Did you know Orson Welles saw Stagecoach 30 times before making Citizen Kane? Or that Billy Wilder had a sign outside his office that read, how would lubitsch do it? The history of cinema is a history of connection—of filmmakers borrowing, stealing and learning from each other. That’s one of the driving principles of The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a 15-hour documentary made for British television that chronicles more than a century of moviemaking across six continents. The Music Box will unfurl this episodic epic over seven weeks, screening two one-hour installments back-to-back Saturday and Sunday mornings through mid-November (with three episodes the last weekend).
For those without an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, the movie is an invaluable crash course—an entertaining alternative to film school, covering every major movement of the medium (like the French New Wave and Italian neorealism) and several less major ones (like J-horror). More than a history lesson, it’s also a passionate piece of criticism, a valentine to the masters and a long-form essay on the evolution of cinematic language.
Adapting his 2004 tome of the same title, Irish director Mark Cousins serves as both curator and commentator, narrating this guided tour with a dry, conversational wit. “He brought the wind and the trees to cinema,” Cousins says of D.W. Griffith, in one of several poetic, almost-Herzogian insights. There are shades, too, of Thom Andersen, the cantankerous filmmaker behind 2003’s Los Angeles Plays Itself. Like that great, sprawling essay, The Story of Film engages with an enormous catalog of film clips. When not treating us to long (and occasionally spoiler-heavy) passages from moviedom’s greatest hits, the director peers inside Marilyn Monroe’s dressing room or wanders the halls of Dogme 95 HQ.
Comparisons to Godard’s brilliant, multi-part Histoire(s) du cinéma are inevitable. Cousins’s film never approaches the kaleidoscopic complexity of that experiment—it’s an act of scholarship, not a tone poem—but the director similarly bridges gaps of time and space, putting movies in conversation with each other. He’ll show us the introduction of a silent-era technique and then trace its reverberations, as when the film leaps from one of the Lumières’ early “phantom ride” pictures to a shot from Shoah and then to the climactic head trip from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Naturally, the death of celluloid becomes a recurring theme in later chapters, with Cousins approaching the digital revolution with a skepticism bordering on hostility. He’s none too kind to modern blockbusters, either, waxing nostalgic about a time “before Hobbits” and complaining that movie magic is now created by mouse-clicking technicians who spend “long hours in a room, eating pizza.” The sarcastic asides and subjective pronouncements—unequivocally declaring the ’20s the greatest decade for cinema—mark this as a personal account.
“It’s time to redraw the map of movie history,” Cousins says early on, decrying Hollywood-centric overviews as “factually inaccurate and racist by omission.” Yet what of his own omissions? The filmmaker barely addresses avant-garde cinema, grazing that vast and marginalized category through brief, passing mentions of Andy Warhol and (alas) Matthew Barney. Any history of film that ignores Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow is incomplete. That said, Cousins had to draw the line somewhere; 15 hours is only a fraction of the time you’d need for 100 years of moving pictures. But The Story of Film provides a spark of investigative curiosity, inspiring you to begin filling in the gaps yourself.
The first two episodes of The Story of Film screen at the Music Box Saturday 6 and Sunday 7. The weekend series concludes November 18.