I recently underwent the epic task of watching the 15 hour documentary The Story of Film: An Odyessy. And what an odyssey it was. I came out the other end with a whole new understanding of, and appreciation of film. New directors and films were brought into my consciousness, and films I had previously dismissed found themselves on my must watch list. Even my opinion on Avatar (a film I had previously dismissed as Fern Gully only with guns in space) improved after I learnt more about the innovative use of CGI in the film.
The Story of Film is split into fifteen one hour episodes each covering a period in history. From the first film ever made The Story of Film traces the progress of the medium, the birth of Hollywood, and of the rebellion against it, the impact of new technology, politics and changing social values, and it’s manifestation across the globe. It aims to bring to light innovators of the medium previously forgotten or unrecognised: cinema that formed outside the Hollywood bubble: women, minority groups, and foreign films.
This is not a documentary about famous people and their lives, it is a documentary about a medium and it’s history, not just about the people involved, but about the technology and the way it changed the way movies were made and seen. After all technology has such an influence on the emotional impact of a film; black and white, silent, 3D, widescreen, digital, 35mm. The shock of sound alone was enough to take film from the streets into film studios, and digital would open up a whole new fantastical world of mythical beats and impossible landscapes. And who could deny the tense, awe-inspiring quality of Alexander Sukurov’s single shot film Russian Ark? The stunning combination of CGI, choreography and cinematography in Zimou Zhang’s House of Flying Daggers? The impact of the use of both colour and black and white in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia? This is not just any documentary, it is like taking a short course in film and film-making. Using examples both within the shooting of the documentary itself and through film clips it lets the viewer see behind the motivations of each shot, and traces the influence of these innovations. Soft focus, camera angle, natural lighting, handheld, shot length. For example, it highlights the influence of Kenji Mizoguchi on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and the direct reference of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket in Paul Schrader’s American Gigalo.
After watching The Story of Film I have a much better understanding of filming techniques and narrator Mark Cousins now seems to narrate every film I watch, making me aware of the little tricks of the trade that are manipulating me and my perception of the film. Mark Cousins is like an Irish Werner Herzog, deadpan in both his humour and his appreciation of film. He seems to both pass judgement and to leave his final opinion open for the viewer to decide for themselves.
Truly the only downside of watching The Story of Film is that Cousins does not shy away from spoilers, expect all the surprises to be unveiled and some of that magical mystery to be lost. In an ideal world the best way to view this documentary would be to look at a list of the films in each episode and watch them first. Given how many hours that would take, I think if anyone ever managed to watch it that way they should be given an honorary degree in Film Studies. As it is I think The Story of Film is a truly inspirational feat, an epic adventure into the history, and the possible future, of film.
For who knows where film will be in even five years time? What new innovations will be pulling our heartstrings, making us leap out of our seats, or changing the way we view our world?
The Story of Film: An Odyssey, Mark Cousins, 2011.