‘Cinema was a comfort’

Mark Cousins on ‘The Story of Film: A New Generation’

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Courtesy: Music Box Films

“Movies aren’t just making history; they’re making our history,” filmmaker Mark Cousins muses in his latest documentary, The Story of Film: A New Generation. “They’re showing us what we are. What we want. What we fear. What we’ve lost. And what we’re still willing to fight for.”

“Cinema was a comfort,” Cousins tells me over Zoom. He’s talking about watching movies and making movies — this movie — during the COVID-19 pandemic. “If there’s a slightly melancholic quality to the end of The Story of Film: A New Generation, it comes from that.”

Cousins is probably best known for 2011’s The Story of Film, a 15-hour road trip through cinema’s first 100 years of ideas and innovation. The movie isn’t just a crash course in the medium; it’s an invigoration of cinematic appreciation. And not just for traditional signposts, but for cinema from every corner of the world. To borrow one of his phrases: “Movies are good at leaping boundaries.”

In The Story of Film, as in most of his work, Cousins lets his hushed and reverent Northern Irish accent guide viewers through decades, countries and artistic movements with ease. He revitalizes films and filmmakers that have been talked to death. Take the recently departed Jean-Luc Godard, a director Cousins calls “a kind of cattle prod into cinema.”

“He electrified us,” Cousins says. “I’m looking for that kind of electricity, you could say. That voltage. That cattle prod. And it’s still there.”

Hence the release of The Story of Film: A New Generation, a nearly three-hour exploration of cinema’s last two decades. It was a mission Cousins didn’t initially want to undertake, “but then a lot of good stuff happened,” he says. “Social change, technological change and aesthetic change. And I thought, ‘Why don’t I give it another go?’”

A New Generation is loaded with Cousins’ enthusiasm for the “aliveness of cinema.” It’s what keeps his work from feeling elite or snobby, and it’s right there in A New Generation’s opening: A sly analysis of two of the most watched movie scenes in recent memory, Frozen and Joker — you can probably guess the scenes from each. Both involve staircases; both feature outcasts ecstatically embracing their inner selves. Only one character sings, but the song speaks for both of them.

“When you see an innovative mainstream film, it’s so exciting,” Cousins says. “The energy is not only in art cinema. [Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse] was, in some ways, as innovative as Godard.”

A New Generation is officially a companion piece to The Story of Film, but it fits beautifully next to Cousins’ other great essay documentaries: Women Make FilmA Story of Children and Film, The Eyes of Orson Welles and the soon-to-be-released My Name is Alfred Hitchcock. And he’s back at work. On the day I spoke with him, Cousins had just signed the contract for a new movie, The Story of Documentary Cinema, a “good international history — like a big, 10-hour history of documentary cinema.” The future of cinema’s history has a grand champion.

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