Monday, February 06, 2012

PSIFF 2012: THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEYThe Evening Class Interview With Mark Cousins

Mark Cousins and I met in the press lounge at the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) where I parked myself on an armchair next to his to wolf down crudité and sliced fruit. When I glanced up at him, his mirthful eyes were twinkling and he was smiling impishly from ear to ear. "Hello," he immediately greeted me the moment we made eye contact, as if he wanted to become friends straight away. We introduced ourselves and I discovered he had brought his 15-hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) for its U.S. premiere to the festival, as well as guest curating PSIFF's Archival Treasures sidebar. Though I had already missed a couple of the early morning three-hour segments of his ambitious survey of film, I arranged to attend the film's weekend marathon, which proved to emulate not only the pereginations of Homer's wandering protagonist; but, also Homer's literary precedent of mentorship.

The Story of Film began its journey last September at a Telluride gallery installation although the film's official world premiere occurred at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where local journalist James McNally wrote: "Choosing to focus on the history of cinematic innovation rather than on the standard Hollywood narrative, the series ties together advances in technique, technology and influence from places as far-flung as India, Mexico, Iran, China and several African countries." From TIFF, The Story of Film returned to the UK for a televised broadcast on Channel Four and since then individual segments have teased festival audiences here and there, such as at the Mill Valley Film Festival. The Story of Film is currently screening at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) through February 16 and David Hudson has rounded up a suite of reviews for MUBI. For those unable or unwilling to sit through 15 hours of film history, the DVD of The Story of Film will be released in the UK on April 23 by Network Releasing, and will soon be available to preorder on Amazon.

One would think that sitting in a theater for two days straight at eight hours a stretch with only an hour off for lunch would prove exhausting; but, instead, The Story of Film's passionate focus on innovation was invigorating and—with Cousins on hand to introduce each day's segments and to field questions at the end of each day—the experience is already guaranteed to be one of this year's cinematic highlights. "Sometimes you can learn to drive in a weekend or you can learn to make pasta sauce or you can take a refresher course in a foreign language," Cousins mused at the onset of the marathon. "Maybe The Story of Film is something of a refresher course in movie language. Maybe come Monday morning if you've stayed here and you've liked it, you'll have learned some new things about this bright-lit, luminous, flickering language of the movies."

* * *

Michael Guillén: Mark, what distinguishes your survey of cinema from other histories of cinema?

Mark Cousins: There have been other histories of the movies, but none of them in my opinion quite do justice to a number of things: first of all, African cinema is usually overlooked and you're going to see tons of African cinema in
The Story of Film; secondly, and very importantly, women directors. So many histories of cinema overlook or slightly patronize women directors. You're going to see tons of women directors in The Story of Film. Not only because they're women; but, because they're brilliant at their art.

Guillén: Can you speak to the style you've applied to your film, both generally but especially with regard to your interstitial footage?

Cousins: I didn't want
The Story of Film to be a dry description of cinema. I didn't want it to be reportage. When I make documentaries, I try not to make them too pedagogic or sociological. I try to make them a bit more poetic. So, hopefully, there's a degree of poetry in The Story of Film. This is something of a love letter to cinema. In particular—with regard to the style I've used—there are no reverse angles, very few close-ups, and very few camera moves in the bits that I've filmed. I kept saying to myself, "Imagine that you're making a magic lantern show with glass slides lit from behind to elicit the gorgeous luminosity of the early movies." That's when movies were born: in that Victorian period of the magic lantern shows. That's the style I tried to adopt in The Story of Film. In particular, often a shot wipes in from the right of the screen, as in a magic lantern show. I wanted my footage to have its own unobtrusive style and to not be doing a lot of jazzy things, even though there's not a single still image in the full 15 hours. There were no name tabs on people. These were all part of a number of things I decided to do.

Guillén: Can you speak to your location shots?

Cousins: These locations where the movies were shot were evocative. Either the building or the street or the studio is still there and that's evocative or not
as evocative. One of my favorite books is George Steiner's Real Presences, which speaks to the idea of the authenticity of a place. I like to walk around with my camera—which is in my bag here—and film at dawn, going to those old studios in Calcutta, for example, to try to capture some of the magic of it.

