Mark Cousins tells 'The Story of Film'

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The Northern-Irish cinephile talks Dave Calhoun through his latest odyssey

Mark Cousins: A master storyteller Mark Cousins: A master storyteller - Portrait: Martin Hunter

Mark Cousins has turned his bestseller, ‘The Story of Film’ into an epic 15-hour documentary. But he’s not resting on his laurels: as well as talking to Dave Calhoun, he’s chipped in a quiz to our ‘Pub Walks’ issue.

Back in February I bumped into writer, filmmaker and passionate cinephile Mark Cousins on a Sunday morning in the middle of a square in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

We were in this hot and dusty West African city for a film festival and in the city’s Place des Cinéastes to join a ceremony to honour the memory of dead filmmakers. We watched as the Burkinabe director Gaston Kabore led a moment of silence, and joined hands with others as we circled the square, in the middle of which was a huge sculpture of an upturned camera.

The forty-six-year-old Cousins was filming for his epic, 15-hour television series, ‘The Story of Film: An Odyssey’, an extension of the book of the same name he published in 2004. He had come from Dakar in Senegal, where he had also been shooting, and the next day he would return to this spot to film this unusual sculpture and temple to filmmaking in the middle of this busy, exciting city. Why? ‘Because this, here, is the future of film,’ he said. Such is Cousins’s inquisitive, global and enthusiastic outlook

on film. It’s infectious and it’s at the core of his new series, which takes us through the history of innovation in cinema, with Cousins’s gentle, Northern Irish accent and learned enthusiasm guiding our way among clips and interviews gathered from across the globe.

Six months later, Cousins and I speak again, this time on the phone. He is in a Glasgow editing suite putting the final touches to his series.

You travelled the world for ‘The Story of Film’. And it took five years. But am I right that it was mostly just you and a producer?

‘Yes, that’s it. We knew we had to make it in an indie way because we wouldn’t get much money. Also, if we did try to get more money we would be more compromised and asked to make it more about movie stars or showbiz, you know? Taking not very much money meant we were independent. We were editorially free and fleet of foot. We could jump on a flight and get a sequence on African cinema for about £1,000.’

What was your attitude to interviews? You don’t seem to use them as a crutch. They’re sparing, and, when they come, feel essential.

‘That was crucial. I did not want to make one of those programmes with talking heads all the time. I felt that in a 15-hour film we needed about 40 or 50 characters, something like that, and I think we have about 45 interviews. I wanted to choose people who had done great work or were eyewitnesses to great times. So we have Stanley Donen [director of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’] and we have the brilliant Japanese actress Kyoko Kagawa who was in all the Yasujiro Ozu pictures and Akira Kurosawa films, and we have Robert Towne [writer of ‘Chinatown’] and other great people. We’ve also got the very interesting Judy Balaban, who wasn’t in movies, but her dad ran Paramount Studios and she was engaged to Montgomery Clift and just knew everybody. I was interested in people who could conjure up an era and mood in film history.’

So you picked films and people according to the quality of their work or how interesting they are?

‘It was the quality of their work or what they could conjure up well. I’m not a movie snob, and I’m not against commerical cinema. “Avatar” is in this series, and the work of Steven Spielberg at its best. I wasn’t only going for obscure people. But nor did we try to get big stars just because they are marquee names. We tried to be blind to that question of celebrity and look at questions of innovation.’

One of your motivations seems to be to reclaim film as art and not just as a business. Would you agree?

‘That’s crucial. I remember interviewing Lauren Bacall years ago and she said to me: “The industry is shit, it’s the medium that’s great.” She was right, I think. If I ask myself what was my motivation, yes it was to defend cinema in a certain way. But, also, I was in Amsterdam a few days ago and looking at Van Gogh’s paintings and thinking about how he liked to paint the fields around the sanitorium, and my main reason for making “The Story of Film” is because I find film beautiful I want to describe it. More than trying to redress an imbalance, it was the desire to describe something beautiful which is the history of the movies.’

Did spending so long making this series change you and how you think about film?

