Cinema Odyssey: An Interview with Mark Cousins

<i>The Story of Film: An Odyssey</i> tells the history of the moving image, from the simple thrill of the Lumière Brothers to the hi-tech digital age. We speak to its director, <b>Mark Cousins</b>, about this epic journey

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 29 Aug 2011

I’m on Woodlands Road, Glasgow. It’s scorching hot and I’m a bit late for an interview, and a bit lost. Despite walking this street many times before, I can’t find the agreed meeting spot – an editing studio where my interviewee, Mark Cousins, is ferociously applying a final spit and polish to his magnum opus, an epic fifteen hour documentary called The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which tells a history of the moving image, from the novelty of the medium’s first crude shorts at the fag end of the 19th century through to today’s current digital epoch of CGI and stereoscopic 3D.

My phone vibrates: “Through the half open gate opposite Beanscene,” says the text. At the door of a small sandstone building, the former outhouse for the neighbouring Park Circus townhouse, I’m greeted by a mop of curly hair and a distinctive brogue that’s midway between Belfast and Auld Reekie – respectively Cousins' home town and adopted home. The effervescent Irishman, in banana yellow T-shirt, camouflage khaki shorts, and biker boots, leads me through to the editing suite where, on a massive plasma screen hooked up to a mother board of buttons and levers and flashing lights, he and his editor are tweaking a scene about an hour into the film, which looks at D.W. Griffith’s parallel editing technique and its influence on filmmakers across the globe; specifically Minoru Murata and his 1920 film Souls on the Road, which Cousins calls “the first great work of Japanese cinema.” Shamefully I’ve never seen Murata’s film, or even heard of it, but coming from Cousins, a walking encyclopaedia of film history, I take the statement as gospel.

This short exchange between Cousins and me illustrates the need for a project with the scope and ambition of The Story of Film. If Souls on the Road is a seminal work, why is it not available on DVD? At the time of writing this the film has been rated by only eighteen IMDb users. I doubt if it has screened on UK terrestrial television in my lifetime, let alone one of the UK’s art house theatres, whose reparatory output often reek of déjà vu (this year alone has seen rereleases of Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, West Side Story, and, most recently, a trio of much loved Ealing comedies – hardly films lost and forgotten). Cousins is shining a torch on the corners of world cinema where few others are looking. For this reason he is one of the most important film voices working in the UK today.

Once Cousins has crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s on the first hour or so of film –his final task is to edit a caption, adding the hyphen to Jean-Luc Godard – we make our way to a local bar to discuss the project further. Based on his 2004 book of the same name, The Story of Film is all about the people who have shaped the medium over the last eleven decades; but this isn’t merely a roll call of canonised film-school favourites like Griffith, Welles, Ford and Hitchcock. “I've taken a hard and soft approach,” Cousins tells me when I ask how he decided which filmmakers to include. “The hard approach is to be rigorous. Almost the first question is, who actually influenced who? Who were the influential people? Even if their influence was delayed, like [Yasujirô] Ozu. That's historical, evidence based. That's the hard approach, I would say. So that gives you a kind of skeleton," he explains. "But then there's the soft approach that comes after that, which is more personal. If Ozu is great, why is he great? There are things that you can show that prove he was influential, but in other ways you can’t prove it, but I argue it anyway.”

It’s this latter quality that has defined Cousins as a different breed of film critic, a role he has likened to a defence councillor whose job it is to fight for the rights of films ignored, misunderstood and mistreated by mainstream cinema culture. As film journalist Ed Lawrenson wittily noted at the recent Project: New Cinephilia event at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, the majority of critics seem happier in the prosecutor role, taking obvious glee in handing out tough justice to the latest Julia Roberts vehicle or comic-book movie. Refreshingly, Cousins prefers to trade in heart-on-sleeve sincerity rather than withering snark.

Filmmakers he argues on the behalf of over the course of his documentary include names like Ousmane Sembène, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Youssef Chahine and Ritwik Ghatak. These directors have not received the celebrity they deserve in the West, and Cousins believes he has an ace in his sleeve that can convince the British public of their genius: the images from their glorious films. “If I say to someone in this bar, ‘Can I tell you about a Japanese film from 1920?’, it'll conjure all sorts of images in their head – dusty, distant, other worldly – but if you put a piece of film in front of them about two guys and another guy who's in the snow who's died [the scene we just watched from Souls on the Road], it's just there, they'll get what it's about instantly.” This is the clear advantage Cousins’ advocacy via filmmaking has over his writing, and The Story of Film has over 1000 film clips to be submitted as evidence for the defence of these artists. “It's that immediate response," Cousins continues. "I can rely on the film to work its own magic. All I can do is make sure I bring [the audience] in and help them notice what's brilliant here. Sometimes when you make a film you start with nothing. I'm starting with gold.”

From this gold Cousins has spun an evocative film history using the same medium’s simplest of tricks. “I kept saying to myself, ‘Imagine that you're making a magic lantern show,’” he explains, enthusiastically. “I wanted to use very old-fashioned techniques. There are a very few camera movements; shots are often wide; often we've filmed at dawn or dusk; there are loads of shots of light falling on things. I say at the beginning [of the film], 'Cinema is the art of light,' so I just thought of it like a simple old-fashioned lantern show – it just happens to run for fifteen hours.”

When I ask Cousins about his ambitions for the film he’s not coy in his response. "I've tried to make this film moving and seductive, and if it seduces people and gets them to love these films then that will be great." It’s essentially 900 minutes of cinephilic propaganda, then? “I think back to myself: if I was sixteen or seventeen and someone gave me the box-set of this I would have loved it because it’s full of all sorts of flavours; it's like a tasting menu – have a bit of this, try this drug.”

If cinema is a narcotic, Cousins has an unprecedented platform – fifteen prime-time slots on UK TV – to push some deliciously psychedelic gear on impressionable viewers. “Now that nearly everything is available on DVD, all you have to do is get them hooked," he says with infectious optimism. "I'm pretty sure if people watch this and they see this film Hyènes by [Djibril Diop] Mambéty, where a woman turns half gold and comes back to avenge the lover that jilted her, they'll think, I'd like to see that! That's the dream outcome.”

The Story of Film: An Odyssey will be broadcast in one hour chapters on More 4 from 3 Sep and is screening in full at the Toronto International Film Festival

C4 programme page:

The Story of Film @ TIFF: