The Skinny Q&A: Mark Cousins

Mark Cousins is always on the move with new projects, but he's gone back to an old one this month, updating The Story of Film, his seminal 2004 book rethinking film history – we dig into what makes him tick

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 17 Nov 2020
  • Mark Cousins

What’s your favourite place to visit and why?

When he went to a new city, the great Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein liked to take a bus out of town, to the end of the line and explore there. I’m the same. I love city limits, transport termini, unfancy places. I walked to the edge of Minsk in Belarus at the end of last year. I knew no-one, but felt totally alive and at home.

Favourite colour and why?

Yellow, by a mile. Yellow is associated with disease, jaundice, fading and – in Western societies – cowardice, tawdry journalism and fiction ('giallo' thrillers, in Italy). But I love the yellow of gorse, my favourite architects (such as Alvar Aalto) liked yellow, and I recently died my hair yellow. I recently bought lots of yellow underpants online, but they’re far too big for me.

Who was your hero growing up?

Paul Weller or Gene Kelly.

Whose work inspires you now?

The Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jane Fonda, Cornel West, Hélène Cixous, Beyoncé, Fintan O’Toole, The Vivienne, Indian documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan.

What's your favourite food to cook?

I do all the cooking in our house, and run the gamut from fish finger sandwiches to Iranian khoresh (stew).

What three people would you invite to your dinner party and what are you cooking?

I hadn’t heard of dinner parties until I started moving in middle-class circles. When I first went to them, I kept thinking, “When does the dancing start?” I soon learned that it doesn’t, so I don’t like dinner parties (and have been known to leave them and take a bus to the edge of town...)

But, if I had to have one, I’d invite Cleopatra, the architect Eileen Gray and Catherine the Great. We’d eat in Livia’s Room in Rome, then go to Cardross Seminary, where David Holmes would DJ.

What’s your all-time favourite album?

Probably Bowie’s Hunky Dory, the soundscape to my emergence from the rock pool.

What’s the worst film you’ve ever seen?

India: The Modi Years. Not an actual film, just a horribly cinematic giallo decade of unreason.

What book would you take to a protracted period of government-enforced isolation?

Peter Watson's Ideas: A History....

Who’s the worst?

Jair Messias Bolsonaro.

When did you last cry?

Yesterday, at Marcus Rashford’s Twitter feed and Caroline Quentin’s love of dancing on Strictly.... I’ve never not cried at DIY SOS. I cried when I walked into the Friday mosque in Esfahan in Iran – the most beautiful built thing I’ve ever seen – and when I stood in front of Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan.

What are you most scared of?

The death of my partner, looking stupid, becoming poor, not being able to see, not being able to walk.

When did you last vomit and why?

I don’t vomit often, but I massively did so after a lunch in Paris during which Roman Polanski made me eat oysters. I passed out on the way home, was raced to hospital and was told that if I eat oysters again I will (a) vomit a lot again and (b) die.

Tell us a secret?

When you go to the movies you get a plenary indulgence – absolution.

Which celebrity could you take in a fight?


If you could be reincarnated as an animal, which animal would it be?

An arctic tern. They live for up to 30 years and migrate from the Arctic, down the coast of Africa or the Americas, to Tasmania. They see the world every year, from on-high.

What have you most enjoyed watching on the small screen during Lockdown?

Kazakh films. Borat sends me back to the great, humanistic, sophisticated films made in Kazakhstan.

What have you most enjoyed watching on the big screen since cinemas reopened?

François Ozon’s Summer of ’85. It’s set in an un-fancy seaside resort in France, the end of a bus route perhaps.

The new edition of The Story of Film is published by Pavilion and in good bookshops now
Mark Cousins' most recent film project, Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, is available on BFI Player