‘The Story of Film’ Review: Documentary Is a Cinematic Celebration, Not a History Lesson

·4-min read
Cannes Film Festival

A version of this review first ran during the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

When you saw Joaquin Phoenix dancing down those outdoor steps toward the end of “Joker,” you probably didn’t think about Princess Elsa belting out “Let It Go” in the 2013 animated film “Frozen.” But Mark Cousins did –- and that’s the difference between him and you and me and the rest of the people who see Cousins make that juxtaposition in his documentary “The Story of Film: A New Generation.”

Cousins ties Joker and Elsa together because of the defiance at the heart of his dance and her song, and he does so at the start of “The Story of Film: A New Generation.” The documentary was an extraordinarily apt film to screen on the opening afternoon of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, which came 14 months after the pandemic had forced the festival to cancel its 2020 edition. The film looks at the cinema of the 21st century in an eclectic, idiosyncratic manner -– but more to the point, it celebrates everything from twisted Bollywood comedies to creepy horror movies, from painstakingly slow epics to hyperkinetic animated flicks.

Another 14 months after Cannes, at a time when more people are venturing into movie theaters, “The Story of Film” aptly uses the documentary form to glory in the act of being with people in the rooms where cinema lives. The movie is long (though not by Cousins’ standards), it’s infuriating at times (entirely by design) and it overstates its case with defiant glee (again, it meant to do that), but you can’t love movies and not love a good chunk of what Cousins puts on the screen.

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The director has done this kind of thing before: Several years after writing the 2004 book “The Story of Film,” he used his approach to film scholarship to make the 15-hour movie “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” His other explorations of cinema include “A Story of Children and Film” in 2013 and the 40-chapter, 14-hour “Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema” in 2020.

His new film isn’t a marathon; it’s a hefty but fast-paced two hours and 40 minutes that includes clips of about 90 different movies. There’s no information about grosses or awards –- as Cousins puts it at one point in the movie, his viewpoint is, “After the talk of box office and Oscars and tabloid gossip, what is left?”

What is left is a lot. The first part of the film is subtitled “extending the language of film,” devoted to films that did things in different ways, from the documentary “Leviathan” to the disquieting sci-fi film “Under the Skin,” from a mainstream Hollywood movie like “Hustlers” to the austere Eastern European drama “On Body and Soul.” A section on comedy includes “Booksmart” and “Deadpool,” but also the Ugandan “Crazy World”; a sequence on action movies touches on both George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” and Anurag Kashyap’s five-hour “Gangs of Wasseypur.”

Ferociously eclectic, Cousins makes connections as he singles out films we’ve seen and ones we haven’t. The second half of his film is devoted to films that punished the media in new directions, which could mean Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir,” Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors,” Michael Haneke’s “Happy End” (for most people, not the one of Haneke’s 21st-century movies they’d single out), Godard’s “Goodbye to Language,” Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog” and the interactive “Bandersnatch” episode of “Black Mirror.” (No, he’s not worried about convention definitions of film vs. TV.)

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Cousins pulls out single scenes, analyzes them and discusses their impact; at times his insights are sharp, at times they seem baffling, and often as not they can be both at the same time. He possesses an idiosyncratic cinematic imagination and isn’t interested in conventional wisdom, which means “The Story of Film” is the furthest thing from a rote trip through cinematic history.

You can quibble with his ideas -– is “Gravity” really a “body movie?” -– but you can’t dismiss his passion. And if you sit there wondering, as I did, how he could do a section on slow cinema in the 21st century and not mention “The Turin Horse,” that’s sort of the whole point: Cinema is a conversation and often an argument, and Mark Cousins is a hell of a fun guy to have an argument with.

He’s also a fierce advocate for the act of going to the movies, and for the return of cinema after the pandemic. “We hope that the cultural pessimists are wrong,” he says late in the film, talking about whether movie theaters can return. “These are our habitats, we creatures of the dark.”

“The Story of Film: A New Generation” opens Sept. 9 in Los Angeles and New York City. It debuts on-demand Sept. 20.

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