A Cinematic Event
FilmInk speaks to Mark Cousins, the movie buff behind ‘The Story Of Film: An Odyssey,’ an epic journey into the history of cinema, which is set to roll out at Melbourne’s ACMI.
“Yeah, it’s a pretty big subject,” Mark Cousins laughs about The Story Of Film: An Odyssey, an epic fifteen-hour television series that – as its title indicates – attempts to relay the entire history of film. Debuting on UK screens last year, the passion project has been close to a decade in the making for the Irish-born Cousins, a documentary director and popular presenter and critic, who travelled the globe to make the film, often armed just with his camera. And it’s a pretty incredible achievement – a work that’s both an eye-opening history lesson and a love letter to this art form that’s stolen Cousin’s heart.
In undertaking this near overwhelming task, the first question has to be how the director found his way into the material. And from the first episode, it becomes clear that Cousins has chosen to structure the film around the artistic innovations that transformed the medium. “I remember once interviewing the great Lauren Bacall,” the director says, “and she said to me, ‘You know, the industry’s shit but the medium’s great.’ So I definitely wanted to make something about the medium of film, not the industry. It helped once I set aside those questions about box office, showbiz and stardom. So I was just looking at the medium of film – which is still a lot! – but I decided that my thread to the story would be the people who left their mark. They’re not necessarily people who made the most entertaining films, or even my favourite films, but the ones who really pushed the medium.”
And while all facets of film production figure into the equation, An Odyssey is very much told from the perspective of directors. “In the whole fifteen-hour film, I don’t use the word “auteur” once,” Cousins says. “I don’t use any of that terminology or jargon but I think most people agree – even actors and writers – that movies are a director’s medium. I do look at editing, cinematography, and storytelling, but it’s quite focused on the directors.”
And somehow, appropriately, the film (Cousins resists calling it “a series”) plays out like a piece of cinema itself with the director reining in his own larger-than-life personality and narrating from an almost poetic script, and beautifully shifting between classic movie scenes and personal location footage Cousins shot on his trip. And while the film features many interviews – with everyone from Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann through to the more underrated voices of Yasujiro Ozu and Youssef Chahine – they’re never the driving force. “Stylistically, I didn’t want to make the type of talking heads film you would see on TV,” Cousins says. “I wanted it to have a rhythm more like a piece of cinema. And even though it’s my voice in the film, I’m not on screen talking at you. I felt like I was looking in the same direction as the audience.”
As well as stylistically marching to a different beat, An Odyssey also attempts to not so much rewrite history, but to redress certain parts of it. And crucial to this was redrawing the map of movie history, which Cousins asserts is “factually inaccurate, and racist by omission.I think there were mistakes that previous histories of cinema have made that focused too much on Hollywood or Bollywood,” Cousins says. And the director notes that while “it was important for me to show this film wasn’t snobby”, Cousins certainly gives international cinema its due, championing the fascinating film cultures of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
The second issue that Cousins wanted to redress was the gender imbalance with the director lamenting that “a lot of film histories have underestimated women directors.” Indeed, this is a topic that may prove eye-opening even for the biggest film buffs. In the first episode, Cousins reveals that before 1925, half the films produced by Hollywood were actually penned by females and in one sense, it was “outsiders” like “women, Jews and immigrants” who created Hollywood. It was only when the film business tipped into a money-making one that men got involved. “I remember we showed the film in Michael Moore’s film festival and he actually said he did not know that,” Cousins says. “It’s remarkable and inspiring for female filmmakers to hear that there was a kind of golden moment when women were the main storytellers in Hollywood. I’m very pleased if my film can bring that back.”
And while An Odyssey leaves one with a sense of cinema’s rich history, Cousins relays that what came as a revelation to him was how much is still to come. “Something that really affected me, which I didn’t expect, was meeting Stanley Donen [director of 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain],” Cousins relays. “The fact that he is still alive makes you realise how young the movies are. They’re not really very old at all. They’re just a bit more than one lifespan. I felt that I was telling this story of a young medium.”
The Story Of Film: An Odyssey will screen at Melbourne’s ACMI from September 27 to November 11 at various session times. For more information and session details, head here. It will also play at the Dendy Newtown from November 2 and the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra from October 26.
Photo credit: Cousins presenting his film at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, courtesy of Getty Images/Clinton Gilders.