Mark Cousins is one of the defining critical minds, speaking, narrating or writing with a poetic voice that pays tribute to the artistic medium he holds with such affection. The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), followed by The Story of Children and Film (2013) offered an incisive reading of the cinema, casting him as a role model for all critics. Film should be written about with an abundance of passion offset by a reasoned mind, neither a dull reactionary matter of factness, nor as an exercise for the intellectual muscles.
Cousins has meticulously balanced accessible and thoughtful criticism that is first and foremost enveloped in his enthusiasm for the subject, and offset by his hypnotic voice. His latest film, the docu-drama Stockholm My Love (2016), in the same vein as I Am Belfast (2015), recalls his film documentaries, with Swedish singer-songwriter Neneh Cherry’s hypnotic voice and presence carrying us along as she confronts her memories and feelings that define her relationship to Stockholm.
In conversation with PopMatters, Cousins discusses the communal experience of filmmaking, the threads running through a filmmaker’s career, and an alternative focus for the auteur theory. With a philosophical air, the interview addresses the intimate connection between art and the human experience, a film emerging out of the shadows and his own personal desire to finish and move on.
You have combined filmmaking with film criticism. How do the two feed into and inform one another?
Well I suppose people think of me as a critic because they saw me on TV, but I was a filmmaker long before that. I was directing from my mid-20s. I made a film about Holocaust denial and the First Gulf War. Then, because I temporarily went onto TV, people saw me there and thought of me as a critic. But to be honest, I never thought of myself as a critic and nowadays it takes up about five percent of my time.
I’ve seen a lot of movies and that’s where I can engage with your question. When you’ve seen a lot of stuff it helps you because you can see what mistakes and what break throughs other people have made. If I’m shooting something I’ve got loads of other images and scenes in my head, and that’s an enjoyable thing to have. You are not alone in there. You’ve got Godard, Lubitsch and Wilder, and hopefully some of that comes out, or at least is informative in some way.
There are moments in Stockholm My Love when it had the feel of a filmmaker lacing the film with moments from cinema, although it never felt saccharine. Rather, these other filmmakers and films emerged with a subtlety. I assume cinematographer Christopher Doyle would have been instrumental in this?
Yeah, if you passionately love cinema as I do and I’m sure you do as well, then as Godard said: “Cinema isn’t something that comments on life, cinema is a part of life.” It’s in life, like pizza, like love and like sadness. So if you are making a film and you love cinema as I do, then of course there’s going to be some kind of reference to other films — not too heavy, but it encourages you in a way.
For example, in Stockholm My Love there are moments when she’s (Cherry) talking directly about architecture, and if I hadn’t seen a film like Y Tu Mamá También — if you remember in that film there’s suddenly a big sociological bit in the voiceover — and some of the Godard films, I would have been scared of switching into something quite factual. But I’m not at all scared because I’ve seen it in other movies and it works, and it’s also playful to switch registers.
It’s not that there are homages going on, it’s more like you are standing on the shoulders of other filmmakers, or they are taking you by the hand and helping you into the terrain. Chris Doyle is like that and he hasn’t seen as many films as I have, but he’s just an exciting and visual thinker. That’s the best thing about him — the fact that he gets it really fast, and there are fireworks when it comes to pictures for Chris.
I recall Woody Allen making the point that while Godard is lauded for breaking new ground, if he had not done so, it would have fallen to someone else. You speak about Godard giving you courage, and I wonder if the filmmaking experience has given you respect in realising the bold courage certain filmmakers such as Godard have shown?
The more films I make, the more I love cinema. Some people have said to me: “When you make films, does it not take away the mystique? Does it not take away the magic, the awe, the romance?” I say: “Not at all.”
The excitement of making films is so strong that it doesn’t go away, and certainly when you do an unusual scene. At the moment we are doing a 22-hour film. I wouldn’t have had the balls to have done that ten years ago, but now I think, Why not? You just go for it, and as you get older another thing that happens is you start to think it’s now or never with almost anything — why not do it now?
