Mark Cousins (2021)
Mark Cousins (2021) | Photo: Phoebe Grigor | courtesy of Dogwoof Films

Director Mark Cousins on His Cinematic Odyssey ‘The Story of Film: A New Generation’

Director Mark Cousins talks with PopMatters about resuming his cinematic journey to chronicle the contributions of the last decade to The Story of Film.

The Story of Film: A New Generation
Mark Cousins
17 December 2021 (UK)

Filmmaker Mark Cousins expands his film history voyage with a new chapter to his original 915-minute documentary, A Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), inspired by his 2004 book of the same name. Prior to resuming his journey, hedelved into other aspects of cinema with the documentaries A Story of Children and Film (2013), and Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema (2018). 

To identify Cousins as a documentarian of cinema is a natural inclination. His contributions to thoroughly understanding and appreciating the form have offered invaluable insights. He’s a filmmaker whose oeuvre reveals an interest in a range of subjects. With his poetic or lyrical accent, an Irishman living in Edinburgh, Scotland, his words are seductive. They’re a sensual as much as an intellectual experience. 

He steps in and out of cinema. This year, he took audiences on a road trip with producer Jeremy Thomas to Cannes, chronicling his career in The Storms of Jeremy Thomas (2021), and he explored human sight in The Story of Seeing (2021). He has also directed films on cities, I Am Belfast (2015) and Stockholm, My Love (2016), During our conversation, he references a new film about a painter and the Alps. 

The Story of Film: A New Generation is a captivating conversation about the reasons we watch films, the way cinema reveals who we are, and how we connect with one another as we break down borders with film. Cousins continues to reveal his value to this dialogue, and avoiding elitism, he allows all types of films to contribute to a richly diverse discussion.

In conversation with PopMatters, Cousins talks about how he sees cinema as the “affordable sublime”, and why film lovers are living in a “golden age.” He also addresses equality as the beginning of human evolution, not the end, and challenges the limitations of looking for femaleness in the female gaze.

What has always struck me about stories is the bond you form with characters, who with each encounter can be like running into a friend. 

I’m not so into character; my obsession is form, the shape of a film. Joker (Phillips, 2019) opens A New Generation, and I enjoyed cutting from Joker to Frozen (Buck and Lee, 2013) because people think they’re two very different films. 

You can see in Joker, and in the princess of Frozen, something characterful. I don’t rewatch films, I don’t watch series, so I don’t fall in love with a character in that way, or I don’t live in one character’s world. I’m a mover-oner. 

Are there any films you rewatch?

Occasionally I’ll rewatch a film if a friend of mine hasn’t seen it. When my niece reached a certain age, she was watching a load of American films, and she was also interested in musicals. I said, “There’s  this film called Cabaret (Fosse, 1972), would you like to watch it?” She and her mate were gobsmacked. 

I’ll watch films in that way again and again, or occasionally if a film comes back on TV. I watched half of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Hughes, 1968) because it was on the telly, but I’d rather move on and see something new because life is short, and I’m in my 50s. I want to see as many films as possible before I die. 

The argument for rewatching films is to see if they stand up to repeat viewings. However, if films are like memories, then it compromises them from functioning as such.

People are welcome to debate that subject and I’m sure it has a lot of interest. I’m a here-and-now person. I’m always hungry for a new experience, and particularly a new film and a new city. I can’t wait until Friday comes when there are new films released.

I’m never invited to press screenings, so I go to the pictures with everyone else. The sense of what new films are – this keeps me alert and rejuvenated. It keeps me looking to the here and the now and to the future.

Are you big on reading outside of film? I find whether it be philosophy, watching TED talks, or absorbing new ideas, these can feed into how you read and understand cinema.

I’m reading a history of Ethiopia at the moment and a book on transgression and nighttime culture. I read mostly outside of cinema, and I’ll read lots of philosophy and film history, and other visual arts, particularly painting. I love painting, I love good biographies of artists to see what they did wrong, so I can learn from them and not make the same mistakes [laughs].

How did you choose the films that would comprise New Generation? It must be painful to not include certain ones.  

I didn’t intend to make A Story of Film: A New Generation. My work in film history was completed ten years ago, but my publisher asked me to update the book. I added one chapter called “streaming”. I thought that’s the obvious thing because we’re in the era of streaming.

