“The Story of Film: An Odyssey” is a documentary series by Mark Cousins, an Irish film critic and historian. Released in 2011 and adapted from the book of the same name and author, “The Story Of Film” is as its name suggests a documentary on the history of cinema from its inception until today. The series has 15 episodes of one hour each, in which the different periods and significant developments of the cinema are addressed in a chronological way.
The main interest of this documentary, which is also its great strength, is that it can be suitable for film lovers as well as people with very little knowledge of the world of cinema. However, film lovers will have the advantage of a better understanding of some explanations, often illustrated by films that they will have probably already seen entirely. In spite of this chronological structure, Mark Cousins takes the liberty throughout the episodes of linking together films from different eras. He illustrates, for example, the influence that Carol Reed with “Odd Man Out” (1947) had on Jean-Luc Godard in “2 or 3 things I Know About Her” (1967) or on Martin Scorsese in “Taxi Driver” (1976).
In the first episode (1895-1918), the foundations of cinematographic art are laid. First of all, the historical aspect is addressed with the decisive and crucial invention of the kinetoscope by Thomas Edison, which leads us straight to the Lumiere brothers and the city of Lyon. We can for example see one of the very first recordings with “May Irwin Kiss” (1886) by Thomas Edison or a few years later the first projected film from the Lumiere brothers “Employees Leaving The Lumiere Factory” (1895). This was followed by the appearance of different techniques and tricks, such as editing (parallel cutting, 180 rule), close-ups, montage and tracking shots. To illustrate the importance of editing, Mark Cousins says this sentence “It doesn’t say then, it says meanwhile”. We find major works for the montage such as “The Life of an American Fireman” (1903) by Edwin Stanton Porter or “The Horse That Bolted” (1907) by Charles Pathé. In these films, an alternate and more complex temporality is introduced, which is totally unprecedented. All these tools are then brilliantly used and developed by some genius directors such as George Méliès in “A Trip to the Moon” (1898), “Cendrillon” (1899) or later by Buster Keaton in “Sherlock Jr. (1924) or Viktor Sjostrom in “The Phantom Carriage” (1921).
The art of film was born and with it the inevitable star system. The documentary pays tribute to Florence Lawrence, also known as the first movie star for her various roles in the films of David Wark Griffith. For his part, David Wark Griffith will be one of the pioneers of what will be and still is one of the main cities of cinema, Hollywood.
Sent to Hollywood in 1910 by the Biograph Company, he directed the first film shot in this new Hollywood “In Old California” (1910). Hollywood will quickly become a major place of American and world cinema. Its weather, its light, the diversity of its natural landscapes, the absence of unions, its cheap land and the opportunity to avoid copyright made it an ideal place for production companies that settled there in mass between 1915 and 1925. Meanwhile in Europe, where the Scandinavian cinema of the Swedish Sjöström and the Danish Christensen reigned as masters, was then paralyzed by the First World War, and Hollywood established itself as the major place of cinema.
In EP02 (1918-1928). Mark Cousins focuses on the triumph of American cinema and the emergence of some rebels. With the emergence of Hollywood, we also witness to the emergence of big production companies such as MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros. This led to an huge increase in film budgets which could now follow all the crazy ideas of some directors. But it will also lead to the emergence of some standards in films.
At that time, it was the comedy and the romance which generated the biggest success. The appearance of great directors such as Charlie Chaplin with “The Kid” (1921), Buster Keaton with “Sherlock Jr” (1924) will popularize the genre with the public and make it a worldwide success. Great romantic successes will also appear such as “The Thief of Baghdad” (1924) by Raoul Walsh. To counterbalance these standards and the lack of realism of the biggest productions of the time, the documentary made its appearance with “Nanook of the North” (1922) by Robert Flaherty.
But it’s especially the appearance of many directors who go beyond the standards established at that time by Hollywood. Part of episode 2 and all of episode 3 (1918-1932) will focus on those filmmakers who broke free from these norms, the rebels.
These rebels appear all over the world. In Denmark with Carl Theodor Dreyer, in Germany with Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, in Poland with Robert Wiene, in Japan with Mizoguchi and Ozu, in France with René Claire and Abel Gance, in Spain with Luis Buñuel, in Russia with Eisenstein and in China with Yuan Muzshi. The series then dives into the remarkable works of these filmmakers who revolutionized cinema.
Most of the filmmakers directly rejected the romantic and comic cinema rooted in the USA. They wanted to create a cinema that really spoke to them, deeper,more intense more realistic. The cinema has been able to evolve thanks to the expressionism of Murnau, the realism of Mizoguchi, the impressionism of Abel Gance or the surrealism of Luis Bunuel. All these brilliant directors who have gone beyond the norms, whether in innovative shots, ways of directing actors or simply in the subject of their film, have allowed cinema to evolve and mutate.
“The Story of Film : An Odyssey” is a must-see for all film lovers and for those who would like to understand how the industry appeared. Mark Cousins is an amazing narrator who allows us to enter fully into this adventure. Throughout the series, he focuses on the innovation of film, how it evolved into what we know today. “The Story of Film” will probably give you a lot of insight into what cinema is all about, but it is also very enjoyable to watch because of its accessibility and a very pleasant rhythm and intensity. It will also extend your list of films to see.
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