Guillén: Where has the film shown previously?

Cousins: We showed it in a gallery space at the Telluride Film Festival and then it had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Palm Springs International Film Festival audience will be one of the first to see it in its entirety. It's playing next at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and from there to festivals and cities throughout the U.S. Our fingers are crossed that it will also sell to a TV station, even though it's designed to be seen on the big screen to capture the scale of the thing. There a thousand film clips within
The Story of Film from many of the world's great movies so it's preferable to see it on a big screen.

Guillén: Can you speak to the process of making the film?

Cousins: It took six years to make. We started almost exactly six years ago. The first thing we shot was the interview with Youssef Chahine, the great Arab director, because we got a little bit of money. We worked bit by bit. As we got a little bit more money, we filmed a little bit more. The editing, of course, was a long period and took almost two years in the editing suite. We cut it totally out of sequence so that we would be cutting Brad Pitt and then going back to Thomas Edison and then going to Africa and then to Iran. I had to go to many of the great archives of the world—in Beijing, in Cairo, in Iran—to get the material I needed. No one has ever collected this material in this way before and only in the digital era has it been possible to do that.

Guillén: How did you finance this research?

Cousins: There wasn't much financing. We made
The Story of Film mostly out of love. We took no fees ourselves, for example. I stayed in cheap hotels and traveled coach mostly. The money came from the European Media Programme, a bit of money from Scotland, and then British money, mostly from the UK Film Council and the British Film Institute.

Guillén: How did you arrange for clearance rights for all the clips you've used?

Cousins: None of the clips are cleared. We've used what is called the fair use law here in North America and the fair dealings law in Britain and this allows a film scholar to use an extract from a film for scholarly purpose, just like a literary scholar uses an extract from T.S. Eliot's poem "The Wasteland" for literary purposes.

Guillén: Does the film have a website?

Cousins: There's a Wikipedia entry that lists most—though not all—of the films cited in
The Story of Film. Plus, the official website we're building for the film will list all the films. The reason that site's not live at the moment is because we didn't want it to be a standard website that advertises the film—we wanted it to be more imaginative and creative than that—so once you visit the site when it goes live, you'll be plunged into an imaginary world in 2046 where cinema has been banned. You'll go into an underground world where a Norma Desmond figure is keeping cinema to herself. Hopefully, this will be an inventive way of looking at cinema.

Guillén: Seeking the inventors of cinema is, admittedly, a questionable enterprise. You referenced Auguste and Louis Lumière but not Max Skladanowsky?

Cousins: You're right. I didn't reference Skladanowsky. First of all, I couldn't fit everything into The Story of Film—the Brits have some claim to inventing cinema as well—but, I made my best judgment on this and decided that I wanted to look at the two figures who most certainly had a key creative role in inventing cinema: the Lumière Brothers and Thomas Edison. Skladanowsky's claim is good and strong but I didn't have space for him in the film. When you look at those early years of film history, there was something that was happening in the 1890s, which was across many countries. Many people were excited by that creative moment: the inventiveness of the Victorian time. I feel strongly that Edison and the Lumière Brothers were key and, beyond that, I felt I could go no further because we'd already taken quite a lot of time on the early years of cinema in The Story of Film and it would have taken even longer.

If you take any moment in the history of film—if you take 1952, for example, or 1921—you can expand it out and there's a kind of rich habitat of filmmaking going on, you know? I think you can tell from
The Story of Film that I'm interested in ideas and—when I went to Edison's studio and saw that plaque hanging there that emphasized the great idea that ideas matter—that made him crucial for me. Edison is often thought of as a money-driven person; but, he was more about ideas than people think. That's why I wanted to give him his due. But, again, you can certainly expand any area and I'm happy to list things that I've left out. There's so much that I've left out! There's no Preston Sturges. I do mention Sturges in the last hour of this film, which is a very strange place to mention him but at least I did mention him.

Guillén: Who else would you have liked to have included but weren't able to?