But when I started to think about which films in the last ten years that had stayed with me, have been like a spike almost and gotten their claws into me, I realised there were some that had done so: Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour (2015), Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012), and Zama (Martel, 2017). 

I always use the same technique of scribbling each one down on a piece of paper, and then all I have to do is shuffle the pieces of paper in the right order. I then look at them and think about what I’m missing, because I will not have seen a thousandth of what has come out. I realised I didn’t have many films from the Arab world, so I looked into that. 

It’s painful, leaving things out. This is the final script for the film [holding it up to the camera], and The Raid 2 (Evans, 2014), which I loved, and Toni Erdmann (Ade, 2016) are scored out. We had Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Revue (2019), but then we didn’t use it in the end. These are the painful losses. 

Streaming has meant films are more accessible now than ever before. If there’s an emphasis on the supply and demand of mainstream titles, should it be regarded as a double-edged blade that will require us to fight for streaming to cultivate a diverse cultural representation?

There will always be that fight. It will always be a double-edged sword because the mainstream has more money behind it to market and push itself. It’s like the bossy kid in the playground. 

I hope you can tell by my work that I’m not against the mainstream – I love mainstream films. It’s always going to be a problem, but if we take a look at the big picture, things for movie fans are in a much better state than they were when I was growing up, and until relatively recently. We’re now in a golden age of movie fandom, in that a lot is just a click away. 

I remember hearing about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, 1964) and it took me a decade to see it. That’s a decade of building desire and longing. Even in saying that, I realise there’s something good about building desire and longing. It fuels your passions for cinema and it puts you in cinema’s gravitational pull in a unique way. 

The downside of streaming being a click away is that when the thing you most want to see is seeable in 30 seconds, then that takes away some of the hunger. We feel overfed, or complacent about what’s available, and that’s why people like you are important.

Critics try to make sure that we don’t get lost in the meteor storm of the availability of cinema. We need sign-posters to say this is good and follow this thread in cinema. It’s mostly good news the state we’re in, but not entirely so. 

The criticism of streaming is the absence of “the big-screen experience” with an audience, and yet equally important is the way we engage with the film mentally and emotionally. Drawing on our life experiences gives film meaning, and streaming doesn’t impede this connection.

I mostly see films on the big screen because I want to forget myself; I want to become a void if possible. It’s the spectacle for me. I always say that cinema is the affordable sublime. It’s encountering something vast and it’s not very expensive. I’ve been filming in the Alps recently, and it used to be that people thought that way about them. They were vast and terrifying.

Of course, you’re right. When I’m watching a picture, there are a lot of my own experiences in there, and my own sense of ‘have I been in this situation?’ If it’s a film about grief, have I grieved? If it’s a film about love, have I been loved? If it’s a film about bullying, have I been bullied? If it’s a film about Paris, have I been to Paris? All of these things are relevant and they are all sorts of neurological connections. One of my last films, The Story of Looking (2021), was about that subject. 

What leads you to conclude that we’re living in a “golden age” for movie lovers?

[Films are] being made by more types of people than ever before. I always say the river has become a delta, cinema has widened and broadened. It has more tributaries in it and so that’s good.

A film like Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019) is an incredibly fresh way of looking at migration. Most migration films are looking from Europe to Africa, from Europe to Syria. She’s looking from Senegal to Europe, this other place. That’s very useful to you and I as white Europeans who speak English. This is valuable and it enriches cinema, and if you look around the world at the films from Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Thailand, Brazil, and many other places, more types of people are making movies. 

Of course, I have criticisms. The mainstream is always conservative and is still trying to catch up, but as a movie fan, there’s always too much to see, and that’s a good thing. The movie symphony is getting more and more instruments in it. 

Art inherently benefits from diversity and so we must contemplate how restrictions of representation compromise the expression of the art form. The moment we’ll truly discover cinema is when it’s open to everyone. 

Cinema has only been partially alive in its history because big groups of people were excluded from it. Many women were excluded [from filmmaking] over the years. I often see people talking about the female perspective and I think, ‘What, have you actually met women?’ Women have so many different perspectives, don’t even think about talking about the female perspective. There are lots of stereotypes around that. 

