As a festival director, film historian and documentary maker, Mark Cousins has always walked the road less traveled. His epic 15-hour TV series “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” which screened at Telluride ahead of its official premiere at Toronto, is an invitation to follow him off the beaten track.
Cousins, a Northern Irishman living in Edinburgh, where he once ran the film festival, spent the past six years spanning the globe to make this poetic love letter to cinema.
Based on his own book, it’s a history of innovation and ideas, tracing influence and imagery across generations and continents.
In his distinctive Belfast lilt, Cousins follows bubbles in spilled beer from Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out” to similar scenes in Jean Luc Godard’s “Two or Three Things I Know About Her” to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” He notes how British director G.A. Smith’s 1898 brainstorm of putting a camera on the front of a train led to Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” floating along weed-encrusted tracks toward the gates of Treblinka, and to the hallucinatory cosmic ride at the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
In Japan, he pinpoint the angles, sight-lines and compositions that make Yasujiro Ozu, in his opinion, the greatest classicist of all.
Cousins wants to redraw the map of cinema. Hollywood is on it, of course — he walked 25 miles with his camera in one day across Los Angeles to catch the city afresh — but he gives it no more prominence than China, Japan, Latin America or Africa.
He’s an infectious evangelist for films, individuals, countries and eras he feels have been undervalued, such as artists like Forough Farrokhzad, Youssef Chahine and Souleymane Cisse; Chinese cinema of the ’30s; and Japanese documentaries of the ’60s. But he’s also a populist; he waxes lyrical about Spielberg, Keaton, Tati and Lubitsch.
“In this age where so much is available on DVD, canons are more important than ever. In this new era of cinephilia, you need a map,” he says. “I’m not an academic. I don’t use the words ‘auteur’ or ‘mise-en-scene’ once. I’m just saying, look how beautiful this is. Not once in 15 hours do I slag anything off. Stuff that isn’t much good, I just don’t talk about it.”
The series is screening this fall on the U.K. digital channel More4, which put up much of the $1.2 million budget. With Artificial Eye as U.K. distrib and HanWay handling foreign sales, it has already been invited to dozens of fests. Cousins will stage quirky events in each of the U.K.’s four nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) as part of next year’s Cultural Olympiad. He’s constructing a website, which he describes as “part game, part film history, part artwork.”
“This film has been made to get an audience, to enthuse and enchant them, so the more places it can go, the better,” Cousins says.