On The Story of Film, which is 15 hours long, people said: “Could you not make it three hours or six hours?” I was like: “Fuck off” [laughs]. “No, I can’t, it’s going to be as long as it is.” You want to create stuff that is extravagant in some way, or is so bolshy, shouldering and trying to make room for itself. It’s doing that a little bit and so yeah, seeing Godard, Lynne Ramsay and others gives me the confidence to do that.
We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.
Simply whitelisting PopMatters is a show of support.
The Story of Film and The Story of Children and Film fall into a different category to your two films on Belfast and Stockholm, which are use characters to explore the theme of change. This idea of change, progress or forward momentum however, is a theme present in your earlier film documentaries. Stockholm My Love’s story of a woman coming to terms with her guilt and emotions echoes the resilience of people, while reminding me of just how connected your films are in spite of forming these chapters.
I think you’re right in a way. There’s this theme of recovery in most of what I’ve done. I think you know a bit about my background — Belfast. In spite of the fact that 3,000 people were killed in the war, in a relatively small community, I noticed again and again that we just kept on going, and the sense of humour remained in tact.
If you look at what has been happening in Manchester recently, you can see that sense of fortitude, that sense of there’s a driving force in people that keeps them going. I was in Sarajevo during the siege and I made a film in Iraq. Again and again, I’ve seen this kind of momentum in human beings, and so I can see it across my films, whether they are about cinema or not. You’re right to say that it’s a theme — things don’t end and there’s that driving force. But it’s more what I’ve seen in life and it gives a certain optimistic world view of it. But yeah, you go in phases.
Are you consciously aware of these phases?
I’m sure you are the same. You become interested in a subject and you work your way through it until you get to the end, unless it’s a really profound theme or until your obsession runs out. I have always loved cities and so now I’ve made four films on the subject. I also have quite a low boredom threshold and after a while, I’ll think: Next. I want to find something else to plunge myself into, a new experience. So there are some threads that go through everything.
Could we revise the auteur theory to focus on these thematic building blocks that intrigue a filmmaker and build individual careers?
Yeah, by definition every filmmaker ages. When you are young there’s that block of things you are interested in, and then when you are middle-aged and you start experiencing bereavements when you perhaps travel to other places, you get an addiction, you’ve lost your looks, there are a whole series of existential — was going to say crises — things that we pass through — a right of passage. I think we could rework the auteur theory and look at those kinds of blocks that engages with what people go through.
But then other things happen as well. Technology and society changes, and so we can see great filmmakers, most of them who are working through different phases. You can see Hitchcock working through a phase, and Fassbinder, even though his career was quite short. He had his theatrical phase and then he started to look at other things. So it’s definitely very interesting to think of it in those terms.
I’ve spoken with actors and filmmakers that lament the importance of pursuing understanding. I like the idea that there’s a smokescreen across life and we have to try to peer through it — perhaps moving beyond the reactionary to the contemplative.
Yeah, that’s it. In Hindu culture there’s this idea of pulling back the veil, the Dashanan. We all want to feel alive. You want to feel alive and I want to feel alive, everybody does. Often for reasons of anxiety or fear, or lack of money, we don’t feel fully alive and so that’s what art tries to do. You talk about understanding and yes that’s true, but even beyond understanding, it’s just feeling that you’re not sleepwalking, you’re not a zombie. You just want to feel alive with your whole body, your senses and your unconscious — that rapture. You want to feel that.
The story of a woman drifting through the city, the film contemplates our relationship to space. While we create our cities, similarly to our role as the authors of religion, and within the cinema as creators of the filmic language, we proceed to downsize ourselves in our relationship to that which we create.
As an architect she has had a professional relationship with the city for a long time, and she has thought a lot about how to make a good and workable city. But through this crisis she’s suddenly on the back-foot, and she’s thinking much more instinctively, emotionally and unconsciously about it. Therefore, that thing you say about feeling overwhelmed or feeling small, she actually wants that. She wants to feel contained, almost hugged by some of these buildings. She’s drifting and finding places she can feel safe, and they tend to be big religious buildings, even though she’s not a very religious character, and I’m certainly not at all. She’s looking for dark spaces with big walls and I know I’ve done that a lot of times as well.
