Most people who’ve been halfway paying attention know the story of film, or at least some version of it. Eadweard Muybridge, Thomas Edison, jerky silents, talkies, glossy Hollywood studios, the New Wave, the ’70s, Star Wars, indies, CGI, something like that. Whether gleaned from a college class or picked up along the way, it’s a serviceable outline, and one that thumbnails the rudiments of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film (Music Box DVD and streaming) quite nicely. But in adapting his book of the same name, Cousins goes deeper, and, as one might expect for a video essay that spans 15 hour-long episodes, far, far wider. And it won’t take too many episodes of this thought-provoking series to understand that it’s Cousins’ story of film, not any more personal than it needs to be but undeniably idiosyncratic. Not that this is a bad thing.
The Irish writer/director/cinematographer/editor is also a film historian and critic and, in surely his most unimpeachably cool resume bullet, has co-run a film festival with actress Tilda Swinton. His narration is sure to be the first make-or-break point for many viewers. Cousins’ heavily accented murmur features a Gaelic Valley Girl uplift at the end of sentences, giving many of his categorical pronouncements the flavor of a question. Fifteen hours of it is a lot, but it eventually becomes companionable.
It helps that Cousins clearly knows his stuff, and is canny in how he presents it. The first episode in particular does an adroit job of explaining how the earliest makers of moving pictures, fumbling at the technology, made the key discoveries that enabled cinematic storytelling, e.g. that audiences will make the connection themselves between seemingly disparate scenes edited together. The Story of Film also offers welcome reminders early on of the riches of silent film, neglected by the overwhelming majority of moviegoers.
Cousins is soon on to the birth of Hollywood, but he’s not telling The Story of Hollywood. Perhaps The Story of Film’s biggest strong point is its global perspective, as it goes a long way toward properly crediting the films and advances made outside Southern California and ripping up the First World–centric Mercator projection of much popular cinema history. The bits here on African, Arab, and Korean cinema are likely to surprise even those who fancy having some familiarity with them.
Likewise, Cousins is little interested in the business of movies other than the ways in which it shapes the movies themselves. Over the course of The Story of Film, you will hear him repeat the words “innovation” or “innovative” perhaps dozens of times, and while he doesn’t avoid discussion of big-budget studio fare, from Gone With the Wind to The Matrix, he focuses more on the often less remunerative films and filmmakers that advanced the art, from the work of undemonstrative Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu on up to Taiwanese long-take artist Tsai Ming-liang. One episode on the 1970s, subtitled “Innovation in Popular Culture—Around the World,” spends most of its hour on the coming of age of Hong Kong kung fu films and Indian “Bollywood” cinema, lavishing attention on 1975 megablockbuster Sholay and getting around to Jaws and Star Wars as the episode winds down, in almost passing mentions.
As the story moves closer to the present day, you can almost hear the disdain in Cousins’ voice as mentions of “digital” cinema grow more frequent. That said, his take on more recent decades (especially in framing the ’80s as a decade of protest cinema, once you look past the glossy action flicks) is especially valuable, not least for his less hidebound approach to who and what matters. As far as first drafts of 21st-century cinema history go, The Story of Film does an estimable job.
Of course, The Story of Film is not without its more baffling missteps and quirks. Cousins offers a series of relatively polished talking-head segments with some of the greatest filmmakers working today, including Lars Von Trier, Claire Denis, and Bernardo Bertolucci. When not focused on such interviews, or on illuminating clips of the films in question, Cousins works with his own, somewhat rougher contemporary video footage, shot all over the world. In some cases, it provides interesting context: One shot shows Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene’s house in Dakar, emblazoned with the phrase “HOUSE OF THE UNBELIEVER”; the next shot reveals that it stands across a narrow, dusty street from a mosque. In other cases, Cousins’ low-budget attempts to add his own cinematic content to his story fall flat: The gorilla suit employed in the final episode makes some sense, in context; the red glass Christmas ornament dangling from the HOLLYWOOD sign in an early episode about the birth of the studio system doesn’t, really. His repeated pronouncements on this or that being “the greatest _____ in the story of film” begin to risk eye rolls.
But then, this is his story of film, and probably there will be plenty to quibble about, depending on how you see it. For one example, Cousins has barely a word to say, kind or otherwise, about exploitation cinema, despite its energetic influence. He never discusses the effects of format, either, despite its mounting influence on how films are seen. (I watched The Story of Film on both an HD TV and a laptop screen, across four different states.) But in the end, this intelligent, provocative account will encourage you to make a list and get to watching, if only to inform your own take. And any cinephile would have to be happy with that.