Having paved the way two years ago with his 15-hour cine-essay “The Story of Film” (and before that, the handsome coffee-table volume of the same name), film critic-cum-director Mark Cousins returns with a 100-minute companion piece focused entirely on the depiction of kids onscreen, a too-easy but still-captivating spinoff, unimaginatively entitled “A Story of Children and Film.” As specialty offerings go, this latest collage of film clips and personal footage shares the earlier project’s principal virtue — namely, its capacity to enrich casual moviegoers’ way of consuming cinema — as well as its harmless little idiosyncrasies.
In the hands of any other guide, such an eccentric offering would surely be relegated to the wee hours of public television, though Cousins’ films have found a home at the very same sprocket operas where the festival gadfly has become a regular fixture (this one premiered at Cannes). One part evangelist for the noble cause of humanist cinema, the other part giddy teenager itching to share the most esoteric selections on his iPod playlist, Cousins seizes this opportunity to introduce auds to some of his favorite international films and filmmakers, from Chaplin’s “The Kid” to Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” using the common thread of children to tie everything together.
After establishing his “ways of seeing” theme nicely via a prologue about how Vincent Van Gogh perceived the scenery outside his sanatorium window, Cousins personalizes this guided tour by presenting a homevideo shot of his young niece and nephew playing with marbles. Those familiar with Cousins’ approach will recognize such precious self-indulgence as a characteristic of his personality, which here serves to instantly familiarize audiences with the narrator for the journey to come — a pleasantly meandering mix of clips and commentary, all delivered in the ebullient presenter’s singsong Irish lilt.
Cousins appeals to his audience’s sense of poetry, not logic, offering the slenderest of connections between films. At one point, he invents a gossamer excuse to discuss Dorota Kedzierzawska’s “Crows” and Boudewijn Koole’s “Kauwboy” in the same breath (“From a parental girl named Crow to a parental boy with a crow,” he says), and later, he presents “The Red Balloon” and “The Yellow Balloon” as a pretext to mention a personal favorite of his, Kira Muratova’s little-seen “Melody for a Street Organ” (“But when it comes to movie scenes about balloons and kids, few are better than this one”).
There are the necessary inclusions, of course, from Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” to Bunuel’s “Los olvidados” to that wonderfully surreal one-off from Charles Laughton, “The Night of the Hunter,” but as in “The Story of Film,” Cousins includes less of the canon than one might expect, creating room for discovery. Even the most dedicated cinephile is sure to come away with one or two new titles to add to the old Netflix queue.
At the editing desk is Timo Langer, never lingering long enough to bore, while leaving adequate room for auds to get a feel for each film under discussion. “But then this,” Cousins likes to say, ever the showman as he allows key plot twists to unfold onscreen. Along the way, he trots out his usual agendas, extolling Iranian cinema and the role of female directors, while offering helpful vocabulary to film enthusiasts still learning how to discuss the technique they admire (while confusing, by this critic’s estimation at least, such ideas as “documentary-style shooting”).
Taken alone, “A Story of Children and Film” feels lean, but as the likely expansion of “A Story of Film” into a movie-about-movies franchise of sorts, it’s a welcome follow-up effort. For the record, the project was produced by Variety contributor Adam Dawtrey.