Cousins: Sam Fuller is not in
The Story of Film. Neither is Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette or Maya Deren. I could go on and on. At the end of the film where I say thanks, I really wanted to say apologies and then have a massive list of everyone who didn't make it into the film. At one point there was a 19-hour version of the film in which a lot of these people were in the film; but, I had to cut it down because 19 hours is a lot to ask of an audience. We sort of decided, "What is our limit? What can we conceivably ask people to watch in a weekend?" The PSIFF audience is actually one of the first audiences in the world to know whether it is watchable at 15 hours.

Guillén: For me the value of your project comes down to the art of the storytelling. A story can't be told unless you have a consummate and passionate storyteller and each storyteller has his or her conventions. I'm intrigued by your use of the Christmas ornament to reference the cinema of Hollywood, which immediately made me question my own collection of Christmas ornaments. [Cousins laughs.] Can you speak to why that metaphor expresses Hollywood for you?

Cousins: In my personal life?

Guillén: Yes.

Cousins: First of all, the bauble seems to me an interesting one because it's reflective, it's beautiful, it's attractive, a lot of which Hollywood was. I felt I needed to find some image to try to express the beauty of Hollywood. Lots of fancy people kick Hollywood and I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do something slightly different than that.

In my personal life, the first film I ever saw was
Herbie Rides Again. [Laughs.] But I remember sitting with my Dad when I was a boy and we were watching It's A Wonderful Life, that great Frank Capra picture. I want to say that it was Boxing Day or shortly after Christmas because I remember the Christmas lights. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that my Dad was crying. My Dad was a tough man, but he was crying watching It's A Wonderful Life and in a very simple, childish way I thought, "There's something in this. There's a power in this thing that we're watching." That was one of the things that attracted me to cinema: I was drawn in like the tractor beam in Star Trek. It got that hold on me and quite gently, but firmly, drew me into its world.

Guillén: What further strikes me—as a film writer or simply as someone who loves film—is that point at which you've watched enough film that you can begin to make the leaps between films and to recognize and sift out the continuity of film, how cinema evolves out of itself, which I feel you have brilliantly illustrated in The Story of Film. I loved the lineage you traced from the "troubled bubbles" of Carol Reed's Odd Man Out through Jean-Luc Godard's 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

Cousins: Thank you. That, for me, is what I love doing. Another example would be how—while watching Brad Pitt in Andrew Dominik's beautiful film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—I was reminded of Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's films. Brad Pitt is filmed in the same way as Lillian Gish. This kind of connective tissue, this kind of poetic impulse that filmmakers have had across this relatively young art form, and discovering this unexpected connection between Brad Pitt and Lillian Gish—there it is!—that's what's been the thrill of making The Story of Film: noticing those connections. I love it.

Guillén: So, in a sense, you were constantly educating yourself while making the film?

Cousins: That's right. I was constantly educating myself. I learned so much from Youssef Chahine—the wonderful, bold and daring Egyptian filmmaker who died a few years ago—not only about Egyptian cinema, I thought I
knew Egyptian cinema, but also about human bravery. This is a guy who—when he made Cairo Station—tried to be more honest about sexuality and was spat at on the street; but, he kept going. In my interview with him for The Story of Film, he spoke quite openly and daringly about Egyptian politics long before the Arab Spring that happened recently, long before the end of Hosni Mubarak. I learned so much from the courage of filmmakers like Chahine. They were really pushing themselves and their societies. I was incredibly touched by that. I was permanently changed by the experience of making this film.

Guillén: That being said, clearly having access to these filmmakers and their films was directly instrumental in the process of educating yourself during the course of making the film. But what can you say to young people wanting to educate themselves about film at a time when so many independent video stores are going under? You point to so many incredible films in The Story of Film but how accessible are they?

