In 2011 Mark Cousins became film journalism’s Odysseus when he concluded his six-year journey to tell the story of film across sixteen hours. The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) stands as a seminal documentary on the subject of cinema. One might have thought the logical progression would have been first the chapter of A Story of Children and Film (2014), followed then by his magnum opus and the fitting full stop on his reflective cinematic odyssey.
By breaking into his chronological study with an exploration of children’s cinema, Cousins makes the masterful choice to dismiss the chronological thread of his previous work to instead use the association of scenes of children in film intercut with his own niece and nephew playing. He tells a story of children and film that explores the Jungian leanings of cinema’s story – the individual versus the collective and the journey of the individual towards belonging. Cousins weaves yet another love letter to cinema by looking to the individual identity of the films that also fit into a cinematic context.
Whilst he does not answer François Truffaut’s famous question, “Is the cinema more important than life?” through the presence of children onscreen Cousins continues his exploration of the story of film. Film International’s Paul Risker conducted a phone interview with one of cinema’s stalwarts to discuss exposing a new chapter within the story of film, cinema’s relationship to dream logic, and film’s capacity to humanise the world around us, before offering a hypothesis of how the story of children and film will evolve across the coming decades.
Paul Risker: The Story of Film: An Odyssey is an expansive study of the movies. With A Story of Children and Film it appears that you are breaking into that story or breaking open yet another chapter. In so doing, you are opening up the expansive nature of the medium to show how there are a multitude of facets of film still to explore and to discover.
Mark Cousins: I was exhausted after making The Story of Film. It took a long time – six years – and since then I have made other films including one in Albania, Here Be Dragons (2013). I wasn’t intending to make another film about cinema, but then I happened to film my niece and nephew. They were just so relaxed and were having so much fun – so was I – and sometimes when you are least expecting it an idea comes along.
I think you are right to say that it almost feels like a zooming into The Story of Film, and the picking up on one little theme in the history of the movies which I look a little closer at, which is the relationship of the movies with childhood. What was enjoyable about making a film like this is that it forced me to think about kids and cinema. In doing so I started to realise how I consider movies to be particularly good at capturing childhood, and how they are better at doing so than paintings or novels, for example.
Cinema is so fresh and of the moment. It is good at spontaneity, and changes of emotions. So I realised there was perhaps quite a rich connection between children and cinema, and so that’s why I decided to explore it a bit.
PR: Speaking with Tom Gilroy, the writer-director of The Cold Lands (2013), he explained how the idea for the film emerged from his dreams. C.G. Jung believed dreams are a means to solve the problems that we cannot solve in our waking state. The way in which Gilroy used cinema is similar to our relationship with dreams. Gilroy told me, “Film reflects the dream logic that people often envisage when they are asleep.…” I have always considered creativity to be attached to childhood. Children are learning about the world before we learn about ourselves in adulthood, and cinema and creativity are the perfect means to explore the identity of childhood.
MC: I completely agree, and Pablo Picasso said, “All children are artists.” He implied that as we grow up we gain inhibitions, we become more detached, more guarded, and we filter things through our rational mind rather than our dream life. We become more afraid about emotion, etc., and that is completely true.
If you look at kids drawings they are often more surreal, and there are much more interesting shapes and colours in them than in the drawings of adults. Adults are more conformist in some way, and I’m talking about pre-teen children here. But I also agree with what you say about cinema being a particularly good medium for dream logic. If you think about the best filmmakers in Britain, whether it be Powell and Pressburger, Terence Davies, Nicholas Roeg or Derek Jarman, and I would put the new film Under the Skin (2013) in this category; they very much have a dream logic. They are works of the unfettered imagination, a high romance, a kind of bursting heart and explosion of feeling. I believe cinema is great at all of that, and association.
So, for example, when I was making A Story of Children and Film, as you saw there is no straight line through the film; there is no chronology. I don’t say next we’ll look at Africa or anything like that. The connections are more associative – my niece here in Edinburgh reminds me of the little girl in Kaige Chen’s Yellow Earth (1985), and she reminds me of the shy boys in the Hiroshi Shimizu film Children in the Wind (1937). Those kinds of associations are free form, a bit like improvising, a bit like jazz, and are definitely true and hopefully creative.
PR: The story of film is intertwined with Jung’s idea of the individual versus the collective, and the individual’s discovery of belonging. In both The Story of Film and A Story of Children and Film you take a wide variety of films which are all individual, are made by individual filmmakers, but they also belong to this cinematic context through which is a broader unity. One of the most fascinating aspects of film is that we can look at movies as individual entities, but also place them within a sometimes unexpected context.
