Saturday, January 11, 2014

Streaming choice: Mark Cousins' brilliant, poetic and quirky 15-part odyssey THE STORY OF FILM

A hit at various festivals internationally and shown on television here and there (most prominently on our own TCM channel), the nearly 16-hour (divided into 15 slightly-more-than-one-hour episodes) THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY, by critic and documentarian Mark Cousins, is a genuine "find" -- and watching it via Netflix streaming, at your own speed and frequency, is probably the best way to tackle this immensely smart and enjoyable ride through cinema history, from the viewpoint of one singular fellow with a lot of good ideas and the capacity to deliver them in the best fashion possible.

Some of the rather crass Netflix viewers (click and then click again on the various reviews) seem to have objected to Cousins' Irish accent above all else. Bullshit, I say. Listening to his gorgeous, lilting voice is one of  the great pleasures of this documentary.  I often have trouble with Irish accents in narrative films. But here, as the words bubble off Cousins' lips (the filmmaker/
narrator is shown at right) so gracefully and understandably (out of the five episodes I've watched so far, I barely missed a single word), his narration, which is occasionally quite poetic, proves a consistent delight. (One Netflix viewer describes Cousin's voice as "monotone"; the viewer clearly has no idea what that word means.)

What this series offers is a look at the entire history of motion pictures, from their birth (in various countries around the world) to their slow maturation and continuing growth. If you follow this blog at all, you'll know that TrustMovies has probably a greater knowledge of film and its history than your Average Joe. Yet I can't tell you how many new directors and films I've had to add to my list from watching this series. (And I'm only up to episode 6 out of 15.)

Cousins is much less concerned with the major Hollywood blockbusters (those slippers, above, are from you know what), about which we've by now heard, seen and learned everything we would want (often much more than we'd want) than he is with how movies influence each other, and how directors and producers borrow, steal and homage each other to the point where film gets faster, sharper better and more intelligent -- and sometimes slower, sweeter, better, more intelligent and deeply felt.

What is so particularly wonderful and inclusive about The Story of Film is how it treats so many of the countries of the world as equally important to the USA. (This drives crazy some viewers, particularly those who must find American exceptionalism in everything.) So what a pleasure and an education it is to learn more about, say, the early work of Egypt's Youssef Chahine or actress Kyôko Kagawa (above), who has worked for and with some of the greatest Japanese directors.

Cousins does not simply show us clips from what seem like one million movies; he interviews actors, writers, directors and other film historians, interweaving these gracefully into his whole scenario. You come away from this amazing program with renewed appreciation of everything from the light (that began it all) to POV, German expressionism, dissident filmmaking (as Cousins calls it) and an evidently famous Chinese actress, Ruan.

I'd never heard of heard of Ruan, but Cousin's little sidestep into her brief life put me immediately in mind of a more recent and very lovely Chinese film, Electric Shadows. His take on Ozu, whom he calls the greatest filmmaker who ever lived, is quite splendid: "He was interested in centering the human body while de-centering, like the Buddhists, the human ego." (You won't always agree with the filmmaker; whom I suspect has a better liking for Baz Luhrmann, above, than do I.)

What is especially wonderful about The Story of Film is its moral seriousness -- but without any finger-wagging or sermonizing -- which renders the series truly progressive, as well as alert and caring about the whole history of cinema. Cousin's sections with Stanley Donen alone make the project worthwhile. When Donen tells us how, though he hated the work of Busby Berkeley as a young man, he has come to love it since ("His movies didn't change. I changed."), one can only wish that we, all of us  -- artists, critics, movie-goers -- could embrace this understanding and admit it to our minds and hearts.

I've just now begun episode six (and Chahine, who is shown above with Mr. Cousins). Already I am wanting to race ahead to see every single section, while trying to slow them down and make them last longer: a happy conundrum. Well, as they say, this should be my worst problem. You can stream The Story of Film now via Netflix. Just click here... (You can also purchase actual DVDs of the series or order them up digitally by clicking here.)

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