Director: Mark Cousins
Screenplay: Mark Cousins
Starring: Mark Cousins, Lars von Trier, Kyôko Kagawa, Paul Schrader, Robert Towne, Bernardo Bertolucci
Producer: John Archer
Running Time: 900 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Say what you like about the documentary itself, but nobody can deny that Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey is a phenomenal achievement. Based on his own book of the same title, Mark Cousins presents us with an epic 15-hour love letter to cinema. Shown in the UK originally as a 15-part documentary series, the film was intended to be seen as a whole and played at numerous festivals in one go. This 5 disc DVD set presents it as such, only splitting the film 5 ways for storage reasons.
Cousins describes in his introduction to the journey how the widely known history of cinema is inherently racist and sexist. He believed it was “time to redraw the map of cinema history”, presenting the true story of how film moved from the early static shots of traffic or people leaving factories to the variety of films we enjoy today. A lofty, arrogant statement to make of your own book/film perhaps, but as you move through this long trawl of film’s development over the past 11 decades it’s hard to disagree or scoff at the high ambitions of his work.
Beginning with the very invention of film, the documentary moves chronologically through the last century or so, only overlapping from time to time with specific film movements that occured concurrently. Cousins’ primary focus is looking at the innovators of cinema; artists that changed film language and heralded new eras as well as looking at how historical change effected film. His scope spans the entire globe, drawing attention to revolutions in cinema big and small rather than going over old ground only covering Hollywood classics such as Citizen Kane or Casablanca (although these do get a foot in). This epic scale justifies the epic length of the piece and made the documentary eye-opening to me. Yes I’d heard of a large proportion of the filmmakers discussed, but it certainly got me onto a number I hadn’t, and also made me realise how many of these important directors I’d heard of but not actually discovered for myself. If one negative can be found in me watching The Story of Film it’s that it’s going to cost me a lot of money in DVD’s and Blu-Rays. As I first watched the ‘series’ as it was portrayed on TV I would add to a great ‘shopping list’ of films and filmmakers that I wanted to invest it.
Presentation-wise, it’s a very straightforward affair. We get Cousins’ narration taking us through the story as he shows us literally hundreds of clips from films, illustrating his points and the work of the filmmakers he is discussing. Interspersed with these are some interviews with well known filmmakers and film historians. We also get some basically shot ‘filler’ footage which is used to take us to different locations in the story of film (the travel budget must have been hefty) and some clearly and simply shot examples of film techniques being discussed. This additional footage isn’t particularly well shot or noteworthy, but does a good job of taking us through the places and events being discussed. A couple of Cousins’ more ‘symbolic’ sequences are a bit shoddy though.
Cousins’ narration is one of the documentary’s most divisive points when I’ve discussed it with fellow film-lovers. Without wanting to cause offence, the writer/director has a peculiar rhythm and tone to his voice that can be quite grating and monotonous. I grew used to this quite quickly and didn’t find a problem, but I know others have put off watching the film as they’ve heard him speak before and don’t fancy 15 hours of it. To me, this is a poor reason to avoid such an incredible piece of filmmaking and although his voice can be difficult, his passion for film and insanely detailed dissection of its development is absolutely compulsive viewing. A testament to this is how, when asked to review this set, I figured I wouldn’t need to watch it again as I’d caught it on TV, but when I popped the first disc in to check the picture quality and recap on the content, I struggled to turn it off and spent about 3 hours going through various sections again.
It’s a truly inspiring work and even if you feel you know the ‘story of film’ or have read the book, it’s still an absolute joy to watch the staggering number of clips from cinema’s most innovative and important works of art. Watching sequences like the first ever close up or the earliest use of editing for instance is captivating as well as revelling in the work of Ozu or Bergman. Cousins may miss a few great directors here and there and the focus is possibly too director-orientated, forgetting the importance of great cinematographers, actors or other artists who have shaped the medium, but overall the documentary is astonishing.
Don’t let the 15-hour length put you off. If you care at all about film history you simply have to watch this documentary. The beauty of watching this at home is that you can split up the experience into manageable chunks to view over several days, but to be honest, it’s that intoxicating I could probably sit through the whole thing in one go (with a couple of comfort breaks of course).
Absolutely 100% recommended viewing.
Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey is out now on DVD, released by Network Releasing. The set is as basic as you get. With the type of film it is, I don’t think many extras are required and the picture quality reflects the varied clips on show, but there is one major omission and that is of a basic chapter menu. Given the extreme length of the film, a menu where you could jump to the chapters so clearly marked in the film itself would seem a must, but one isn’t included here. You can skip through chapters during playback, but is a menu really too much to ask for?
Nonetheless, just owning this set to be able to re-watch at your leisure is a wondrous thing, so why nitpick?