Reviews of The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) and related work
- Spin-off: A Story of Children and Film (2013)
- Spin-off: Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (2018)
The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)
Seen in 2015.
The history of world cinema, roughly in chronological order, with a focus on innovation in live-action fiction, especially drama and art cinema.
A pleasant review. Cousins’s narration is good but the content is personal, with a few too many superlatives. Much of what I love is absent: Animation, horror, science fiction etc. are all marginal, as if they didn’t innovate or weren’t popular. I suppose the choices are sane for concision.
‣ A Story of Children and Film (2013)
Seen in 2017.
The historical representation of children in mainstream live-action fiction film around the world.
Slightly better than the less focused “odyssey” it follows. Cousins is more effective at feature length, where he’s able to filigree off of a simple home movie into a loosely reasoned typology of themes in the representation of children, but he has no particular point worth considering.
‣ Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (2018)
Seen in 2020.
A 14-hour clip show. Every episode begins with this monologue:
Most films have been directed by men. Most of the recognized so-called movie classics were directed by men. But for 13 decades and on all six filmmaking continents, thousands of women have been directing films, too. Some of the best films. What movies did they make? What techniques did they use? What can we learn about cinema from them? Let’s look at film again, through the eyes of the world’s women directors.
The last episode ends:
So, that’s it. With the smash of a camera [in a Beyoncé video], our road movie is coming to an end. Hundreds of great examples of cinema. 14 hours on the road. What have we seen in these 14 hours? Everything. Form and content. Violence and tenderness. Love and loss. Bravura and documentary. We have seen the world.
There have been fewer car crashes or battle scenes than if men had been directing. But we’re wary of generalizations. One of the few clear differences between our films and the male-dominated movie history is this: The films we’ve looked at have far more female protagonists. Far more women at the centre of the movies. Hurray for that!
Women make movies. Great movies! They’ve done so since the birth of cinema. They’ve helped define the anarchic, androgynous rectangle: The movie or TV screen.
Whereas The Story of Film traced film history descriptively, chronologically and by example, Women Make Film categorizes good examples of what to do, normatively and by theme. There are 41 themes. Some are technical, some are genres, others are common story beats or motifs, all in a jumble:
- Introducing a Character
- Meet Cute
- Close Up
- Surrealism and Dreams
- Gear Change
- Horror and Hell
- Leave Out
- Life Inside
- The Meaning of Life
- Song and Dance
Written and directed by Mark Cousins, in much the same style as the original. Women actors read his scripts, as if his observations and his barely-functional prose were their own. Aside from the clips, the only visual material is home video of the narrators and a drive to the grave of Alice Guy-Blaché. There is no other material, no diagrams, and little to connect the chapters. Most chapters and episodes end abruptly, without even concluding reflections. Though the series is linear, and the episodes are all of uniform length, there is no good reason for this in the age of video on demand. The writing doesn’t make it work.
The first two episodes are pretty good material for a tutorial on how to make film, and it seems at first as if that will be the topos. Ironically, Cousins’s own choices for how to make a film on the subject of how to make a film are poor. There are no examples of what not to do, and no hands-on advice from filmmakers. Accordingly, he drifts away from the tutorial ambition and falls gradually into a mere list of personal favourite clips even on topics like science fiction, which he seems to enjoy only as visual spectacle. What he likes best is Kira Muratova.
Too often, the director fails to introduce the material and just lets it roll. For example, he uses Orlando (1992) more than once, but does not outline its premise, perhaps because plot is disparaged in high culture. He also fails to explain the significance of his selections as such. “Melodrama”, for example, gets no definition, no analysis of its function. The examples of melodrama are not classical and do not convey the genre’s historical grounding. As with “Sci-Fi”, I don’t see why they’re even present. It’s certainly not for comparison against an alternative masculine melodrama, which is excluded. Perhaps it’s just completionism, a most unfortunate lapse in the concision that ultimately saved The Story of Film. It is telling that Cousins pats himself on the back for his “14 hours on the road” covering “everything”, as if runtime or an impossible scope could make his series good.
It was a good idea to try to make a feminist complement to Story. It was a good idea to aim for something other than a rehash, because telling the story of film without men would have been silly. An opinionated thematic analysis was a good choice. I don’t fault Cousins, a man, for writing it, but it seems as if his ambition never quite crystallized in his own mind. Despite sneering at “so-called movie classics”, he often refers to canonized male directors—without explanation—to describe obscure female directors. Since he includes himself and the male canon by reference, it’s a mystery why he does not make any direct comparisons. He does not even have men imitating his female pioneers. Instead, he uses practically the entire ouevre of Kathryn Bigelow, plus Wonder Woman (2017), just so that he can talk about action and blockbusters (his “car crashes or battle scenes”) without including men. Completionism and the monocular female-only filter clash to the detriment of both. Feminism requires neither.
Women have indeed made “some of the best films”, but this production does not invest that vague statement with meaning. Far beyond being “wary of generalizations”, the director never even attempts precision, staying in the shallow end of the pool of the humanities, too cowardly for his own normative project. For a series this long, such shallow vacillation is hard to appreciate.
Take it for what it is: A tagged-up treasure trove. There’s an official website (www.womenmakefilm.net) that names the examples for reference. I believe the entire project would have worked better online, as a non-linear, cross-referenced museum exhibit or a set of some 100 video essays.