The Story of Film (2011) – Review
by Dan Berlinka
Mark Cousins’ epic journey through the history of cinema, even at 15 hours, is an impossible story to tell objectively or in its entirety. Particularly when, as Cousins intones in his opening voice-over, his account will embrace not only Hollywood, but a whole world of film making beyond it.
Instead, he wisely adopts a more personal, impressionistic approach. Yes, he follows film’s chronology, but he leaps forward and backwards, using the wealth of clips to create dazzling juxtapositions, pointing out the way certain images echo across time. Close-ups of a fizzing drink in Odd Man Out, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and Taxi Driver. The ‘phantom ride’ created in early cinema by placing a camera at the front of train reaching its final horrifying destination in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.
While some of his pronouncements might initially provoke a dissenting eyebrow – movies invented flashbacks; in the 1910s the best films were Scandinavian – Cousins’ measured narration remains curiously compelling. Even when you’re not sure you entirely agree with him.
“Pause-filled pace takes on an almost poetic quality”
His slow pause-filled pace that gives equal weight to every word – and that I have previously found frankly irritating – here takes on an almost poetic quality.
Of course, The Story of Film is not without its flaws. The attention paid to some films seems disproportionate compared with the brief glimpses of others. But that’s inevitable and not particularly troubling in an undertaking of this size. The biggest problem with this kind of project is that the audience for it undoubtedly already knows the story and may feel slightly patronised when being told it. But this is precisely where Cousins has his greatest success.
He respects and takes for granted that you share his love of cinema. Alongside the excellent use of archive and interviews, Cousins’ presents his own moving pictures. They are low key, carefully framed, but, with a few exceptions, rarely showy. So that truly what we have here is much more than just a TV arts documentary – it is a film in its own right.