You drift, you find somewhere and you think: I don’t know why this place feels good. Throughout human culture, lots of us have wanted to feel small. It’s that idea of the sublime — the Alps are big and I’m not big, therefore I want to go to the Alps to get some perspective on things. She’s been living in her head thinking for the longest time about this terrible sad thing that happened, but the city is bigger than she is, and older. The city has seen thousands of similar traumas, and it has recovered, and it’s still there.
So that gives her solace and consolation, and I think thats how cities work for lots of people. I don’t know about you Paul, but for me, I drift through cities when I am feeling a bit anxious, and I feel better as a result, and that’s what happens to her.
A film lecturer once remarked to me that a book that has been read by any number of people has a history. I’d compare this to what you’re saying about the city. There’s another level of narrative that has been unfolding that expands the intimacy of the experience.
Yeah, and especially if you are feeling sad or anxious, and a lot of people obviously do feel the world is on their shoulders, and there’s no relief or solace from that. But once you engage with other texts, whether it’s a book or I would say a city is in a way a text. Once you engage with the wider picture, then you have more opportunities to see other human beings like yourself, who are likely to be undergoing similar problems.
There’s the famous thing people say: “You’re a group and everybody puts their problems on the table, and suddenly you’ll want to pull yours back because you think yours are likely to be less than others.” I think it’s quite a positive message, a political message because it’s about engagement.
Don’t be isolated, especially if you have a tendency to depression or anything that can keep you indoors. Try to get out there, try to look other human beings in the eye. Try to sit in cafes, try to engage with the best things that human beings have ever made, which are our cities.
The questions she asks of what is happiness mixed with talking about her guilt looks to the way in which we oversimplify. She’s discovering that we live between the definition of happiness and sadness, that exposes the futility of words to adequately express how we feel.
I think that’s right and there’s not a word. She’s between guilt and sadness, and trauma. I’ve been trying to ask around to find out whether there’s a word to describe what she feels in other languages. I don’t think there is and that’s why it’s good to try and make a film. But she’s definitely between things. She knows that she’s plagued in some way and she knows that something awful happened: a very nice human being disappeared from the world because of her action. But she obviously can’t say that there was no malice.
It’s fascinating when there’s not a word and so you’re falling in-between the stools of language. That’s why it’s almost extra painful for her because she can’t put a label on what she’s feeling.
Earlier you spoke about moving beyond understanding to feeling. Your films promote a reliance on feeling over language and fully formed ideas, whether it is you feeling your way through the film, or guiding us to feel our way on through.
You’ve got a brain, I’ve got a brain and we can analyse stuff. I love the Enlightenment and I’m sitting in one of the cities of the Enlightenment, Edinburgh. But at the same time in a deeper sense we have to engage with our dream lives, our hard to define anxiety. Sometimes you can feel anxious and you don’t even know why. Sometimes you feel sad and you don’t even know why. That’s the human condition. I can see double deckers passing by and people on those buses will be feeling that. We can find a complex verbal language to explain it, but cinema is good at that stuff because it’s not a verbal problem.
Cinema can create imagery that’s hard to explain rationally, but it just sort of works. In Stockholm My Love for example, there’s a bit where she peeks through this keyhole into a chapel. I repeat that she’s not religious, but there’s something about that peeping. The fact that she’s kept out, glimpsing something, I think she’s glimpsing the possibility of feeling a bit better, less burdened. So that idea of the glimpse, imagery is good at that kind of stuff, of the non-verbal and what’s hard to analyse. That’s what you want to get to: imagery that, for some reason, works. We sit in the editing suite and my editor will say: “Oh that feels like it works, I don’t know why.”
At one point in Stockholm My Love, there’s an old archive shot of an elevator going up, and she’s talking about her vertigo. I was sitting here where I’m sitting now watching that shot thinking: My vertigo. I don’t know what that means exactly. But it feels right, it feels that maybe there’s an uplift, and then you want to get to the unconscious.