‘I think so. Both the book and the film came out of a drive I did in my camper van from Scotland to India. I got such a strong sense of the rest of the world, and particularly the Middle East and the inbetween bits. The series came out of internationalism, and making it has made it clear to me that I’m not one of those pessimists who thinks culture is getting worse and movies are going down the tube. Movies have broadened out. They started as a babbling brook and now they’re a big, wide river – and all over the world. So I’m left with a sense of the vitality of the movies and their  unpredictability.’

Click here to have a crack at Mark's film quiz



Users say

47 comments
eptx
eptx

This is a great work about film. I especially soaked up the great insights about modern society from the Chinese film maker Tsai Ming-Liang.

Best reviewer ever
Best reviewer ever

I want to watch this so bad. The first installment had a tremendous amount of information I had never heard before even after a history of film course. But this guy's narration makes me want to punch him in the throat. I can't stand the upspeak from twenty-something bubble headed girl why on earth would I want to hear it from an Irishman? Get someone with a decent voice to rework the narration and then we've got something. Yes, his voice is that irritating - I can't watch it anymore. By the way, my wife is a pacifist and she wants the guy hurt too!

Olly Purrs
Olly Purrs

There's a cracking micky - take on Youtube called The Story of Cinema. It's a right laugh.

Patricia Fernandez-Kelly
Patricia Fernandez-Kelly

I watched the first episode of The Story of Film last night and found it mesmerizing both because of its informative content but also because of the approach and narrative style, which I found innovative and refreshing. I can't wait to see the rest. Thank you, Mark Cousins.

Chris
Chris

What Cousins has done in his richly realized and insightful documentary series has drawn attention to the unnoticed brilliance of lesser known film- makers and their work. At first I had a hard time with Cousins' voice and narrative style but that initial reaction was short lived as I began to notice that what he was saying and his magnificent insights were more important than the manner in which they were being told. The people who are being most critical of the narration of this doc series are probably just as disappointed he didn't spend more time discussing Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorcese. I don't need my film spoon fed to me with a sugar coating on it.

Leslie
Leslie

That voice has been haunting me in the most delightful way, and I'm pleased to find the owner at last, narrator of his own creation. I agree with Eli. Simply beautiful. The most memorable part of the series. That lilt, those spaces, challenge preconceptions.

Nick
Nick

I searched and found this page specifically to find out who was narrating Story of Film. Thank you Mr Cousins, never has the film world been so alive and so intriguing and at the same time so mysteriously wonderful. Narrate to your heart's content!

Hello
Hello

The narration isn't nearly as irritating as the repetitious ignorance and irritability of stereotypical internet keyboard warriors. It's the way he talks, people!

Carol Andrew
Carol Andrew

How interesting the amount of vitriol expressed about Mark Cousins narration. Why should we only hear the spoken word in a familiar accent or rhythm? If one only chooses to listen to the familiar, then how much can we hope to learn? Am loving this series on Australian SBS TV. THANKYOU

Eric
Eric

Interesting? I liked it? However? I 'll have to agree with others who couldn't stand the style of narration? Honestly? Who talks like that? Mr Cousins, are you asking me or telling me?

vintage31
vintage31

What madness convinced Mark Cousins to narrate this himself and not seek the assistance of a professional? A flawed but remarkable effort totally ruined by his miserable, petulant sing-song voice. You're not a professional Mr Cousins, to the contrary you're an annoying joke. I can't believe that the decision was financially motivated - it seems more like vanity.Now I'm sentenced to keep hearing his ridiculous speech pattern for the next several years.

Eli
Eli

What I loved most about this documentary was Mark's voice and his unique accent! I normally do not like audio books but I'd buy them if Cousins had read them to me! I can't understand the many negative, opposite opinions about his narration. Maybe it's a rivalry among British speakers, maybe cause I'm American and a female but I really savored every word he said and his articulation, pauses, intonation, timbre....as someone else commented: relaxing but not monotonous, which puts you to sleep. Those who complained the voice is melancholic, etc.....this is the Ulster Scots accent from Ireland, where he is from. It may sound like a performance, eccentric but there are hundreds of dialects and accents in the English language world over, I found this one exotic but perfectly comprehensive. Simply beautiful.

Onion
Onion

A great series and very interesting...... Cousins clearly knows his stuff, so why doesn't he realise that his voice is SO annoying and that the viewer experience is affected by this?! Mark. You don't have to raise the tone at the end of every sentence. Highly irritating!

