I haven’t left out big chunks of the world because they are not where I come from.
Yes, there’s not nearly enough on experimental cinema—though there’s Limite, Un Chien Andalou, Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heurs, [Matthew] Barney, Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un poete, Assja Djebar’s La Nouba, Walter Ruttmann’s abstracts, Entr’acte, Polanski’s early short, the Themersons’s Polish films, Daisies, Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti, etc., etc., so at least a proper geographical spread. I gave what I thought was one striking example of motion capture and if I had more time I might have looked at Andy Serkis’s recent performances but, yes, given my theme of innovation, motion capture didn’t deserve too much more time than that I felt. On Mumblecore: I felt that Blair Witch was very innovative and there have been other good Mumblecore movies but given the choice in the last ten years of my story between, say, Mumblecore and what was happening in Korean cinema (which I under explore), it was not difficult to leave out Mumblecore.
GK: Likewise, you emphasize certain things, such as the role(s) of women in cinema. You discuss female screenwriters—e.g., Anita Loos, as well as filmmakers—Alice Guy-Blaché, Ida Lupino, Claire Denis, and Jane Campion, the latter of whom says only 3% of filmmakers are women, despite 50+% of the population being female. It seemed as if you wanted to investigate this more, or perhaps use these cases to emphasize this point. Can you discuss any agenda you had in making The Story of Film?
MC: Yes, I am a feminist. I believe that women’s achievements in many fields are under-recorded and under-recognized. To your list of women directors you mention, I’d add Samira Makhmalbaf, Lois Weber, Assja Djebar, Safi Faye, Forough Farrokhzad, Kira Muratova, Věra Chytilová, etc., as filmmakers whose work has been undervalued by film historians. They are all women, these directors, and most film historians are men. It seems to me that this fact, amongst others, explains why these filmmakers’ work is not properly recognized (and their film prints not properly conserved).
Politically, I am somewhat left of centre. By this I mean that I think colonialism was broadly a bad thing, that our culture was, and to a certain extent still is, blighted by racism, that social class worked to exclude many talents, that anti-gay sentiments are bad for society and its art, etc. The Story of Film shows signs of these political beliefs in that it gives time to decolonized film, black film, film about uncomfortable social truths, etc. but not in a blinkered way. Before its epilogue, my story ends, for example, with Aleksandr Sokurov’s beautiful Russian Ark, which many have positioned on the right of the political spectrum.
GK: You showcase considerable male nudity in The Story of Film and many queer filmmakers as well—from Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Gus Van Sant to Terence Davies, Derek Jarman, Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But you never discuss their films in the context of gay cinema. However, you tend to make mentions of Eisenstein and Hawk’s bisexuality. Why did you feel their sexual identity was important to discuss here?
MC: This is similar to a discussion I had with Bertolucci. I asked him, in my “Scene by Scene” interview, why there are so many penises in his films? And he said, “Because I am a feminist.” Women have often been required to be naked on camera, so he asked men too, to even things out a bit! I was keen not to overlook male nudity as an image in cinema for the same reason. Filmmakers have noticed male as well as female nudity, and I wanted to register that. I wrote an essay in Prospect arguing that cinema is a bit bisexual and, so, maybe, that’s one of the reasons why I mention the bisexuality of Hawks and Nick Ray. Another is that Hawks in particular is so central to mainstream cinema, that’s it’s good to politicize that a bit. I don’t talk about Terry Davies or Tsai Ming Liang or many of the gay filmmakers as being gay/queer, for the same reason that I don’t include the women directors because they are women, or the black directors because they are black. They are included because they are great. I do mention new queer cinema at the point of Warhol. I would have liked to have included Barbara Hammer or Greg Araki, for example, but I didn’t have space, and it seemed to me that of the queer filmmakers of the 90s, Tsai needed time as his work is so remarkable. I was determined not to be blind to the brilliant range of sexuality just as I was determined not to be blind to the brilliance of Africa.
GK: What decisions did you make about the films you included? Were there rights/permission issues that prohibited you from showing certain films?
MC: We had no rights issues because we determined from the start to use the Fair Use/Fair Dealing rules that permit a scholar to use a small extract of a film. I needed to be entirely free in my choices and I was.
GK: What astonished me was your ability to make connections between films—sometimes through editing/composition [Cousins compares the original and remake of Psycho] and sometimes thematically. I love the Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind connection you make. You must have an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema! How did you put this all together, and how many films did you watch?
MC: Many thanks, Gary. I was very interested in the connectivity. In part this is because of my passionate internationalism. I was delighted to discover, for example, that just as Douglas Sirk in the USA in the 50s was making melodramas, so were Arab and Indian directors. I loved noticing that Dorothy Gale, Scarlett O’Hara and Ninotchka were all thematically connected. When I first saw Inception‘s corridor scene, I immediately thought of Cocteau. What helped with these connections was, firstly, that I drew a massive grid on a very large piece of paper, so I could plot years/themes, etc. It also helped that I studied lots of mathematics, so am good at matrices!
GK: How did you find some of the films you discussed? Many of the titles, even some in the more recent period, are obscure to film buffs. How do you discover these films, their stories and histories?
MC: My producer John was brilliant at finding DVDs of very obscure films that I knew about or had seen only once in Paris in 1986… I have nearly a thousand film books at home and each time I read one, if it mentions an interesting sounding film, I mark it in pen and fold the page down. That way I remember to look it up! There’s also a different question: knowing what you don’t know. I realized, for example, that I knew nothing about Ethiopian cinema, so I researched to see if there was such a thing, and there was, and it was good. The scientific method, which I was taught, devised by Karl Popper, was this: if you think there aren’t any Ethiopian films, try to DISprove this hypothesis. I tried to and I did disprove it.
GK: What can you say about the interviews you did in the film? How and why did you get the folks you did? Were there interviews you wanted but couldn’t get? How much of what you showed in The Story of Film was shaped by who you spoke to and what they said?
MC: I knew that I didn’t want many interviews. A talking heads interview was so not what I was going for. I thought 40-60 in the 15-hour film. I think there are 43. I wanted people who were eyewitnesses to great moments in cinema, mostly because they made them but maybe because they were just there. None of the interviews lasted more than an hour (I hate wasting people’s time) and many lasted about 30 minutes. I knew what I wanted from them and I think they appreciated that. We tried to get David Lynch, but he said no. Though I’d interviewed him at length twice before, so I knew his thoughts pretty well. We also tried for Catherine Deneuve as I recall. We got most of the people we wanted, by writing a longish, personal, passionate letter to each one.
GK: What about the contemporary sections in the film that provided breathers—where you shot traffic or a street as you narrated a point? Why did you select some of the places you did?
MC: I wanted to film in places that had some resonance. I hardly ever moved the camera (there’s one pan in 15 hours) and I filmed often at dawn or dusk. I wanted these images to be a bit like simple magic lantern slides. And when I filmed at the Hollywood sign, it was from the back, to show its nuts and bolts…
GK: You showcase so many genres and styles here. What do you like to watch?
MC: I love slow films, musicals, dreamlike films of all sorts. Not so keen on biopics or costume dramas.
GK: What do you think is the most innovative element in cinema?
MC: The way it can flit about in time. The way it is there and not there. Its “third person singular.”
GK: Where do you think the future of film is headed?
MC: I just don’t know. I’m sure that we are not at the end of its days. I feel that we are closer to its beginning. The circumstances in which we watch it are changing fast, as is its indexical link with reality, but I suspect that it’ll always flicker between that reality and something more dreamlike…
Gary M. Kramer is a freelance film critic and the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews.