Making Connections: Mark Cousins on his two new documentaries
We catch up with the ever-inspiring Mark Cousins – Scotland's most prolific and critically acclaimed documentarian – ahead of the release of two new films shot through with his irrepressible passion for cinema
Mark Cousins' films can be broadly categorised into two piles. There are his openhearted essays on film culture, where he uses his vast film knowledge to cast an askance eye on cinema history, and in the process open it up beyond the narrow confines of the western canon (The Story of Film (2011), The Story of Children and Film (2013), Women Make Film (2018)). Then there are his playful portraits of people and places, which often cast their subject in revelatory new light (I Am Belfast (2015), The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018), the self-portrait film The Story of Looking (2021)). So prolific is this Edinburgh-based Irish filmmaker that two features – one of each flavour – arrive in cinemas this month.
One is The Story of Film: A New Generation, Cousins’ sequel to his epic 15-hour history of the movies. “I thought I was done with this,” Cousins says on a video call from his flat in Edinburgh. “[The Story of Film] was ten years ago, and the book was a lot more than that – I was in my 30s when I wrote it. I don't like going over old ground.” However, when the book’s publisher suggested an addendum for a new addition, the cogs started turning. “In order to do that chapter, I had to look back over cinema of the last ten years, and I realised a lot had happened – and not even in cinema, but in society, of course. So I thought maybe it's time to have another crack at this.”
Cousins' writing process is akin to the cut-up technique. After immersing himself in the cinema of the 2010s (“There are things I hadn’t seen: I’d only seen two Lav Diaz but not enough...”) he wrote the works he wanted to discuss on sheets of A5. He flashes a few of them on screen. Some of the titles made the picture (Under the Skin, Mad Max: Fury Road) and some didn’t (Source Code, Climax). “Then all I do is take these pieces of paper and lay them out on the carpet here and work out a sequence,” he explains. “So it wasn't too difficult. I'm quite decisive, you know. I don't faff around with these things. I just wanted to make sure that I covered lots of different types of cinema.”
The chief criteria to make the grade was innovation: which films expanded established forms of filmmaking, and which forged their own path? But the result is much more than a simple list of ingenious cinema. What makes A New Generation sparkle is Cousins' ability to not only weave intellectual ideas with each new clip, but emotions too. “I'm trying to aim for a feeling of poetry in some way,” is how he describes it. “So you're looking for visual connections between clips, and mood connections too.”
Some of these connections do raise an eyebrow, however. Not least A New Generation’s opening, which juxtaposes two movie misfits who embrace their own outsider status with a show-stopping dance on a staircase. Those two characters? Joaquin Phoenix's toxic Joker and Princess Elsa from Disney fave Frozen. “I hope that made you smile or a little surprised,” laughs Cousins. “I don't know if many people have made that connection.”
A New Generation is full of similar imaginative leaps, and Cousins’ skill in bringing initially opposing ideas together and interlinking them is a delight to behold. But for him, it isn't an intellectual process. “It's more intuitive,” he says, “and also playful, and I hope a bit entertaining as well. I'm not like a brain in a jar trying to analyze the life out of the cinema, you know? I do want to explore the ideas in cinema from the last ten years, but I don't want to flatten those ideas; I want to keep it bubbling.”
The second Mark Cousins joint released this month is The Storms of Jeremy Thomas, a spry homage to the fiercely independent film producer who's shepherded projects from some of cinema’s most talented filmmakers. Like many of Cousins’ works, it takes the form of a road movie, with the filmmaker riding shotgun with Thomas as he drives on his annual pilgrimage to the Cannes Film Festival.
When asked why he keeps returning to this road movie form, Cousins is emphatic. “I just love it! On road trips you just unravel, don't you? If you're with somebody else in a car or on foot, there's just that sense that you can feel the day stretch ahead, and you can feel your friendship, hopefully, getting more fun and more moving. And that's what happened with Jeremy. I knew him a bit before we set off in that car, but we knew each other very well by the end of it.”
Along the way, Cousins intersects clips from Thomas’s daring and consistently brilliant career – Crash (David Cronenberg), Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg), The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci), Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (Nagisa Ōshima) are just a few of the titles featured. Through these masterworks, Cousins digs into Thomas’s key cinematic preoccupations: sex, politics and mortality. Anyone with one eye on Cousins’ own obsessions might see parallels.
The title of the film refers to the moment Cousins was sharing a drink with Thomas and several other filmy people on a beachside terrace in Cannes. When a thundercloud swept in, all the celebs ran for cover, but Thomas stayed put, enjoying nature's chaotic spectacle. Cousins’ penchant for wild swimming and long hikes is well-documented, so I suggest that with the storm-loving Thomas he’d found a fellow elemental soul.
“Definitely,” agrees Cousins. “Elemental is the key word. I want a full sensory life and when Jeremy said, 'Isn't this wonderful?', sitting there getting soaked in his wee denim jacket, I thought, 'Man, we are on the same wavelength.'" I certainly get the sense Cousins had no intention of fleeing for shelter either. "Wherever I am in the world, I love to swim," he says. "But almost every time I say to somebody, 'I think I'm going to go swimming', the first thing they say back is, ‘Have you got a towel?’ And I've been thinking of making a film called Have You Got a Towel? Because it's a lovely question. It’s a caring question. But it's never a question I've considered.”
The Storms of Jeremy Thomas is released 10 Dec by Curzon
The Story of Film: A New Generation is released 17 Dec by Dogwoof