MBRH
MBRH

Fantastic. Thank you! Only on part 3 and love it... Why cant we appreciate difference? His voice is lovely, precise, and musical. Relaxing but not to the extreem of ever putting me to sleep. Love the pauses - space to allow the data to float with the images -- Have to read the book now!

Rhyannan
Rhyannan

I really enjoyed the documentary and have seen most of it so far, I like how its not focused on films from the US and UK, it has a wider perspective of film. It gave me a new perspective on cinema and has got me wanting to watch lots of new films I would have never looked at twice before. :) Cousins' voiceover does take some getting used to, but after a while I actually really liked his voice! It is very soothing and I like the slow paced thoughtfulness! Thank you Mark and co!

Barb
Barb

Jeez! Did any of you actually focus on the content of this series and learn from it? Mark's voice was so low key as to not detract and the narration itself was informative. I learned loads and was filled with enough curiosity that I will now search out DVDs of many of the films clipped in the series that I wouldn't have been interested in before. Keep an open mind and if you don't like his voice, use the subtitles. Mark, in my opinion this is a fine series and your voice is fab.

Mike
Mike

I have just finished watching the final episode of this wonderful series. I did not know a great deal about film to start with, and I have learnt much from Cousins series. When Igo and look at the World Cinema section of HMV now, at least I have some idea of what to look for. I did not find his voice a distraction, and I think those folk who did really need to grow up

And Finally
And Finally

I have to agree with all the people complaining about the narration. It's got nothing to do with Mark Cousin's accent. It's the maddeningly monotonous repetition of the same rising tone at the end of EVERY BLOODY SENTENCE that drives me to rend my garments and howl in agony. I really wanted to like this series. Cousins has many valuable and interesting points to make, and like the review says, his enthusiasm is infectious. I've tried to watch about five times. "Come on now," I said to myself, "pull yourself together, you'll get used to it." But it's just impossible to get through more than ten minutes. What a shame, because in every other respect this is an excellent and very welcome series. It could have been a blockbuster if Cousins had been able to afford an assistant to give him feedback on his narration.

gibbsy
gibbsy

Have persevered with it because its really interesting, but the sibilant, prissy voiceover in the style of a sulking, spoilt and peculiarly melancholic child is driving me mental. Find myself imitating certain phrases back at the TV in anger. I may need help at the end of the series.

Robert
Robert

Aside from the incredibly irritating narration, this is just rubbish. It might impress someone who knows nothing of the history of film. Just to take one of Cousins' hyperbolic, ridiculous, incorrect statements, at random: Cousins: "'The Crowd' sums up a lot about cinema of the 20's and 30's. It showed mass society emerging. It focused on the everyman, as French films would do." Umm, no, they wouldn't. And didn't. Cousins: "It showed the kinetic energy of cities themselves, their rhythms and compositions, like the German movies of Fritz Lang..." Ummm, which Lang movies is Cousins thinking of? Apparently a few he didn't direct. This is film history as understood by someone who has watched a few clips on Youtube. If you must, enjoy the film excerpts, but take anything Cousins says for what it's worth, i.e. nothing.

Irishfilmfan
Irishfilmfan

I've just read some references to "accent snobbery". Again, as an Irish person, there is nothing further from the truth. This guy's voice and delivery are just PAINFUL. I spend a few hours of of my day listening to Irish radio, which is filled with wonderful voices AND accents. 2 minutes of Cousins' delivery and I'm on edge. It's dreadful.

Irishfilmfan
Irishfilmfan

I have tried to watch this programme on a few different occasions, and I just CAN'T because of the appalling voiceover. I'm (Southern) Irish, and I thought he was Scottish. I don't mean to insult the wonderful Scottish accent here - what I mean is that he was unforgiveably eccentric.. His voice and delivery is affected and unbearable. Who let this go out?

David Jones
David Jones

Cousins has to have the most annoying voice on TV. And his script his terrible: just a moment ago he claimed that the French attention to PoMo was a reaction against seriousness. And he's just said: '...sashay down to Spain...' presumably for the alliteration rather than the sense. I'm going to have to turn it off, it's unlistenable.

