A hugely ambitious work, this meaty 15 episode chronicle of film history from Britain's Channel 4 was originally pitched to broadcasters as a more modest effort to film Mark Cousins’ eponymous book - a reportedly reverent ode to the creative movements and technical innovations that Hollywood adopted, absorbed, and stole from other countries without given creators any credit.
In the first episode, Cousins, who directed, wrote, filmed, and narrates, uses the term eugenics to describe how Hollywood has imposed its own version of film history, and while it’s a valid point on a corporate monster exploiting the fruits of creative independent thought for its own egotistical and financial gain, use of 'eugenics' is a bit rich; as Cousins himself points out in almost every episode, filmmakers have been stealing great ideas for decades, and frankly without a little appropriation and theft, film can’t continue to evolve.
The value of Cousins’ monster documentary series lies in the myriad international filmmakers who’ve been overlooked or ignored by film historians, largely because their work hasn’t always been widely available outside of certain borders or regions. As a whole, the series unfolds like a scholarly class study whose professor uses familiar language and visual markers to introduce jaded filmgoers to the cinematic innovations which were often picked up by younger, observant filmmakers abroad, and within the U.S.
Much like a lengthy essay, Story brings up concepts via interviews that are later revisited and revised by Cousins, as he traces the migration of ideas – visual, editorial, and stylistic – to more recent movements and usage by contemporary filmmakers, and most viewers willing to sit through the entire series will be compelled to track down some of the unique works by men and women from Africa, India, Iran, and Asia.
The interview segments sometimes feel a little abrupt, and that’s due to the way the production evolved from a short demo edit of interviews with Egyptian filmmakers to entice funding agencies, and its inevitable expansion to 15 episodes as Cousins’ globe-trotting yielded further interview material. Having booked anywhere from 15-20 minutes max with his subjects, the questions are deliberately strategic, but the downside is some interviews appear almost subliminally; it’s to Cousins’ credit he managed to interview so many actors and directors, but the breadth of the series pretty much disallows for any digressions.
That does ensure the doc maintains a certain momentum, and it is pretty amazing as to how many international filmmakers are showcased – many of whom may only have been covered in supplemental features in releases by specialty video labels, such as Criterion. Cousins also has a great knack for simplifying the explanation of an innovation by filming little vignettes, whether its through comparative ratios, discontinuous editing, etc., and applying his own symbolic visual motifs, like a recurring bauble.
The cinematography is quite lovely, and the DVD includes a fat booklet featuring making-of notes and diary entries which chronicle the series’ genesis as well as Cousins’ own travels and personal observations as he meets his idols. Besides the length – each episode runs almost an hour – viewers may also have trouble with Cousins’ own narration: his statements tend to end like the harmonic equivalent of a question mark, and that child-like tone can be grating. It takes about 1-2 episodes to acclimatize oneself to Cousins’ delivery, but the series is a rewarding, expansive yet personal intro to filmmakers whose work rarely enjoys exposure in North America outside of local cinematheques.
The booklet also includes a full tally of the films excerpted in each episode, making it easy for the curious to track down specific works. One additional caveat, however: Cousins doesn’t hold back on spoilers, so viewers should be vigilant and be ready to jump to the next chapter if need be.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan