The Story of Film – when nerdishness has never been better

I normally make a point of not commenting on a new series until it’s a few episodes in as first episodes can often be deceiving and series often need a few weeks to find their feet. In the case of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: An Odyssey, however, I’m going to jump straight in, the reason being that I wouldn’t want people missing out on catching up with its excellent premiere before the second installment airs this Saturday night.

It’s also the case that I simply don’t need to see another episode of this series to know that the long-lost art of finely crafted multi-part documentaries has been restored to our television screens – that much is abundantly evident from this week’s offering. And how refreshing it is to see a documentary maker and a broadcaster treat its audience as intelligent creatures capable of tuning in each week for a period of several months instead of assuming that we have such limited attention spans that information must be crushed and condensed into standalone programmes, and where even a three-part series such as Mark Gatiss’ very good recent History of Horror can be considered somewhat epic in length. Thank goodness for Mark Cousins and More4 who have decided that a subject matter as deep and far-ranging as the entire history of world cinema be given the number of episodes that it deserves in order to do it justice.

The story of The Story of Film is that Cousins approached the BBC about turning his 2004 book of the same name into a series for TV. They were prepared to commission it but not at anywhere near the number of episodes that Cousins felt he needed in order to say everything he needed to say. Bravely, perhaps insanely, but certainly commendably, he walked away from the offer and instead took it to Channel 4 who found a home for it on their More4 digital channel and who were – amazingly in this day and age of shallow television and fickle viewing habits – prepared to offer it a run of twelve hour-long programmes. During the course of the making of the series, however, Cousins decided that even twelve episodes wasn’t enough to tell the story in and so he went back to More4 and made the case for the series being upped to fifteen episodes. Fortunately, they agreed and we, the viewers, look like winning hands down.

There have been some other fine documentary series of late on various genres of cinema, many of them focusing on cinema in the early part of the twentieth century. In addition to Gatiss’ horror series mentioned above we’ve had thoroughly decent efforts from Paul Merton, including his series on Silent Clowns and The Birth of Hollywood, as well as an interesting standalone documentary of the early British movies of Alfred Hitchcock. However, there can be no doubt that the time has now come to take a broader view and to attempt to complete a grander, more audacious look at the entire history of cinema, from its earliest and humblest beginnings, and taking in the output of all the world, instead of merely focussing on the US and Europe with a brief nod to Japan, as is usually the case. This is such a series with its entire raison d’être being to shine a light on works of significance from around the globe while weaving them into an over-arching fabric of cinema development as a whole. An almost frighteningly ambitious task to set oneself. Time will tell if Cousins succeeds over the course of the series but the evidence of the first programme is that we can be confident he does.

Familiar to fans of quality movies on television from his stint on Moviedrome, where he took over from Alex Cox, and from his own series Scene by Scene, there can be little doubt that Cousins’ presentation style is rather unique, bordering on the annoying. His softy spoken voice is full of random inflections which sound like deep affectations and each and every sentence is peppered with unnatural-sounding enunciation. However, his precise diction is almost laid over the images like a caress, such is the obvious love of the subject in his tones and you soon find yourself able to deal with the manner of delivery and concentrate instead on the enthusiasm and the pearls of information instead.

For the first programme in this long and incredible journey Cousins takes us right back to the genesis of the moving image with Edison and the Lumière brothers before moving through those final few years of the nineteenth century, when the process of filming was in its infancy, and through the first decade and a half of the twentieth century as a series of techniques in both shooting and editing allowed the medium to develop and evolve rapidly. Very clearly and concisely, and illustrated perfectly with examples from cinema’s first decade of silent movies, Cousins takes us through these innovations, the kind of things even a kid would take for granted in children’s television but which at one time had never occurred to film-makers until someone first had the idea. And so we see the development of film from static shots from an unmoving camera of single scenes to the first close-up to show more detail and how the close-up has since been utilised for dramatic effect with an example of the master of close-ups himself, Sergio Leone. The first edits, the first cutaways to different scenes and back again to develop a storyline, the first parallel storylines of two scenes happening simultaneously with cuts between the two: all these things and more are demonstrated in a way which neither treats the viewer as idiots nor presents them wrapped up in the kind of indecipherable terminology that would alienate the casual viewer. Cousins doesn’t come across like a Film Studies lecturer waffling on and he doesn’t even come across like a friendly and eager schoolteacher sharing his enjoyment with his pupils. Instead, if anything, he comes across like a proud father looking back through a photo album of his firstborn’s early development and sharing that love. These were the first faltering steps of cinema, the first half-formed words, and you can tell that Cousins is as proud of these simple advancements as everything which came after. And just right too.

