Filmmaker Mark Cousins, following his 2019 odyssey Women Make Film, has returned to his 2004 book The Story of Film for a 2020 update. Using innovation as his core theme, the author performs a kind of cultural cartography, mapping cinema’s tributaries back to the source.
Film history spans over a century, so in order to fit it all in, the material must be finely honed. He gets his point across in very few words, and rarely idles on his whistle stop tour. So it’s almost comical when he fires off an abundance of examples — sometimes 11 in one sentence. But that just adds to the entertainment factor.
For someone who is reluctant to be called a writer, he has written quite a few books: Scene by Scene (2002); The Story of Film (2004); Widescreen: Watching Real People Elsewhere (2008); The Story of Looking (2017). But as a director he is far more prolific. His video essays can be measured in days, with the best part of one day (900 minutes/15 hours) based on this book: The Story of Film: An Odyssey
You wouldn’t need to be a film expert to recall the big success stories in cinema: The award winning titles and the (invariably male) influential directors — the ones that end up with an -ian or an -esque after their names. But the pivotal moments in film, the true innovations, are not necessarily ones you could mention off the top of your head. That’s the object of Cousins’ book.
He gives away the plot of many films, but not to ruinous effect. In fact the way he describes so many of the films makes me want to put down the book and watch them right away. With this infectious passion for cinema, he comes across as a true enthusiast, without the trappings of toxic fandom that are so ubiquitous today. Though if (like me) you have managed so far to avoid watching Un Chien Andalou, maybe skip page 112.
‘This skeletal outline describes the elemental nature of Sunrise but does not capture its poetic force’ (p. 103)
This quote is an admission of the spoilery nature of such a book, but it also exemplifies his interest in the art of the medium. In fact his initial inspiration was E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art. More than a timeline of technological advances, Cousins delves into the innovations that filmmakers have made in terms of artistic, musical, psychological, and communicative aspects or, for example, in circumventing the strict rules set by totalitarian regimes. He explores the fact that Cinema has real world political implications .
Film is not created in a vacuum. Politics, literature, social movements, culture, technology and more apply pressure, which is released in a burst of inspiration (the jump cut; the Pan-Cinor lens), or an entire movement (New Wave).
The author speaks with authority, but doesn’t pretend to offer an unbiased view. His politics are visible (trans rights: good, nationalism: bad), and as though Cousins feels that this wasn’t clear enough in 2004, he makes it explicit in the new chapter Streaming: (2004-Now) “[A] cinema without borders approach is quietly radical.” (p.492)
Knowing this, it therefore comes as a surprise that he has retained the word ‘prostitute’ (a word that appears no less than 16 times), rather than replacing it with ‘sex worker’. One of the benefits of issuing new editions is the opportunity to update language to fit the present day. If it’s stopping me in my tracks right now for some psychic fnr.exe action, then it’s likely it won’t age well.
Overall, the book is a delight, and one that I will return to for its sheer breadth of information. Cousins emphasises that this book is not definitive, and readily points to other authors for further study. He also respects you as a reader, which is not always the case in books about film.
“Film is one of the most accessible artforms so even its most obscure productions can be understood by an intelligent non-specialist, which I assume you are” (p.7)
The Story of Film is thorough and illuminating. The evolution of film seen from Cousins’ vantage point looks tidal. The high tides of innovation occur at different times around the world, but are endlessly cyclical.
The Story of Film (2020) is published by Pavilion Books
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