This is so meta…. I’m reviewing a film that is essentially a review of the history of film. A catalogue of it’s advancements, influences and cultural shifts. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey is an epic, and believe me that term is used fully in context, documentary about the history of film from the very first images ever captured in motion on film all the way up to modern films such as Avatar and Inception. It even has an epilogue that discusses the potential futures of film. Understandably this was quite an undertaking for director Mark Cousins. Click the link for my account of my journey through this story of film.
About a decade ago Mark Cousins mused on the possibility of someone writing a book about the story of film much like E.H. Gombrich’s The Story Of Art. Now many of you may not know Mark Cousins but suffice to say he is one of the UK’s leading authorities on film and art of film making, so it should come as no surprise that someone suggested he should write that book. So write it he did. At some point he must have had a moment of realisation that showing film is far better than telling, and so Mark set about to make a documentary of his book. The Story Of Film’s DVD release comes packaged with a booklet charting the development of the film itself and in that booklet we can see that what started off as a plan for a simple 2-3 hour TV film soon ballooned multiple times over into the 15 hour long film we have now. I said it was epic. This is 900 minutes of the history of film making. Maybe epic doesn’t quite do its scope justice.
The film is split into 15 1 hour long chunks which allowed it to be easily cut up for TV showings late last year on the UK’s Channel 4. This is likely the reason it has been wrongly classified as a TV series on imdb.com, despite having been played theatrically at a number of events. Sometimes in it’s entirety in one session. I don’t suggest watching it in one session. You’d probably end up defecating yourself or something. Handily the DVD release is split across 5 discs all broken down into 3 hour parts. No chapter selection menus in sight either. Those 15 parts are as follows.
1] Birth Of Cinema (1895-1920)
2] The Hollywood Dream (1920s)
3] Expressionism, Impressionism, Surrealism (1920s)
4] The Arrival Of Sound (1930s)
5] Post-War Cinema (1940s)
6] Sex & Melodrama (1950s)
7] European New Wave (1960s)
8] New Directors, New Forms (1960s)
9] American Cinema Of The 70s
10] Movies To Change The World (1970s)
11] The Arrival Of Multiplexes And Asian Mainstream (1970s)
12] Fight The Power: Protest In Film (1980s)
13] New Boundaries: World Cinema In Africa, Asia, Latin America (1990s)
14] New American Independents & The Digital Revolution (1990s)
15] Cinema Today And The Future (2000s)
Quite the comprehensive collection of chapters there. I would have liked something on the impact of the Hayes Production Code on American Cinema and the resultant explosion of daring films upon its abolition but that’s likely because it’s a period of film I have studied at college. One thing that you may not realise from that list, and could come as a shock to people who steer clear of world cinema is that this documentary isn’t focused on American cinema in the majority. Quite rightly so too. Most innovations in film making techniques didn’t come from the US and quite often when they did they came from directors who had moved to the US to avoid the persecution of the Nazis in World War Two.
It’s telling of this film’s depth that it takes 3 hours for us to get to the point where sound in introduced to the movies. In a lesser documentary this would have likely had been rushed to in order to hold an audience’s attention. The Story Of Film is not purely for entertainment, although it certainly kept me focused. There are far too many (at the time) ground breaking developments in the artistry of film in the silent era for something like that to be glossed over. The first ever edits, cuts, close ups and various other techniques that anyone with Windows Movie Maker knows without being told are all catalogued and their impact shown. Quite often Cousins shows us a moment in a film that was a genuine game changer and then shows us it’s impact on a later film. Deep focus shots and stylistic lighting used in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane gets referenced multiple times over just to remind you how much of a impact that single film had. There’s a reason Citizen Kane is often number one on Sight & Sound’s top 100 films of all time poll. Cousins goes out of his way to make sure that you understand not only the cause but the effect of all changes in film over its near 120 year history.
As the film chronicles that 120 years we’re exposed to a lot of films and film makers that we might not have otherwise encountered. I’ve heard stories of viewers saying that The Story Of Film has urged them to see more films. For me I feel I really need to watch some more Yasujiro Ozu films and certainly need to brush up on my Ingmar Bergman. I know it’s dreadful that I haven’t seen much of the latter directors work. Only Seventh Seal to be honest. I intend to correct that, and you’ll know if I do because I did go and state right from the beginning that I would review every film I see. So if no Ozu of Bergman appears on here in the next few months have a go at me or something and remind me to add some to my Lovefilm rental list. As a result of seeing this I also feel a stronger urge to actually get on with making a few short films of my own. One I have an intention to use Ozu style framing and camera placement and I have also been dreaming up a silent short film too. What I’m saying is that this documentary will inspire as well as inform which, as far as I am concerned, is the purpose of any documentary.
The film has a few surprises in store for people that get through the first 6 hours of silent film and expressionist cinema. By that point you may be expecting this to stick quite largely to the more arty realms of cinema having only flirted with musicals and gangster movies in that early section. Suddenly we’re hit over the head with the exuberance of Bollywood and the high speed intricacy of Hong Kong cinema. This goes to prove that Mark Cousins understands that all walks of cinematic life have a just and important place within the story of film itself. I used to watch quite a few Bollywood films (may I suggest Daag: the Fire and Garwali Bahawali for instant guilty pleasure status), watching this has renewed my interest. Especially as I have never seen Sholay. Another for the Lovefilm list I guess.
At some early screenings of this film apparently some people said they didn’t like Mark Cousins’ narration. They wanted someone like Morgan Freeman. To them I say feck no! Mark has a particular voice that remains a nice neutral tone throughout. His voice isn’t instantly recognisable to the average person and so a level of integrity and evenness is maintained over the film’s 15 hour runtime. If Morgan freeman was narrating this you’d always be aware it was him. Also, despite the silky smooth nature of his voice would you really believe he knows the ins and outs of the history of film? This needed to be narrated by a director, or maybe even an anonymous entity. What especially matters to me is the lack of any attempt to sell you on how great a film is with forced enthusiasm. A conscious effort has been made by Mark so that when he tells you a film is beautiful or a masterpiece you don’t feel as though there’s any exaggeration or insincerity to that claim. Marks voice is quiet, neutral and very Irish.
In-between all the talk of film from Mark and clips of the works he is discussing we get interviews from a wide variety of sources involved in the history of film. Werner Herzog, Lars Von Trier, Gus Van Sant and many more show up on the director’s side of things whilst a number of experts and actors show up to provide us with details of directors who have either since died or are not available. Some, such as Von Trier, crop up more often than others giving their recollections of the influence certain older films had on their future career and then later they appear to discuss their own films. There’s no favouritism here though. Von Trier appears because he deserves to, as does Robert Towne and even Baz Lurhmann. I’m not a fan of Lurhmann by the way. Too hyperactive for my tastes. Won’t be adding his films to my Lovefilm list.
What we have here is what I would consider an essential film for anyone studying the artform be it at college or university or anyone who is studying purely for fun. It should go along side the actual films it discusses such as Chinatown, The Third Man and so on as a learning tool. It deserves to be watched as much by budding film makers as a screenwriter should be reading Syd Field or Robert McKee to help learn their craft. On top of that it will… I should capitalise that… it WILL invigorate your interest in film, it WILL expand your knowledge of film and it WILL make you understand just why film is the most important art form of the last century just as maybe videogames could become over this next century. Watch it… now… in 3 hour blocks. I don’t think you get an achievement for finishing it in one sitting.