Cousins: Let me tell you a story and this is quite an optimistic story. When I was making this film, I realized I knew nothing about Ethiopian cinema. I didn't even know if there was Ethiopian cinema. I started to research and I found that there was. I found one film in particular called Harvest: 3,000 Years. I ordered it from Facets in New York. It cost me $120 and took two weeks to arrive. In that period, my appetite to see this film grew and grew so that—when it arrived—I
slammed it into my video recorder and watched it. It was a masterpiece. Now if you want to see that film, you can just click on YouTube and see it in all its glory, subtitled and everything. So that argues against the point you've just made; but, a crucial question, I think, from the lesson of my story is about appetite generation: I was getting hungrier and hungrier and hungrier to see that film. Now that it's so available and so easy to watch, the danger is that you think, "Well, I can watch it there so I'll watch it next Tuesday. Or I might watch it next year. Or I might watch it when I retire, or whatever." It's a different process. Actually the problem is not about accessibility but about generating an appetite for cinema. We're in an era of relative plenitude—not total plenitude but relative plenitude—therefore, the question for me as a sign poster is how to look at this Ethiopian film. As to the accessibility of these films, many of them are on YouTube so it's not as horrible as it sounds to hunt them out. Some of them are hard work and some of this is about shaming the rights holders of these films—who do nothing with these films—to make them available.

Guillén: In the documentary you defend the advances of digital production and the effect this will have on the future of cinema. Ironically enough, at that point in your documentary I detected the first evidence of pixellation.

Cousins: I noticed that as well.

Guillén: So having defended digital production, if I'm hearing you right you're now saying you have no issues with digital projection? You're not a celluloid purist?

Cousins: I absolutely love digital projection. I always sit right in the front row. If it's a film projection I notice immediately when it goes out of focus; but, with digital projection it doesn't. So I'm very new-fashioned about this. If you recall, there's a sequence in the documentary where I also talk about the colorization of an Indian film? Purists, I guess, would be against colorization but I felt in that case it worked. So I guess I'm not a purist about things like that.

Guillén: With regard to digital production, you reined the discussion in to industrial practices and didn't mention all the advances and trends in what has been termed "disposable" cinema; i.e., films made with handheld cameras by everyday folks?

Cousins: The democratization of the filmmaking process is crucial. That means that anyone in this room that might have a film talent but is not rich or not connected to the film industry will still be likely to make films. For me that's almost closer to the sociology of cinema rather than the poetics of cinema. I'm not a sociologist and, therefore, I've kept out of that discussion. People have asked me why I've not looked at audience reactions and marketing and that sort of thing and—though these are all very interesting—they're areas that I'm not qualified to speak. A lot of people think I should have done a big summary at the end of the film in my epilogue as to what cinema has achieved; but, I preferred to end it on something of a grace note with that scene of all the people holding hands at FESPACO in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, which was probably the most cinephilic place I've been in my life, even moreso than Hollywood.

Guillén: You and I both tend to interview filmmakers. I imagine it has come to be quite easy for you?

Cousins: No, it's very hard. Some filmmakers have been interviewed all their lives and that makes it difficult to ask something fresh. In a previous life about 10 years ago I was an interviewer and spent a lot of time on TV interviewing directors and actors and I used the technique then that I use now, which is to sit down and write a long sometimes-handwritten letter to the person after having watched all their work first. I introduce myself and say, "You don't know me. I know you've been interviewed all your life and here's why you need to give me 40 minutes of your time." Then I talk them through their career. For example, with Stanley Donen I wrote a long letter saying, "Here's why the leg of mutton dance in your last well-known film
Bedazzled is one of my favorite sequences." In that way you show a knowledge of the work and a take on it. It mostly works. In most cases we got who we wanted. As you can see, we weren't necessarily going for the most famous people by any means; just the people who were at a key moment and who could be an eye witness to that moment.

Guillén: How closely does The Story of Film: An Odyssey follow your publication The Story of Film: A Worldwide History?

Cousins: I wrote my book The Story of Film: A Worldwide History in 2002-2003. I had actually suggested in a British newspaper that there should be a single volume history of cinema like E.H. Gombrich's The Story of Art. Then I drove to India by camper van and when I got back there were two letters from publishers suggesting, "Why don't you write such a book?" I was in my thirties, which was probably a little too early, but I gave it a go. The book did well and was published all around the world in the '90s. Then my nutty producer John Archer said, "Why don't we try to make it into a film?"

Usually, adaptations of books are shorter than the books. My book is about 450-500 pages but my commentary for the film is also 500 pages. So
The Story of Film is roughly as long as the book. What I would say is that the book covers lots of things that aren't in the film, but the film covers things that aren't in the book. I spend more time showing clips in The Story of Film than I do talking about them in the book. As I'm sure you know, when you're writing a book you're trying to conjure images in people's minds, for example the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. With a film, I don't have to conjure it in people's minds to make the image concrete; I can just show it. Instead, I have to try to help the audience see the imaginative process that leads to the image. It's like inside-out vs. outside-in, or back to front.

