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The Story of Film: Mark Cousins’ Cinematic Odyssey Around the World (Twice)

By Peter Schilling Jr.

As subtitles go, filmmaker and critic Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, an expansive yet intimate 15-hour documentary about the history of movies, gets it right: An Odyssey. Created over the course of more than a decade, his filmic journey took him around the world, twice—from England to Egypt, India to Hong Kong, Japan to Hollywood, and many points between—adding up to around 50,000 miles of travel. The resulting work includes more than 1,000 clips from domestic and international films, from the 19th century to the present day, and dozens of interviews with cinema’s leading personalities. In anticipation of The Story of Film’s Walker screenings, freelance writer and novelist Peter Schilling Jr. reached Cousins during the director’s September visit to the US for the 2012 Telluride Film Festival to learn more about this epic project.

Peter Schilling Jr.

You began this project in a 2001 article in which you argued that there should be an epic history of the movies, which eventually became the book. Shortly after the article, you drove from Scotland to India, and during that trip the 9/11 attacks happened. Then, in your words, your “life shifted eastwards.” Did this journey help shape The Story of Film?

Mark Cousins

I’d already been writing about international films pretty regularly, and I’d been interested in Iranian films for a long time at that point. But when you go on a long, slow drive through the world for six months, you begin to notice, if you hadn’t already, that you are not the center of the world. Hollywood is not the center of the world. There is no center. There is no center of filmmaking. I went to Calcutta. I went to Tehran. I went to West Africa. This helped internationalize me, helped make me passionate about world cinema.

The Story of Film had to be passionate and accessible, and it had to have a real sense of place. So you can see in the film a lot of time I would shoot at dawn in Calcutta, or on a dusty red road in West Africa, because I wanted audiences to feel that they were traveling the world and feel the atmosphere of the places where the movies were shot.

Schilling

You call this a “global road movie,” and there’s a lot of travel in this documentary as you seek out the great filmmakers. There are also very few static shots—your establishing shots are on trains, trams, in cabs and cars and motorcycles, which makes an exciting journey for the viewer as well.

Cousins

I’ve always loved films that are on the front of things. There’s a little sequence at the beginning of the documentary that is called the “phantom ride sequence,” where the camera is affixed to the front of a train. We see this taken very seriously in Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust documentary Shoah, and that’s one of the brilliant simple things movies do, have you move through space.

But then it became a joke that no matter where in the world we went, everyone knew that I wanted to get my camera onto a train or bus or an elevator to get that flow of movement. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we couldn’t afford our own film dolly equipment, so we used public transportation! And I liked that.

Schilling

One of the most striking things about The Story of Film is the prodigious number of film clips. According to the DVD notes, you compiled more than 1,000 clips, and it took you about 20 hours per clip to edit down what you needed—around 375 weeks or seven years worth of labor.

Cousins

Of course, it was crucial to have these clips in The Story of Film. And it would have been a massive job if I hadn’t already written the book, and I did a lot of the work then. It helped that I had a lot of this information in my head, that I just had to get to out of my head and into the film.

But what increased the research for this film was determining where to shoot in every part of the world. Where in Calcutta would best tell us about Indian cinema? And where in Hollywood would best reflect American cinema? It was location research, rather than film research, that was enormous.

Schilling

How difficult was it to access some of the footage? The quality of the prints varies—most of it is sparkling, but some, like Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (1969), look as though they were culled from videotape.

Cousins

One thing I will say is that The Story of Film could not have been made before the advent of VHS or DVD. We took a lot of material from DVD. We asked the filmmakers themselves for prints, and they often helped, but if we couldn’t get anything but old videotape, that is what we used. We always used the best that we had available.

In the case of Uski Roti, that is such a masterpiece we had to show that clip, despite being in such a crude state. Perhaps, however, if you see that this great film in such condition, maybe with luck that might help to inspire someone to improve the process and restore the movie.

Schilling

Some of the great pleasures of The Story of Film are discoveries such as Uski Roti. Having read your book, I discovered that you expanded your analysis of certain movies thanks to the clips. For instance, in the book, you devote a single line to the Souleymane Cissé’s West African film Yeelen (1987), but in the documentary there is an amazing three-minute clip in which the hero of Yeelen confronts his father and both turn into animals. That was a breathtaking moment. How difficult was it to decide what to expand from in the book?

