‘The Story of Film: A New Generation’ Review: Fresh Insights From Eclectic Cinephile Mark Cousins

·5-min read

Even with all the havoc the coronavirus wreaked in the world, cinema could not be stopped, so why should Mark Cousins, the solicitous Irish critic-cum-tour guide whose 15-hour “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” was but a tip-of-the-iceberg survey of the medium’s infinite possibilities?

Making the most of his time in lockdown, Cousins compiled an appendix/capper to that marathon series, delivering “The Story of Film: A New Generation” on opening day of the Cannes Film Festival. This latest installment (doubtful the last) is less focused on where the medium’s been than on where it’s headed, relying mostly on 21st-century examples, from Attenberg to Zama, that point the way forward.

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At two hours and 40 minutes, it’s a longer epilogue than audiences needed perhaps, but then, no one would accuse Cousins of brevity. And for those who appreciate the director’s wide-eyed and open-hearted way of looking at cinema, the documentary is brimming with clips sure to expand their horizons.

That’s the best thing about Cousins’ movies about movies: He’s an omnivore extraordinaire, sharing choice morsels from the far corners of the form, which in turn give audiences without the same access to art houses or film festivals a chance to taste-test obscure and unusual movies. You see an intriguing clip — say, a hunk with a hard-on bound to a tree in João Pedro Rodrigues’ “The Ornithologist” or what could pass for a North Korean critique of Western media (Slavko Martinov’s “Propaganda”) — and you might be inspired to seek out and watch the entire movie.

Cousins divides the film into two parts. The first looks at examples that “extend the language of film,” while the second asks a more abstract question — “What have we been digging for?” — but really, the chapters have the same agenda: to celebrate the movies that don’t conform.

Now, that can mean any number of things. There are technological innovations, such as motion capture (“War for the Planet of the Apes”) and Martin Scorsese’s “three-headed monster” (the rig he used to de-age De Niro in “The Irishman”), as well as narrative ones. Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” qualifies, as does the choose-your-own-adventure style of “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.” And of course, there’s innovation of representation, which Cousins is especially suited to weigh in on, since he’d been a champion of diverse expression long before the industry made doing so such a priority.

If anything, Cousins’ aesthetic appetite is so wide-ranging that it can sometimes feel hard to understand what all these examples have in common, other than reflecting the infinite ways that artists can choose to express themselves through cinema. That may as well be his point: There’s room for infinite points of view behind the camera, as well as among those who do the watching. Offering the tools for unpacking potentially challenging movies, Cousins teaches people how to be better spectators — not by telling them the right way to watch, but by encouraging them to engage more deeply with what they see.

Back when “The Story of Film” was released, I found myself wondering just who its audience might be. At the Palm Springs Film Festival, I saw sold-out rooms of retirement-age men and women settle in to watch a hefty chunk of the project. Then it clicked: For those wanting to better understand a medium whose history is vast and whose grammar is still evolving, Cousins has assumed the role that film societies once played, introducing people to movies they wouldn’t otherwise know about.

“A New Generation” feels a bit edgier than “An Odyssey” did, including clips from new queer classics (the hand job scene from “Moonlight,” a trio of trans movies) and several highly unconventional acts of violence (the genocidal re-creations from “The Act of Killing,” one of Scarlett Johansson’s seductions in “Under the Skin”). But the art-cinema examples are the most impressive, if only because Cousins thinks highly enough of the audience he’s cultivated to serve up the likes of “An Elephant Sitting Still,” “Leviathan” and “It’s Hard to Be a God” (God forbid).

It’s great that Cousins can draw people’s attention to such movies while also finding original things to say about such massively successful blockbusters as “Deadpool” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” He opens by cutting from Elsa singing “Let It Go” in “Frozen” to the lunatic dance Joaquin Phoenix does in “Joker” — a smart match between two staircase scenes. Cousins’ brain works like that, making inspired connections (and sometimes insipid transitions, when forcing his otherwise poetic narration to explain why one clip follows another).

Only a true film critic indulges the full range of movies represented here — and Cousins is a true film critic, albeit one who expresses himself through epic-length docu-essays. (The book version of “The Story of Film” is certainly worth your time as well.) One needn’t even have seen the earlier project to appreciate this follow-up. Indeed, newcomers are welcome and might do better to start here and work their way back. In any case, real-world obstacles aside, the story of film continues, and that’s most certainly a good thing.

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