As motion pictures became popular in the early 20th Century, so followed the phrase, “A picture paints a thousand words”. It is uncertain exactly where that famous adage originated, though some scholars cite a Japanese proverb as the inspiration. What is known, however, is that it was propagated in America, at a time when Hollywood became the locus of the motion picture industry. Cinema is arguably the greatest innovation in entertainment since the invention of theatre, and at less than 150 years old, it is the subject of Marc Cousins’ ambitious documentary.
The Story of Film: An Odyssey heroically embarks on a voyage through the history of motion pictures, beginning at its roots in still photography to its current form as digital multimedia. Following Cousins’ book of the same name, the fifteen-hour documentary is broken up into hour-long sections, bracketing linear periods of development and citing hundreds of film clips, archive footage and interviews. The documentary is also interleaved with contemporary material depicting locations from early films as they are today, presenting a world which has grown, aged, evolved and decayed since the birth of celluloid.
Cousins adopts a truly global approach in the analysis of film language, its organic growth and technique. From across continents he introduces directors and films which to some may be unknown, yet have influenced mainstream blockbuster directors. A familiar instance may be J.J. Abrams, who is a protégé to Spielberg, who himself took great inspiration from Hitchcock, who in turn honed his technique in German cinema from the work of Fritz Lang. The notion of cohort and inherited style is at the centre of Cousins’ examination of cinema, charting developments in style, and the cribbing of ideas from one director to the next. Whilst this is entertaining enough in itself, such an angle of presentation does feel somewhat like an essay or dissertation, where Cousins is showcasing his knowledge and buttressing an argument with endless cross-referencing. It is also a direction that causes a few stumbling blocks; in attempting to tie up some of his arguments relating to directorial influences, he boldly states that Drew’s cutting-edge Primary influenced Hitchcock’s Psycho, despite the fact the latter was in cinemas before Primary was completed. Such inaccuracies show that The Story of Film is by no means definitive, but rather highly subjective and artistic with historical facts. On the subject of Hitchcock he also lists reasons why “he was great”, neglecting to credit the writers, editors and photographers who often supported (and indeed tweaked) a great number of his most successful works.
The sense that this story of film is wholly from Cousins’ perspective will no doubt cause contention with some viewers. There is a distinct sense of dislike for the mainstream, studio system of the large American studios, with a favouritism levelled at obscure, low budget film. Whilst Cousins’ approach is agreeably informative and enlightening – proving he is well read in such areas – it feels unforgivable that he ignores the likes of cult successes, such as Hammer Horror and its affect on sensation movies of the 1950s. This is probably where the documentary inevitably falls down, due to an over-examination of particular films whilst only providing a cursory nod to other pictures of equal merit.
There is also a drastic sidestep in the story of film technology, with only through-away remarks regarding the mechanical and chemical developments which effected cinema in considerable ways. Cousins examines only the artistic use of colour in film, as opposed to the groundbreaking endeavours by individuals who allowed such an evolution to take happen in the first place. Amazingly, little attention is paid to the innovation of sprocket holes in roll film, at a time when most photographers were still using glass plates. It was this very innovation which allowed motion picture film to become a reality. As such, The Story of Film is very much a literary critic’s documentary, interested in the content of the frame.
Cousins’ narration is beautifully written, evocative and heartfelt. Whilst his upward inflection may take some getting used to (Every short statement? Sounds like a question?), it is never the less melodic, and gently sympathetic to the material which is dissected on screen. Some elements and viewpoints are bound to be contentious with more serious film buffs, but this is arguably unavoidable for such a broad subject. There are better, less indulgent accounts of the history of cinema available, though perhaps none as ambitious as this, which at least attempts to analyse as well as present cinema in a socio-historical context. Sometimes inaccurate, irritating and longwinded, The Story of Film is nevertheless an epic, varied, lilting journey with a whole vista of visual imagery to absorb.
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