JJ
JJ

This is certainly the best documentary on this subject ever made. The enthusiasm for innovation and shear breadth and ambition of the work are truly awe-inspiring. You will not see a documentary this good again.

frankie
frankie

have tried to watch this series every episode and cant last more than 5 mins, his voice drives me insane, its so distracting it makes you think about him and how much you want to give him a kicking and not about the content.

Andy
Andy

Really wanted to get into this series. Wouldn't have cared if the the narrator had been Irish, Scottish, Welsh, French, German, Italian, American ......... BUT ... that pretenious and 'oh-so-precise' delivery style is just dreadful. What the hell were C4 thinking when they gave the OK to air this?

Soraya Wilkinson-Wyke
Soraya Wilkinson-Wyke

And unlike others I find his voice mesmerizing - strange at first with its drawn out sentences but how can anyone not love the feeling that such great thought and choice of words to explain an art form he adores and wants to share has been softly spoken to us - I feel I've been invited into his magical world - its such a generous thing to do -there seems to be no ego in this just a desire to share, to take time out to say "look" this is amazing , it moved me - it will move you" Everyone else here seems to know a lot about film, I don't, so he has opened up a world of even more wonder to me - I never post stuff like this so it shows it must be something that is touching people

Soraya Wilkinson-Wyke
Soraya Wilkinson-Wyke

This is brilliant, It's a joy, a revelation, an education. I thought I loved film and maybe knew a bit about it, but this takes it to a different level. Marks turn of phrase and passion in contagious, I hang on every word, see things in the films I have loved that I had missed before because of his technical insight - giving an even greater joy to an already marvelous experience. I did not intend to write this - I was searching the web to see if i could buy the series. It's the most wonderful share of knowledge, Thank you Mark x

ginelli
ginelli

Well done Mark for creating this essential and creative work. As for those who have been slating the voiceover, you should sod off to your popcorn and UCI cinemas. Cheerio.

Julia
Julia

I can only assume that those defending the choice to use Cousins himself as narrator watched with subtitles as it is pretty indefensible. The series is fascinating, and I am persevering in the hope that soon I will get used to the dreadful monotony that he inflicts on us. I'm not sure why people are bandying about words like 'parochial' - you are not reading the comments properly, it is NOT an issue of regional accent but of delivery and intonation, and if some people can't understand this difference then it is *they* who are missing the point.

Jeff
Jeff

What a shame that so much of the reaction here is about the narration and not this fascinating piece of film-making. It has made me realise that although a film buff how anglocentric my scope is, that said I hope English social realism gets a mention as we progress the next few decades. Pity the Film Four companion films are going out in graveyard slots, but that's typical tv scheduling - put the low IQ blockbuster on at 9 and a great Loach or Leigh on at ten to midnight. Stick with Mark Cousins, the delivery is deadpan but the enthusiasm and insight is magical.

Angela McCarthy
Angela McCarthy

I was really really looking forward to this series - all about cinema from the beginning, not just the last decade or so and from all over the world - I thought it couldn't get much better than this. I love the Irish accent (I'm a McCarthy) honestly I could listen to it all day. It was Mark Cousin's inappropriate, exaggerated intonation that ruined the whole experience. I and my other half persevered - we both find the cinema a fascinating subject but we just couldn't take any more - what should have been a brilliant series, which would be remembered and referred to for years to come was quite simply ruined by someone who should have realised that, no matter how committed to the subject involved and talented is very far from being a gifted narrator - even of his own work. Sorry to have to say this - it could have been the best ever programme on the subject of cinema!

pip  Lawrence
pip Lawrence

I'm so glad I'm not the only one that finds Mark Cousins voice unbearable. I have read his Story of Film and suspected that he was a touch prentious but I was willing to overlook this as I think he has some interesting things to say about film. However, I simply cannot listen to his voice for more than five minutes before I have to turn it off. So thank you everyone for making for feel like I was going mad.

