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Movie Details

Title:   The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Director:   Mark Cousins
Year:   2011
Genre:   Documentary
Times Seen:   1
Last Seen:   06.29.14

Other Movies Seen By This Director (0)

Notes History
Date Viewed Venue Note
06.29.14Netflix I'm not quite sure if this is a film of a TV series. As far as I can figure, it's a one-shot long-form film along the lines of a Ken Burns film, although I guess those are TV mini-series. In any case, I'm writing these notes not because I think this is a TV show that transcends the medium (like The Wire, which is the only TV show I've written notes about on this site), but because I've finally gotten to the end of this 15-hour saga and feel like I have some thoughts on it.

At first I was real taken with the different perspective. I've seen several very long documentaries about the history of film and have generally liked them all. Film history is a subject I'm very taken with so I'm always up for learning more and with this film Mark Cousins presents a much more global take on the story of the medium. My American-centric tastes and upbringing made my exposure to Dreyer and Gance much later than Chaplin and Griffith, so it's refreshing to see a script that pays equal weight and importance to other countries simultaneously rather than an afterthought single chapter or a shortened summary in each era. So I thought "wow, this series is really casting a wide net!" Quite ambitious.

Except for Cousin's Irish lilting narration. Never before has there been such an internal struggle of entertainment inside my brain. The first half of this series was spent weighing the interesting perspectives and insights of the films that are being discussed with the sheer annoyance of this guy's voice. I know it's shallow and petty and I should be above such things but really... damn... it's annoying. Or should I say "It's annoying?" because ever sentence uttered from his mouth ends on a questioning rise in pitch. I mean... there's a reason why most documentarians get an actor to narrate their movies. Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield don't because they tell such personal stories, but I feel like they aren't immune to criticism about this either.

So an interesting thing started to happen while I made my way through this. Probably with the New Wave episode... where he spends maybe five minutes in France then goes to other countries and movies I've never heard of. I guess I don't really want to spend 15 hours watching something that only tells me what I already know, but on the other hand I feel like in the story of film, what was going on in post-war France is probably worth more than five minutes time. So from there, my interpretation of this epic doc shifted from an objective pedagogical presentation to a subjective personal perspective. Instead of a film like Visions of Light that illustrate the milestones and accomplishments of cinematography that cannot be argued, we get a doc more akin to Martin Scorsese's Personal Journey through American Movies where he recounts his formative years through the movies that influenced him. It's now clearer and clearer to me that this isn't THE STORY OF FILM as it's written in stone but really "The Movies Mark Cousins Loves" in 15 short hours. Now the narration makes sense, the vague anger at Hollywood, the predilection toward art and experimental film over mass entertainment all make much more sense. Viewed through this lens, the series works better for me, although every time Cousins proclaims something the best movie of the decade or this director's best work or this country's most important piece of art it makes me wince. I know it's one of the first rules in writing to take ownership and use a strong active voice... to know things instead of think them, assert them instead of believe them, but it's hard when some of Cousins' themes stretch thin or facts don't 100% fit his story.

Mostly it makes me wonder what the better types of this kind of film would do if they had as much time as Cousins does. Scorsese has made two of these docs, one limited to his American autobiographical influences and one about his cinematic Italian biography. I wonder what he could do with 15 hours and TCM's catalog of clips. I don't know if there's one true authoritorial voice out there that could stand head and shoulders as the one true story of film, but I do bet other better produced voices are out there. Ones that wouldn't make watching such a series such a slog to get through.

Overall, I found several areas very valuable to watch, but more often than not I saw the viewing of this mega-doc as a chore, which is unfortunate.
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