Films are dangerous. The Irish film historian Mark Cousins recognizes this. In his documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey, he treads carefully, leading the viewer through a riot of bullets and blood. The muddied battlefield, featured in the critically-acclaimed Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan, is in actuality a peaceful beach. Filmmaking, Cousins declares, is “a lie to tell the truth.”
Urgent and cogent, Cousins’ 15-hour retelling of the history of film is part love-letter and part apostolic epistle. The epic documentary is now showing in two-hour segments at the Schwartz Center as a semester-long Cornell Cinema series. Cousins’ gospel is cinematic truth, and his mission is to redraw the conventional roadmap of cinema history, which is “factually inaccurate and racist by omission.” This is a strong charge, but one that Cousins passionately defends by designing what he has called, in a recent San Francisco Chronicle interview, a highly personal “tasting menu” of landmark films.
The story of film is a story of greatness, Cousins persuades us, and the only way to appreciate this greatness is to go global. For too long, the spotlight has been disproportionately stolen by Hollywood and its trappings, “full of yearning, story and stardom.” Cousins begins by knocking Casablanca off its pedestal as one of the reigning film classics. As Humphrey Bogart locks eyes with Ingrid Bergman to the immortal tune "As Time Goes By," Cousins bluntly observes that such lush films are too romantic to be truly great.
The problem with romantic films, he points out, is that they are “always in a rush.” In the real classics, there is time for the poetry of the mundane — a chiming clock, a scurrying cat, a burbling kettle and a square window filled with smaller squares. A good director orchestrates these details to establish the rhythm of a house, as Yasujiro Ozu demonstrates in his 1947 film Record of a Tenement Gentleman, the first of many Japanese films Cousins praises lavishly. “Hollywood is not classical,” Cousins decisively concludes early in the film, “Japan is.”
As a crash course in film history, The Story of Film fares well. Cousins is an efficient, quick-witted teacher on whom few ironies are lost. He takes pains to ensure that these ironies are not lost on his pupils, who will quickly learn to greet terms like “golden age” with suspicion and bemusement. The tour begins with the birth of film in Thomas Edison’s New Jersey studio, and segues into the glories of the golden age of world cinema. The trauma of war then takes center stage; Cousins shows how World War II both sobered film and made it more daring, culminating in the explosive maturing of cinema in the 1960s and 1970s as films like The Graduate and Taxi Driver came to fruition. The 1980s saw the triumph of the multiplexes, flowering of Bollywood and the rise of the protest movies in response to Thatcherism. Another golden age arose in the 1990s, as Shinya Tsukamoto reinvented the Japanese horror film, Abbas Kiarostami reinterpreted realism in Iranian film, and the Coen brothers made flashiness fashionable.
Does, and must, film have a moral purpose? Cousins suggests that it does. If film is a language, then it must be wielded astutely. But the world of film is populated with villains and heroes, and it is not always easy to tell one from the other. The prolific director D.W. Griffith, master of punctum, used his talents in a “deceitful” way. (Punctum, as defined by the critic Roland Barthes, is anything unplanned and natural that pricks our feelings when we watch a film.) Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation helped inspire a generation of racism. He portrayed black characters as drunk, unclean and disorderly; he cast the Ku Klux Klan as an army of light. Formerly on the verge of extinction, Klan membership soared to four million in the 1920s.
To borrow the words of the 13th century Latin grammarian Terentianus Maurus: according to the capabilities of the viewer, films have their destiny. Adolf Hitler was so impressed by Metropolis, he reportedly made prisoners build a gargantuan ramp resembling the one in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film. The futuristic German expressionist film, now widely regarded as prophetic, was about an urban dystopia.
Cousins likes telling things as they are. The film is at its most poignant when Cousins recites the obituaries of mistreated cinematic heroes, who like Jean Dujardin’s character in The Artist, languish after the spotlights are gone. At the height of her career, the first movie star Florence Lawrence earned $80,000. She committed suicide at 48, after her career declined. An unfortunate chapter in the history of film, defined by “hype, fame and tragedy,” had begun.
Early Hollywood was Fordist, a crass manufacturer of myths. The studio system purged filmmaking of art. A deft employer of motifs, Cousins depicts Hollywood as a shiny red bauble dangling over a cliff — gaudy, mass-produced and vulnerable. Directors had their dreams cut down to size by studio bosses. Sitting in bland, slab-like buildings, brilliant set designers crafted exquisite landscapes. Movie moguls built film palaces, where people could go to have a taste of utopia after a hard day’s work. These ironies are captured brilliantly by Cousins.
Cousins does not hate Hollywood. He acknowledges that a lot of good has come out of the concentration of money and talent in the once lawless Californian wilderness. In the 15th installment, which focuses on post-9/11 films, Cousins lauds David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Christopher Nolan’s Inception for their complexity. Early Hollywood was also a generous employer of the highly creative but marginalized immigrants, women and Jews. Prior to 1925, women penned half of Hollywood’s screenplays.
Like a tourist on a museum tour, the viewer stops and stares, and the story of film is made tactile. This is the dressing table at which Marilyn Monroe turned blond. This is the obsessively organized desk, at which Thomas Edison dreamed up lighting devices and story ideas. This is the first Lumiere camera, which enthralled the first cinemagoers in the 1890s. The story of film, Cousins reminds us, is real.
Parts One and Two of The Story of Film: An Odyssey will be screened for a second time on Tuesday, Sept. 4, at 7:15 p.m. at the Film Forum, Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. This Cornell Cinema series concludes on Nov. 13.