James
James

Those comments referring to snobbishness and inferring prejudice for his accent are missing the point. It's not his accent it's his boring meandering excruciatingly annoying voice, it makes me want to drive an icepic into each ear,he ruins the whole thing with his whiny wanky commentary which is pretentious in the extreme. It's this type of indulgent pseudo intellectual twattishness that actually turns people off what should be engaging and informative. The decision to provide the voice over when he must know it alienates the audience hints at monumental arrogance. Poor show.

abcboy
abcboy

The narration - and please don't misunderstand I don't have a issue with the Irish accent - plenty of which sounds terrific like cook Rachel Allen. But Mr Mark Cousin is not suitable for voice over work because he just sounds plain BORING. And why does he need to end each word as if its a question? I am not joking when I say it is such a dull voice you have to question whenever the delivery is deliberate to sabotage this series - in many way its excellent but cannot for the life of me appreciate it with a V/O so mono toned and on life support.

Sharpy
Sharpy

This is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen and I say that from the perspective of only having seen 6 episodes so far. I dearly hope it gets a bluray release. Why has Mark Cousins been away from our TV screens so long? I have fond memories of watching his 'Scene by Scene' series on BBC as a teenager- it had a great impact on me as a youngster discovering the great films for the first time. Any of the below commentors who've written this off purely on the basis of Mark Cousin's accent are missing out on an informative treat. This kind of accent snobbery is nonsensical & unfair- I happen to like his narration, it's a pleasure to hear a different type of voice to the type we're accustomed to on British TV and it kept me rapt.

Will S
Will S

Love it! I take notes on every episode as he introduces so many films and explains them in a way that makes me want to see them. Never studied film but this is seriously informative. I've always had a penchant for auteurs and arthouse, but this series has proved to me how little I really know!

J R Dersley
J R Dersley

I'm amazed at the low tolerance (or downright prejudice) shown by so many people commenting here. They're missing an experience that's invaluable to anyone seriously interested in film. What a shame that the expertise that Mark brings to his subject from his obvious love for and immersion in film is wasted on them. Unbelievable that they let the delivery obscure the message. It's their loss; I only hope their asinine comments and short-sighted attitude don't put off others from watching this landmark series, which has introduced me to aspects of film and to individual films and directors that otherwise I would have missed. If it is made available on DVD I'l be at the front of the queue!

JM
JM

It's ironic that in dealing with such a global subject, some people seem to be oblivious to the fact that Britannia no longer rules the (air) waves. Here is an easy to understand narrator clearly in awe of the medium he so obviously adores. The feint hearted of you who cannot abide a person's accent are missing out on an excellent series. How parochial.

Vic
Vic

The horrible whining narration has meant that I've yet to watch the second part. I can stiiiiiiiiill hear his voiiiiicccce in my heeeeeead.

djb
djb

I was really looking forward to this but the second i heard Cousin's voice, it was over for me. I thought he was cast out of TV years ago. Why on earth was he allowed to voice this??? It's totally unbearable and makes it impossible to concentrate on anything else while he whittles on in that sluggish drone that blocks everything else out. Even when a scene of importance comes on, within nano-seconds Cousin's voice obliterates the dialogue, the scene and destroys the whole experience he says he wants us to enjoy. Seriously, the worst voice to have as a voice-over ever. Does he do it on purpose? He sounds like he's been practicing that for years. Surely someone's pointed it out to him before. I didn't even make it to the first ad-break. What a wasted opportunity!

JM
JM

A simply marvellous series from someone who loves cinema & a delight to learn more about the global pioneers who have brought so much to this art form. Pity to see the bias here against Irish accents.

sarahh
sarahh

So many of my friends were looking forward to this series and all have either given up or resorted to subtitles. Please rewind and revoice Mark. Would also add that slightly fewer but longer clips might be more enlightening.

Sarah
Sarah

Oh dear! Absolutely fascinating subject which I really wanted to watch and yet I couldn't manage more than ten minutes of the first programme. I became so desperate for just one, occasional, tiny change in intonation from the narrator, that in the end I couldn't focus what he was saying or what I was watching. Such a huge shame, but I just can't face watching any more of it, unless I do it with subtitles and the sound off..

Geoff
Geoff

I completely agree with Helen. I would like to have watched this series but Cousins' narration, an extremely irritating droning lilt, had me switchig over. Dentists drills make better listening!

Helen
Helen

Sadly the entire experience of watching this fascinating series was spoiled by Cousin's pretentious, droning narration which was irritating in the extreme. It's a pity, but I had to switch off because I could stand it no longer.