Friday, February 03, 2012

The Story of Film-An Odyssey: Grade A


The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

Narrator : Mark Cousins; Director : Mark Cousins.

This 15-hour documentary history of innovation in film was a television series in the U.K., and now, apparently is being distributed in cinemas more widely. I saw three hours of it at a recent film festival and was extremely impressed. When it comes out on DVD (presumably it will), I will snap it up immediately, and so should anyone who loves film.

The documentary begins over a hundred years ago with the early development of movies by the Lumiere brothers and others, continues through the silent era, into the modern era, and even projects what the future of movies will be thirty years from now. The whole history includes thousands of clips from movies around the world, while Cousins explains why each movie was important for understanding film as an art form. Viewing it gives you a new appreciation of movies.

What you get however is Mark Cousins’ particular point of view, which is not Hollywood-centric or necessarily oriented toward popular tastes or commercial interests. Nothing wrong with that. However, while he does focus on the artistic and technological aspects of filmmaking, there is something vaguely unsatisfying in the omission of the sociological meaning of movies, how they capture and affect the popular imagination and influence culture.

Furthermore, being an American, I am most interested in Hollywood movies, which Cousins does cover fairly, but not completely enough for my taste. Instead, he spends a great deal of time on movies from around the world, showing clips from really excellent movies I have never even heard of, much less seen. I had no concept of what African films look like in several countries, for example.

That world-film education enlarges my appreciation of the art form, yet such films have limited to zero distribution, negligible influence on modern mainstream filmmaking, and will probably never be seen by me or by most people. That doesn’t mean such films should not be highlighted, only that when choices have to be made, some of Cousins’ are idiosyncratic, to say the least.

On the other hand, his world-film survey does an excellent job noting important and influential films from Iran, China, Russia, India, Mexico, Korea, Japan, and elsewhere, films that have been distributed and seen widely and have been overtly influential, and yet are often overlooked by Western audiences. For that emphasis, Cousins is applauded.
Despite the reservations noted above, this history is so good, when it becomes available it will be a must-see for all film lovers and required viewing in all film schools.

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