There’s no denying James Monaco’s book, How to Read a Film, is an outstanding volume. It begins with a history of art, stretching from prehistory to the invention of photography and ultimately, the moving picture. Within his 700-page book, Monaco describes the mechanics of filmmaking and film exposition. In an ambitious 169-page chapter (Chapter 4: “The Shape of Film History”), Monaco takes a written walk through the history and movements of world cinema, citing innumerable titles; the entire book’s index of cited film titles runs 13 pages.
As a textbook on film studies, Monaco’s work is beyond reproach—except for one major limitation that even Monaco himself would likely admit: The book can’t show the films.
That’s where Mark Cousins’ epic series The Story of Film: An Odyssey steps into the void. The Story of Film is a massive undertaking; a 15-hour series on five DVDs that covers every major era of film from its birth in the late 19th century up to the present day and even glimpsing into the future. It’s the best film-studies class you never had.
Originally screened on the More 4 digital television channel in the UK, The Story of Film is available to US audiences through Chicago-based film distributor Music Box Films. Although Music Box states its purpose as distributing non-English films to US audiences, its deviation from that rule to accommodate Cousins’ The Story of Film is very welcome. For cinephiles and students of the form, The Story of Film is not to be missed.
Despite having originally aired as a television series, The Story of Film hangs together like a cohesive, 15-hour film in its own right. Cousins devotes his energy to describing the evolution of the medium. It’s an expository documentary featuring clips from hundreds of works bolstered by interviews, whether archival or Cousins’ original sessions, with technicians and a host of directors including Wim Wenders, Lars van Trier, Baz Lurhman, Gus van Sant and countless others. Cousins himself provides the voiceover narration, and his calm, pleasant voice feels accessible and friendly, like a lecture by a favorite college professor.
Unlike James Monaco, Cousins doesn’t begin with the history of art, but with the beginnings of cinema. Throughout The Story of Film, Cousins is focused on innovation. He’s not interested in rattling off each year’s biggest box office hits or Oscar winners. Cousins wants to take viewers to where the real magic of cinema has happened. He acknowledges the industrial side of filmmaking, the moneymaking aspect—and he’s particularly ruthless towards Hollywood—but he maintains, “the ghost in the machine was art.”
The Story of Film is subtitled An Odyssey, and that’s clearly because Cousins travelled to four continents—Europe, North America, Africa and Asia—to best tell his story. In an industry where Hollywood seems to nudge in front of everyone else, Cousins gives equal time and space to the innovators of the medium; he includes Hollywood where appropriate, but he also brings to light the innovators in Great Britain, France, Denmark, Russia, Japan, India and Senegal, to name but a few. Cousin’s thesis is that the history of film has often been racist by exclusion; The Story of Film goes a long way to right that inequity.
And while The Story of Film is rich with clips of hundreds of films, Cousins balances this with his own travelogue clips. It’s easy to spot Cousins’ original footage; whereas the film clips naturally include original dialogue and score, Cousins’ on-site shots appear in crisp color with only ambient sound, reminiscent of the globe-circling observational essay Baraka.
What’s most striking about The Story of Film is that Cousins reminds viewers how film, as an art form, was invented step by step. Cinematic techniques audiences take for granted—and many don’t even consciously notice—such as deep focus, close up, eyeline-match cuts, axis of action and tracking shots, are pinpointed as to when, where and who invented them. Whether this information is old or new to the viewer is immaterial; Cousins makes it intriguing regardless.
While some may balk at the sheer magnitude of Cousins’ The Story of Film, it should be said this series is not for all audiences. In a day when visual media are so omnipresent, spanning the spectrum from indie art-house releases to in-car DVD players meant to keep kids quiet on even the most trivial of car trips, The Story of Film is a reminder that the medium of film, at its best, remains the most remarkable art form ever conceived.
Cousins has a reverent respect and love for the medium. Viewers who share that affection will cling to Cousins’ every word and every clip; those who don’t really care about it that much will simply choose something else, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Similarly, those interested in film trivia—who starred in what, who won which award, who dated whom—will likely be uninterested.
But for those in the first category, The Story of Film is so meaningful, substantive and worthwhile, its 15 hours are time not merely well spent, but truly invested.