MC: You are a citizen of Birmingham; I’m a citizen of Edinburgh. But we are also citizens of the movies, and we speak another language as well as English which is the movie language. To those of us who are movie fans and who love cinema, it is a way of relating to one another. It’s a kind of tribal thing in that we are aliens from another planet [laughs] or something, and I just love that about cinema.
I travel a lot for work, and no matter where I go in the world, I can sit down and there is this commonality because we can talk about Hitchcock, David Lynch or Yasujirô Ozu. It’s fantastic, but I would argue that it is also pretty democratic in that cinema has been mostly more of a grassroots art form than some of the others.
I have traveled a few times to West Africa where literacy levels are not high, but cinema is central to the culture. Cinema is available to people who don’t even read books, and I can sit with those people and have conversations about their filmmakers. I feel like cinema has taken me by the hand and has said, “Come around the world with me and I’ll introduce you to people.” Indeed it has.
PR: Before we see the world, we experience foreign places through film and stories. They are often our introduction to the world around us, and whilst on one level cinema is entertainment, it serves a more important function.
MC: It humanises the world around us. If we see Iran enough, and I’m lucky to spend a lot of time there; the people are incredibly welcoming. If we see Iran and the ordinary people enough then maybe our governments will be less inclined to see it as an abstract thing which they can bomb. So at the most serious political level cinema is extremely good at humanising, and you see it particularly in kids films.
Again and again in children’s films you see a child attaching to something, like in Ken Loach’s great film Kes (1969). The boy isn’t taught to engage with people, but is left on his own a lot and ignored. What does he do – he teaches himself attachment by befriending a Kestrel. He understands it, he cares for it, and that little attachment that he has, you could say, is a metaphor for the cinema in general, in that good movies can teach us how to emphasise. They allow us to see other worlds, by taking us on these magic carpet rides to other places, and it humanises those places. I believe this is very important.
PR: It is fascinating how children are perceived across world cinema, which is a testament to the importance of cinema. It acts as an introduction to other societies, is a means to create that cross dialogue, and affords us a valuable understanding that we might otherwise be deprived of.
MC: Absolutely, and certain things are almost universal. For example, children all around the world love playing with balloons. You see that in all cultures. They love escaping and breaking the rules a little bit. You see that in children’s films from Africa, Iran, the Far East, and South America. But the more you watch the films, and as you quite rightly say, you also notice differences that are sometimes subtle, sometimes quite profound, and those differences, when you think about them, often tell you something about the different societies. For example, the diffidence of children in Japanese society, and the kind of stroppiness of children in Iranian films [laughs]. There is certainly little sentimentality in Iranian films [laughs]. But in American cinema you find a heroic child, and sometimes a rather idealised child, because American culture in some ways is quite idealistic. It believes that anyone can change the world.
It is interesting to read different countries through their children’s cinema. But you also notice, and this is important given what we were just saying, the similarities despite the differences of politics, class, religion and race. There are these things that we boldly have in common – our common humanity, which is fantastic and is worth celebrating. But also, as you know, you have a political dimension.
PR: Cinema is the child of the world, and regardless of national biases, it is a child that you cannot help but have affection for. If we could find a way to make that transition from childhood to adulthood by looking to children and film as an example, one wonders how that might affect the fortunes of the world.
MC: Cinema is a very young medium, and so it is literally childlike in some ways. It’s very good at some of the properties of childhood, and so yes, I totally agree. We as adults also have to realise it as we grow up, and as teenagers become interested in designer clothes and being part of the cool gang, we have to understand that we lose things when we leave childhood. We lose some spark, and in some ways I would argue that the child is bigger than the adult – imaginatively bigger because they get scared, but they take more risks.
If you take an English speaking child on holiday to France and they run into the playground, after five minutes they’ll be playing with French children. They will be somewhat oblivious to the fact that they don’t speak the same language. So I think all of that stuff is fantastic, and it’s that which we lose as we grow up.
In my work I have always tried to be quite childlike. As well as the films I do these childlike festivals with Tilda Swinton. There is always dancing and jumping around, spotlights and lots of colours and adventures. They are so invigorating, and I never had business cards or all that stuff – the trappings of a professional. I have always thought of myself as an amateur rather than a professional; a constant learner and a constant apprentice. That’s a kind of refusal of some of the aspects of adulthood which I think are limiting for us.
PR: Film is a journey for the filmmaker, actors and audience alike. If we go back to The Story of Film, how did you perceive the change in yourself as to how you viewed cinema from before to after?
MC: Well, that’s a good question. By the end of The Story of Film: An Odyssey I was more in love with cinema than I was when I started. Now that’s quite hard because I had loved movies anyway, but I had realised some important things for me at least.