Cousins

My job as a writer was to conjure up a movie in the mind of the reader. In the film, I didn’t have to be a conjurer. I had to simply show people these films. But I had to do another creative thing, which was to show people the language or imaginative processes of what went into the final result of these movies.

The film ran 19 hours originally, which I thought was ridiculous, so I had to lop off four hours and cut entire people like Eric Rohmer and Sam Fuller, unfortunately. It still wasn’t enough, so I told my producer to make sure and cut Woody Allen, because he’s one of my least favorite directors.

The Story of Film is already pared down, and that was a painful process. With Yeelen, because it was such a nonverbal film, it needed that clip—it’s the longest clip in the whole 15 hours. Hardly anyone knows much about African cinema; that’s why it’s in there. I wanted to show people the majesty of a film like Yeelen. I could’ve shown a lot more African cinema.

Schilling

Despite being 15 hours, The Story of Film is a very compelling and exciting movie, in part because of the novel and entertaining ways in which you interviewed the various personalities associated with movies—from your filming Norman Lloyd gripping the back of his chair just like the way he held on to the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s Saboteur, or Gus Van Sant reclining on his couch, or your crew drawing up beside Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine in a car on a crowded Cairo street. What was your reasoning behind these many disparate ways of shooting these filmmakers?

Cousins

I knew I didn’t want a “talking heads” film. I didn’t want it to be full of people just staring at you. There are 43 interviewees in this film, and when you realize that it’s 15 hours, you can’t have these guys just looking at you. I wanted it to be a little exciting, a little unusual. You’ll notice very few people are shot in close-up, and we had the angles quite wide to show their feet, too.

Sometimes things weren’t planned. Like Raphaella Fetcha, a man who came up to us on the street as he was walking his dog, and asked what we were doing as we were shooting in Italy. Fetcha had once played football with Pier Paolo Pasolini as a child, and he was remarkable. He had a remarkable face. Pasolini loved faces and “discrepant” personalities, because he wasn’t nice and polite and middle class. Here was a brilliant example of a Pasolini-like personality coming up to us on the street, so I just had to put it in. The way he looked said more about Pasolini than I could say.

One of the other moments was in India. I was interviewing the great actress Sharmila Tagore, and after we finished, I asked her if she knew how I could get in touch with Soumendu Roy, the cinematographer on many of the Satyajit Ray films. She called him up, and I immediately headed over to talk with him. As I finished talking with Roy, he asked me if I wanted to speak with Amitabh Bachchan, the most popular actor in the world. Of course! We were going to discuss his film Sholay, the most popular movie in the world in the 1970s (which Bachchan starred in), so Roy called him, and I was passed on like in a relay race. But it was a lot of pressure on me, because within a half an hour I was with Tagore, then in another half hour with Roy, then Bachchan, so I had to set up and prepare quickly.

Schilling

In the epilogue to The Story of Film, you skip ahead to the year 2046, pondering the fate of cinema. Just a few moments earlier, you show us a scene from a very old movie, from the silent era, footage of a man standing atop a biplane. You say, “This shows real human courage and imagination.” Then The Story of Film cuts to a shot from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, where the camera zooms over a CGI Rome, and you say this shows “hard work and long hours spent in relative comfort, eating pizza.” One of the things that struck me from that moment in The Story of Film is that I hadn’t seen Jurassic Park, Gladiator, and Titanic since they opened. And I was shocked at how poorly they’ve held up—they don’t really at all. But when I see Hell’s Angels by Howard Hughes or a Buster Keaton movie, these are real things you’d marvel at had you been on the set, and still marvel at today. Do you think we’ll lose something in this transition to digital?

Cousins

This is an important point. Titanic, for example: the boat has no barnacles, no wear, and if you compare it to the effects in Brave, the most recent CGI film, it is far more technical. Titanic was an epic emotional experience. But I don’t conclude that we’ll go backwards. I just think that cinema overall is very young. It is a very young art form, and digital is just getting going. But I think that digital and CGI are just more colors on the palette and will be used expressively by great filmmakers, and expressively by less talented filmmakers.

Mark Cousins filming The Story of Film, 2011

Jane Campion interviewed in The Story of Film, 2011

Claude Lanzmann, Shoah, 1985

Courtesy IFC Films

Mani Kaul, Uski Roti (Our Daily Bread), 1969

Souleymane Cissé, Yeelen (Brightness), 1987

Courtesy Kino Video

Howard Hughes, Hell’s Angels, 1930

Courtesy Universal Pictures

Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928

Courtesy Janus Films

Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai, 1954