The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Directed by Mark Cousins
February 1-16 at MoMA
NYU’s film department mandates that freshman take “Language of Film,” designed to get future visionaries like alumnus Brett Ratner thinking about shot composition, editing and cinema’s rich heritage. The catch is that professors get to choose what they show: my particular instructor specialized in minority representation issues and was obviously disinterested in the bigger picture. Our first lecture compressed film’s first 30 years into a grudging frog-march through greatest hits in innovation: a Birth of A Nation clip here, an “Odessa Steps” sequence here. No one would be inspired or informed by this: it made film history seem like a precursor to the really important movies, like Smoke Signals.
I’m not kidding when I suggest that it’d be safer for NYU—and film schools in general—to just sit down the filmmakers of the future with Mark Cousins’ 15-hour, eight-episode TV travelogue The Story of Film. His basic narrative: Hollywood represents the “bauble” of romantic filmmaking (not, he stresses, “classical” values), and while there’s riches to be gained from its history, the Hollywood-centric vision of film history is—Cousins unambiguously announces from the outset—“factually inaccurate and racist by omission.”
There will be omissions: avant-garde boosters will be distressed that the form is represented by nothing more than a few seconds of a Walter Ruttmann short and (I’m sorry to say) Cremaster 3. Call it “The Story of Narrative Film With A Few Documentaries” if you like: this is a great introduction to film history, and if you’ve already got a grip on that it’s inevitably fun to watch your hours of viewing recast by Cousins's arguments and formal chops. The first four clips—Saving Private Ryan, Three Colors: Blue, Casablanca, Record of a Tenement Gentleman—put holistic film history into action.
The really good news is that Cousins is no slouch as a director himself: he’s a big fan of the “phantom ride,” where a camera pushes forwards or backwards through space on a dolly/car/trolly (that, he says, is a “proletarian” tracking shot) with kinetic speed, and his globe-trotting compositions push through cityscapes. Hollywood is represented by a red Christmas-tree ornament; to demonstrate how deep-focus lenses work, Cousins bounces it off the lens. To save time and give people who know their film history more to work with, the visuals are often densely allusive: speaking of sound film's temporary corruption in the 1930s towards sitcom-flat lighting, Cousins shows us Times Square, where a billboard for the musical of Women on the Verge over the transformed Palace Theater (Broadway now, a film palace in the time he’s speaking of) demonstrates commercialism's current appropriation of past innovations. And stuff like this keeps happening for 15 hours.
Cousins’s favorite term of approbation is “innovative”: this is what the great films of his canon are. He’s not here to scold people for watching Jaws: he’s here to celebrate and make enjoyably eccentric choices (there isn’t a frame or mention of The Jazz Singer here). Film history is united through editing and graphic matches, like when Cousins cuts from the soaring skies of Top Gun to Blue Velvet’s sky. Cousins narrates throughout in a lilting Irish brogue that makes every other word sound like a question. And take note NYU: he frequently points out what lens is being used, calls attention to the shot composition, takes note of natural light, et al. This isn’t just the story of film, but an introduction to its language.