I had gone to meet Stanley Donen, the great director of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), in his office in New York City. I met his son and I was chatting with him waiting for Stanley to arrive when I realised that it wasn’t his son, it was in fact, Stanley. This man who I expected to be as old as history because he made films in the Golden Age of Hollywood was still pretty lively. He was still full of beans, still cracking jokes, and this made me realise in that moment how young cinema is.
Meeting Stanley Donen was like meeting Leonardo Da Vinci or somebody from an extraordinary age. So film history came totally alive for me as a result of all of those encounters and travelling to all of those places. It was vivid, and there was nothing distant or dusty about it. So that was the most important thing. But the other thing to be honest was that I travelled the world, and I went to places that I hadn’t been to before. I went to Calcutta, and that was very special. I went to the Hollywood sign at dusk, and listened to it as it banged as the heat left the day. So there is a very tactile memory I have of making that film. But the biggest influence on me was the feeling of the incredible vitality of film history, and how recent it is.
PR: The Story of Film was obviously personal for you, but by incorporating your own family into A Story of Children and Film it affords it more of a visual personal touch.
When you are making anything, the question is what is the thread, what is the frame or what is the shape? What is the form of this? Once I had filmed my niece and nephew playing for eleven minutes; I looked at that footage and thought, Wow that can be the jumping off point for a film – a series of thoughts looking around the world at children. So I had the frame, but for me the question is always, what is the form?
When I was making The Story of Film I thought, what is the form here? It wasn’t going to be called An Odyssey but then I realised it was kind of an odyssey. Then I recognised that I could make it a bit like one of those Victorian magic lantern shows. So in The Story of Film the image is pushing in from the right like an old magic lantern show.
Once I had that form I was off, and in the case of A Story of Children and Film, the form was my niece and nephew playing in the room from where I am talking to you now. Once I had that I had the way into it.
As Scorsese talks about the making Raging Bull (1980), he’s a rather diminutive man, and so how could he get a handle on this boxer? How could he see something in him that attached to his personal life? Well, Scorsese has these small delicate hands and so does Jake La Motta. That was the way in. That was the little connection between Scorsese and Raging Bull. So we are always looking for some hook or connection, and mine was the silly play of my niece and nephew.
PR: Cinema is a moral playground where, like Scorsese, we as an audience are always connecting with characters who we think we might have nothing in common with or who we should not sympathise with. It is an interesting connection cinema has habitually forged.
MC: That is perhaps why I admire the new Jonathan Glazer film Under the Skin so much, because it’s about an alien who is desperate to connect with very ordinary people. She’s desperate, and she can’t and it pains her. She doesn’t understand them; she just sees them as pieces of meat. So it’s a parable on empathy, and connection, which has been a theme of our conversation here. It is what cinema is great at. It is a kind of glue, a kind of spark that jumps from me to you; from us to people in Iran, etc. It’s that kind of lightning strike between the face of Greta Garbo and me who’s unforgettable, very instant, intense and luminous. So all these things explain what you and I and fellow movie buffs understand as the magic of cinema.
PR: Do you think cinema will explore a new context for children, or do you think, as the old adage goes, that there are only five or seven stories to be told, and we will continue to retell the familiar children’s stories?
MC: There’s a question of story. What are the stories? As you say, some people say we have a limited number of stories. But for me I am obsessed by form as well. The style and the story interact a lot. So for example, if you look across at the history of the movies, for a very long time until the seventies or the eighties, children in cinema often felt like little puppets being puppeteered by the adults. The reason is that the equipment was so fast, and a child would walk into the studio and there would be thirty guys there, lots of lights, stands, cranes, cameras and such. So it was a very artificial environment.
But of course as we know cinema has simplified, and the camera that I shot my film on, for example, is smaller than the phone that I am using in my hand to talk to you. The technology has almost disappeared, and so the type of performance we are getting from children is far more natural. Children feel more improvised, more ad-libbed, and it looks as if the children have got their own space to be themselves in some way. That’s why regardless of whether the story changes, I believe the style does, and the freedom of the space the child operates also changes.
So it is almost that the field has got bigger, and bigger and bigger. The boundaries are receding and the edges are very distant now. There will be some common scenes always in children’s cinema – freedom, escape, attachment, loss, the desire to learn and the child as a kind of sponge soaking up information. These big human themes will probably remain a constant. But I think the form of cinema is changing in interesting ways, and it is making it a golden age for children’s cinema.
A Story of Children and Film was released in UK cinemas on 4th April 2014 and will be released on DVD on 28th April 2014.
“The Cinema of Childhood” Season with Mark Cousins and producer Adam Dawtrey launches at the BFI Southbank on the 11th April 2014 with a special screening of Willow and Wind with Mohammad-Ali Talebi. The full line up for the season and further details are available at www.cinemaofchildhood.com.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.