When I was making Women Make Film (2018), which was 14 hours long, and made over six years, people were saying, “Women shoot sex scenes differently. Women don’t use body parts.” Have you seen Catherine Breillat’s films? It’s nonsense. When we get to the point of equality – and we’re not there yet – that’s not the end of the road, it’s the start of the road for cinema. Equality is a means to an end, and the end is brilliant cinema. 

When we reach a point of equality, the next step may be to remove identification by gender. 

The women I’ve worked with recently, Tilda SwintonJane FondaThandie Newton, Kerry Fox, and Sharmila Tagore, are non-binary people, and most of the directors in Women Make Film don’t only want to be seen as “women artists” I’d strongly argue that a lot of the great Indian filmmakers I admire, or in some cases know, don’t want to be primarily seen as “Indian filmmakers”.

Once we get to a position of equality, in some future, then it’ll be easier to be non-binary. It’ll be easier to shed the stereotypes about what an Indian person is, or what a female person is, or what a Bengali person or a transgender person is. We’ll come to a richer point, where I’m looking at you and I’m not just seeing a white English man.

What I can’t see in this zoom call is your imagination and that’s what’s of interest in cinema. David Lynch doesn’t look like one of the most imaginative people in the world, and yet he is.

Film has the potential to surprise, hence we should temper our expectations and embrace the possibilities of cinema. 

It’s nice to have comfortable lives, and under lockdown, if you have a nice flat, a sofa, and a big-screen TV, you think ‘Phew, I’m safe’. We all want safety and certainty.

There’s a word in Indian [philosophy] called “darshan” – it means to pull back the curtain. We all want to pull back the curtain and encounter something bigger, exciting, eternal, and sublime. I don’t mean in a religious sense, and that’s why when we see memorable films like Mad Max: Fury Road, they make us feel alive. It’s why the expectation can get in the way because it can make you feel safe, or it can be a narrowing of vision that doesn’t let you see the full spectrum of a movie. 

It’s also about being willing to adjust your expectations. The relationship between the audience and the film is a delicate one, that requires flexibility and humility. 

Each contemporary debate tends to narrow people’s views a little bit. Rightly, we’re all interested in levelling the playing field for female filmmakers, and there’s a tendency now if we look back at a female filmmaker, to look for the femaleness in her film. It might be there, but it might not be. 

With [the works of] Kira Muratova, Larisa Shepitko, and some of my favourite filmmakers, there’s a danger of “hunting the truffle” – what you expect, which is around questions of gender essentialism. You end up seeing what you’re looking for and nothing else, or very little else. 

Each year there’s Noirvember, where film noirs are shown all through November. Almost never do they talk about female directors in film noir because noir isn’t thought of as a female genre. Women can be the femme fatale on screen, but so many great noirs were made by women.  

There’s still a need to move beyond limitations on perspective.

I agree, but we’ve already made a lot of progress. We’re definitely moving in the right direction. 

Cinema creates a safe space where borders are broken down and the emphasis on political, cultural, and economic divisions are neutralised. It also offers sanctuary from a society that’s seeing a rise in individualism and nationalism. We should see this as a privileged space.

Sanctuary is a word I often think of in those terms as well. Movie lovers are all part of the same tribe and it’s a large tribe, everywhere in the world. I’m lucky enough to travel and have a lot of contacts on social media. I regularly hear from people from all around the world and we have this common language, a tribal affinity, sorority, or fraternity. We’ve our everyday lives and identities, and there are multiple identities around gender and nation. We then step over the threshold where no passcode is required, into this boundary-less, anarchic, genderless world of cinema. It’s a very special place. 

Will you be tempted to add other chapters to A Story of Film, or is there a point when you have to say goodbye and pursue other projects?

I loved making A Story of Film: A New Generation. You can see it’s different in form; it’s not a sequel to Story of Film: An Odyssey. It’s about dreaming; it’s not chronological. It’s trying to get to something more melancholic and optimistic. 

I’ll make other films about cinema, but I’m a filmmaker and the film I’m working on this afternoon is about a painter who climbed the Alps in the 1940s. It has nothing to do with cinema.

Making films about cinema has been a major spine of my life, but it’s nice to go and do other things – like make films about the atomic age. I’ve made five films about cities. I’m one of those people who’s curious and passionate about a lot of things.

Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: A New Generation is released in cinemas and digitally from 17 December.

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