Interviewing Julia Ducournau about her feature debut RAW for FrightFest, she explained: “I don’t like movies that explain themselves throughout and especially through dialogue […] I try to create scenes that are going to be visually self-sufficient and to be honest, the best thing for me would be to not need dialogue.” The appeal of cinema is that it’s a hybrid of all the other art forms, and listening to you discuss the mystery of the image and words, it’s one that should never be oversimplified, but embraced for its complexity.
Yeah, you want to use whatever is available. Words are obviously great and they don’t have to be rational, so you are going to get to their richness, like at one point in Stockholm My Love when she says: “Did the day have an apple in its mouth?” What does that mean? I don’t know what that means, but I liked the sound of it. Words can add their own non-literal feeling, as well as obviously imagery. You want to make the best of both and some people will reject that thinking it’s too big or whatever. But I like that associative poetic thing.
Is this what defines the difference between mainstream or commercial and art house cinema? Can art house rely on that feeling, unlike the mainstream or commercial that is reliant on an absolute coherence?
I wonder. I can see why you ask that question, but you could almost turn it around. I would argue that Hollywood and Bollywood are hurling unconscious material onto the big screen all of the time. They are dealing with utopias, ideals about family, love and beauty that are not very thought out, which is part of their pleasure in a way — almost dealing purely with feeling. So yes, you might be right, but the opposite could be right as well.
I have to say that a lot of mainstream cinema, especially its use of story feels very mechanical to me, and I’m sure that’s one of the points you are making; driving its story on and on. You think: I don’t need all this story. You’ve got me here for two hours, do something more unusual than that The tyranny of the bullying aspect of story in mainstream cinema is pretty bad, and for better or worse, an unconscious or dream and nightmare realm.
Speaking with Carol Morley about her film The Falling for Starburst Magazine, she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
There’s something in that. Peter Greenaway used to say: “The projectionist is my last collaborator.” Jean Renoir said: “You need to leave the door open on the set for the unpredictable reality to come in.” So yeah, you do as much as you can and it’s almost like some of your friends are coming around, and you are making lasagne and salad. But there’s no guarantee that it’s going to be a good night [laughs]. It could still be a crap night, but you’ve done your bit.
As a filmmaker it feels a bit like that. You’ve tried to make the soil as fertile as possible, the evening as good as possible, but the magic is not necessarily going to happen, and maybe that’s what Carol meant.
I don’t quite see it the same as the audience completing the film. Of course you don’t quite know what the film is until you see it with an audience, and they laugh in places you don’t expect. But that’s not completion, it’s not that they are completing it, it’s more that they are illuminating in some way a film that has been sitting in the dark. So I would use that way of describing it.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl for FrightFest he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Yeah, I would agree for the simple fact that whenever you take on a subject, whatever it is, when you really dig into it, you’re actually digging into your own thought process and your own feelings. What you are constantly doing when you are making a film is you’re hauling up your unconscious material, hauling up your instincts into something more rational. You are always confronting your impulses and it’s sometimes a bit surprising, a bit scary to see what those impulses are. So yeah, I think you become a bit different with each film.
How do you find the process of letting go of a film and moving on? I remember director Ryan Bonder saying that it takes him around a year to move on.
The fast filmmakers, even John Ford who was making 20 films a year, can’t wait in a way to get rid of it because it is a kind of cleg. Or John Sayles talks about a film being a fever or flu that you want to shake. You just feel all hot and you can’t think of anything else — you can’t relax while making it. So I have a strong sense that I can’t wait for it to be finished because then there is the joy of the next one. A lot of filmmakers are obsessed and have separation anxiety — they cannot finish, they don’t want to finish. I don’t understand that anxiety because I can’t wait to finish.
* * *
Stockholm My Love was released theatrically in the UK on Friday 16 June 2017 and will be released by the BFI on Dual Format Blu-Ray and DVD on Monday 26 June 2017.
The film will screen theatrically on the following dates:
19 June: Filmhouse, Edinburgh Q&A with Mark Cousins and Neneh Cherry
21 June: Barbican, London
22 June: FACT, Liverpool
23 June: Curzon Soho, London Q&A with Neneh Cherry and Cameron McVey
25 June: Tramshed, Cardiff
11 July: Hyde Park, Leeds