Interesting little snippets of information are dotted along the way such as the fact that Hollywood developed as a major centre of film activity because of a patent for film projectors which had been registered in New York but which could be used on the distant west coast in the hope that it was too far away for anyone to bother tracking down for payment. And there’s the prominence of female script writers in the early days of cinema, which rather bucked the trend of women’s role in society in general during that period. This is the kind of stuff which perhaps students of early twentieth century silent cinema may well know but to the average viewer, including even most film fans who haven’t embarked upon studies of this era as students, it’s all fascinating material.

We wind up the first episode in the period of the First World War with Hollywood already established as a major industry, able to create stars who commanded salaries which were at the time astronomical, and with cinema already being used by some fine but misguided directors such as DW Griffith to push ideas of repellant propaganda onto a mass audience. Future installments look set to provide even further interest as Cousins will begin moving away from the nuts and bolts of film-making as cinema technically advances and into the realm of ideas and storytelling devices. We can expect to see established household name directors alongside the arthouse ones we like to pride ourselves on knowing and also alongside the ones we’ve never heard of at all, and that mix of all three is what excites me so much about the rest of the series.

One of the major soundbites to come out in the pre-publicity for this series has been a line from the opening episode where Cousins declares that the history of cinema we have previously been presented with is “racist by omission”. He’s right. Of course, I don’t think anyone has ever set out to omit movies from the history of the form based on racial prejudice, but at the same time we have clearly been too Western-centric in our appreciation of cinema in the past. Again, this isn’t down to racism in trying to bury works from other countries but down to practicalities and distributions. As Cousins points out though in a Radio Times interview accompanying the first episode, today we have access to works through DVD and the internet that we never had previously and so now is the time to highlight these forgotten or overlooked pieces.

I must say that the idea of being shown something new is an attraction with this series. While I’m happy to have my Truffauts, Kieslowskis, Kurosawas et al nestling happily on my DVD shelves, pretending that I’m culturally open, there’s a whole world out there I know nothing about and we, as viewers, stand potentially like those who stood on deck with Columbus all those centuries ago with new continents of opportunity opening up before us. And good old More4 are going to help us all by screening a series of movies in conjunction with The Story of Film so that some of the titles Cousins uses to illustrate his programmes can then be seen in their entirety by those eager to learn more.

So what is the litmus test for the success of this series? Well, speaking personally, after just one episode, I’ll drag my good wife’s name into this article. Saturday night presented options for viewing of The Story of Film on More4 and, simultaneously, a repeat of the French crime drama Spiral on BBC4. Tired, she decided to opt for neither and announced her intention to retire for the evening while I plumped for More4. Hanging around for the first few moments she was complaining loudly about Cousins’ inimitably aggravating intonation asking how I could bear to listen to it. After ten minutes she was still intermittently complaining but had been drawn in by what was on screen and what was actually being said rather than the way in which it was being said. After an hour and twenty minutes as the credits rolled she was telling how much she was looking forward to seeing the next fourteen programmes. Despite not having previously shown any inclination towards the world of Film Studies she was hooked.

It is the ultimate holy grail for any documentary maker to produce something which both aims high and yet never alienates anyone. Few achieve it and yet Cousins succeeds admirably. We live in an age where so much is dumbed down to the masses and where so much highbrow art is pitched to the other extreme. To carefully tread the tightrope of making an intelligent, thought-provoking series which both educates and entertains while never talking down to its potential audience or excluding those not already in the know is difficult and yet here it is, a series made in the old style of having enough episodes to breathe and really take us on an epic journey. TV isn’t supposed to be made like this any more, but thank god, in this case, it is and perhaps the wave of critical acclaim being lavished on this series will help the age of the documentary series to come again.

An Odyssey, you say? Tell Ulysses that I’ve signed up as a shipmate and am preparing to sail. I can’t wait.

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One Response to The Story of Film – when nerdishness has never been better

  1. Brilliant piece, Evan. I can only agree.

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