Guillén: One of the distinct spectatorial pleasures of watching The Story of Film in its entirety here at PSIFF is the fact that you hosted it. You're enthusiastic and somewhat impish, so why then did you choose such a calm tenor to narrate your film? Can you speak to the tone you sought for your film?

Cousins: The tone was crucial for me. I thought a lot about the tone. What I knew I didn't want was a kind of TV tone, which is fast. I didn't want the narrative voiceover to move fast. In the recording booth, I didn't want to lecture. I wanted to create the sense that I was sitting beside you in the audience looking at the screen with you, talking in your ear. I know it's a bit whispery and some people hate that, but—if you're interested in the poetics of something—you need to almost get a slightly nighttime feel. Whether that works, I don't know, but that's clearly what I was going for.

Guillén: How much do you think your being Irish has affected your perspective as an observer?

Cousins: That's a fair question. When I read the capsule for the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it said something I hadn't even considered. It stressed that the film wasn't made by an institution. The British Film Institute's logo is on the film but they came in at the end. So it wasn't an institution or a cinematheque that made
The Story of Film; it was me and my producer. So it's not really my Irishness that affects my perspective as an observer, but my independence and the smallness within which we worked. I didn't have layers of producers with whom I had to deal with. I didn't have to submit my editorial judgments for approval from a panel of experts. The fact that I live in Ireland and worked on the film in Scotland—places that are on the edge of Europe and not customarily associated with being at the center of the film world—sort of meant that we just got on with it. Nobody ever thought we'd finish it, I guess. Nobody took us too seriously.

Guillén: What I appreciated about your documentary is its stance of enthusiasm as criticism. Do you have anything to say about the responsibility of film writers or journalists or critics to advance the story of film?

Cousins: I know that the film writing I really enjoy is enthusiastic. I love François Truffaut's writing on cinema. I quoted a bit of it in
The Story of Film when he's talking about Johnny Guitar. I love the passionate film criticism of Manny Farber. I love that thing that Rilke says: "Pray, poet, what do you do?" "I praise." So there's a degree of praise going on in The Story of Film. Beyond that, I don't think I have a good answer to your question other than to say that I would like film writers to write as well as possible about this medium and whatever mode they choose is fine.

Guillén: Finally, before we leave here, can you talk about your involvement with the 8½ Foundation?

Cousins: The 8½ Foundation was created by Tilda Swinton and me. We discovered that we both fell in love with movies about the same time, when we were eight-and-a-half. Tilda's son asked her once, "Mummy, what did people dream about before the movies were invented?" These things came together and made us think that maybe around the age of eight-and-a-half is a kind of threshold moment; a perfect time to fall in love with cinema before you become a teenager and try to be too cool. We decided to invent a movie bar mitzvah; an initiation into the world of cinema. The 8½ Foundation takes place in Scotland, though we've had offers to repeat it elsewhere. Children—when they're reaching the age of eight-and-a-half—log onto our website, which is set up as a magical world with little projectors in a midnight forest where there are clips of films that Tilda and I particularly love. If these children want to see any of these films or get one of them for their eight-and-a-half birthday, they write a handwritten letter to us. I get hundreds of letters now with drawings and everything. We wrap the film up in sparkly paper and send it off to the child. The idea behind all this is not simply to give the child a beautiful film—and it's a Chinese film or an Iranian film or a West African film—but it's also about appetite generation. As I mentioned earlier, in this modern day when everything is so accessible, if you have to write a letter, send it off and then wait for three weeks before the film arrives, there's a sense of build-up there and, hopefully, that's fun.


James McNally said...

Great interview, Michael. Mark's enthusiasm and approachability shine through, as does your engaging curiosity and generosity (as always!). Thanks, too, for the mention!

Michael Guillen said...

It was largely your review, James, that intrigued me to watch The Story of Film, so for me it was a no-brainer to use your voice for context. Thank you for steering me right.