SCREENINGS, READINGS & MEANINGS
By Gerald Schmitz
An epic journey through the worlds of motion pictures
Mark Cousins, The Story of Film,
The Story of Film: An Odyssey
At the Toronto International Film Festival, which ended a few days ago, there was nothing to compare with last year’s most remarkable theatrical presentation — Scottish film scholar Mark Cousins’ monumental 15-hour documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, originally shown on Channel 4 television in the U.K. and which should soon be available here as a five-DVD set. Cousins is a wonderfully engaging narrator who guides the viewer through thousands of film clips spanning the global history of the medium, archival materials and interviews with key figures, often going on location to illustrate important moments in this fascinating story. Another must-have for cinephiles is his equally engrossing companion book, updated from its 2004 first edition.
Hollywood blockbusters may dominate our multiplexes while independent films and theatres face an uphill struggle. Yet as Cousins observes in the foreword, ongoing revolutionary changes in film distribution through electronic platforms are enabling many previously nearly inaccessible films to be “just a click away.”
Mark Cousins (Photo by G. Schmitz)
Cousins’ approach is not intended to be encyclopedic and he focuses more on the art of filmmaking, especially its key innovative moments and significant directors, than the business side.
A particular strength is his inclusion of non-western cinema (African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American) that will be a revelation to North American moviegoers. For example, he details how Iranian films achieved international renown in the 1990s.
The first chapters and episodes cover the silent-era origins of moving images as a novel thrill and popular entertainment, graduating to more ambitious narrative features, propelled by rapid technical advances. A central figure in these early years was the French illusionist inventor Georges Méliès (who plays a role in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning Hugo). His 1902 masterpiece A Trip to the Moon was the first special-effects international hit. Tragically, Méliès fell out of favour, went bankrupt and burned all his films. (The incredible story of A Trip to the Moon’s recovery, restoration and fantastical result can be seen in the 2011 documentary Extraordinary Voyage directed by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange.)
The devastation of the First World War in Europe and patent battles on the U.S. east coast led to California becoming a filmmaking mecca and magnet for talent. With the rise of movie stars and major studios (including one established by the four Polish-Canadian Warner brothers), Hollywood soon dominated the world’s fastest-growing source of mass entertainment, a position it has retained ever since. It also produced some great films and memorable characters — none more so than the “little tramp,” created by British orphan Charlie Chaplin, combining comedy with social critique.
Cousins gives due attention to the emergence of important divergent stylistic tendencies through the 1920s — German expressionism, Swedish naturalism, French impressionism, Soviet socialist realism and montage, Japanese formalism — as well as the first forays into the documentary, animation and experimental abstraction. While the majority of silent movies are thought to be lost, we still marvel at such iconic productions as Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Abel Gance’s stupendous Napoleon (both 1927).
Of course, the advent of sound at the end of 1927 was a revolutionary turning point (as observed in Oscar best picture The Artist). It ushered in a period of unparalleled growth leading up to Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939, and lasting through the Second World War. In 1946 five times as many Americans went to the movies as during the industry’s low point in the early 1970s.
These years saw the further development of many different genres beyond romance, comedies and musicals — westerns, horror, gangster and war movies. Camera and editing techniques continued to evolve: for example, the striking use of deep focus and staging by Orson Welles and cinematographer Greg Toland in Citizen Kane (1941). The post-war era saw new movements arise — shadowy “film noir,” Italian neo-realism, the French “new wave” begun in 1959 that reverberated around the world. India’s “Bollywood” features incorporating song and dance became the world’s second largest production output. In Japan, directors of grand heroic dramas like Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai) attained international success even as influential masters like Yasujirô Ozu remained committed to a spare rigorous classical style (Tokyo Story).
As audience numbers fell and the television small screen loomed as a threat, studios reacted with wide-screen “cinemascope” epics to tempt viewers. (I’ll never forget as a kid going to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, neither mentioned by Cousins.) But along with all the spectacle and usual escapist fare there were also films of great intensity and power such as driven by the “method” acting genius of a Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront, 1954) or the intellectual and moral seriousness of an Ingmar Bergman. Even when the studios were floundering in the 1970s, American directors produced some of their best work: Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather saga, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now; Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver; Roman Polanski’s Chinatown; Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter; Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Days of Heaven.
The sensational arrival of Star Wars in 1977 heralded a shift in the dynamics of mainstream Hollywood film toward mega-budget spectaculars, increasingly oriented toward the youth market (especially young males). If anything, this trend is more pronounced today with effects-laden productions — often derived from comic series, fantasy or young-adult books — relying on huge opening weekends. Of course, there are still important “auteur” directors creating original work as personal expression (Malick’s The Tree of Life is an outstanding example). And as always there have been counter tendencies. The anti-Hollywood Danish and Scandinavian “dogme” movement of the 1990s committed to restoring simplified purity to filmmaking; its directors taking a “vow of chastity.”
In addition to exploring the evolving worlds of film and filmmakers, Cousins’ rich narrative embeds the cinema in its diverse social, political and cultural contexts; observing the influence of intellectual, artistic and popular currents, of individual and collective passions; showing how film reflects or sometimes reacts against societal conditions (for example, the emergence of black filmmakers in a racially torn America), and as he puts it in the documentary series, “how cameras can change lives.”
The cinema that speaks to us in many different languages has also created its own visual language that is constantly pushing the boundaries. While some lament the digital revolution and looming obsolescence of shooting on old-fashioned photo-chemical film — developments examined in writer-director Christopher Kenneally’s excellent documentary Side By Side — it is also true that digital technologies have expanded the possibilities of the medium. Digital cameras, editing and production processes are making filmmaking accessible to more people than ever before, while digital on-demand platforms promise more opportunities for viewer choice beyond the realm of theatrical distribution that has limited the prospects of so many independent and foreign films.
Even such a sweeping, ambitious project as The Story of Film cannot cover everything, and Cousins’ idiosyncratic selections and judgments (whose are not?) can be questioned. My favourite film ever, Wim Wenders’ surrealist 1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire, doesn’t make the cut; nor do the Marx brothers. Canadian cinema is briefly discussed just once, with David Cronenberg and Denys Arcand the sole Canadian directors mentioned. Cousins spends almost as much time on Aleksandr Sokurov’s justly celebrated Russian Ark (2002), an unprecedented feature, filmed entirely in a single shot, on which he ends the book with the conviction that “the history of this great art form is only beginning.”
Both the book, which refers to very few 21st-century films, and the documentary, which takes the analysis forward to an epilogue imagining the world of film in 2046, share Cousins’ irrepressible, infectious optimism about the future and about the capacity of movies not only to excite and entertain, but to enlarge our horizons and affect how we see the world. His account of the journey is an extraordinary achievement to enlighten and be enjoyed by anyone. On screens of every size and place, the story continues.
Schmitz is an ambassador member of the Canadian Film Institute. Watch for his coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival in future columns.